As if in fog...
Jānis Taurens, Philosopher

In that sense it’s not a theory, but is supposed to give a better picture of what is actually going on.
(Saul Kripke. Naming and Necessity)

Somewhere in the recesses of my memory, the line Kā pa miglu mana dzīve iet (‘My life goes on as if in fog’) , once sung by popular Latvian singer Ilmārs Dzenis, has been preserved. It came to mind recently when reading the translation from Lithuanian of Arūnas Sverdiolas’ essay Kāres, migla un siets (‘The Sieve, the Fog and the Honeycomb’)(1), in which the author uses a number of poetic images to construct four metaphors describing Soviet era and contemporary Lithuanian culture. The musical phrase had infiltrated into my carefully cultivated field of “serious music” through childhood experience, whereas an acquaintance with contemporary Latvian intellectual life enables me to perceive Sverdiolas’ critical opinions more acutely. They are based on his metaphors which operate like pertinent images.
Note. One could ask: can images be pertinent? My response is that they can be, if they “suggest” or lead one to create general descriptions which accurately designate the specific qualities inherent in a situation or phenomenon. In the case of Sverdiolas’ essay, these are features of Lithuanian culture such as the cultural isolation (“test tube”) of the Soviet era and the filtering of information (“sieve”) characteristic of the post-Soviet period, and along with this its fragmentariness (“fog”) and the separation of individual groups or institutions within the intellectual milieu, which excludes the possibility of coordination (“honeycomb”).

Are these also appropriate to the Latvian situation? My first reaction to such a question was to reserve judgment. It changed when I repeatedly encountered situations which accurately matched Sverdiolas’ descriptions, and my initial caution crumbled. But this wasn’t an unconditional capitulation – I came to the conclusion that the metaphoric images had to be adjusted a little, even though the essay’s critical impetus gets weakened in this way.

I’ll explain the statement with an example by selecting, to my mind, Sverdiolas’ most topical characterisation deriving from the fog metaphor: “In fog .. more or less defined directions of thinking or at least intellectual and artistic fashions cannot develop. [..] Theories of very different origin and character get split up into tiny segments in such a way that they gain a huge literary compatibility – it becomes possible to connect everything with everything else and to talk about everything in all sorts of ways, uninterruptedly jumping from one system of logic to another.”(2) This ironic image of the mosaic comprising fragments of sense requires some adjustments.

Note. Representatives of the exact sciences could say that this characterization doesn’t apply to them (in the title of Sverdiolas’ essay too, it’s qualified with the words “features of ... cultural time and space”, but I will add that a comparison of different methodologies in any science goes beyond the boundaries of the said science and – just like the question about the social role of science – belongs to the field of humanities. Besides, the simple assumption that any scientist is “only human” is also worthy of methodological reflection. Among other things, it would be interesting to find out whether this note will ever be read by a representative of the exact sciences. (In my lexicon, the words “exact sciences” function similarly to common everyday phrases such as “classical music” or “serious music”, that is – they belong to instruments of classification, but aren’t in any way a description of characteristics.)

Firstly – in Western culture, too, which serves as a more general, unanalysed background to the scene sketched in by Sverdiolas, the careless use of theoretical texts developed in other fields can be observed, especially in art theory and critique. This is related to the greater or lesser popularity of post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, Marxism and other newer theories, providing mutually competing and complementary conceptual instruments for the interpretation of art. Of course, conventions exist that determine the mutual interrelationships between texts. For example, post-structuralism and psychoanalysis go well together, and to these one could choose to add something from feminism or post-colonial theory, however the observation of these conventions still doesn’t provide for the understanding of the tradition and the texts used, and its meaningful usage, as one can read a lot and not understand a thing. This is well demonstrated in the brilliant literary image of contemporary Russia – in Tatyana Tolstaya’s novel ‘Slynx’ – in which its main protagonist Benedikt reads magazines dedicated to horse-breeding, a bit of ‘The Odyssey’ and some Yamamoto or ‘Correspondence from Two Corners’, or ‘The Maintenance of Leather Footwear’ and Sartre, without any real understanding. As stated by the author, “he’ll read what he likes, it’s all here, everything is accessible to him”.(3)

Note. An explanation is probably needed here for the Latvian reader. Firstly, ‘Correspondence from Two Corners’ is Mikhail Gershenzon’s and Vyacheslav Ivanov’s correspondence which took place in 1920 – at a time when both lived in the same room at the Moscow Science and Literature Workers Sanatorium, and is an outstanding example of intellectual polemic. The name ‘Yamamoto’ is a Japanese surname (meaning literally “foot of the mountain”), but for me, reading Tolstaya’s novel for the first time, this name mistakenly sounded like a reference to the classic work of Japanese literature ‘Yamato Monogatari’ from the Heian period, the translation of which was released in the Russian language in 1982 in the Памятники письменности Востока (‘Monuments of Eastern Writings’) series. In this way, to my mind, for the educated Russian reader it heightened the incompatibility of ingredients in the cocktail of books read by Benedikt (which, among other things, accurately corresponds to Sverdiolas’ notion of “connecting everything with everything else”) even further. Tatyana Tolstaya may possibly have meant Japanese writer and playwright Yamamoto Yuzo’s novel ‘A Woman’s Life’, which was published in Russian in 1958.

Secondly, the information entering our culture, as denoted by the word “segments” in Sverdiolas’ essay, is of varying scope (the breadth of segments), moreover they don’t come into Latvian cultural space anonymously, that is, without some translator’s or writer’s subjective intervention (this could be referred to as the depth of interpretation of a segment). These two dimensions could approach, or in individual cases, even exceed – here I’d like to emphasize the logical possibility, not empirical examples – those with which some text and its functioning could be described in a normal situation in the West.

Another aspect of the cultural situation written about by Sverdiolas should be mentioned. Namely, the intellectual and artistic fashion he mentions points also to an established tradition of forgetting – once a text goes out of fashion, it gets forgotten (it doesn’t get read and or even – understood).
Note. An example of this kind of “forgetting” can be found in Nicolas Bourriaud’s deliberations on the Frankfurt school’s critical philosophy (therefore Adorno’s aesthetic theory as well): “Currently traditional critical philosophy (the Frankfurt school in particular) is useful for art only as archaic folklore – a bright but useless plaything.”(4) Bourriaud’s work does lack arguments. Prominent American music theorist Richard Taruskin is more concrete, and in his recent work on late 20th century music attributes to Adorno the view that “the meaning of artworks is fully vested in them by their creators, and is simply “there” to be decoded by a specially gifted interpreter” (a second reproach – about the development of the paradigm of 20th century music history, which views it as a battle between the heroic avant-garde and the commercialized culture industry). This is also, according to Taruskin, at the core of the rapid ageing of the work of 1980s and 90s musicologists – “Adornians to a man and woman”(5) (meaning – “it’s really not worth getting too deeply into any of it”). Yet these debatable assertions by Taruskin, of course, do not exhaust Adorno’s aesthetic views (see the citation in the next note).

Let’s imagine two stages of artistic practices and/or art theory which were “fashionable” in the West, but haven’t really been either reflected or experienced in Latvia, for example, minimalism and formalism, whose advocated understanding of art minimalism sought to refute. Aspects of form are important to any work of art (even in so-called “anti-form” works), so it could be said that the rebirth of a new and rather less dogmatic formalism in the world – and a full-blown “enjoyment” of it in Latvia – is an open possibility, even though formalism, in that it ignores the broader context and social aspects of an art work, is, of course, an anachronism.

Minimalism, in turn, in 21st century Latvia is often perceived as a phenomenon not completely understood and still current, as well as a source of inspiration for individual artistic solutions. And the discussion here isn’t about some broader trend – for example, in literature or in architecture – as opposed to a specific 1960s–70s movement in art. The continuing topicality of minimalism in Latvia can be understood by reinterpreting Adorno’s idea that the socially significant message of art does not lie in the literal depiction of some element of the social sphere, but indirectly appears in the whole and its elements, in relationships between the general and the individual in the form of the art work.

Note. See, for example: “Art is the appearance of the social dialectic of the universal and the individual mediated by the subjective spirit. It goes beyond this dialectic insofar as it does not simply carry out this dialectic but reflects it through form. Figuratively, its particularization makes good on the perpetuated injustice of society to the individuals.”(6)

Namely, the literalness of form as inherent to the minimalism school and expressed in geometrical object outlines and in the principle of seriality, where elements of the work are assembled with mathematical rigour, is not an anachronism which only some surviving representative of the 1930s generation can afford to use, plucking half a century old avant-garde fashion laurels, but rather should be understood as an indirect socio-political and intellectual critique of present day processes. Hence the definiteness of the art work’s form here can be contrasted with the condition of amorphous fog as described by Sverdiolas, and thus gains its topicality.

I’d like to finish with a new, convincing and positive image, but that requires more time and a more poetic frame of mind, not one that is based so much on reflections about some text. The conclusion of the Sverdiolas essay does, however, allow for the existence of individual “eccentrics”, who collect “their solipsistic honey” in the uncertain conditions of fog and isolation of cultural spheres, but this could hardly be deemed a life affirming image. Such eccentrics obviously lived in the “test tube” conditions of the Soviet period as well, when in the best case Aesop’s language dominated in the public arena, which now, as Sverdiolas states, has lost any kind of content, but in terms of text (I’d say – in art and music as well) hasn’t left anything interesting.(7) One could probably find exceptions to this verdict and among other things to speak about solitary individuals who didn’t make their intellectual and artistic achievements public. Some individuals, even when locked in a “test tube” – or, as I’d like to say, in the “fly-bottle” once cited by Wittgenstein(8) – are at times still able to find an exit from it, either physically, by digging a tunnel under the Berlin Wall, or in uncompromised intellectual or artistic activity.

Individual exceptions, though, don’t lessen the fairness of the overall evaluation, however - hasn’t the situation changed nowadays? Doesn’t the metaphor based on spatial structure (the invoked time aspects in the designation “space-time” for Sverdiolas arise from the spatial descriptions of the image used) today become more and more inaccurate, and as a consequence can we talk about eccentrics in discrete honeycombs? Increasingly we read about artists that he/she was born here or there, but works and lives – elsewhere. One must therefore wonder, do such terms as “Latvian art”, “Lithuanian art”, “German art” etc. still exist? (Perhaps “European art”, “American art” and “Middle Eastern art” will still exist for a while longer.) On my desk there are books in various languages. In my computer and on the internet it’s mainly English. Oh, yes – but only in Latvian I can write in a way that doesn’t embarrass me.

One could ask whether in the age of the internet a radical loner – a wolf of the steppes [steppenwolf] – is even a wolf any longer? Of course, with the collapse of totalitarian regimes power relationships haven’t disappeared anywhere, and hierarchies dominate in the intellectual world as well. Those who hold power quietly accept that the Earth is not round, but rather flat, with a centre and edges (see, another spatial metaphor!) which have been left to wild and doltish nomadic wolves, among them Latvian intellectuals and artists. However – this isn’t an objective picture, because spatial isolation gradually transforms into mere financial dependence, and technological development, despite the efforts of so-called “copyright defenders’” to maintain control over the textual, musical or visual sense that is essential for free thinking, gradually removes existing hierarchies and boundaries (let’s not harbour any illusions – they will never disappear completely). Of the once objective isolation of the wolf, all that remains is only the subjective moment or language, metaphorically speaking, the wolflike sensation of the steppes, which for me – albeit as a person writing in Latvian – is connected with the Chekhovian expression: "...stretches away from the road to the right, as far as the horizon and dissolving into the violet distance..."

/Translator into English: Uldis Brūns/

1 Sverdjols, Arūns. Kāres, migla un siets. Lietuviešu laikmetīgās kultūras telplaika īpatnības. Translated from the Lithuanian by Ieva Rozentāle. Rīga: kim?, 2012. [The Sieve, the Fog and the Honeycomb: Features of Contemporary Lithuanian Cultural Time and Space]
2 Sverdiolas. Op. cit., pp. 15–16.
3 Толстая, Татьяна. Кысь. Москва: Подкова, 2002, с. 301.
4 Bourriaud, Nicolas. Attiecību estētika [Relational Aesthetics]. Translated from the French by Ieva Lapinska. Rīga: LMC, 2009, p. 31.
5 Taruskin, Richard. Music in the Late Twentieth Century. Oxford University Press, 2010, xiii, xvii.
6 Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor. London, New York: Continuum, 2004, p. 386.
7 Sverdiolas. Op. cit., p. 7.
8 Philosophical Investigations, I, 309. §.
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