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​Alexander Etkind: Academia is like football — you must find a vacant spot

, People

Russian scholar, professor at the European University Institute in Florence, literary critic, cultural historian and author of numerous books, Alexander Etkind prefers not to be associated with any particular movement or school of thought. He visited Strelka recently to deliver a series of lectures and to conduct seminars dedicated to the intellectual history of Russia. Religion, revolution and Russian psychoanalytical tradition are some of the themes that Etkind discussed with the students as a part of the summer school programme at the Institute. met up with Professor Etkind and discussed with him the role of the researcher, the state of Russian culture and his new book.

Sonya Elterman: In your seminars the focus was on intellectual history — an interdisciplinary field. Today more and more attention is drawn to the converging areas of knowledge, to the dialogue between disciplines, to re-thinking of boundaries. In your opinion, what is the fate of such fields of study as Visual Studies, Media Studies, Cultural Studies? Isn’t higher education about depth and specialization?

Alexander Etkind: Those disciplines will most certainly have a future because Visual Studies, the study of the Internet and of Big Data are of major importance today. In culture and in politics we are dealing with issues that can only be solved by applying the methodology of these disciplines and luckily there are many scholars and students working in this field today.

Science is always struggling to keep up with the pace of modern life but it’s never lagging too far behind.

As for the perspectives in Russian education – I guess you should ask those who are directly involved in it. Right now interdisciplinary methods are mostly developed on MA and PhD levels.

S. E.: Then what is the role of the researcher? Where do you see yourself?

A. E.: Academia is a lot like football: you must find a vacant spot — then you’ll be fine. But if you keep moving with the crowd — you will inevitably lose, both personally and as a team.

Going back to your question: I believe that a student or a young academic should first and foremost establish what he or she is most passionate about, so passionate in fact that money, pleasure, entertainment – all that becomes unimportant.

Then, one should check if anyone else shares that passion. As any professional footballer will tell you, you need to have a good view of the pitch in order to find the right spot. The difficult part is developing this ability in students.

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Summer School in Intellectual History

S. E.: Are you still involved with psychoanalysis?

A. E.: I’ve written many books, and each time I’m working on a new one it feels like the most exciting occupation on earth. Some time ago psychoanalysis was that kind of occupation to me. And it is true that even 20 years after the release of «Eros of the Impossible», I find myself coming back to psychoanalysis and learning new things about it. I've always enjoyed studying it but since then I've changed my interests and turned to other subjects. And that's my advice to everyone: try new things.

S. E.: During your lecture you mentioned that a work published 20 years ago is once again relevant today. Why is that?

A. E.: Truth be told, I don't consider that text more relevant than my other publications: they are all relevant. During the lecture we were discussing eternal issues, like war and peace, which cannot be considered relevant or irrelevant. I think someone once said that if there is a war, we «forget what it's like to have a cold»: the ephemeral gives way to the eternal.

S. E.: In one of your interviews you defined culture as the link between individual and collective memory. In your opinion, what is the connection between the guilt for the mistakes of the past and the responsibility for the present?

A. E.: I don't think that there exists an obvious link between these two concepts. We can easily imagine a person or an institution dealing with problems of the past but completely rejecting the present. Russia is constantly, and often without realising it, getting deeper and deeper into the past. It's a perpetual mixing of the past and of the present. Reconstruction of the past leads to military action. We are witnessing extraordinary political decisions being made by people acting in the present but mistaking it for the past. This is a very peculiar situation. The sense of memory and the sense of guilt is intensified to the extent when it's no longer possible to process the present. In psychoanalysis it's called «melancholia». When a well-known activist was chanting «We won’t forget, we won’t forgive» on a square not far from here, he was talking about the crimes of the present, not the crimes of the distant past. But's it's just as easy to start ignoring the present, while concerning yourself with the guilt for the mistakes of the distant past.

S. E.: Rewriting the past has recently become a popular trend and many researchers are devising new concepts of history. How do you define history?

A. E.: For me history is facts, the thoughts about those facts and the recollection of those thoughts, and it’s all constantly changing in time. It's very important to be aware of the historical changes, to sense the change of times. I don't really like broad questions like this. There are all kinds of history: economic, social. Intellectual history is concerned with the ways in which different ideas influenced and informed each other in different epoques, and that's why the concept of memory is problematized.

S. E.: You have once mentioned that there's nothing more difficult than the study of the self. How would you describe the process of national identity formation in the globalised world?

A. E.: On one hand, it's is still defined by gender, ethics, ethnicity, culture. On the other hand, it is true that the world is increasingly becoming more globalized. Nevertheless, Europe still cannot be considered a united whole and the question of European identity remains problematic. If asked about their identity, very few students from Europe would say that they are «European». Or take the controversy surrounding the project for the House of European History in Brussels: it clearly indicates the lack of consensus on the strategy for European identity-building. But there are positive outcomes as well, like the Erasmus programme that allows student exchange all across the world. People move to a different country, study there, get married, then they come back. I think this programme has played a much bigger role in the formation of European identity than all the multi-million political projects.

S. E.: You have argued that there can be no adequate representation of death. But does adequate representation exist at all? Is there an adequate representation of love?

A. E.: There is. People are perfectly capable of expressing their love and if they aren't they can consult a specialist who can help with that. Death is different. Representation is possible only as long as the person is still alive. But culture always creates rituals and symbols for representing, remembering and honouring the dead.

There aren't that many cultures in which symbols of marriage and symbols of death are indistinguishable. Cultural universals do actually exist.

I'm primarily interested in the representation of mass death and collective mourning. I talked about the millions who died during the Holocaust and in Gulags. It's beyond the limits of comprehension. And search for the ways of representing this trauma – it's mainly a creative task. In my last book called «Warped Mourning» I show that the main achievements of the Soviet culture can be seen in its representation of mourning.

''A museum on the site of a death camp has two functions: to show how it was and to show that it can never happen again.''

S. E.: Is aesthetization of grief a solution? It's obvious that it's easier to deal with grief by distancing oneself from it, but aren't we exposing ourselves to the temptation of becoming cynical?

A. E.: But are grief and cynicism even related? How can they co-exist? The consumerist society turns everything into commodity, but in many cases the mechanisms that act against vandalism are still working. There are memorials for mass killings, but life goes on everywhere. People visit those places and kiss for the camera standing next to the graves. What does it mean? That children shouldn't be visiting those memorials? Of course, they should be, it's an important part of their education. They can kiss and laugh there all they want, as long as someone is telling them about those places and as long as they are listening to it.

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Summer School in Intellectual History

S. E.: The death camps are deteriorating, what is your stance on the issue of restoration of those places? There was a lot of discussion concerning the taps in the gas chambers of Auschwitz: should they be fixed or should such symbols of the shameful tragedy be erased from memory completely?

A. E.: The death camps should show everything as it was, but there always are elements in them that were added later — the obelisk in the middle, a monument to the victims. A museum on the site of a death camp has two functions: to show how it was and to show that it can never happen again.

S. E.: Do you separate historical facts from their assessment and artistic interpretation or do you consider them all equally legitimate ways of studying the past?

''Anything can be described as a text, even the routine dug up by archeology. But historical events and texts do not exist in isolation: there’s constant correspondence between them, they are always in dialogue.''

A. E.: Obviously, these are completely different matters. But in intellectual history they are closely related. Of course, a writer working on a historical novel studies history and decides what to include and what not to include, and we can easily tell which sources were used. Then, based on that historical knowledge, a work of fiction is created and there emerges a new generation of historians who have read this novel. That’s how history as a serious field of study communicates with other cultural genres.

S. E.: And what about the notion that history is infinite space of the text, developed in hermeneutics?

A. E.: It sounds beautifull, but I know for sure that it is not so. Anything can be described as a text, even the routine dug up by archeology. But historical events and texts do not exist in isolation: there’s constant correspondence between them, they are always in dialogue.

S. E.: Tell us a bit about the book you are currently working on.

A. E.: Right now I’m finishing writing the biography of William Bullitt who was the first US ambassador to the Soviet Union, and later on an ambassador to France. He was an incredible figure. I have been studying Bullitt’s life for many years. Even in my first book, «Eros of the Impossible», there's a chapter dedicated to his first meeting with Mikhail Bulgakov, in which I express my belief that he was in fact the prototype for the character of Woland in «The Master and Margarita».

S. E.: Can it be said that you are expressing ideas by means of biographical writing?

A. E.: And expressing biographies by means of ideas. You see, the lives of people captivated by ideas are themselves an expression of those ideas.

S. E.: Do you think that we shouldn't read author biographies, because it will affect our perception of their work?

A. E.: We should. I mean, it's up to you, of course. You can read Bulgakov knowing nothing about him and still enjoy his writing. But if you decide to re-read his works, familiarizing yourself with his biography will allow you to see new things in the text. Many of the Russian formalists, despite claiming that texts should be regarded as texts and nothing more, actually worked on biographies of Tolstoy, Griboedov and others. So there are no simple recipes and no strict rules.

Photos by Ivan Gushchin / Strelka Institute