Thursday Night — Moscow after Moscow — Part II — 10.19.06

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Thursday Two — Moscow after Moscow — 10.19.06
1. About this Thursday Night
2. About the Participants
3. Readings and Useful Links
4. About The Karl Marx School of the English Language
please note:
this event will begin at 7:45
to learn more about part one of this event please visit:
1. About this Thursday Night
When: Thursday Oct. 19, 2006 at 7:45pm
Where: 16 Beaver St. 4th Floor (NY, NY)
Who: All are invited
What: Discussion with members of The Karl Marx School of the English Language, some of whom also are a part of Chto delat (What is to be Done?)
A group of intellectuals and artists from Moscow are visiting New York. What unites the different positions of this group of people is that they are all searching for ways to explore the potentialities of Marxism in a post-Soviet setting, attempting to actualize these potentialities through cultural praxis in an international context.
We would very much like to exchange accounts of our respective situations, including – everyday life, economic constraints, political climate, media, urban planning, silencing of dissent, manufacturing of crisis … how they affect our perspectives and practices, and which points of connection and solidarity are possible today.
A big part of organizing this second part of the day at 16Beaver is to encourage people who did not come to the Williamsburg walk to come and join this discussion, so we hope to see you there.
2. About the Participants
Chto delat is a workgroup of artists, philosophers, and writers from Petersburg and Moscow. The workgroup’s praxis focuses on forging a space between philosophy, activism, and contemporary art, with the goal of repoliticizing all three types of practice. Founded in 2003, the  group puts out a bilingual newspaper (15 issues so far). It also carries out art projects, including artistic examinations of urban space, exhibition projects, and interventions, and organizes conferences. The group has no homogeneous position, but rests upon an antagonistic  understanding of a self-organizing political process. People visiting New York are the philosophers Alexei Penzin and Oxana Timofeeva, and the art critic and translator David Riff, who all live in Moscow.
Vlad Sofronov, who is also with us, is a philosopher, translator, and political activist. He has published extensively in both Russia and abroad, and is a member of the socialist movement Vpered (Forward).
Dmitry Gutov is an artist (installation, paintings, videos) and a founding member of the Lifshitz Institute, which is dedicated to exploring the aesthetic debates in 1930s Marxism, and their meaning today, focusing on the work of the forgotten “orthodox” Marxist Mikhail Lifshitz (1905-1981).
We are all also part of the Karl Marx School of the English Language. For more on this initiative, see the text in the attachment.
3. Readings and Useful Links
You can find all 14 issues of Chto delat online at www.chtodelat.org.
Issues are  generally focused on central themes between politics and aesthetics. Recent issues were on the socio-spatial problematic, the G8 summit in Petersburg, and the theme of self-education.
Here is a small selection for each of the visiting participants.
Oxana Timofeeva:
Free Ad Space
ChD 12: http://www.chtodelat.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=268&Itemid=127
The “Nature” of Power vs. the Culture of Protest
ChD 13: http://www.chtodelat.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=250&Itemid=128
Alexei Penzin
Registers of Resistance
ChD 6: http://www.chtodelat.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=143&Itemid=120
“Antiglobalist Slogan”, or, What is a political demonstration today?
ChD 13: http://www.chtodelat.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=252&Itemid=128
Dmitry Gutov
Complete agreement is the ideal of the human race
ChD 9: http://www.chtodelat.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=201&Itemid=123
For Gutov’s site, please visit www.gutov.ru
David Riff
The Re-Discovery of Post-Soviet Space
ChD 12: http://www.chtodelat.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=264&Itemid=127
Vlad Sofronov
Three texts of Vlad’s can be found at:
4. About The Karl Marx School of the English Language
David Riff
The Karl Marx School of the English Language
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 sentence, correcting pronunciation, identifying difficult words, and comparing important points to the Russian translation and the German 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 anarchical) 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.
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.
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[u1] 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 [u2] 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
16 Beaver Group
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phone: 212.480.2093
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