Other relevant keywords: Dostoevsky, Phenomenology, Russian literature, Visual Studies
Valery Podoroga (1946-2020)
Valery Aleksandrovich Podoroga was a Moscow-based philosopher known primarily as the figurehead behind analytic anthropology, a method of philosophical and textual analysis that relies on the act of involution (or turning back upon oneself) to trace the relationships between texts (cultural, literary, and visual) and readers/viewers. Podoroga’s work is informed by a wide range of philosophical influences, including phenomenology; Russian formalism and structuralism; Marxist thought, critical theory, and the Frankfurt school, especially Theodor Adorno; psychoanalysis; and contemporary French Continental philosophy, especially poststructuralism and postmodernism. In addition, a defining influence on his work were his early interactions at the Institute of Philosophy (Moscow) with Georgian-Soviet philosopher Merab Mamardashvili, from whom Podoroga learned “that there were different ways to be a philosopher than the ways that existed during the Soviet period” (Podoroga, “Menia nazyvaiut podorozhnikom”). However, unlike Mamardashvili, who focused primarily on European writers as an act of defiance against the Soviet system, Podoroga often turns his critical gaze upon the canon of Russian classics, reinterpreting them through the distinctive and often challenging vocabulary of analytic anthropology.
For many years Podoroga headed the Sector for Analytic Anthropology (formerly known as the Laboratory for Postclassical Research) at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, where he spent his entire professional career. He completed all his training in Moscow, first receiving an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Moscow State University and later a PhD (1974) and Dr. Habil. (1992) from the Institute of Philosophy. He is the author of over 200 articles and over ten monographs on the philosophy of literature, the visual arts (e.g., modern art, painting, and film), and culture, including Metaphysics of Landscape (Metafizika landshafta, 1993), Phenomenology of the Body. An Introduction to Philosophical Anthropology (Fenomenologiia tela. Vvedenie v filosofskuiu antropologiiu, 1995), the two-volume work Mimesis. Materials on the Analytic Anthropology of Literature (Mimesis. Materialy po analiticheskoi antropologii literatury, 2006 and 2011), The Time After. Auschwitz and the GULAG: Thinking Absolute Evil (Vremia posle. Osventsim i GULAG: myslit’ absoliutnoe zlo, 2017), and, his final monograph, The Topology of Passion. Merab Mamardashvili: The Contemporaneity of Philosophy (Topologiia strasti. Merab Mamardashvili: sovremennost’ filosofii, 2020). In 2001 he was awarded the prestigious Andrei Bely Prize for literature and research. Podoroga’s method and style has influenced a younger generation of thinkers in Russia with interests in phenomenology and twentieth-century European thought, most of whom studied with him either at the Institute of Philosophy or the Russian State University for the Humanities.
Visual Arts: From Visual Anthropology to Analytic Anthropology
In his early work, Podoroga honed the method that would become analytic anthropology on his study of the visual arts, including painting (i.e., landscape and still-life), film, and modern art. Between 1993 and 1994 he led the Visual Anthropology Workshop at the new Center for Modern Art in Moscow (est. 1991). Over a series of ten meetings spanning nearly a year’s time, prominent philosophers, artists, and critics came together to discuss a variety of visual artifacts, including classical and avant-garde paintings, amateur sketches, photographs, films, installations, and performance pieces. These ten meetings were the first attempt at a systemic application of visual anthropology, a philosophical approach founded in the disciplinary norms of the field of anthropology. According to Podoroga, “Visual Anthropology is like any other anthropology: it studies morals and customs, symbols, gestures, rules and all the other multifarious particulars of the everyday and not-so-everyday life of man” (Masterskaia 50). The visual anthropologist seeks to extend and deepen the act of observation through the inclusion of philosophical and especially phenomenological inquiry, eventually “moving away from literary, visual, and cinematic examples to a philosophical understanding of anthropological material” (Fenomenologiia tela 6-7). In these early meetings, a main task of visual anthropology was to reconstruct, as far as possible, all potential meanings and implications of a particular utterance surrounding a cultural text—what Podoroga has called “the reconstruction of the meaning allotted to a given object … in all opposing discourses,” keeping in mind that the very act of retrieving an utterance occurs “at the expense of understanding” (Avto-bio-grafiia 164-5). From the very outset, thus, the philosophical discourse of visual anthropology has functioned as a hub of both meaning and miscommunication, due to the mutability and transience of the speech act.
On a semantic and aesthetic level, Podoroga’s philosophical commitments are reflected in his writing style, which is structured by the dissociative poetics of postmodernism. The transcripts of the Visual Anthropology Workshop meetings are full of implicit and explicit references to Theodor Adorno, Georges Bataille, Gilles Deleuze, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Broad topics and questions are introduced and then quickly replaced, leading to a sweeping, almost performative play of ideas that often relies on word-play and does not necessarily lead to answers but to more questions and more ideas. One of Podoroga’s students, Alexei Penzin, has effectively summarized his philosophical style as “‘exceptionalism,’ where the content is found not so much in the critique as in the potentialization, or making possible, of other discourses” (Penzin). Not just in his early work, but across Podoroga’s career we see Penzin’s concept of “exceptionalism” at play: a method that is organized by several guiding questions or texts, as well as by philosophical and conceptual association, but where the arguing of one specific point is trumped by the introduction of a manifold of positions and possibilities, both philosophical and discursive. Podoroga also relies heavily on word play, thereby causing special problems for those attempting to translate his work.
In 1998 Podoroga’s Laboratory for Postclassical Research, which had operated under that name at the Institute of Philosophy since its founding in 1987, was renamed the Sector for Analytic Anthropology. This renaming went hand-in-hand with a gradual shift in the trajectory of Podoroga’s own research, which began to move away from the perception of visual artifacts as its primary focus and to the role of these same mechanisms of perception when confronted with literary texts (though literary texts had always played a role in his work, as visual artifacts would continue to play an important role in Mimesis). Podoroga’s emphasis on literature in his work after the 1990s does not mark a shift in methodology so much as it was an opportunity for him to test the analytical lens of his method on
the material of one of the leading traditions of Russian literature of the 19th and 20th centuries (N. Gogol, F. Dostoevsky, A. Platonov, A. Belyi, D. Kharms, and A. Vvedensky), which [he] defines as other or experimental, in contrast to so-called ‘court-nobility’ or ‘classicist’ literature, or literature of the image, and to trace the composition of the idea of a (literary) work. (Mimesis I, 9)
Despite the modifier “analytic” in the title of his method, Podoroga’s philosophical approach has little in common with the discipline of analytic philosophy as practiced in British and American universities. The adjective “analytic” refers instead to the way that Podoroga sees his method as nearly limitless in its applicability, much in the way the psychoanalytic method was for Freud (Podoroga, Masterskaia 51).
Mimesis and Literature
The concept of mimesis is critical for understanding Podoroga’s philosophical method, in particular following the 2006 release of the first volume of Mimesis. Materials on the Analytic Anthropology of Literature. Oleg Aronson’s describes how Podoroga’s theory of mimesis is not to be conflated with Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Misrepresentation of Reality in Western Literature (1935/1946), nor does it follow from the mimetic tradition in Plato. As Aronson continues: “Podoroga tries to steer the focus away from the dualistic relationship of reality and representative image, behind which lurks a metaphysical separation of the two worlds. For him, mimesis is a fundamental property of man the maker” (Aronson 259). Within this theory is the idea of language “not only as a communicative tool, but also as something through which man himself discovers metaphysical forces in the physical world” (Ibid).
For Podoroga, the concept of mimesis helps describe the network of potential relationships (perceptual, linguistic, phenomenological, and even social) among words and the readers/perceivers of works. In his 2017 monograph Anthropograms. A Self-Critical Approach (Antropogrammy. Opyt samokritiki), he identifies four levels of mimesis, the roots of which we might find in Paul Ricoeur’s own hermeneutic phenomenological method and/or Paul Valéry’s “three body problem.”
- Mimesis-I “exists outside [the work] and governs the production of the interactions of all the elements, forces, and processes that establish the form and boundaries of the Work” (Anthropograms 271-2). In Mimesis-I, literature acts as a mirror, and reflects reality, perception, human life, etc., in different ways to be both perceived and non-perceived.
- Mimesis-II exists inside the work and is responsible “for the unique configuration of the important elements within the Work—the development of distinct mimetic strategies inside each Work” and how it is structured and hangs together as a whole” (272). This might include narrative and authorial strategies, as we will see below in Podoroga’s work on Dostoevsky.
- Mimesis-III exists between different works of art and describes the mimetic influence among texts: “All mimetic relationships go from “imitation of Other” to “imitation of Self,” and finally manifest as a choice of style, intention, overall design, problematized Reality—only then access to that reality is open” (272). This can include the relationships of works to each other, as well as the relationships of texts to the works they contain and reference.
- Mimesis-IV describes “the preconscious, purely mimetic adaptive response, without which I cannot exist as a Reader” (343). Mimesis-IV is a later addition to Podoroga’s schema and does not appear in his formulation of the concept in Mimesis (2006). Not unlike what might have been the “fourth body” for Paul Valéry, Mimesis-IV allows the subject to interrogate one’s relationship to the text: “how and what I read, how fast and how slowly, with pleasure or aversion, comprehending or not comprehending—what is happening to me as a reader?” (343).
When taken together, these four levels of mimeses are meant to describe the competing centripetal and centrifugal forces occurring in any individual work, in the relationship between any two works, and during any act of reading/perceiving.
Podoroga also notes that mimesis can appear as a negated version of itself in the form of what Russian-Soviet literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky called “defamiliarization,” where the perceiver’s position is challenged (and ultimately enhanced) through the act of “making strange.” Under the conditions of defamiliarization, the act of reading/viewing/perception is re-embodied and the form of a given work is shown to be meaningful in itself—to contribute to meaning and to the act of perception. It is perhaps for these reasons that literature for Podoroga has been described as having “an important ontological status: this is the most appropriate means to approach the intricate being of human experience, which is never given to us directly” (Bykova 254).
Haptics and Literature
Podoroga regularly employs the trope of “touch” and the idea of haptics to describe literary works and our phenomenological relationships to them. In Oleg Aronson’s words:
[Podoroga] does not hold the division between physics and metaphysics, but tries to show how what we consider to be the philosophical or metaphysical characteristics of the text are generated by the internal physics of a world as a set of particular types of forces, and this is what produces that strange sensation of being touched by thinking. And the word “touch” here expresses the corporeal origin of thought, and simultaneously its fragility and instability. (258)
Podoroga’s work on literature is also highly visual: he engages in what he calls “the cartography of ideas, which organizes the visual field of unique meaning for each literature and Work” (Anthropograms 345).
Podoroga’s concentration on the metaphor of skin as a boundary-zone has become a defining metaphor of his philosophy. Skin is the limit of the body—a tangible sensory border between perceiver and perceived. It is also both surface and limit—the primary threshold through which we engage the external world and our closest connection (a “primordial closeness”) to things not ourselves (Masterskaia 50). Likewise, it is both the outermost border of the body and the point of entry and contact with the outside world, one that is permeable and easily ruptured (he likens it both to a protective shield and an Achilles heel). Skin also functions as a metaphor for the boundaries of epistemic limitation, in that we do not have access to other minds in the ways we have access to our own. In Podoroga’s philosophy, thus, the multifarious function—both physical and metaphysical—of skin lends itself as a robust tool for literary analysis, which reaches beyond literary criticism by facilitating a new experience of the body in the act of reading. Indeed, it is this task—the use of art to transform how we think about perception and the embodied subject’s relationship to the world—that makes up the theoretical backbone of analytic anthropology.
In his work on Dostoevsky, Podoroga interprets the author’s works through the lens of haptics, whereby Dostoevsky’s characters are interpreted as protagonists “without skin”: they are stripped of authorial protection through Dostoevsky’s prose and their innermost thoughts are offered to the reader (“Chelovek bez kozhi”). “[In Dostoevsky’s work] there is no interest in the external,” Podoroga writes (Ibid.). In Metaphysics of Landscape and Mimesis I he goes on to describe Dostoevsky’s work as comprised of a variety of “plans,” or thematic links found throughout Dostoevsky’s life and writing; these plans form a series of rich conceptual links among works. In the “gambling plan” or the “epileptic plan,” for instance, we can trace the function of the tropes of gambling or epilepsy as mimetic forces in Dostoevsky’s works (Metafizika landshafta 47-48). The concept of “plan” can further refer to the relationship between reader and text, as in Mimesis-IV, which encompasses (for readers) both a movement away from and towards themselves. The word plan in Russian doubles to mean both “plan” and “plane”; in this way Podoroga’s conception of plan(e) is influenced by Deleuze’s elusive notion of the “plane of immanence,” although Podoroga extends the concept of plan(e) to what he refers to as the “textual space” of a novel (Metafizika landshafta 13). Everything in a literary work—narrative, aesthetics, geography, and architecture—can be driven by the plan(e). These plan(e)s serve as forms of skin for the characters of Dostoevsky’s work, fusing them to their respective narratives and determining their (and our) perceptions of events in his literary worlds.
One of the driving goals of Podoroga’s method is to facilitate a new experience of the body, and this requires intensive investigation at the fourth level of mimesis: at the level of reading/perceiving. For Podoroga, this phenomenological act of investigating one’s own faculties of perception often leads to paradox—a conclusion shared by Podoroga’s mentor, Mamardashvili. In Phenomenology of the Body, for instance, Podoroga argues that our embodiedness both structures and limits our perceptions. To have a body and a mind, he continues, is like driving a car: while the car is your primary means of orientation on the road and is ostensibly under your control, you risk losing control of your vehicle at any time (Fenomenologiia tela 12). Thus, among the haptic functions of analytic anthropology is “to observe what is human in man,” whereby an aesthetic/literary test is an extension of the “forms of thought” we find in an individual’s relationship to the same text (Metafizika landshafta 50). “To speak of skin is to speak of the boundaries of living bodies, of their internal relationships, and how their internal communication is organized. This means talking about the skin of the Ego” (Anthropograms 323). The haptic strategies of Podoroga’s work are further facilitated by the often challenging writing style he employs, whereby Helen Petrovsky has described the act of reading his work as “a discovery of that very specific and definitely corporeal experience” (Petrovskaia). Indeed, this is precisely the kind of physiological, visceral experience of reading that Podoroga thinks we should expect when we look at a work of art or sit down with one of Dostoevsky’s novels.
Alyssa DeBlasio, March 2019
Aronson, Oleg. “Forms of Thought within the Limits of the Body (On the Analytical Metaphysics of Valery Podoroga).” Russian Studies in Philosophy, vol. 54, no. 4, 2016, pp. 257-266.
Bykova, Marina. Valery Podoroga and His Analytic Anthropology. Russian Studies in Philosophy, vol. 54, no. 4, 2016, pp. 253-6.
Penzin, Aleksei. “Minima Anthropologica: ‘analiticheskaia antropologiia’ v obshchestve mimeticheskogo truda.” Intelros: Intellektual’naia Rossiia, http://www.intelros.org/club/pemzin.htm. Accessed March 8, 2019.
Petrovskaia, Elena. “V. Podoroga. Metafizika landshafta.” Rinet.ru, 1993. http://anthropology.rinet.ru/old/5/petrovskaya.html. Accessed March 9, 2019.
Podoroga, Valerii. Anthropograms. A Self-Critical Approach. Trans. Peter Golub. Russian Studies in Philosophy, vol. 54, no. 4, 2016, pp. 267-358.
—. “Chelovek bez kozhi. Dostoevskii.” Antropolog.ru, http://www.antropolog.ru/doc/persons/podor/podor. Accessed March 8, 2019.
—. Fenomenologiia tela. Ad Marginem, 1995.
—. “Menia nazyvaiut podorozhnikom.” Vzgliad, March 25, 2007, https://vz.ru/culture/2007/3/25/74192.html. Accessed March 8, 2019.
—. Metafizika landshafta. Kanon+, 1993
—. Mimesis I: Materialy po analiticheskoi antropologii literatury, vol. 1. Kul’turnaia revolutsiia, 2006.
—. Mimesis II: Materialy po analiticheskoi antropologii literatury. Kul’turnaia revolutsiia, 2011.
—. Vremia posle. Osventsim i GULAG: myslit’ absoliutnoe zlo. KAIROS, 2017.
Valerii Podoroga, ed. Avto-bio-grafiia. K voprosu o metode. Tedradi po analiticheskoi antropologii. Logos, 2001.
—. Masterskaia vizual’noi antropologii 1993-1994, curator V. Miziano. Khudozhestvennyi zhurnal, 2000.