Writing Avant-Garde and Stalinist Culture, or How Cultural History Is Made: Three Examples and a Meditation

Article excerpt

Elizabeth Astrid Papazian, Manufacturing Truth: The Documentary Moment in Early Soviet Culture. 282 pp., illus. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009. ISBN-13 978-0875803890. $39.00.

Masha Salazkina, In Excess: Sergei Eisenstein's Mexico. 221 pp., illus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. ISBN-13 978-0226734149. $40.00.

Rimgaila Salys, The Musical Comedy Films of Grigorii Aleksandrov: Laughing Matters. 352 pp., illus. Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2009. ISBN-13 978-1841502823. $35.00.

Over the last two decades, scholars of literature, cinema studies, art history, and other humanistic disciplines have increasingly turned their attention toward objects of study and problems that have traditionally fallen into the purview of historians. Although literary works, films, or authors often remain in the center of attention in these disciplines, analysis tends to locate them in ever broader historical contexts and even to "speak back" to those larger territories, presenting arguments concerning social, political, and institutional history. In short, more and more of my disciplinary colleagues are doing varieties of cultural history, as I am myself, and their analysis of cultural objects tends to derive significance from increasingly larger swaths of social and historical experience. (1)

The three books under review illustrate these tendencies. They are linked together not by shared subject matter but rather by a number of elective affinities, one of which is their common relevance to Soviet film studies. The topic and period they investigate--early Soviet avant-garde and Stalinist culture--are well suited for a broad approach to cultural history. Much of Soviet avant-garde culture, as in modernist culture more generally, was dedicated to overcoming the distinction between "art" and "life," whether this meant the transformation of the lived biography into a kind of artwork or the transformation of the artwork into an overt instrument for shaping social life--by means of political agitation, documentation of the real, or reconstruction of human society. This concern was carried over, modified, and amplified in the Stalinist period, in which culture was maximally instrumentalized as a handmaiden of socialist construction.

In the process of recalibrating or collapsing the relationship between cultural production and the social or political during those decades, many other boundaries and wires were crossed--between high and low (or mass) culture, between artistic and scientific or technological discourse, between national and global contexts. In short, then, this is an era in cultural history that demands an expansive demarcation of humanistic scholarship's proper purview. (2) Yet this broadened vision also raises questions of method, analytical priority, and even genre of scholarly writing. Scholars of literature and film most often construct books by stringing together readings of works. Is there a limit to the attention toward "context" that can be interpolated into readings, beyond which the analysis of cultural objects becomes lost in the intricacies of overly thick descriptions? What is the proper distribution of analytical energy among interpretations of literary works, films or works of art, and the larger narratives and arguments that tie these interpretations together? At the end of the day, is a cultural-historical reading of a film or novel still oriented toward interpretation of the work at all, or is the work simply a pretext for analysis of culture at large--in a fully anthropological sense? If the latter is true, could the reading be dispensed with entirely? After addressing each of the books below on its own terms, I return to these questions in an effort to offer my own take on them or, perhaps, simply to stir up what are already some rather muddy waters.

Elizabeth Astrid Papazian's Manufacturing Truth: The Documentary Moment in Early Soviet Culture takes on one of the key elements of a range of avant-garde attempts to overcome the art-life distinction in the early Soviet period--the documentary approach. …