irinabok

The cover of the awarded book by Irina Sandomirskaja.

Conference reports Andrey Bely Prize

Irina Sandomirskaja, professor of cultural studies at CBEES, Södertörn University, was awarded the most prestigious Russian prize for literary scholarship, […]

Published on balticworlds.com on april 16, 2014

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Irina Sandomirskaja, professor of cultural studies at CBEES, Södertörn University, was awarded the most prestigious Russian prize for literary scholarship, the 2013 Andrey Bely Prize. Her book Blokada v slove: o cherkikriticheskoiteoriii biopolitikiiazyka (Besiegement in Language: Essays in the Critical Theory and Biopolitics of Language) investigates the stakes of language production in the absence of political and societal freedom.

The Andrei Bely Prize is an independent literary prize, established in 1978. Materially, the prize consists of an apple, a single ruble, and a bottle of vodka. The prize ceremony speech is here translated and published, as well as the prize winner’s response speech at the ceremony.

Delicate Empiricism: A speech about Irina Sandomirskaja

Aleksandr Skidan, author, translator, literary critic, and philosopher

Es gibt eine zarte Empirie, die sich mit dem Gegenstand innigst identisch macht und dadurch zur eigentlichen Theorie wird. Diese Steigerung des geistigen Vermögens aber gehört einer hochgebildeten Zeit an. (Goethe)

Irina Sandomirskaja’s book has a complex structure: it is a composition of many figures supplied with a system of double mirrors. Thus, she reads Walter Benjamin’s Moscow Diary through the prism of Benjamin’s other writings, and, above all, via the early essay from the 1920s, “Critique of Violence”, Benjamin’s most important work, and the one that is most difficult to understand. This latter, in turn, is refracted through Jacques Derrida’s optics. In her book, the early Mikhail Bakhtin is reflected in the quicksilvery surface of Konstantin Vaginov’s novel Svistonov’s Works and Days, which serves as a kind of travestied meta-commentary to Bakhtin’s Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity. Here, Lidiia Ginzburg’s Blockade Diary and other wartime writings find an eerie counterpart for themselves in the collective medical monograph Alimentary Dystrophy in Besieged Leningrad (ed. Prof. M. V. Chernorutskii, Leningrad, 1947), as well as in Giorgio Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz: the Witness and the Archive. Anna Akhmatova’s poem “Cleopatra” leads one behind the looking glass of Stalin’s terror, where Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is calling out to Pushkin’s Egyptian Nights, recalling Pushkin’s mourning after the execution of his friends the Decembrists. Finally, in that monstrous mirrored labyrinth, Stalin the theorist of language meets with Nikolai Zabolotskii, the veteran Gulag prisoner, who is recalling the friends of his younger years, the murdered Oberiu poets.

All of these episodes are framed between two stories about two deaf-blind little girls, about their torturous “humanization” with the help of a strictly disciplined pedagogical technique designed by Soviet scientists. They first learn the dactylic alphabet, then the alphabet of the “normal” language written with a finger on a palm or printed in relief; they master Braille’s blind script and learn how to read speech from the interlocutor’s lips by touching them with their fingers. Biopolitics – a term used in the title of the book – here acquires a palpable materiality. It is these enframing novellas that contain a key to the author’s method: eine zarte Empirie, as Goethe and then Benjamin formulated it, a delicate (lit., “tender”) empiricism in the research of extreme experience. These novellas also methodologically justify what otherwise would have been a purely speculative approach to the experience of the siege of Leningrad as it is described both in Lidiia Ginzburg’s notebooks, and in the medical documentation of the time, a treatment of besiegement as the paradigmatic situation of the 20th century. Sandomirskaja places this terrifying episode in the compositional center of her book. She also interprets it in a broader sense, as an experience of death and survival, of the loss and regaining of language, as the afterlife (Fortleben) of language, in the environment of linguistic, political, metaphysical, and physical terror. This is an approach that manifests both force and courage. Paradoxically, the last word belongs not to a theoretician, as ingenious as he might be, not even to an author or a poet, those figures that rise above History (since these are capable of responding with symbolic violence to the violence of the state). It is the little girl called “O”. who has the final say, or rather, the gesture of her hand: that deaf-blind, parentless village child, the country’s “thinking body”. The last say belongs to the gesture of a dystrophic hand, that of a Muselmann – the one who gropes his way through life, who takes risks, the risk inherent in the regaining and formation of that lifeworld that is our history.

Irina Sandomirskaja – Response Speech at the Ceremony

Allow me to express my gratitude to the Andrei Belyi Prize committee for this decision, to Irina Prokhorova and the NLO Publishers – probably the only publishing house in the world that could publish such a book; to my patient editor Ilya Kalinin, and to Södertörn University, which supported me throughout these many years and took part in the publication effort.

It is for me a special honor to have been awarded a Leningrad prize, a prize produced by the specifically Leningrad experience, of what Lidiia Ginzburg defined as the “Leningrad situation” of the post-besiegement. Why is it so that, precisely today, collective memory is trying to re-appropriate the already remote experience of the blockade, even to expropriate that experience where possible, and also to utilize it, for some purposes, as if it were an as yet undeveloped but nevertheless valuable resource? The collective imagination of the present-day rather fat, in the Biblical sense, season, our almost fully satisfied today is haunted by the image of the Leningrad subject: the patient of the incurable hunger disease, a human being starved to death. Why is it that such a dystrophic subject is precisely that which represents the hero of our time – our “smooth” time, as Lidiia Ginzburg would have said?

As early as the 1980s, at the pre-dawn of Russia’s democracy, the German sociologist Ulrich Beck declared the beginning of a new stage of technological modernity. He also formulated the paradoxical essence of this new period. The risk society, as Beck called our time, incessantly produces technological threats to its own existence and equally incessantly looks after the ways of averting the risks attendant upon these threats. As a replacement for the previous utopia of social justice and freedom, there arises a new one: the utopia of a secure society. In the confrontation of one threat or another, whether resulting from a natural disaster, a market catastrophe, or an external enemy, in the society of risk, security becomes a number one priority. The non-freedom of such a secure society manifests itself in the fact that, when presented with a choice between security and democracy, the society invariably chooses security.

A half a century before Beck, a similar political choice (and a similar structure of subjectivity) was discovered by Lidiia Ginzburg, who represented the two poles in the persona of a Leningrad distrofik, the sufferer of hunger disease at the lethal stage. The dystrophic subject finds himself under the pressure of a double non-freedom: both in the sense of his total alienation from political rights, on the one hand, and in the sense of the practically absent means of physical survival, on the other. In Ginzburg’s “Leningrad situation”, yesterday’s dystrophic patients were physically recovering and re-building the society after its collapse. In doing that, they made political choices, albeit illusory, which belonged to the same type as Ulrich Beck’s subject’s, in his newest and most technologically advanced modification: confronted with a choice between democracy and security, they consistently chose security. In this sense, our smooth, well-fed, and complacent present-day seems to imitate the time of total annihilation in Leningrad 70 years earlier.

The clinical picture of alimentary dystrophy, or simply hunger death, also includes a nervous emaciation (“shimmering delirium”, in the Leningrad psychiatrists’ lingo), as well as concomitant speech disorders. This is how a dystrophic language appeared, in which names could no longer fit the measure of their realities, and empty words multiplied, as Ginzburg put it, “rolling out of other words and not being able to stop”.

I therefore believe that it would not be out of place to indicate how useful for us, “smooth” people, to learn more about the Leningrad situation, the experience of besiegement with its dystrophic documentation, Leningrad’s great linguistic experiment in mastering the shimmering, delirious language, in getting hold of, and possibly retaining, its disappearing reality in its own dystrophic words: words spilling around, bleeding, exhausted, and almost breaking down under their own weight. My book is also written using exactly this dystrophic principle, and I am grateful to anyone who takes upon herself the difficulty of reading it.