Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 13. Nr. Mai 2002

Modernism, Postmodernism: Semantic Adventures of the Terms in Russian Cultural Sciences

Valery Timofeev (St. Petersburg)


The history of the concepts , (which correspond to Art Nouveau and Modernism) in Russian and then Soviet cultural sciences and literary criticism was determined mainly by the struggle between different ideological paradigms. The history of these terms' familiarization in the language of science naturally coincides with that of the corresponding concepts. However, the history of these words' usage in everyday language demonstrates considerable independence. Linguistic independence (i.e. independence of language from ideology) is determined not by a people's liberal mentality but by the conventional nature of language by etymological, morphological and semantic means and limitations that are revealed during the process of assimilating foreign words into a language.

The Russian history of this family of words began at the end of 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Today we would call this period in Russian or the Time of Art Nouveau. Usage of the terms , gained wide sanction much later. In discussing the latest tendencies in architecture and painting, a contemporary and one of the most outstanding historiographers of that epoch, Igor Grabar, used the Russian adjective (1) (the newest) and never or . At the same time the term was used to refer to writers and poets at the end of the century (mainly Symbolists). This term can be found in critical essays and reviews as early as the first decade of the 20th century. When describing a system of artistic trends and tendencies, most writers of the time preferred using the Russian word (the newest) but not the French word «moderne», which lacks the superlative idea of the original Latin.

The word appears at the same time (but it is not used very often) as a weak synonym, rather as a collective noun replacing the plural of referring to those who represented the newest tendencies in art and literature. It is the coexistence of the terms (the newest) and that allows the assumption that the Russian word comes from Latin through French. The fact that the Russian does not derive originally from the English «modern» seems to be of considerable importance, since the English period in the history of the Russian word was still to come. It began in the 1980s and 90s and has not finished yet. Modern Russian (especially the everyday language) is rich in phrases like , , , thus preserving the tension of four languages Russian, Latin, French and English. The post-positional attribute is typical of words of foreign origin treated in the Russian language as nouns, although in this case they originally came from adjectives. These combinations of words were coined as the result of lazy translations of such English terms as "modern dance," "modern jazz" and "modern furniture."

Contemporary Russian demonstrates a collision of two meanings of the same word . Everyday Russian tends to use as if it has the same meaning as the English word «modern». However, when used by a cultural historian, the term would mean a system of artistic, aesthetic, etc. trends characterizing the turn of century around 1900, which corresponds to Art Nouveau in the English tradition.

On the other hand, scholarly language has become so anglicized that, to denote the newest artistic tendencies at the end of the 20th century, it uses the term "contemporary art" without translation, written in Russian letters, in full accordance with the rules of English usage. In this case, the word "contemporary" has the superlative inflection (ultra-modern) in contrast to simply "modern." The usage of the terms (noun) and as synonyms is another example of the double trace of French and English in modern Russian scholarly language.

The parallel usage of the two terms ( and ) in modern scholarship reflects the dissatisfaction of contemporary scholars with the theory of Modernism worked out in the Soviet era as well as their orientation towards Western cultural studies and literary criticism. Students writing in English or French do have the right to ignore the fact that in Russian means "after modern" and is thus associated with Art Nouveau, while "postmodernism" should correspondingly be associated with "modernism" a much wider concept. Accordingly, the terms "postmodern" and "postmodernism" should not be used as synonyms in Russian scholarly literature. Even more assailable is the connection of the term "Postmodern" with the historiographic division of Modern vs. Postmodern History in its Russian version, as in Russian this opposition corresponds to New vs. Newest History. This neglect of or aversion to traditions that exist in Russian scholarship can be easily explained. The conditions under which traditional approaches towards the concept of Modernism in Russia and the USSR were formulated were, indeed, too specific to result in a unanimously accepted definition. It suffices to say that contemporary scholarship in this country has a history of the theory of Modernism, while there is no theory itself.

The history of the theory of Modernism, as has been mentioned above, began around 1900.(2) For the first two decades the most important thing in the approach to Modernism was describing its relation to Romanticism and the revelation of its antipathy to Naturalism. The negative approach to Modernism was overcome even before the beginning of the 20th century, at the time of Decadence. It is necessary to point out that in the descriptions of the newest trends in literature and the fine arts, the collective noun "Modernism" was quite rarely used, giving way to more specific terms such as acmeism, Futurism, Cubism, etc. And by the middle of the 1930s, interest in the concept of "Modernism" in Russian scholarship almost sputtered out.

Thus, in the first encyclopedia of literature,(3) published in the 1930s in many volumes, the entry says only: "see Symbolism." Unfortunately, we will never discover to what extent, from the point of view of the authors, the words "Modernism" and "Symbolism" are synonyms, as the volume containing the letter "S," which was to come out in 1939, was never published. The next such encyclopedia was not published until the 1960s, when the views on "Modernism" were, of course, different.

But to understand how by the 1960s the concept of Modernism was formulated, it is necessary to look back to the 1930s. Because in 1930s something was going on, which, on one hand, explains the loss of interest in "Modernism" in the Soviet scholarship of that time, and, on the other hand, the difficulties that literary criticism encountered when later working out the theory of Modernism.

The theory of Realism was actively formulated in the USSR in the 1930s, and it represented the most consistently Marxist approach from the standpoint of ideology. This theory was at the same time both the most influential and the most contradictory in terms of results. The main figures in this process were George Lukács and Maza (both former Austrian citizens), who moved to the USSR. A significant role in developing the theory of Realism was also played by Franz Mehring, one of the main Marxist authorities of that time. According to this theory, Realism was proclaimed to be not only the main trend in the evolutionary literary process, but also its final goal, as only Realism could fully correspond to gnoseological and ontological aims directed at the perception of reality.

The history of literature was presented as an evolutionary process that led from the primitive realism of the ancient to the critical and socialist Realism of the 20th century. Naturally, all past trends that deviated from the perception of reality were regarded as temporary and sometimes even reactionary deviations from the main-line track to Social Realism.

In this context, the study of the newest tendencies in literature was aimed at the revelation of realistic (i.e. directed at the profound study of reality) tendencies and their separation from false, dead-end tendencies those that were to be overcome. Thus, Modernism had to demonstrate the features of the evergreen Realism and to break with Romanticism or to turn into simply a synonym of Symbolism, which had obviously been passed over by the 1930s.

The texts that existed in Western literature by the 1960s did not allow speaking about the absolute triumph of Realism from the perspective of the 1930s. The alternative to the new theory of Modernism was only silence, which, in fact, was widely practiced: the syllabus of Western literature of the 20th century studied in the USSR differed from those of Western universities by no less than 70%. And for the remaining 30% the formulation "the struggle between realistic and modernist tendencies in art" was invented, making it possible to describe different authors from Hemingway to Fowles. However, this formulation, which allowed the description of individual authors, contradicted both the traditional tendency of Marxist literary criticism to define concrete historical boundaries of literary and artistic trends and methods and also the basic etymological semantics of the word "modernist" as an adherent of the "ultra modern." This result looked really strange: an "ultra modern" tendency that is a dead-end and temporary from the point of view of literary evolution cannot become outdated in a hundred-year period. But the etymological link with the semantic of the original was not forgotten. This, as shown above, was fixed in the everyday language (dance modern, furniture from classical to modern) in the 1980s. At the same time, literary critics began discussing the necessity of reviewing the approach to "contemporary realism."

The quite dispirited discussion of "contemporary realism" was doomed, as it seemed, but a means of escape appeared in the form of a new term, "Postmodernism," which brought new problems and triggered new debates, which (along with the so-called Postmodernist discourse in scholarship) were sharp enough to allow the old, unresolved problems to be quietly and conveniently forgotten.

© Valery Timofeev (St. Petersburg)

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For quotation purposes:
Valery Timofeev: Modernism, Postmodernism: Semantic Adventures of the Terms in Russian Cultural Sciences. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 13/2002.

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