What Does It Mean to Be Post-Soviet?: Decolonial Art from the Ruins of the Soviet Empire

What Does It Mean to Be Post-Soviet?: Decolonial Art from the Ruins of the Soviet Empire

by Madina Tlostanova


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In What Does It Mean to Be Post-Soviet? Madina Tlostanova traces how contemporary post-Soviet art mediates this human condition. Observing how the concept of the happy future—which was at the core of the project of Soviet modernity—has lapsed from the post-Soviet imagination, Tlostanova shows how the possible way out of such a sense of futurelessness lies in the engagement with activist art. She interviews artists, art collectives, and writers such as Estonian artist Liina Siib, Uzbek artist Vyacheslav Akhunov, and Azerbaijani writer Afanassy Mamedov who frame the post-Soviet condition through the experience and expression of community, space, temporality, gender, and negotiating the demands of the state and the market. In foregrounding the unfolding aesthesis and activism in the post-Soviet space, Tlostanova emphasizes the important role that decolonial art plays in providing the foundation upon which to build new modes of thought and a decolonial future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822371342
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 07/19/2018
Series: On Decoloniality
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Madina Tlostanova is Professor of Postcolonial Feminisms at Linköping University, Sweden, and the author of several books, most recently, Postcolonialism and Postsocialism in Fiction and Art: Resistance and Re-existence.

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The Decolonial Sublime

For the post-Soviet human condition that I attempted to sketch briefly in the introduction, contemporary artivism grounded in decolonization of the affective sphere and in liberating aesthesis from the limitations of aesthetics, is particularly important and promising for the future. But first, what is meant by "aesthesis," and what is the difference between aesthetics and aesthesis? The term "aesthetics" was coined by Alexander Baumgarten (1750) to indicate a shift from sensibility to a taste in good art with a specific material and market value, and to a mode of articulation among various forms of agency, production, perception, and thinking. Aesthetics was a new institutionalized philosophical, moral, cultural, and social sphere, which around the early nineteenth century, according to Jacques Rancière (2009), shifted the previous representative regime of art to a contradictory aesthetic one, gradually leading to the demise of art as such, to its dissolving and merging with other activities. Rancière stresses that aesthetics was born during the French Revolution and therefore was bound up with equality, a democratic and liberating spirit that also signaled the future deterioration of art that was grounded in a destruction of previous artistic hierarchies, a dissolving of boundaries between art and life, and also a shift in relations between the passive sensibility and an active understanding of art (Rancière 2009, 37).

Rancière (2009, 49) addresses the present reconfiguration of the political in aesthetic forms and conferring on art the capacity to become an instrument of "reframing a sense of community and mending the social bond and time that binds together practices, forms of visibility, and patterns of intelligibility." Conceptualizing his idea of the community of sense as "a certain cutting out of space," Rancière (2009, 31, 49) claims that "art does not do politics by reaching the real. It does it by inventing fictions that challenge the existing distribution of the real and the fictional. ... Fiction invents new communities of sense: that is to say, new trajectories between what can be seen, what can be said, and what can be done." It is hard to reanimate the concept of community in such conditions without equating it to the liberal understanding of the commonwealth or the Marxist idea of the commons. What often remains unaddressed are the models accentuating the aesthetic, sensual aspect of the political and social spheres that go beyond ideology as such. Rancière's take on aesthetics and politics remains within the universalized Western social and economic realm, but his ideas on contradictory political-aesthetic relations find parallels in a number of communal models of indigenous people and decolonial social movements grounded in intersectionality, which surpasses the simplified post-Marxist approach.

The term "aesthesis" has a longer implicit genealogy since it refers to an intrinsic human ability. "Aesthesis" literally means an ability to perceive through the senses and the process of sensual perception itself — visual, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, and so on. "Aesthesis" is more familiar to the general public as a Western postmodernist sociological term discussed by, among others, Michel Maffesoli in The Time of the Tribes (1988). In this well-known book, Maffesoli starts and departs from an earlier phenomenological interpretation of aesthesis, as well as a number of nonorthodox sociological theories such as Vilfredo Pareto's model, to offer an aesthetic ground for his famous idea of the re-enchantment of the world.

However, Maffesoli's understanding — even if liberating and revolutionary for his time and context — is still limited as it is a critique of modernity from within, from a postmodernist position that is selectively correcting some of modernity's features but leaving the core and, particularly, its darker colonial side intact. Maffesoli understands aesthesis as a process of total aestheticization of the lifeworld in the collective consciousness of a tribe (a reunification of ethics and aesthetics). He means a critique of rationality and its replacement with intuitivism, sensuality, and emotional responses and also a critique of individualism and its replacement with new tribalism and group consciousness. Yet Maffesoli's tribes, as well as Deleuze and Guattari's (1993) war machine, are utopian constructions rather than real social groups. Although Maffesoli assumed that the total aestheticization of the lifeworld leads to the emergence of group ethics, empathy, and proxeny, and hence provides the possibility for an organic compromise between people, this assumption remains hypothetical. Moreover, the multitude of marginal communities with their presumable spirit of emotional complicity to which Maffesoli appeals, are still Western communities (such as hippies, anarchists, various contemporary experimental artists). They are unhappy with the system and capable of creating a rallying aesthesis as an immanent transcendence.

But in Maffesoli's interpretation, these new tribes are largely confined by contesting Western social movements and neo-avant-garde art. As is known, many such groups were dissatisfied with European philosophical traditions that did not allow one to move away from logocentrism. Therefore, the new tribalists started looking in the direction of Eastern and Amerindian cosmologies and various marginalized occult practices, which in itself was a form of colonization and appropriation of someone else's axiological legacy — a typical and well-rehearsed scenario of modernity. Moreover, this initially sincere revolutionary protest was soon tamed by the system. In fact, it was a doomed attempt to reform the system from within. The new tribalists' interest in the other remained largely an exotic desire to possess the other, not a genuine wish to learn more about this other. Such artificial affective excitement by means of alien cosmological instruments was predictably short-lived. And today. Maffesoli's old new tribes have given way to David Brooks's "Bobos" (2000) — a hybrid of the bohème and the bourgeoisie, in which aestheticization of protest has acquired safe and decorative forms. The neoliberal market and commodification mechanisms have easily infected the presumably autonomous artistic sphere and discredited and trivialized any naïve and honest ideals such as community and participation.

The present repoliticization of aesthetics takes place in rather bland and anonymous everyday forms of essentially apolitical practices pretending to be political, often with a focus on communicative and participatory practices and drives. A typical example is Nicolas Bourriaud's problematic relational aesthetics and his altermodern project (Bourriaud 2002b, 2009). Similarly to Maffesoli three decades ago, Bourriaud attempts to catch and reproduce the new sensibility assuming that globalization has successfully made this world homogenous and unified and its subjects have become identical and equal. Bourriaud sees the darker side of this homogeneity in the image of the globally standardizing capitalist system yet refuses to notice any power differences within it, condescendingly dismissing both postmodernism (as an outdated ideology and historical narrative) and postcolonialism and identity politics, which in his view have already fulfilled their obligations (Bourriaud 2009). In this respect he echoes the idea of post-Fordist dissolving of the previous power hierarchies through an emergence of radical democracy for the multiplicity of multitudes (Hardt and Negri 2005).

Obviously, this claim is being formulated once again from a familiar, disembodied Western vantage point, neglecting the growing asymmetries and hiding appropriation behind the concept of the Marxist commons. Accentuating creolization,2 simplified and intensified contacts, migrations and journeys, and subtitles and translations as the landmarks of the new universal altermodern culture from which all artists, as Bourriaud claims, draw their techniques and devices, he once again appropriates concepts coming from non-Western theoretical paradigms, ignoring specific local contexts and histories of their emergence. Instead of Maffesoli's neo-tribalism and re-enchantment with the magic and irrational, Bourriaud offers a too banal fascination with Internet and computer technologies and computer metaphors such as "user-friendliness"; "do-it-yourself interactivity"; and the artist as engineer, programmer, or DJ, oversimplifying both contemporary reality and art (Bourriaud 2002a, 2009).

But let us delink from Maffesoli's understanding of aesthesis and rely on the decolonial interpretation of this category. With the emergence of explicit aesthetics in secular modernity, aesthesis was globally subsumed. It was a part of the wider process of colonization of being, knowledge, and perception that tagged the European past as premodern (traditional) and the non-European past and present as nonmodern and therefore nonhuman. This has led to strict formulations of what is beautiful and sublime, good and evil, and to the emergence of particular canonical structures and artistic genealogies.

Certainly the Western genealogy of thought revolted against such normative aesthetics long before Maffesoli. As a matter of fact, the philosophical revolt against ratio-centrism initiated by the end of the nineteenth century questioned the notorious "knowing subject," in Wilhelm Dilthey's formulation, and envisioned a being that not only thinks but also wills and feels (Dilthey 1991, 50). In many ways, Maffesoli follows in this path. Maffesoli's and decolonial interpretations of aesthesis share a problematizing of rationality and prescriptive aesthetic normativity, along with a focus on the collective experience as opposed to individual experience. Yet they do this from different geopolitical and corpo-political positions and trajectories of knowledge, perception, and being.

Decolonial aesthesis originates in the affective experience of those who have never been given a voice before and who also often have been (mis)-represented and appropriated by Maffesoli's new tribalists in the purely decorative form of noble savages and native informants, Calibans and Ariels. Such non-Western subjects are more sensitive to the corporeal dimensions of knowledge, perception, creativity, sexuality, and gender. In their experience, constructed bodily difference is constantly put forward, essentialized, and problematized, whereas they are seen or made invisible exclusively through their bodily difference.

Positioned at the intersection of ontology and epistemology, aesthesis acts as a mechanism to produce and regulate sensations; hence, it is inevitably linked with the body as an instrument of perception that mediates our cognition. Our bodies adapt to spaces through local histories — collective and personal. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (1981, 23) famously called this a "theory in the flesh," stressing the importance of the "physical realities of our lives," which "fuse to create a politics born out of necessity." Setting aesthesis free lets us delink from the dominant politics of knowledge, being, and perception, which is grounded in suppression of the geo-historical dimensions of affects and corporalities. Decolonial aesthesis grows out of the geopolitical and corpo-political position of the "outside created from the inside" (Dussel 1985), liberating us from often unconscious but persistent total control over sensations to which our bodies react, in Walter Mignolo's (2011) formulation. To do this, it is necessary to decolonize the knowledge that regulates aesthesis and the subjectivities that are controlled by Western modern/postmodern/altermodern aesthetics. Only then will it become possible to make a paradigmatic shift from often negative and destructive resistance to creative and life-asserting "re-existence," in Adolfo Albán Achinte's words (2006).

Albán Achinte explains that when a human being exists in the core of the colonial matrix as an other with no rights, for such a person an inclusion and an active reworking of odors, tastes, colors, and sounds of his or her ancestors and the remaking of systematically negated forms of interactions with the world — of being and perception — become a necessity, a sensual response of resistance and of building of one's own existence anew in defiance of coloniality (Albán Achinte 2009). Re-existence then becomes an effective decolonial strategy, (re-)creating the positive life models, sensations, and worlds that help to overcome the injustice and imperfection of the present world. Re-existence is far from a primordialist call to return to some essentialized and constructed authenticity. On the contrary, it is a way to relive the main elements of erased and distorted indigenous (or any other discarded) value systems while necessarily taking into account the temporal lag and experiences of struggle and opposition, compromises and losses, that have taken place. In other words, re-existence is not mere repetition; it is variation in which there is not only always a stable core but also a necessary creative element of difference, and hence of dynamics and change. What is at work here is a development of the native tradition in dialogue and in a constant argument with modernity. It is a complication and an enrichment of our perspective, a constant balancing on the verge — neither here nor there or simultaneously here, there, and elsewhere. Decolonial aesthesis lets our sensations, and consequently the assumptions we form on their basis, move forward and beyond the normative models of truth, beauty, and goodness, whether they are Western or native.

As a species, we share the ability to use simultaneously two different mechanisms of orientation and regulation of our behavior — the intellectual and the affective — intersecting them in the aesthetic sphere. Human mechanisms of perception may be universal, yet the manifestations of the affects and modes of our perception are always locally, historically, and culturally specific. Looking at the world from the "underside of modernity" (Dussel 1996, 21), decolonial artists and thinkers reflect on how they inhabit the colonial matrix of power, geographically and corpographically; how they respond to it aesthetically; and how they can overcome the persistent exoticization, appropriation, and condescending labeling (as "naive," "ethnic," "primitivist," "ornamentalist," "stylized," and so on) of their works within the predictable Western frames. By doing this they enact a process that is opposed to the naturalized (in Western modernity) delocalization and disembodiment of thinking and feeling, which in fact has hidden the provincialism of Western European aesthetic principles subsequently rendered universal.

Decolonial aesthesis, on the contrary, draws attention to the geopolitical location of aesthetic colonization and evolves, through practices of emancipation of experience, corporality, and affectivity, from the creative mechanisms, norms, and limitations of artificially delocalized and disembodied (post-)(alter)modern aesthetics. The decolonial emancipation of aesthesis leads to a reinvention of the concept of art itself, reuniting its ontological, ethical, political, and epistemic potential through subversion, disidentification, tricksterism, resistance, and re-existence. This makes intricate forms of contemporary aesthetic colonization, such as boutique multiculturalism and commodified exoticism, visible as ways to appropriate and tame the other and to exclude those who refuse to comply.

Contemporary aesthetic theory is predominantly post-Marxist and largely universalist. It tends to erase geopolitical and corpo-political affective differences. Hence, it stumbles against the same age-old problem of either taking the non-Western other to sameness or fetishizing its difference. When the same logic is applied to art, this dilemma once again takes the form of assimilating to the mainstream norm or being relegated to the non-Western ghetto of ethnic arts and crafts. W. E. B. Du Bois and his followers struggled with the ontological question of what it means to be a (human) problem (Gordon 2007). In the aesthetic sphere, this question changes into, "What does it mean to be an artist if you are seen as a problem? What kind of art you are expected to produce, and what can you do to escape the Procrustean bed of such prescribed definitions that want you to be either a mere craftsman or an object of someone else's art?"

One of the key categories of Western canonical aesthetics is the sublime, which plays a central role in the mechanism of catharsis. Immanuel Kant's The Critique of Judgment (1951 [1790]) presents a classical theorizing of this process, which stresses such outcomes of successful subliminal experience as regaining one's dignity; setting one's mind and imagination free; and sending a person through a purgatory, which enables moral elevation and resistance to the forces of nature. In the case of the decolonial sublime, Kantian nature is replaced by modernity/coloniality and our belonging to it in various capacities — from objects to subjects, from critics to accomplices and those who delink from it. Global coloniality is then illuminated in an image or a metaphor, momentarily lighting up the trajectory of further epistemic, ethical, aesthetic, and existential solidarity in subversion.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction. A Futureless Ontology?  1
1. The Decolonial Sublime   25
2. Decolonial Aesthesis and Post-Soviet Art  33
3. A Woman Who Has Many Selves and Takes Over Many Spaces: A Conversation with Liina Siib   65
4. Beyond Dependencies: A Talk with Vyacheslav Akhunov, the Lonely Ranger of Uzbeck Contemporary Art  84
5. Reflecting on Time, Space, and Memory with Afanassy Mamedov  106
Conclusion. People Are Silent . . .  119
Notes  129
References  135
Index  141

What People are Saying About This

Jelena Petrovic

“What do most postcommunist countries—which almost thirty years after the end of the Soviet Bloc still deal with antagonizing feelings of loss, nostalgia, trauma, and never-ending transition, as well as with neocolonial domination of today's neoliberal world—all have in common? In her outstanding book, Madina Tlostanova defines these common experiences as a futureless ontology that reveals the social disorientation of post-Soviet identitarian collectivities. In so doing, she suggests that post-Soviet politically engaged art practices known as artivism offer a possible solution to this futureless ontology.”

Lewis Gordon

“In this provocative and poignant book Madina Tlostanova expands her examination of the melancholia of postsocialist peoples as ‘problem people’ facing the ‘void’ of where to go when material conditions have collapsed amid the intensity of lived experience, of sensing, feeling the, in a word, aesthesis of scarred temporality. The paradox of imagination, embodied in fiction and art, is the proverbial leap, without preordained outcomes, into the openness of decolonial responsibility and the possibility of belonging to a genuinely global future whose boomerang effect could be a transformed understanding of the present. Read this book and think. Read this book and imagine. Read this book and be inspired to create and, despite proverbial fear and trembling, act!”

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