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#14: Self-Education

David Riff /// The Karl Marx School of the English Language

1.
The Karl Marx School of the English Language (KMSEL) was founded in January 2006. Its most immediate goal was to improve both the spoken language (pronunciation, discussion) and reading comprehension  of its participants. I serve as the “instructor” (native speaker and  art historian Kristin Romberg is the substitute teacher when I am unavailable). The “students” are the philosophers Oxana Timofeeva, Alexei Penzin, and Vlad Sofronov, the curator Konstantin Bokhorov, and the artist Dmitri Gutov. The school meets once a week at Gutov’s studio in the center of Moscow. Meetings last between 3-4 hours, with one cigarette-and-tea break, and usually end with a drink or two at a local bar.

1.
The Karl Marx School of the English Language (KMSEL) was founded in January 2006. Its most immediate goal was to improve both the spoken language (pronunciation, discussion) and reading comprehension  of its participants. I serve as the “instructor” (native speaker and  art historian Kristin Romberg is the substitute teacher when I am unavailable). The “students” are the philosophers Oxana Timofeeva, Alexei Penzin, and Vlad Sofronov, the curator Konstantin Bokhorov, and the artist Dmitri Gutov. The school meets once a week at Gutov’s studio in the center of Moscow. Meetings last between 3-4 hours, with one cigarette-and-tea break, and usually end with a drink or two at a local bar.

The school’s curriculum consists of texts by Karl Marx in their English translation., which we download and print out from www.marxists.org. Utilizing the collective linguistic skills of the group, we often make close comparisons of English translations to Russian and German versions of Marx’ texts. This means that we find ourselves moving very slowly. So far, we have devoted 12 sessions to the Feuerbach Theses, about 4 sessions to a letter from Marx to Arnold Ruge. We then launched into “Private Property and Communism” from the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, and have been working with these for the entire summer.

First, we read the texts aloud several times sentence by senten-ce, correcting pronunciation, identifying difficult words, and comparing important points to the Russian translation and the Ger-man original. The difficulties really begin with the next step, when we try to summarize Marx’s thoughts in our own (English) words; this almost invariably leads to various interpretations and a great deal of discussion. This discussion is both stimulating and confusing. A mixed (if not anar-chical) hermeneutic shatters and fragments our discourse. As it becomes increasingly illusory, personal, and subjective, our discussion jumps ahead to other topics and readings that we have yet to reach, producing polemical fever, in the heat of which each of us slips into her or his accustomed role, until we abscond to obligatory drinking and late-night cab rides home.

2.
For me, the desire to read Marx more closely arises from my view of our local political situation. The collapse of state socialism totally discredited dialectical materialism as an episteme. Most educated people are allergic to Marxism. However, in the last five years of “normalization” and “controlled democracy” under Putin, a small political left has become one venue for dissent. In some circles, it is even fashionable to talk about Marx. This does not mean that Marxism is returning as a political force; in fact, it seems sadly clear that the numbers are too small and the central issues are still too unclear to permit any consolidation that could lead to a fundamental political change. Thus, this field’s main activities are “knowledge production” and “self-organization” through both small-scale activism and intellectual debate. The general assumption is that some version of (anarcho-)Marxism will better at explaining post-Soviet reality than the hegemonial neo-liberal paradigms, based in a politics of administration  and an economics of need.

Needless to say, the marginal left arises in certain local structures. It is heir to the dissident (anti-Communist) traditions of the late Soviet period, whose confidential kitchen politics led to “self-clarification” and “consolidation” against the rotten Soviet order. Given the repressive nature of “controlled democracy,” many leftists see this structure as a potentiality for civil dissidence today. But dissidence against what? The late Soviet experience of dissidence showed that a vague negation of the state and its ideological apparatus is not enough. Only definite negation can prevent the irresponsibility of armchair theory. Indifferent antitheses produce only half-knowledge, whose ultimate conclusion has to be “thank god we’re not in power.” In overcoming this passivity, political and cultural activism are crucial, not only as a means of keeping at least some possibility for collective action alive, but also as a collective form of “learning by doing” that differentiates and specifies the vagaries of anti-capitalist dissent. If it does not bring theoretical clarity, however, it too can easily become “action for the sake of action” whose real goal is a micro-community’s “being-together.” This “being-together” alone is not enough to break through the fog, obviously.

The absence of mass movement (or multitude) can be useful – it supplies a continuum for reflection – but it also engenders endless, entropic debates. These debates supposedly serve the purpose of “self-clarification” and “consolidation,” but often have the opposite effect. At worst, they become esoteric performances that differentiate smaller (or larger) “ventures,” vying for attention on a small, heterogeneous countercultural field. This may provide a useful practical education in aggressive countercultural (or artistic) marketing in a war for scarce resources, but it does not lead to any greater clarity as to the subjects and objectives of an emancipatory, anti-capitalist movement. Still, what is interesting to me is that these debates do not only show how fragmented or confused the left is, but also that the language of Marxism – both in theory and praxis – has once again become a potential means of universalizing the struggles that arise in every form of production without negating or subordinating their singularity. Then again, this potentiality is fatally blocked from actualization. One wonders how many people have actually read Marx, and what exactly they have read. This sounds a little arrogant, but I honestly often have the impression that we all don’t know exactly what we’re talking about. If we did, we would be in a much better position.

3.
In describing KMSEL’s background, I have not only delineated my own (political, intellectual) motivations in suggesting this initiative – with English practice as a pretense – but also wanted to provide a sample of the kind of monologue you could hear at a KMSEL meeting. Of course,  everyone came to KMSEL with their own intentions, and the point was not to subordinate these intentions to some sacral Marxist truth. So antagonistic discussion to clarify the terms of engagement is inevitable. But once the discussion gets out of hand (30 minute monologues!), it quickly becomes an exercise of defending identities with or against two “colonial languages.” The experiment reaches its first dead end. It both reproduces and deconstructs the indifferent antithesis between the “critical criticism” of a schoolkid  and the authoritarian voice of the educator. Both refuse to be educated. Only “being-together” can break through the tedium of their standoff: bursts of laughter, tearful apologies…

Thus, it seems to make more sense to concentrate all the participants’ different intentions in one educational activity, to limit its scope, to focus on concrete material by reading very slowly, making sure that everyone really understands every word, even if we all disagree. The reduction of English vocabulary helps to effect this focus. This flight from polemics to proximity was not my didactic initiative, but a general request from the group. It has led to interesting results. Here, again, there is a dialectic between two modes of interpretation: one is to seek out the referents of Marx’ language in their historical context. The other attempts to draw connections from the “classical” body of knowledge to everyday life, as experienced through the lattice of professional disciplinary practices (art, philosophy, criticism, scholarship). Both are complementary as long as we prohibit ourselves from holding monologues. However, even at its best, this mode of reading also finds itself in a dead end: the texts themselves are first mantras, then mirrors. Their re-collection (Er-innerung) remains a confidential, nocturnal activity, held in the interior of a Marxist monastery.

Then again, pure contemplation is impossible even if it were desirable, given both the quantity of our meetings and the quality of the texts. Nocturnal undertakings eventually always come to light, even if in a distorted form. Or more prosaically, as art professionals, critics, or philosophers involved in real cultural production, I think we will all see the possibility for setting our knowledge into practice; not only are we too “worldly” to stay in the Marxist monastery for long, but we also know that production brings both “being-together” and “self-disciplinary contemplation” to an entirely different level as collective (and perhaps antagonistic) action. For now, this collective action – which is likely to go in either publicistic-critical or artistic directions – is a potentiality. This does not only make it attractive, but also gives rise to medial suspicion on my part: won’t we be making just be another commodity, once we get to work? Then again, I hope that this continuing, collective experiment in self-education will lead beyond the classical obstacle of reification or its indefinite negation, that it might make a product that is far more than a commodity. This hope might be in vain. It too might be lead to another dead end. But the only way to find out is by trying…

August 2006

David Riff, born 1975 in London, art critic, translator, writer, member of the workgroup “What is to be done?”. Lives in Moscow and Berlin.

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