Alexander Sogomonov Sociologist, project director for the Institute of Sociology of Russian Academy of Science. Lives in Moscow.
Moscow Art Magazine (MAM): The end of the decade has inevitably provoked a mood of reviewing results and drawing conclusions. In this context, there is a sense of disappointment within the Moscow art community. It would seem that it has proven incapable of coming together as a community, that it has not reached any of the social goals set at the moment of its appearance, that it has not gained the public recognition it was out to reach, that it is not factored into the logic of commercial demand and market relations. Instead, even if it has succeeded in part, these successes are considered as the achievements of lone individuals (a small number of outstanding artistic fates and careers), and not those of the community itself. I suspect that a self-appraisal of this kind is not inherent to the artistic community alone, but that it also extends to other professional communities as well. How could you comment upon this situation?
Alexander Sogomonov (AS): On the eve of modernity in France, the term carierre was connected to little more than the topic of horse-racing. Later on, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the notion was first applied in its modern meaning. It now denoted those people whose progress through life was reminiscent of a horse in gallop: people who exceptionally and rapidly developed their life projects were favored with the metaphor "in full career".
Today, I think that there is an evident conflict between any acknowledgement of quick individual promotion (biographical validity) and the feeling of a professional community's insignificance (institutional invalidity). In fact, today the career is nothing but the personal business co-element of a person's life project. However, this is why one needs professional communities: professional communities provide the contexts through which to evaluate somebody's professional dynamic as more or less successful.
This conflict is indicative. I would like to draw one rather general conclusion: I hardly know of any professional community in Russia that has succeeded institutionally in the 1990s. You could rejoice and say, "Great! They weren't successful! Thank god." After all, what is a professional community today? A stable system of horizontal, social, and cultural ties among professionals? Professional ethics? Sanctions and rewards? What else?
In their modern sense, professional communities were even more stable systems then those commonly called "social groups". But in a modern society, both the one and the other appeared as forms of "incarceration", at least as far as internal discipline and self-organization were concerned.
In post-modern times, the "incarcerated" personality – i.e. the personality that constructs its social status and professional identity in the "culture of incarceration" according to the principles of strict self-discipline and subordination to the standards, norms and values of a professional community – seems to disappear. So, if the personality is currently trying to overcome and depart from its self-disciplinary background, which kind of professional community could form in the space where "non-incarcerated" professionals interact with one another freely?
Everything established in the 1990s inevitably follows the principle of free social "entry-and-exit". The same principle can be observed at work in politics, in the media, in academic circles and even in the liberal arts.
In essence, we are talking about successful professionals – those who were able adapt culturally and socially during the 1990s – who are reluctant to construct any kind of professional community that might gain any sanctioned power over them or somehow restrict their professional and existential freedoms in the future. After all, such structures might impose their rules of game and norms on these successful professionals, limiting their mobility and depriving them of the right "to exit" from the "community", if necessary. Therefore, the reestablishment of professional communities has failed throughout post-Soviet Russia, and not only in the arts. Political consultants also complain of this syndrome: they too have been unable to create their professional community. And even journalist, the most successful occupational group, in Russia during the 1990s, will complain, as will lawyers, academics, and other "new" professions.
MAM: Why are they complaining, exactly?
AS: They complain about the lack of three simple things. First of all, they feel that they lack the socio-cultural point of observation from which to watch any emerging professional activity at a distance. Second of all, the "rules of fair play" shared by the members of these communities have failed to materialize as of yet. These rules seem to be self-evident and everybody is eager to accept them, but again, this acceptance only takes place "at a distance". Many of them think that everybody should abide these rules of fair play, but that there preferably should also be some exceptions...; the rules should apply to everyone excluding themselves. I think that this is one of the reasons why people complain of the absence (or lack) of professional (work) ethics all over the world. Third, the very notion of "community" is not yet perceived as an institutional means of competing against other professional communities, supporting their interests in the struggle for resources, spaces, brands, etc.
MAM: How would you explain this? After all, the view of the community as a means of asserting personal interests as well as the interests of the group is the most obvious and the most primordial stimulus to its formation! It is something any professional should want instinctively, if for no other reason!
AS: In my view the basic reason why new communities do not emerge is that the new social context in Russia does not favor solidarity between various professional and cultural associations. Instead, they largely arise as competing resource corporations. The lack of coercion has allowed various corporate bodies to emerge and to interact freely on the ruins of the former totalitarian state. Everything that once belonged to the State – or as they used to say, to the People and the State – has been privatized, in accordance with this corporate (randomly semi-private) principle. Could we say that there is still a party of "pure" communists in the country? Of course not. What is now called the "Communist party" is rather not a political body, but a powerful corporation, successfully controlling both institutional and financial resources. It still exercises control over its members' behavior and exerts a very serious influence over the social and political situation in the country. What about Gazprom or other natural-resource giants? All of them are corporate empires!
On the other hand, those who were able to survive the 1990s thanks to their professional know-how were self-employed and did not melt into different corporate pots. However, one mechanism that socialized them as single social units was their professional "tusovka" (coterie).
By tusovka, I do not only mean certain arenas where people can meet and gossip, drink, talk, share views, and present themselves, but a fundamental way out into public space for everything that was hyper-private before. In this sense, the tusovka of the 1990s was a typical simulacrum of classical public space.
How do professionals at loose ends make common decisions? What makes them unite in terms of common tastes? How do they carry out common projects? It is practically impossible to answer all of these questions. But in politics, media, advertising, consultancy, academic life and in the fine arts first and foremost, we are still constantly dealing with the signs and manifestations of the tusovka. Relaxed coolness and affectation are the main components of their style. Their primary professional obligation is to participate in tusovka-life. Profoundly, tusovka-people have privatized the former public space of all occupations that were successful in the 1990s. And they were the first in our society to discover the social capacity (and attractiveness) of the new principle of "entrance" into highly competitive, emulative professional spaces and, if necessary, "to exit" without making any social, cultural, or even economic loss.
These people avoid any professional institutionalization and stability. Thus, it hardly comes as a surprise that they have exerted a crucial influence on the process of Russian society's transition. This group consists of thousands of successful professionals in many cities, in megalopolises such as Moscow, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg, and Saint-Petersburg (to name but a few), emulating one another and the grand corporations of their times. Of course, they always had an alternative opportunity in their lives: they could gain permanent employment and earn good money. But they did not want occupational stability and transparency; they did not and still do not want to loose the professional hyper-autonomy that they had obtained so recently in the post-Soviet epoch. For them, the right "to exit" was, and maybe still is, a synonym of individual liberty that they only earned 1990s.
MAM: What is the role of these groups in our social context?
AS: During this decade, which we still call the post-Soviet era, there were several sub-societies living and coexisting in Russia. These sub-societies are completely different from one another, and are even asychronic in terms of modernization theory.
One of them, I think, may be logically be given the same name as everywhere in the globalized world, namely that of a network society. It is mainly characterized by the fact that it considers itself to be simple aggregate of locally based professionals, networking randomly, but claiming to be a system-defined, permanent, and universal body. But above all, it does not claim to provide any social division of labor or any division of social responsibility. It is motivated by current postmodern values, attitudes, and ideas of self-realization and success. But I would also name members of network societies as "interlockers". First and foremost, I mean the newly emerging "professions" that gather the ruins of "simple modernity" and construct a new social reality and its new aesthetic. These people, who work according to the innovatory logic of their professional biographies as projects, formulate the context of the art tusovka of the 1990s and its options of identity.
The second sub-society consists of resource corporations, which I have already mentioned above. Nobody inside them complains that anything has gone wrong. The principles of authoritarianism and economic freedom are so closely connected within these structures that by the late 1990s, one could hardly find purely political or purely financial corporations. All of them – both in Moscow and in the provinces – were syncretic and headed by "impure" oligarchs.
Finally, the third sub-society is highly naturalized and nearly incapable of professional mobility. It is geared toward pure survival. Though this group lived in the 1990s and was highly concerned with contemporary politics in a virtual dimension, their real lives were limited to absolute local non-actuality. As a rule, their sphere of communication sphere was limited to a small neighborhood community and their life perspectives were obscure even to themselves. And as long as the state still has some kind of means of supporting these people in a paternalistic manner, this sub-society will continue to reproduce itself.
All three social fragments are juxtaposed to one another, both in temporal and typological terms. I only wonder: can these societal systems coexist on one territory in mutual tolerance?
MAM: But where are the 1990s then? In one case, we are dealing with the beginning of the 21st century; in the other case, we are talking about the 1970s. Is there nothing but some monstrous "hydra" of transformation between the two?
AS: You see, by the beginning of the Perestroika, people had accumulated enormous symbolic capital – books, movies, ideas, changing values etc. We passed through the period of 1986-88 quite "sensationally", realizing the common cultural baggage and the energy accumulated by an entire generation throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, even in the late 1980s, people were still thinking through the notions and standards of living from another time. The main thing that distinguished them from the way they were yesterday was that they had more rights for self-expression. Until the early 1990s, we were still living in a society based on solidarity, a society that was beginning to break apart into fragments. The 1990s themselves only began when society stopped perceiving itself in terms of solidarity, i.e. when enormous masses of people began to live their own lives. There was no social subject left to unite them; nothing remained of common social life. In short, it became evident then that we no longer constituted a common social or political body. This was the reason why we began to bomb our own territories, so that the onset of the real 1990s is synchronized to the beginning of Chechen war. And this was the exact time in which something started to happen to us that no longer blended into the strict notion of "simple modernity" and its concepts of modern society, modern culture and modern personality.
At this point, we find ourselves passing smoothly into the sphere of more hypothetical speculations. What is happening to us today is probably more like a return to a pre-modern situation. Our contemporary lives increasingly mirror the Rabelaisian living of the mid 16th century, thus gaining more and more features of Rabelaisian subjectivity features. Panurg's way of thinking and his corporeal behavior is our own corporeality, our own intellectualism of today! Panurg is not burdened by sexism or sexual imbalance. He is still free of all of modernity's prejudices, including those of sexual morality. Moreover, taken in itself, the Rabelaisian subject is quite capable of competing with the grand narratives of the epoch (with his own life and his own identity). Its attitude towards its life project means that it considers its biography as the stuff that works of art are made of etc.
In fact, all of the grand narratives that previously had united Soviet society collapsed totally in the period from 1994 to 1999. As a people practically bereft of any ontology, we ceased to exist on a symbolic level as well. We found it possible to bomb ourselves, and at the same time, we had no identity niche in the external arena. In other words, we are neither inside nor outward.
Through all of life's tempests, Panurg remained true to himself and demonstrate his exclusive and non-specialized education. He considered knowledge and wisdom identical and took utilitarian professionalism to be symbolically insignificant. However, in today's world, the demand for education is no longer grounded exclusively in pragmatics and no longer originates from the utilitarian point of view. Doesn't the interest of some Russian schools in Latin or ancient Greek arise from the idea of forming a personality as free in terms of education as was Panurg?
The biggest project that Panurg invented together with Pantagruel was his own biography, a life story that could (and should) become commensurable to the whole world. However, Rabelais writes his hero's story as if it were the history of France. Perhaps that meant this what the late Foucault meant when he when he mentioned the necessity of perceiving life as the stuff for creating a real "work of art" in his famous conversations in the USA with Paul Rabinow.
Isn't this the real challenge that every second member of our professional tusovkas face? Aren't the "new" Russian professionals trying to do battle against time? Isn't each of them attempting to prove that he/she is no less interesting to his/her professional milieu than the time itself? Even the current historical moment's quality as a time that only offers opportunities for vivid careers (and no vivid grand narratives) that emerged at the beginning of our conversation proves that Rablaisian subjectivity is undergoing a renaissance at the end of the 20th century.
The Panurg of our times correlates himself to two symbols that are equally meaningful for him: one of them is the historical totality in which he lives, while the other is the absolute uniqueness of his individual biography, which is of interest both to him and to his contemporaries, to the members of his tusovka! Social science, in turn, surprisingly becomes more and more introverted, i.e. sinks back into the inner life of the sociologist. The sociologist seems to search for many social answers in himself rather than examining the outer world thoroughly. After all, he also feels that his own subjectivity is more attractive biographically and intellectually. Therefore, he believe that there is more heuristic value in verbalizing himself than in extrapolating from the public situation at hand. Hence, the world's globality carries the idea of its own locality. In reasserting this concept, we will have to postulate that the world's globality now is equal to millions of biographic localities, and that this very cultural tension pushes "new" professionals to look for new patterns of sociality, pattern that more expressive in terms of aesthetics, more efficient in terms of politics, more attractive in terms of communication, more energetic in terms of ethics, etc. The principal danger to the neo-Rabelaisians of the late 20th century is that they could lose their subjective finality. In other words, they run danger of failing to notice the boundary between their inner lives and the outer world.
Are there any common trends in forming neo-Rabelaisians subjectivity? I think that there are three of them. First of all, we can identify an obvious crisis of projectivity, i.e. the state of modern human consciousness that supplied the projection of individual lives with distinct meanings and understandings. The individual of "simple modernity" tried to minimize the possibility of blaming himself of wrong life choice, "grounding" his biographical claims, and linking his life trajectory with one grand narrative or another. More and more distinctly, the post-Soviet individual aims the project of his biography only at himself, thus giving himself the right to be wrong. (Earlier on, he/she used to appeal to the grand narrative as a kind of biographical insurance policy.)
But how can one exercise the right to be wrong in life on the level of social institutions and in the space of endless localities? I think that there is only one way, namely by warranting the right "to enter" the professional tusovka and the right "to exit" it. Isn't this the standard of a hyper-liberal society, a society in which social groups and professional bodies are based upon a voluntaristic freedom of will? Moreover, a society like this loses the solidarity-based belief in the high value of stability, while the ideas of appeal, professional interest, promising projects and prestige gain a central importance. This very society fosters the tusovka as the most adequate form of sociality. And, perhaps therefore, the society itself gains the contours of the tusovka, where everyone has a right "to enter" tusovka-society and the right "to exit" it, i.e. the right to relate to every practiced form of sociality and individual social belonging from the position of "project liberty".
At the same time, local network societies sometimes are sometimes surprisingly vain. (Please note that I am not moralizing). We encounter a form of wordliness that begins to take on the form of a new regularity. In the 15th and early 16th centuries, God was a god of love. He loved Panurg, Pantagruel and fierce Roland. He was tolerant towards those who only found freedom where there was place for adventure, where one inevitably became an adventurer. Let's consider any work of art from early modernity. It was always strictly embedded into a historical continuum. It always contains the presence of history.
The Renaissance adventurer can exit history or enter it again. In this connection, it would be stupid to interpret, say, Rabelais as an epic or utopian thinker. (By contrast, the utopias and anti-utopias of the 19th and 20th centuries resulted from the understanding that humanity invariably depends on the march of history). It simply did not occur to Rabelais that History is moving somewhere and might actually end at some point. Therefore, he was easily able to "enter" history (narrating it historically) and then to "exit" it, showing the amazing breadth of the Renaissance personality's phantasms. Today's neo-Rabelaisian subject has "rediscovered" this relaxed (and independent) attitude toward history. Personality and History become equivalent to one another. For an instance, the life and galloping career of the Moscow sculptur Zurab Tseritelli illustrate the infinity of neo-Rabelaisian adventurism quite clearly. But a homeless clochard leaves life and history as well, albeit for a very short period of time, in order to experience some incredible – non-human – form of life.
I'm certainly being ironical in speaking of this, but people who crave unusual lives in network societies are doomed to the neo-Rabelaisian way of life and thinking. Their incredible fortunes are built upon thousand-fold risks; perhaps this is why they have a right to expect special rewards for them. More often than not, their life projects are interrupted as far as their careers are concerned, but outstanding careers probably need to be interrupted. For a neo-Rabelaisian subjectivity, Life is an equivalent protagonist of his social world, and Luck plays the same role as any of the other rational actors of social interaction. In the 1990, it was practically impossible to carry out an election campaign or to make any political decisions without basing them on astrological prognoses!? And all these items are essentially the "nerve" of today's social practices.
In the end we should understand that the right "to enter" and "to exit" our tusovka-society is in operation while epochal grand narratives still exist as background practices, looming as a conservative state, as depersonalization, as hypercorporativism, and in many other factors. The neo-Rabelaisian subject protests against these or takes on the pose of spontaneous social and cultural non-conformism. As long as these current practices of sociality and social belonging remain ontological, a neo-Rabelaisian feels comfortable in his own milieu. Panurg cannot construct a system of moral authorities for himself; searching for biographical wisdom, he sets off in search for an off-world (and in this sense, for off-history), hoping to find the sources of moral opinions that would make everyday decision-making easier.
A neo-Rabelaisian has a dire need for the tusovka, because it is only here that he can discover the duality of the social situation duality that he was looking for, even if every element of the situation is universal in its hyper-locality. Every neo-Rabelaisian adventurer performs on the stage of tusovka-society alone and for his own sake. Everyone is a tsar, a hero and a subordinate, the admirer of his own talent. In "entering" and "exiting" the tusovka, he supports his own flexible ethical criteria and nourishes himself/herself aesthetically. He can hardly tolerate critics or negative assessments; he often says that he is misunderstood, which is logical since social understanding in tusovka-society has lost its accustomed meaning. "My verses are not for common understanding", as the famous poet A.D. Prigov, a highly respected artist in the Russian tusovka-society has said. Actually, nobody is looking for understanding, since social and cultural understanding also descends from the "incarcerating" heritage of "simple modernity". Desperate to find understanding at some new destination, the neo-Rabelaisian shifts from one network locality to another, where he potentially may be "properly" understood. But, since understanding is beyond social practice there as well, the cycle of his neo-Rabelaisian adventures continues endlessly.
In short, I mean that current civilization is returning to pre-modern sociality and to the pre-modern arts in particular. The artist no longer looks for understanding in society at large but is only interesting to some minor fragment of society. This has a grave effect on the artist's social-corporate responsibility and his correspondence to any socio-aesthetic standards. In his life project, the cotemporary artists shows that there is no real boundary between himself and his works, between the artwork and corporeal forms, which is why his subjective world fits into the contours of tusovka-society so easily. However, it seems that new generations of scientists, consultants, and journalists are also entering tusovka-society, closely following the contemporary art world.
Today, we face a disintegrating body of what used to be the culture of discipline and "incarceration", which henceforth consists of new island of professionalism that are tied together very poorly; the world of the tusovka – with the help of glasses of champagne, éclairs and canapés – tries to establish contacts between them, constructing a model for the simulation of a social archipelago.
MAM: Which future does this island culture hold?
AS: The Russian tusovka has its own timing and therefore also has its own future. Its prospects lie in the stabilization that may still take place in the corporate milieu. The tusovka might turn out to be an attractive model of sociality for the world of resource corporations as well. It's quite possible that the weakening of sociality will also infect the milieu of the resource corporations, which is when they too will be unable to resist the seduction of gaining the right "to enter" and "to exit".
MAM: To which extent is the experience of network culture a child of the social context in Russia? In how far does it reflect a process all over Europe and all over the world?
AS: Both Russian and Western worlds live according to local social initiatives more and more; they depend less and less on the decisions made by state authorities; this makes us very much alike. The challenge will lie in the social after-effects of this transformation. But let us return to the beginning of our conversation, to the fact that the 1990s were not a remarkable time as whole, but that they only produced a set of singular, outstanding careers. To my mind, this is the core quality of our postmodern time on the whole. Professional ethics are evaporating; the classical professions are disintegrating. On the other hand, I would like to remind the ars nova, discovered by Dante as a historical epoch with its private life and private values was interrupted by the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation on the eve of early modernity. Personally, I am most afraid of the danger of new social counter-reforms in our contemporary culture. In contrast to the processes currently at work, they may cause a natural reaction of fundamental resistance to the norms and values of tusovka-society and to liberalism on the whole.
There is a well-known sociological maxim, ascribed to J. Calvin. It says that society will be improved only when "the last humanist is hanged". However, Calvin was a reformer.