Professor Timothy Brennan (English, U of Minnesota) on Marx and Marxism – Response by Aidan Watson-Morris (English, UIUC)

[On Tuesday, September 8, 2020, Dr. Timothy Brennan presented a talk on Marx and Marxism as part of the Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response by Aidan Watson-Morris (English).]

Timothy Brennan’s New Marxist Materialism, Same as the Old
Written by Aidan Watson-Morris

Karl Marx’s claim that our thinking is historical, that ideas emerge or gain traction when material conditions allow, can be supported by the renewed enthusiasm for Marx himself, whose sales tend to spike in times of economic crisis. In the midst of our current crisis, many will likely turn again to the critique of political economy. For the precarious or simply curious, Timothy Brennan’s lecture on Marx and Marxism offered substantial returns.

Brennan’s influential, far-reaching body of work spans Marxism, postcolonial theory, world literature, phenomenology, and popular music, among other topics. His most recently published book is Borrowed Light, Volume 1: Vico, Hegel and the Colonies, and he has forthcoming work on “imperial form” and a biography of Edward Said. While he declined to identify himself as a partisan of a specific Marxist politics, he presented a clear, provocative vision of Marxism as an intellectual tradition that demands serious engagement.

Brennan’s lecture took two parts, divided by Q&A sessions, outlining the distinctive features of Marxist analysis before challenging elements of New Materialism as an ascendant theoretical mode. Brennan anatomized three key components of Marxist theory: it is particularly historical, understanding people and events as responsive to larger social structures; it is immanent, which is to say that it does not establish a priori ideals against which to measure its objects but works within their logic; and it is relatedly dialectical,  which is to say that, rather than ignoring or rejecting (for instance) New Materialist thought, Brennan’s address signals respect and a desire to enter into conversation, to push further toward truth. Truth, for Marx, is understood not as an abstract or intellectual gesture, but a correspondence between concepts and material reality, as well as the potential to reestablish this correspondence when it fails.

By virtue of these features, Marxism remains vital for its historical reflexivity, which Brennan fully employed in his account of the US academy. Brennan’s lecture addressed itself partly as a dialectical response to academic trends that paved the way for the pluralism that brackets Marxism as a mere option on a menu of analytic frames. In an academic professional setting, anticapitalist critique fits best at the margin. For Brennan, the displacement of Marx in the US academy is a symptom of interwar anxieties about humanism’s political potential. The humanist tradition sought to improve collective life through action, a potential often activated in the anticolonial movements of the twentieth century. As well as being a politically pernicious maneuver, Brennan shows the academic sidelining of Marx to be a theoretical mistake that obscured the specific ideas with which certain approaches are in dialogue —poststructuralism, for instance, or New Materialism, Brennan’s primary interlocutor.

New Materialism, as Brennan points out, sounds quite a lot like Marx’s analysis in which material needs set the stage for our thought. Yet New Materialism challenges any materialism which foregrounds human actors. New Materialism questions the neat division of human actors, on the one hand, and the nonhuman world they act upon on the other. While Brennan did not argue that New Materialism is necessarily conservative in its outlook, he persuasively criticized its self-presentation both as new and as materialist.  Tracing a continuity with an academic debt to Martin Heidegger and the humanities’ perennial desire to borrow prestige from the physical sciences beneath self-professed novelty, Brennan suggested that the New Materialism was not a historical materialism but a metaphysics which, by mystifying intent (and so intentional action), effectively results in a passive stance, what Brennan described as an antihumanist “romance with oblivion.” While admiring the New Materialist desire to move beyond social constructionism, Brennan showed the appeal of New Materialism for conservative thinkers (among his targets, Bruno Latour). Instead, Brennan suggested we attune to “the great unsaid” of the humanities: the human subject who makes their own environment, freighted by the weight of history.

If Marx uniquely endows the human subject with agency, he does so to question systems which alienate and exploit the subject, like capitalism. Shifting the ground of agency so as to dissolve the human into a vibrant new materiality, then, poses a problem for an adequate account of human domination (and can lead, as Brennan pointed out in Q&A, to a class-obfuscating “green misanthropy”). If we understand our current moment as a historical crisis, Brennan’s provocations suggest that we might turn to the new theoretical possibilities of materialist analysis.  If historical materialism barely survived the pressures of a conservative purge, it endures today as a specter haunting the university.

Timothy Brennan, from his faculty page.
Picture of Marx used in Teen Vogue article.

“Racism in the History of Philosophy: Reading Kant’s Political Philosophy”: Lecture by Dr. Lucy Allais (U of Witwatersrand/UC-San Diego) – Response by Dr. Michael Uhall (Political Science)

[On Tuesday, September 1, 2020, Dr. Lucy Allais presented a talk on German Idealism as part of the Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response by Dr. Michael Uhall (Political Science).]

Occupy Kant: Remarks on Racism and Liberalism
Written by Dr. Michael Uhall

Digitally altered photograph of public graffiti in France, 2016 Thanks to acid zenith for alterations.

The recurrent question of Immanuel Kant’s racism, addressed with alacrity by Dr. Lucy Allais, presents a special opportunity to revisit some very important issues relevant to the practice of theory today: the canon of Western philosophy, the status or value of abstraction, and the evaluation of this protean, even amorphous thing called “liberalism.”

Quite correctly, Allais introduces Kant as a modern philosopher with a seemingly difficult, even troubled relationship to race and the realities of colonialism in his time. This difficulty is in no way unique to Kant, however. Numerous commentators (e.g., Susan Buck-Morss, Neil Roberts, Calvin L. Warren, Sylvia Wynter) have observed there is a disparity between the strong emphasis on emancipation and freedom characteristic of the various Enlightenments in Europe and the general lack of attention to historical and material developments (ranging from the Atlantic slave trade to the Haitian Revolution) given by many prominent Enlightenment thinkers. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (one of Kant’s major influences) starts his The Social Contract (1762) by writing, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” <a href="http://As Buck-Morss notes, ironically, “No human condition appears more offensive to his heart or to his reason than slavery. And yet even Rousseau, patron saint of the French Revolution, represses from consciousness the millions of really existing<a href="http://, European-owned slaves, as he relentlessly condemns the institution” (32). There are indeed serious questions about the moral or political efficacy and the philosophical validity of the universalism Enlightenment thinkers expound, especially given the context in which their claims about autonomy, equality, rationality, and rights are produced. Prima facie, this concern applies equally to Kant (despite sometimes spirited protestations to the contrary by many devout Kantians in Anglophone philosophy departments).

To unpack the criticism, Allais turns to Charles W. Mills, whose engagements with Kant (and many other moderns to boot) on the topic of race figure quite prominently in recent scholarship. Unlike many critical theorists, Mills refuses to rely on a caricature of Kant. In any case, Mills remains deeply critical. For Mills, Kant’s moral and political universalism contains an intrinsically racial scope of application or implication. For Kant, agency and autonomy are possible only on the basis of a properly circumscribed and practiced rationality. Only rational agents are really agents at all, as opposed to slaves of the body and its compulsions, passions, and senses. On Mills’s account, then, for Kant, there may well be plenty of humans who do not meet the minimum standard of rationality necessary for full moral personhood. (Many commentators, including both Allais and Mills, point out that there are many examples of Kant’s own racist views on display in his writings. That being said, philosophy cannot and must not be reduced to biography or history. As theorists and thinkers, we are, or ought to be, most interested in Kant’s philosophical arguments.) Contra Mills, Allais (2016) argues convincingly that Kant, rather than codifying racism into his moral philosophy, actually expounds deeply inconsistent views about race that shift significantly throughout the course of his intellectual career.   

The occasion of discussing Kant’s racism, however, raises a number of additional, even more wide-ranging philosophical and political questions about canonicity, abstraction, and liberalism.

First, Allais’s nuanced engagement with Kant and Mills alike emphasizes the canon wars still being waged in philosophy departments and throughout the critical humanities. On the one hand, critical humanists from numerous disciplines have been emphasizing for decades (to varying success) the ways in which the canon of Western philosophy sometimes carries along, disguises, or transmits illiberal or inegalitarian values. On the other hand, philosophers typically seek to evaluate and revise arguments and concepts as rigorously as possible on their own terms. There are benefits and drawbacks to both approaches, which Allais admirably balances.

On the side of the critical humanities, there is the potential benefit of producing significantly more nuanced readings of philosophical texts, read precisely as texts produced in a time and a place by a person with a body and a history. (And note here the degree to which, regardless of downstream consequences for culture and values, or different methodological framings, canon wars are first and foremost, but not only, disagreements about the interpretation of texts.) However, practiced with inattention, this approach runs the serious risk of downplaying or sidestepping the complexity, detail, and rigor of philosophical texts. As Allais noted, you cannot have a serious understanding of the Enlightenment, or modernity, without reading Kant. Regardless of how we view these things, it behooves us to understand them thoroughly first. Otherwise, we reduce our arguments and inquiries to ideological audits of past values, apparently with the expectation that they will, or should, confirm our own (and squawking in protest when they frequently do not). Perhaps too often, the hermeneutics of suspicion end up producing ill-judged, ineffectual prosecutions of circumstance or personal intention, rather than attending to the arguments themselves, in all their complexity, possibility, and promise.

As for the discipline of philosophy, a downside can be the inflexibility or rigidity with which the received canon is treated and policed. In corroboration, simply review the extent to which Anglophone philosophy departments have largely refused to expand and revise disciplinary boundaries so as to include indisputably major philosophers like Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida. (Of course, there are exceptions – and, to no small extent, the razor cuts both ways, as you will rarely find sustained engagements with figures like W. V. O. Quine, Wilfred Sellars, or David Lewis in the walled gardens of critical theory.) On the upside, to put it bluntly, philosophers take abstraction seriously on its own terms. This is a very good thing, not only because humans are highly abstract and symbolically prone animals, but because it keeps open the door for all the many uses attending abstract things. There is a tendency that philosophers typically refuse, which is the tendency to classify abstractions as airy and arid, as immaterial veils that obscure concrete realities. As we know, however, abstractions (categories and concepts, laws and logics) are inextricably a part of our concrete realities. A world purged of abstractions would be much emptier, indeed, and we would have far less material purchase upon it. More importantly, perhaps, is the degree to which abstractions are fundamentally contestable – which is to say, individual abstractions (and abstraction itself, for that matter) are more like terrain open to contestation than anything else.

An abstraction is a whole theater of operations.

In this regard, Allais’s turn to the reevaluation of liberalism is quite interesting, especially given the circumstances of accelerating political decay and heightened existential risk we face today. Mediated by Mills’s provocative suggestions that liberalism is something to be occupied and transformed, rather than simply abandoned or undone, the turn in question challenges both left critics of liberalism and liberals themselves.

Against conservative or conventional liberals, the proposal that liberalism needs to be expanded and radically revised so as to live up to its promises (regarding distributive justice, equality, freedom, rights, etc.) is potentially unsettling, or even world-shaking. Why this is the case exactly is a different, albeit very sticky question. In the U.S. context, for example, even the staunchest of constitutionalists should be well-aware that the Constitution was intended by the Framers to be a living document subject to improvement and revision over time. Anyone who claims the Constitution is a “perfect” document lacks an even minimal understanding of the text. Hence, Mills’s argument that ideal type theories of liberalism generally have functioned to obscure the realities of racial injustice in the United States does seem to demand that liberalism undergo pretty substantive updates. (Alternatively, I suppose, a liberal could claim that all the possibilities and promises of liberalism have been fully achieved, but, given the state of the world, this seems delusional at best.)

A recent example of one attempt to “Occupy Liberalism” in this way can be found in <a href="http://The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which project director Nikole Hannah-Jones kicks off by writing , “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” This is a good example of what it might mean to contest an abstraction, to refuse to cede the conceptual terrain (i.e., of liberalism) to the opposition, to those who would employ stated ideals (“all men are created equal”) to occlude ugly realities and self-contradictory legacies. Consider another timely example, namely, conflicting interpretations of the political slogans “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.” The strongest advocates of the latter slogan misconstrue the former slogan as an assault on political universality, while advocates of the former makes two contrasting assertions: first, that if all lives matter, then black lives matter, too, and, second, that the very need to assert that “Black Lives Matter” precisely evidences the denigration and devaluation of those lives in the broader culture. Ironically, the apparent or superficial appeal to political universality by “All Lives Matter” partisans functions as a means of denying that black lives really do matter. In contrast, any real universalist should have no problem whatsoever with the former slogan.

Against the left critics of liberalism, Mills’s (and, I think, Allais’s) proposal also carries a bit of a sting. Principally, the proposal underscores a question that haunts the domain of left criticism in particular, which is the question, “Why does conceptual and theoretical terrain seem to be so readily abandoned and ceded to the opposition?” In this, it looks like there is an aversion to contamination, such that historically central elements of our political theoretical imaginary (e.g., liberalism and its many component categories and concepts) are written off too quickly as strategic devices deployed by hegemony in order to excuse and perpetuate itself. A point in favor of the proposal to occupy and transform liberalism is precisely the pugnacity and tenacity inherent to the proposal itself. Rather than ceding terrain because it is contaminated by historical ambiguity and political conflict, the proposal suggests that we contest and reclaim political theoretical ground. (For another example of a useful contestation after this fashion, refer to Kathi Weeks’s The Problem with Work.) It must be underscored that, as Allais and many others have observed, “liberalism” is a term so capacious and protean that its understanding cannot be limited easily or simply to a single conceptual history. Nevertheless, this protean quality may well be one of liberalism’s saving graces – and maybe Kant’s, as well.

Variation on the “Wait, It’s All Ohio? Always Has Been” meme template

Perhaps in order to occupy liberalism, we’ll have to learn how to occupy Kant, too, instead of just giving him up. A passage from Deleuze on his own hermeneutic method inevitably comes to mind: “I saw myself as taking an author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet monstrous. It was really important for it to be his own child, because the author had to actually say all I had him saying. But the child was bound to be monstrous too, because it resulted from all sorts of shifting, slipping, dislocations and hidden omissions that I really enjoyed.”

For what it’s worth, my advice to you is this: Don’t cede Kant; don’t cede anything.

Variation on the “Wait, It’s All Ohio? Always Has Been” meme template

“The Idea of a Moral and Reparatory History of New World Slavery”: Lecture by David Scott (Columbia) – Response by Grazzia Grimaldi (Anthropology)

[On Thursday, February 27, 2020, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a Nicholson Distinguished Scholar Lecture “The Idea of a Moral and Reparatory History of New World Slavery” by Professor David Scott (Anthropology, Columbia). Below is a response by Grazzia Grimaldi (Anthropology).]

Written by Grazzia Grimaldi

What is the conceptual story of the past of New World slavery that ought to come into the present? What story should the present demand of the past? Opening with these questions, David Scott proposed a reorientation towards a moral and reparatory history of the past of New World slavery. As part of his upcoming book manuscript, this historiographic project responds to shifting temporal orientations of blackness. While slavery produced radical modern futurities for blackness, the organization of late modern black lives has interrupted these promises of the future. Responding to the loss of concepts to describe contemporary worlds, Scott offers a moral and reparatory history that refuses the demands of a progressive history. While recognizing the moral debt that the slave present owes to the slave past, this project acknowledges that some pasts are nevertheless irreparable.

Scott started his lecture reflecting on the collapse of the political narratives of revolutionary black redemption. He explained how traumatic pasts of slavery are anchored in futures of redemption, or liberationist expectations of black socialist futures. The intelligibility of black futurity derives from a progressive conception of time, where the suffering of the past is redeemed in the future. As revolutionary futures were brought to the present, Scott argues that black futurities have evaporated. It is no longer clear how to reimagine the horizon of black freedom, nor how to activate the political momentum to transform the past into the future. We are facing what he calls “a loss of concepts,” a loss of the forms of life embedded in the scripts of revolutionary emancipation. The background conditions securing their intelligibility have vanished. It is precisely the loss of black and socialist revolutions that inspired his book: Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (2004).

Building upon this critique of the teleology of modernity, Scott offers a moral history of the past of New World Slavery, which he distinguishes from a history of ethics. This project responds to a “moral turn” in the social sciences and humanities. It is a late twentieth-century post-Cold War phenomenon that emerged in the wake of global capitalism. This moral turn is also situated in the transition from the modern age of social revolutions, to the age of global humanitarianism, under the aegis of U.S. imperial power and hegemony. Scott uses the concept of “evil,” as part of the idiom of morality, to capture the depth of morally significant injury. Evil is an inexcusable action that destroys moral life and the fabric of moral relations. In the case of New World slavery, it is a systemic wrong, deliberately institutionalized, and inflicting harm on successive political generations.

He also proposes the notion of a reparatory history. This project is disentangled from reconciliatory concerns and is rather animated by the exhaustion of progressive histories. A reparatory history is not interested in futures beyond the present, nor redemptions of the past. Instead, it is attuned to irreparable damages and founding social ruptures, precluding the return to certain forms of life. The tragic finds a place here to express the irreversible human actions in the context of historical capitalism. A reparatory history produces an alternative temporality to the modern teleology: it is a history of an unrepaired harm in the present, but it claims certain pasts as irreparable in a non-progressive story of reparation.

Black reparations are not a future-oriented call for compensation to alleviate disadvantages. In fact, what is owed to black people cannot be ever compensated. Reparations, on the contrary, are backward-looking. It doesn’t depend on progressive futures, where the settler present protects itself from unresolved claims, or where retrospective claims of dignity are constantly transgressed by the continuing neglect of repair. A reparatory history is built upon the following paradox: it examines the past of New World slavery, disavowed by the perpetrators of historical wrongs, as unrepaired in a racialized present. But it has a commitment to a repairable orientation that embraces the fact that unrectified evil remains evil.

With a moral and reparatory history, Scott rethinks the historiographical framework of New World slavery. Examining how the present urges a reorientation towards a moral history, he focuses on the institutionalization of slavery as a catastrophic past that might be irreparable in a transgenerational perspective. A reparatory history embraces a contradiction, affirming the moral debt of the slave past in the present, but refusing reconciliatory histories complicit with settler arrangements of power and property and cheerful senses of futurity. Moving away from old progressive models of black liberation, he proposes to consider disenchantment more seriously, as an impetus to think of pasts that won’t go away and inseparable from the presents they help to make.

During the Q&A, the first question raised by the audience was in relation to Caribbean reparations claims to the U.K. Along with this question, a member of the audience asked about the notion of “redemption.” Scott explained that redemption was referring to the ways in which the past was redeemed in a possible future in radical or liberal imaginaries. He argued that the narrative of redemption was part of a twentieth-century black cultural preoccupation, but that he was interested in the ways in which it harnessed a certain teleology shaping orientations to the political.

The second question raised during the talk addressed the “post-time”: what happens when we pause the progressivist futurity? What kinds of pasts saturate that moment of pause, and what embodied experience of “fleshiness” emerge from damaged pasts? Another member of the audience considered the registers of tragedy that are often voiced by statist developmentalism: who can talk about tragedy without it being distorted? Scott explained that the question of fluency was valid for tragedy, but also for other literary forms, such as the comic or the satirical. He argued that all moral categories are vulnerable to appropriation by all forms of power. The tragic was a way of reattuning us to the contingency in human action. Another question addressed the dangers of universalizing notions such as the notions of the moral, the human, and the evil. Scott explained that his project aimed to return to the possibility of features of human life without which human lives could not exist. He reconsiders ontology, life, and the problem of the human, but outside of a progressive universalization.

Finally, a member in the audience asked about his use of “repair” and “freedom.” Scott explained that repair and freedom constituted elementary ideas of progressive political thinking. What is important is to recognize the role of these scripts in the temporal organization of what we think we should do in the present for the future. Freedom-making is a metaphysical abstraction that shapes a demand in the ways in which we tell the story about the relationship between the past and the present. Today, it has been foreclosed by the dismantling of social movements in places that we presume to be the heartland of freedom-making. He argued that he is not necessarily making a claim to abolish radical futurity, but rather to examine the ways in which metaphysical categories organize modern subjectivity in politics. He asks us to consider what happens if we move away from the metaphysical effects of these categories and think instead of pastness and the ways in which we live in the present.

Screening of Ritwik Ghatak’s Subarnarekha by Moinak Biswas (Jadavpur University) – Response by Susmita Das (Institute of Communications Research)

[On March 7, 2020, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a film screening of Ritwik Ghatak’s Subarnarekha (1962) by visiting scholar Moinak Biswas (Film Studies, Jadavpur University). Below is a response by Susmita Das (Institute of Communications Research).]

Thinking (and Teaching) History through Film Form
Written by Susmita Das (Institute of Communications Research)

As we settled into our seats in the Armory theater, the movie was paused on the film’s certificate of exhibition. Subarnarekha or Suvarna Rekha was released as an “A” film in 1962, meaning the film was intended for Adult audiences. But what mature content could a Bengali film set against the Partition contain? I wondered.

Image taken by the author at the film screening

“This is one of the most violent films that people had seen in Indian cinema,” Prof. Moinak Biswas began.

Pic 2
Image of Ritwik Ghatak

Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976), the director of Subarnarekha, was a visionary of Bengali and Indian cinema whose films responded to the Partition of India in 1947 through a trilogy of which Subarnarekha was the third and final part. Ghatak’s films were misunderstood by film critics and attacked for “professing despair” at a time when his leftist contemporaries believed that a socialist utopia was right there (as Prof. Biswas explained in his lecture the next day). Ghatak responded to his critics in 1966 with two essays in Bengali. In these essays (translated into English by Prof. Biswas), Ghatak not only mourns his critics’ gross misinterpretation of Subarnarekha’s message, but also the death of film criticism:

“There was not the slightest intention in my mind to profess ‘despair.’ I have tried to capture the great crisis that… has come to take on monstrous proportions. The first casualty of that [crisis] is our sensitivity. It has been gradually benumbed; and I wanted to strike at that.”

Indeed, Subarnarekha strikes. In the final act of the film, Ishwar lands at his sister Sita’s house after years of separation as a customer for paid sex; the magnitude of political and social violence impregnating this moment is overwhelming.

Picture 43
Sita in Subarnarekha Movie Poster

Sita throws herself on a boti (a vegetable cutter) and ends her life. Sita’s suicide is what Prof. Biswas describes as one of the most violent acts shown in Indian cinema and which earned the film its A
certificate. The sequence is an achievement in blocking and staging that film and media scholars will recognize in the use of unconventional camera placements, movements, and focuses to visually depict the act through implication rather than through dramatization. Ghatak, with his cinematographer and editor, stage the sequence using oblique angles, extreme close ups, harsh shadows, in-focus and out-of-focus shots, peculiar pans and tracks, non-diegetic score, and – my favorite – asynchronous sounds, to jolt us out of our numbness. [Start time: 1:45:30 (6330s) – End time: 1:49:56 (6596s)]

Revealing the climax of the film at the start of his lecture, Prof. Biswas instructs us to watch for Ghatak’s use of different conventions in narrative transition, stating that this is what makes Ghatak a modernist while qualifying, “but not in the European sense.” Prof. Biswas explains that Ghatak employs three different conventions to intertwine linear storytelling with historical time. In Subarnarekha, Ghatak uses “scrolls,” a simple technique borrowed from English chronicle plays to convey the passage of linear time in the characters’ lives. The scrolls break up the narrative into three episodes; the episodes are brought into conversation with historical time through unlikely “coincidences” and odd insertions of mythic characters, verses, words and phrases lifted directly from the Upanishads (ancient Sanskrit texts), Sishutirtha, a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, and the words uttered by Mahatma Gandhi at the moment of his death. In the above clip, the source-less “hey Ram” (1:48:20 or 6500s) is one such example.

While Subarnarekha is renowned as part of the Partition Trilogy (a term better suited to the economics of film promotion, perhaps), it is not about Partition only, Prof. Biswas contends. The “great crisis,” taking on “monstrous proportions,” was homelessness, a crisis so great in magnitude that it cannot be shown as one event alonewhich, Prof. Biswas argues, Ghatak works out in Subarnarekha with film form and content, convention and technique. Sita’s suicide, therefore, is only a sublimation of the complete derailment of lives that occurs as an effect of multiple historical tragedies.

Prof. Biswas presents Ghatak’s Subarnarekha almost as a didactic text that teaches us to think history when we think of what constitutes “ordinary lives in the wake of Partition” (or a loss of home) and what makes up “the epochal resonance of homelessness in human experience.”  Ghatak’s Subarnarekha advances a dialect to speak of that experience, working out a form that can visualize a violence of monstrous proportions.

“Nine Days of One Year: Soviet 1960s Cinema and the Nuclear Catastrophe”: Lecture by Lilya Kaganovsky – Response by Erin Cheslow (English)

[On February 3, 2020, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a Distinguished Faculty Lecture “Nine Days of One Year: Soviet 1960s Cinema and the Nuclear Catastrophe” by Professor Lilya Kaganovsky (Slavic, Comparative Literature, and Cinema and Media Studies). Below is a response by Erin Cheslow (English).]

Memory’s Gaze: Lilya Kaganovsky on 1960s Soviet Film, Trauma, and Memory
Written by Erin Cheslow (English)

Nine Days of One Year: Soviet 1960s Cinema and the Nuclear Catastrophe”

Lyolya and Dimitry attempt to comprehend the consequences. (Nine Days of One Year, Kaganovsky Presentation)

“Cut Off.”That is how Lilya Kaganovsky described the lives portrayed in 1960s Soviet cinema in her Unit for Distinguished Faculty Lecture on February 3, 2020. Opening with an image of Lyolya and Dmitry – lovers in Mikhail Romm’s 1962 film, Nine Days of One Year  – facing away from one another as they attempt to comprehend the consequences of nuclear testing, Dr. Kaganovsky argues that Romm’s cinema “raised questions of science, technology, memory, and forgetting” in an attempt to work through the Soviet past.



As Kaganovsky will show, Lyolya is the most able to see the effects of the past in the present. Her gaze humanizes those she sees, complicating nuclear progressivism by locating it alongside the traumas of the past. In Nine Days of One Year, Romm broke with the conventions of Soviet cinema to work through the trauma of previous generations who lived through Stalinism and World War II. Unable to understand or recreate the events of the past, those born after the war still feel a responsibility for the past. Kaganovsky borrows Marianne Hirsch’s “postmemory,” “a powerful and very particular form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation,” to describe the fragmentation that “characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narrative that preceded their birth.” One of only a few films to address atomic power and nuclear annihilation, Nine Days of One Year enacts postmemory to locate the past firmly in the present. Lyolya, though in many ways a flat character with no last name or clear job description, sees what others cannot—the horror that underpins scientific study and an incessant drive toward an imagined future.

Before delving into the complexities of Romm’s work, however, Kaganovsky provided an overview of Soviet film in the Thaw period (approximately 1956-1967). Each of the films she mentions, meant to be representative of Soviet cinema of the period, is located firmly in the present. A series of images pulled from the films show scenes from daily life, with characters “seemingly caught up in the contemporaneity of the present.” One couple is caught in a rainstorm, while a man in another film sits in the background reading a newspaper and another stands relaxed at an airport. Although these scenes may seem everyday and relatable, they are so completely “unsaturated” by history that they project a kind anomie, or “a feeling that the characters live lives unconnected to the outside world, to history, or to the previous generation.” Indeed, as one character in the 1967 film, July Rain, tells another, “Yes, we are cut off, and the link with the outside world is broken.” Without links to history, Thaw cinema is characterized by loss; there is no closure, no comprehension, no memory.

Romm’s later films break with this kind of realism and the Stalinist Realism of his earlier work to explore the relationship between past and present, traumatic memory and postmemory. In a film released three years after Nine Days of One Year, Ordinary Fascism (1965), the gaze of children and of Auschwitz survivors provides a framework for understanding Lyolya’s gaze in the earlier film. Romm transposes images of children’s drawings and the faces of young children with images of violence to create a sense of traumatic disjuncture. In one scene, as described by Kaganovsky, a series of children’s drawings of cats and other “innocent” images is followed by images of Moscow mothers and their children. Suddenly, the camera cuts to a mother and child being shot by a Nazi soldier, accompanied by the sound of a gunshot. Yet another image is shown, that of a child in her mother’s arm, staring directly at the camera.

The child’s eyes, looking back at us, reflect those of the victims of Auschwitz,

A child gazes into the camera after the gunshot (Ordinary Fascism, Kaganovsky’s Presentation)

which paper the walls of the barracks that Romm walked through on the last day of filming. The halls, badly lit, do not afford a good view of the pictures, but each face holds something that Romm can’t identify. Each is defiant or scared, full ofhatred or submission, but that is not all. Everywhere, there are eyes, and each contains death. Romm recognized the need to transfer the death look to the screen, to create a cinematographic form of history through the gaze. For him, no one looking at those eyes could stay detached from history. “The eyes are still looking; the eyes are still looking at us.” The violence may be over, but it continues to resonate in the present. The gaze is a kind of postmemory.


Ordinary Fascism ends with more images of children, this time those of the peacetime generation. It remains unfinished, never showing any finalizing events like the death of Hitler or the end of the war. According to Kaganovsky, “Facism has not been defeated. The cancer has been cut out, but the metastasis is still spreading. The west is marked as genocidal,” linking the Holocaust with the threat of nuclear annihilation at the center of Nine Days of One Year.

Drawing on the French film, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), which Romm found distasteful for its graphic imagery of the victims of the atom bomb but also described as a “magnificent lesson in montage,” Romm produced Nine Days of One Year to challenge the notion that science is politically neutral, an innocuous way into the future. The film features two male physicists… and the woman who loves them. Though she is engaged to one, when the other becomes irradiated, she marries the latter. Though she seems to be nothing more than an object of desire, Lyolya introduces a human element. The men push physics beyond human limits at the cost of human lives, and she watches it all happen. Her gaze comes to reveal and work against the cost of human “perfection” gained through science and technology.

There is no moment in which science could be turned back and used only for good. Nine Days, Dmitry explains that once an idea exists, it cannot be unthought. Even if destroyed, it will be discovered again. Cheslow_Kaganovsky_Image3Yet, it is Dmitry who is irradiated and dies for such ideas. The philosophical debate is made real when we see his eyes, gazing through the viewfinder during a test of the nuclear technology, anticipating those Romm will see at Auschwitz. Like the eyes of the victims, Dmitry’s hold death.

As Lyolya gazes at Dmitry gazing into the viewfinder, she sees death where he sees scientific advancement. Her eyes reflect the horror that underpins scientific study, bringing past and future into the present as a narrative of destruction. Like Ordinary Fascism, the film ends with a child’s drawing. The crude stick figures point to the inability to turn away from history and take comfort in fantasy. The present is always saturated with the past.

Response and Q&A

In her brief response to Kaganovsky’s lecture, Brett Kaplan, a professor of Comparative and World Literature, brought together current events and French cinema to highlight the relevance of postmemory and the struggle to portray traumatic events. From German and Soviet death camps to the camps currently operating on the US/Mexican border, the resonances of fascism are undeniable, yet differences must be maintained. The past does not repeat; it moves. It lives, returning to us in the montage of traumatic flash back. As seen in films like Hiroshima Mon Amour and Nine Days of One Year, memory leaves a trace, but only a trace, as it attempts to contend with histories that burn away the very possibility of memory. These cinematic attempts to access the past align victimization and perpetration through the effects of the gaze. Evoking Jacques Derrida’s use of the trace, Kaplan showed how traumatic landscapes are embedded in history and in memory. The present contains the shadows of the past.

The first question in the Q&A followed on Kaplan’s interest in the intersections of victimization and perpetration, in the hopes of unpacking that alignment. Kaganovsky responded, “Ordinary Fascism is a film about forcing us to look, forcing us to see, forcing us to identify ourselves both with the victims and with the perpetrators. In Nine Days, the gaze that is joined in Ordinary Fascism is split by the man who is both victim and perpetrator.”

Most of the remaining questions focused on the contrast between Romm’s aesthetics and those of Hollywood films and other films that portrayed the Holocaust. Kaganovsky noted the distinct differences between a Soviet anti-bourgeois aesthetic and a Hollywood aesthetic targeted at a bourgeois audience, but she also pointed to the similarities with other Holocaust films that were coming from the same kind of impulse.

Toward the end of our time, one audience member asked Kaganovsky to speak more about the gendering of Lyolya’s witnessing. Though she is a seemingly flat character, she is also the only character given an interiority through voiceovers. Much like the children in Ordinary Fascism, she is removed from the events, but she is able to witness them, to remember them. Through the woman’s gaze, postmemory becomes possible. Only she can see history unfolding into the present.