DR: As I was preparing for our conversation, I hit upon a link to a text “Justification of Art or the End of Intelligentsia”, written for “Flash Art” in 1996. Yet I was both disappointed and intrigued to find that this link was dead: I was only able to find its ephemeral digital artefacts. I thought this dead link as a point of departure for our conversation on intellectual labour. In how far do you see the crisis of the Russian intelligentsia during the 1990s as a concession to the ephemeral production of “concepts” and “projects”, which very soon lose their meaning? And does the fact that the link is dead mean that your views from 5 years ago have lost any of their original significance?
VM: As far as I can remember, the text you’re talking about provoked the enthusiasm of Marat Guelman. I don’t know whether Marat actually read the text or not, but he immediately became enthused with the term “post-intellectual”. He wanted to translate the text into Russian, and to publish it on his site, which is probably how the link appeared. But his interest faded as quickly as it came up, which might be why the link died very soon. This situation is very symptomatic and brings me to your question.
My view then was that Russia’s “thinking class” had departed from the idea of the “intelligentsia” without ever identifying itself with the conception of the intellectual (in the sense of Sartre). By the early 1990s, the dissident intelligentsia’s conception of intellectual labour had already become the subject of wide-spread criticism in the press, and the figure of the “intellectual” was something that was hardly understood or understood intuitively, but rejected as inappropriate to the social perspectives of neo-liberal reform. Members of the post-intelligentsia and pseudo-intellectuals opted for media that were far more fast-paced and, at the same time, more socially effective. This gave their “intellectual labour” a new temporality: it was necessary to work quickly, more superficially, with great flexibility. Determined by an exalted metaphysical view of money and an ethos of “standing up for one’s right to proper pay”, this new form of “post-intellectual” labour demanded a certain kind of anti-fundamentalism and plasticity, an ability to adjust to new tasks, epitomized most compactly by the political technologist. Such highly talented individuals are willing to sell their intellectual services to political groups or leaders with views that differ drastically from his-her own. By now, Russia’s political technologies have actually become one of Russia’s main export goods, although they have very little in common with the quality of a classical European intellectual’s products; the European intellectual’s production actually means something because it is firmly based in a ethos of convictions. This is something that the “post-intellectual” has not reached. Е ven if the neo-liberals organized rock-concerts and commercials on TV; “post-intellectual” production has not yet established one serious analytical or scholarly institution. Furthermore, what makes me wary is that all the deconstructions of the intelligentsia’s codex were quite obviously motivated by the authorities: in the situation of ethical relativism, as the critical senses of the “thinking class” dulled to the point of social dissolution, it was much easier to conduct radical reforms and whole-sale privatization.
To turn your question inside out, I would like to talk about the forms of opposition to this “post-intellectual” activism of the 1990s, which I experienced in projects like the “Hamburg Project” or the Laboratory of Visual Anthropology, which we held together with Valery Podoroga. Here, the temporality of intellectual work stood in stark contrast to the fast pace of “post-intellectual” activism: long, drawn-out discussions, live speech, not even articulated in writing, whose results conciously didn’t even try to reach society at large. The result was a kind nearly autistic hermeticism, a post-ideological, post-sectarian obsessiveness, concentrated on defending personal subjectivity, deeply involved in personal dialogues with the project’s co-participants. This was an incredibly important experience in which intellectual labour recognized itself, without vesting any practical interest. Without ceasing to be work, it was, at the same time, filled with the pathos of opposition, turning from work to pure pleasure.
DR: It is my impression that in the West, there was, at least in the second half of the 1990s, the illusion that BOTH “post-intellectual” mobility and obsessive autonomy might be combined in new, flexible forms of intellectual labour, in the sense of conception of linguistic-informative, post-Fordist production a la Gramsci or Virno. To many of the concept-makers, designers and programmers that composed the soap-bubble industry’s intellectual proletariat, it seemed that an fusion of mobility and autonomy might be possible. But by now, the soap-bubble has burst dramatically. Many people are “remembering” that labour or work is actually something negative or compulsory, if it is alienated or exploited. As an “intellectual worker”, this is where you begin to ask fundamental questions, reaching above and beyond the more virulent post-intellectualisms. You don’t only ask yourself how to terminate the contract of the neo-liberal compromise, you also ask yourself how its prerequisite skills “post-intellectual” mobility and obsessive-reflexive autonomy might be put to better use…
Obviously the situation in Russia is far different and presents its own “bursting bubbles”, first the collapse of the “old” intelligentsia, then the crisis and demise of “neo-liberal activism”. But I agree: it is possible to see these bursting bubbles as productive experiences, despite their catastrophic impact
VM: I would like to say that I do not see the experience of the 1990s as something that is clearly negative. In part, it was also productive, and had a sobering effect on the Soviet intelligentsia. Many of the collisions of the post-intelligentsia actually came from the Soviet intelligentsia’s weak points, its deeply anti-democratic attitudes or its ambivalent relationship to authority, for an example. (Remember that derisory-ironic nickname for the people, “hegemon”!?). In the 1990s, the tables were turned: faced with the need for bare survival, the former Soviet intellectual came close to what Gramsci called the “integral intellectual”. Someone with a PhD in philosophy might have been a driver by day, translating Heidegger into Russian at night, or a microbiologist might have combined his work in a scientific laboratory with the organization of construction contracting for renovations. (I know of many cases like these.) While this situation can have a horrifying effect, one can also consider it in positive terms, as a unique, sobering experience. Yet still, the fact is that many an intellectual institution was destroyed in the process. Today especially after the last elections many of the post-intelligentsia’s myths are in the process of collapsing, forcing people to reconsider their position in regard to the creation of a civil society. Inevitably, as the primitive anti-communism and apology of the market reveals itself as a dead end, it will be become increasingly important to return to the project of creating institutions for a civil society, “expert” communities that actively discuss society’s normative systems, spaces for reflection and negative criticism. Inevitably, this will mean reconstitution of the thinking class, which will regain its autonomy, developing a professional ethos that can define barriers between itself and its sponsors
DR: Here, one might argue how this will happen. Will it be, as you put it, happen inevitably? Or does the contemporary situation require an active stance in redefining intellectual labour, in both negative criticism and positive engagement?
VM: Of course there are different approaches, both academic and activist. [ ] Looking beyond the Russian context, it’s interesting to see what is currently happening in Western Europe, where the autonomous discipline’s liberal ideals have, in a sense, been emptied of meaning. The last years have not produced any new serious intellectual figure, which isn’t surprising, if you know the constellation of the 1990s. Yet as this hiatus draws itself out ( пауза тянется ), it becomes clear that there is a huge demand and nostalgia for the intellectual. It will be very interesting to see which positions and forms arise, as a new generation of intellectuals emerges.
DR: Maybe this generation will emerge from people with the experience of having been concept-makers, political technologists, or media-person
VM: I think you have a point. One can hope for the meeting between disappointed political technologists and mediacrats and society’s pressing need for the figure of the intellectual. It is this meeting that will heighten and sharpen the new intellectual debate.