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MASS HYSTERIA AS SOCIAL INSTITUTION

I. The Rationalization of Mass Psychosis

In the article “Epidemiology of the Political,” Oleg Aronson (RAS Institute of Philosophy) analyzes political propaganda, which is examined not in terms of its production in the media, but rather as an inevitable effect of the conjunction of media and politics in society at large. In this case, propaganda can be seen as a kind of psychic epidemic. This means that the impact on citizens’ individual consciousness gives way to the logic of infection typical of the multitude. This approach allows Aronson to treat community as neither a collectivity nor an isolated political subject, but as a heterogeneous non-human element that lies at the heart of the concept of “the political” itself.

In the article “Malign Mimesis,” Sergey Zenkin (RSUH) investigates processes of social imitation. These processes can take both beneficial and pernicious, malign forms. The factors that make up one of these malign transformations of mimesis are traced as they manifest in different facts of social life, from people’s behavior at football matches to the development of political events in 2014.

Alek D. Epstein’s (Jerusalem) “Redefining Irreligious Discourse: What Do We Mean by ‘Atheism’, ‘Free Thought’ and the ‘Secular Age’” analyses a number of discussions of atheism.

In any of these discussions it is important to distinguish between its two different incarnations: as a phenomenon of intellectual history that emerged among philosophers and other thinking people, and as a kind of worldview held by individuals and quite widespread in society as a whole. Atheism is but one of the forms of unbelief, and it emerged alongside other forms, such as skepticism, so-called ‘free thinking,’ and agnosticism. All these varieties of unbelief have their own distinct characteristics; if it intends to be thorough, irreligious discourse should thus analyze them separately. But what does it mean to describe the West as secular? Even in today’s postmodern society, which frequently describes itself as secular, a majority of people believe in God and call themselves Christian, regardless their support for scientific theories that do not leave much space for Biblical theology. It would seem that the idea of ‘a secular age’ cannot be empirically verified.

II. Practices of Mass Psychosis

Monica Black’s (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) “What Was Mass Hysteria? A Faith Healer and Popular Apocalypticism in Postwar Germany” regards the phenomenon of mass hysteria in post-war Germany. When an eccentric wonderworker surfaced in Germany in the years just after the Second World War and began healin­g the sick, he inspired a mass phenomenon that some contemporaries saw as an instance of mass hysteria. But this term, whose genealogy reached back to the nineteenth century (and an era with a particular dread of the crowd), generalized and even medicalized a phenomenon that, for some living at the time, had a dramatically different set of meanings. This essay explores the possible connection betwe­en a faith healer and the apocalyptic prophecies that coursed through popular culture in Germany in the years after Hitler and after the Second World War.

Konstantin A. Bogdanov’s (Institute of Russian Literature RAS) “Chumak’s Jars, Kashpirovsky’s Gaze: On the Role of Immobile Objects in the Social Imagination” article provides a study of post-Soviet methods of alternative healing: in the late 1980s, these methods included hypnosis, “folk” and innovative forms of therapy, astrological predictions, spells and rituals, and new kinds of narcotics and medicines. Some of them were legalized and widely propagandized in the media; meanwhile, their distribution was accompanied by both radical ideological changes and the communicative transformation of the languages of social trust in the public sphere. In Bogdanov’s view, the intensification of social trust requires the construction of danger, particularly images of enemies who threaten or are portrayed as threatening society. From a semiotic point of view, some of the most relevant factors in support of this trust are the predictability and repetition of markers associated with communication within a given group. For example, just as an icon might constitute such a marker for an Orthodox person, for fans of Kashpirovsky and Chumak the marker would be the former’s hypnotizing gaze and the latter’s silent manipulations above jars of water. Both instances can be examined as examples of predictable communication, which Bogdanov follows Lev Yakubinsky in calling “stereotyped interaction”: this is a situation of emotional rather than verbal commonplaces.

BECAUSE IT’S NOT ALLOWED:
PORNO AS STIGMATIZED FUNCTION

Compiled by Jan Levchenko

In the article “Industry of Shame: The Development and Commodification of Sex in Late Soviet Film”, Jan Levchenko (HSE) examines the history of Soviet and early post-Soviet film between the late 1980s and early 1990s with attention to the assimilation of codes of sexuality, methods for showing the naked body and the motivations behind this. The concept of the “pornographic imagination,” which brings together the approaches of Susan Sontag and Jacques Lacan, enables Levchenko to trace a change in attitudes toward representations of the body in film, which had been liberated from the need to adhere to the norms of both “high art” and “societal morals.” Between the perestroika period and the mid-1990s, sex in (post-)Soviet film was transformed from a set of stigmatized and taboo practices into a universal resource of interpretation, and subsequently into a commodity that spurred the growth of self-sufficient consumption. 

Denis Saltykov’s (HSE) “The Cinematic Mythology of Snuff and Its Pragma­tics” problematizes the pragmatics and reputation of “snuff films,” which depict violence toward a victim who will allegedly die a real, not cinematic, death at the end of the film. Urban legends offer various rumors about films made “on special order” that record people being maltreated in real time. Saltykov discusses the genesis of these notions and the mythology of snuff film overall. He also suggests a short historical survey of the subgenre’s development as it is understood by viewer­s (primarily those who have not seen the films, but who think of them as representing a possible extreme). The basic hypothesis of the article lies in an explana­tion of the specifics of the snuff genre through the figure of the client, who in hyberbolized fashion brings about the logic of late-capitalist market relations: the product can be anything, including the human body and human life.

In the article “Torture Porn: The Decline of Authority and the Groundlessness of Power”, Elizaveta Klochkova (HSE) examines the changes that took place in mass viewers’ perceptions of violence during the first decade of the twenty-first century (2000—2010), with attention to a trend in horror film that emerged during this time — torture porn. Her article seeks to reveal the active subject of violence in this subgenre, and to examine the possibilities directors have for justifying his/her actions. Klochkova suggests that torture porn be considered a key moment in the transition from the popularity of horror films with individuals who have authority, to those who strive for autonomy.

INTERPRETATIONS

K.A. Barsht’s (Institute of Russian Literature RAS) “Blacksmith-Bear from A. Pla­tonov’s The Foundation Pit and I.I. Ivanov’s Experiments in Creating a Human-Ape Hybrid” suggests that «blacksmith-bear», Yelisey, and Julia from «The Foundation Pit», as well as Albert Lichtenberg and his wife, Zelda, from «Rubbish Wind», along with several other Platonov’s characters who end up looking like human-like apes represent a response to a project of Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov (1870—19320), a famous Russian and Soviet biologist, aimed at creating a human-ape hybri­d. Its purpose was to breed a new form of human, «the ideal proletarian», in accordance with the idea of establishing communism. This program was extensively covered by the Soviet press in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

THE CROSSROADS OF LE PARADOXE

Compiled by Maria Nekliudova

The section opens with Maria Nekliudova’s (RSUH / RANEPA) “The Debate over the Sensitive Comedian, or Four Sources for Le Paradoxe”. As far as the theatrical history is concerned, Deni Diderot’s Paradoxe sur le comédien is a pretty late statement in significant polemics concerning a «sensitive» actor that unfolded in the mid-eighteenth century. It focused not only on mechanisms of acting (outwar­d imitation or inward experience), but also on the issue of the profession’s social prestige that advocates of sensitivity attempted to resolve by means of bringing the actor and the audience the closest together. It seems that it was this tactic, expressed most prominently in a translation called Garrick, or English Actors (1769), that attracted Diderot’s attention. Advocating the imitation theory, he insists on the professional particularity of acting and means of describing it. This conflict is represented in this article as a collision of two lexicons, one of which was founded upon the balance between «sensitivity» and rationality, while the other (developed by Diderot) was pronouncedly technical in nature.

Tatiana Smoliarova’s (Toronto University) “Le Paradoxe 1922/23. Text in Context” focuses on the first Soviet edition of Diderot’s The Paradox of Acting, prepared for publication by Nikolai Efros, one of the leading theater historians and critics of the early 20th century, a devoted chronicler of the Moscow Art Theate­r. The book first came out in 1922 in Moscow and Petrograd and then, just a year later, in Yaroslavl’. Both editions opened with an enthusiastic yet subtle preface by Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet Minister of Public Education, who saw in the “Paradox” a true masterpiece, the cornerstone of a proposed new series of the most importa­nt theatrical manifestos in European history. This series never came to be, but the 1922/23 edition of the “Paradox” became an integral and important part of the uniquely rich theatrical life of the early 1920s. The lite­rary and theater critics—as well as some actors—who responded to the publication of the book treated the “Paradox” as if it had been written by one of their con­temporaries, argui­ng with it, express sing great enthusiasm for it, or rejecting it outright. Among the most relevant (although indirect) reactions to the new edition of the Paradox was a survey distributed among the leading actors of Moscow theaters in 1922/23. All seventy items on this questionnaire dealt in one way or another with the key questions formulated by Diderot about the necessary proportion of the “sensitive” and the “rational” in the art of acting. The questionnaire was prepared by Efros and Liubov’ Gurevich, another long-time collaborator of Stanislavsky.

Olga Kuptsova’s (MSU) “Reason, Feeling and Reflections (Diderot, Ostrov­sky and others)” deals with the reception of Deni Diderot’s Paradoxe sur le comédien in the context of Russian theatrical thought of the second half of the nineteenth century. Paradoxe became known in Russia in the 1860s, in the time of popular fascination with natural science and positivism. Diderot turned out to be an ally of Russian theatrical «men of the 1860s» and was perceived alongside Ivan Sechenov, author of a theory of reflexes, as well as other men of science — physio­logists, physicians, and psychologists. The article elaborates on the role of Pyotr Boborykin as a popularizer who introduced Diderot’s treatise to the Russian audien­ce, specifies the date when the first translation of Paradoxe was published (1877) and the name of its translator (Sophia Boborykin), and analyses the develop­ment of Alexander Ostrovsky’s Paradoxe-influenced ideas regarding the nature of acting, systematic acting training, and establishing a theatrical school.

Olga Roginskaya’s (HSE) “‘Notebook on the Knee and Pencil in Hand’: The Actor as Observer in Diderot (Paradoxe sur le comédien)” discusses Diderot’s Paradoxe sur le comédien in the context of the issue of acting as a secular occupation, a public practice, and a crucial element of an enlightened eighteenth-century European’s identity. The significance of Paradoxe has to do with its radical rethinking of mechanisms of theatre and acting in public life, namely, with its rejection of the idea of the theatrical/role-playing nature of social behavior and its promotion of the idea of self-expression as representation of emotions. A harsh conflict between two types of acting, posited by Diderot through an argument between two interlocutors, largely serves metatheatrical purposes, attempting, in particular, to hinder the expansion of the idea of sensitivity within social and cultural spheres.

ON IMITATING AN IMITATION

Sergey Zenkin’s (RSUH) “The Dissemination of Mimesis: Diderot and Chenier” investigates two similar episodes of French literary history — a scene from Denis Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau and a biographical legend about the execution of the poet André Chénier. This comparison allows the hypothesis of contagious expan­sion of the corporeal mimesis, i.e. expressive behavior combining words and gestures, which can be transmitted in culture by ways not always followable by historical investigation.

BOOK AS EVENT

A. Ilianen. Pensia. Tver: Kolonna Publications,
Mitin Zhurnal, 2015, 666 pp.

Aleksey Porvin’s (St. Petersburg) “A Microblog of Self-descriptive Youth” exa­mines several features of Aleksandr Il’yanen’s novel Pensia. Proceeding from suppositions regarding the type of characters and of authorial subjectivity, Porvin poses a question regarding the particular type of artistry constructed by the novel. He also draws a number of comparisons with the diary prose of other writers.

Aleksey Konakov’s (St. Peterburg) “The Wall-of-Words Effect” analyzes Aleksandr Il’yanen’s novel Pensia with a view to the circumstances of its production (on the author’s “wall” in the social network VKontakte). Konakov demonstrates that by simultaneously thematizing both the uninterrupted quality of the novelistic text as well as its discreteness, Il’yanen also calls into question the status of the classical opposition between verse and prose (as firmly established by the Russian Formalists). One of the novel’s fundamental plots actually turns out to lie in the dismantling or removal of this opposition, when the contraposition of the poetic “verse” and prosaic “column” is resolved in the phenomenon of the “post,” so crucial in “new media.”

Stanislav Snytko’s (St. Peterburg) “Political Economy of the Fragment” analyses the poetics of Aleksandr Il’yanen’s novel Pensia. He traces the particularities of the influence of the Internet-diary medium and the “diary-writing” tradition on a literary text, revealing the connection between the meta-narrative character of Il’yanen’s prose and a transformation of the model of subjectivity, a turn away from an investigation of the subjective world of the “lyric hero” toward a socio-historical sensibility and openness to the voices of others. The status of the fragment in the structure of these texts is examined in connection with the motif of unproductive expenditure, interpreted as a metaphor for the novel’s composition.

Ivan A. Sokolov’s (SPbSU) “Saint A.I.: Comedian and Martyr” presents a condensed analysis of the basic elements of the meaning-structure of Aleksandr Il’yane­n’s novel Pensia. The novel’s movement, which constitutes the transfor­mation and inversion of a value system (“personal success”), also reveals distinct features of the lyrical, i.e. the verbalization of one particular state of “I.” The dual nature of Pensia is connected to both the hybrid quality of its genre, which in­corporates the special features of a microblog on VKontakte, as well as the peculiar property of conflict within the “I.” This conflicting quality develops from the begin­ning to the end of the novel and is simultaneously enclosed within an in­divisible state, moving in a circle (a “narrative rondo”). Sokolov traces the interconnection of the lyrical and the narrative, describing the transformation of the “I,” which by the end of the novel fails at all levels of the value system.

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