Explosion, revolution, the third life

Almost the entirety of Juri Lotman’s life was spent in the Soviet Union. As Nataliia S. Avtonomova has pointed out in an overview of the L. & W., this distinguished him from other of the great 20th century Russian critics: Bakhtine, Jakobson, and Skhlovsky. Like these critics, Lotman was what was once called, in Wilhelmine Germany, a ‘cultural philosopher” – which meant a freelance sociologist, historian, critic, and psychologist. Freud used the phrase ‘wild analysis” to speak of a certain use of psychoanalysis – and indeed, although attached to culture and the life of reading to an extraordinary extent, the cultural philosopher did operate in the institutional wilds. Nietzsche, Simmel, Spengler form a certain geneology in this respect. Certain novelists – Mann, Musil, Broch, Canetti – were also wild analysts.

Of course, Lotman did have a university position and a recognized status, but his aim was broader than that of, say, enfolding semantics in a larger semiotics, Greimas’ project, or discovering the motifs of folktales – his aim, like Barthes, was to understand, stuffed to the gills with texts, the cultural currents of universal history in its modern phase under the distancing and clarifying guise of a demasker of myth – a mythographer’s evil twin.

At the end of his life, he toyed with the notion of explosion. The end of his life was the endtime for the battered Soviet hulk. It was definitely not a time of ‘revolution’ – or rather, revolution was directed against those powers which, in the twentieth century, grounded themselves in revolution. I think it is fair to say that Lotman’s ‘explosion’ was a response to the discrediting of revolution, which brought in its train the discrediting of the massive association between inspiration, new ways of living, opposition to routine, and the social space of adventure.

The paradox of Leninist revolution is that it codified and hardened the all encircling institutions – law, money, education – instead of leading to that blessed moment when all the mouse escape all the traps and we blow them up. Instead, blowing things up became what capitalism itself started to pride itself on doing – at the same time revolution was discredited, one began to hear Schumpeter’s phrase, creative destruction, used unthinkingly to praise the new and supposedly eternal order of capitalism dominated by a financial sector that engaged, at last, in the task of laying up its treasures – its derivatives – in the cybersphere to the tune of some 600 trillion dollars. A sum that approaches, in its dreadful fictitiousness, the beasts of the apocalypse.

Lotman was well aware that explosions – or ruptures, to use Foucault’s term – seem to imply a leap in place, a moment of absolute change, which indeed implies that revolution is possible. Foucault of course annuls the gesture by flattening history, separating it from progress, and thus making rupture merely part of a historical strip, which makes it, formally, a chronological movement forward, but takes away its hopefulness. The strip doesn’t really move towards closure, and the cardinal points of the episteme are merely reshuffled, like cards redistributed for each round of a card game.

Explosion, as Lotman uses the term, is connected to but not identified with creation. Or inspiration: Lotman, at a certain moment, quotes a passage in Pushkin’s Egyptian Nights that lays bare the relation between rupture and the ordinary as a kind of nonsense:

“He was a poet nevertheless, and his passion for poetry was indomitable; when he felt this nonsense approach (that was what he called inspiration), he locked himself in his study and wrote from morning till late night. He confessed to his genuine friends that he knew true
happiness only at such times. The rest of the time he led his dissipated life, put on airs, dissembled, and perpetually heard the famous question, “Have you
written a new little something?””

The nonsense is connected to happiness, and happiness is the unquestioned dominant, the total social fact, which frames modernity. More precisely, explosion is the force that connects and disconnects semantic spaces. And this is where I borrow the term, where I check it out of Lotman’s work and put it in my own. It is in this sense that we can, perhaps, think of the spread of the third life over the space of the imperial powers from the Renaissance to the beginning of the 20th century. The third life is the life of reading, of writing, and of its visual and aural counterparts that altogether saturated the natural world with the artificial world – to use highly tendentious categories – and by degrees made it impossible for populations to exist outside of the media sphere. To travel, to work, to eat, to remain in a room in a house or in a public space, all of these things have been flooded by the third life, the life that is neither sleeping nor simply waking but, instead, consists of reading or its counterparts – watching images, hearing music, etc.