Valerii Podoroga: Vopros o veshchi: opyty po analiticheskoi antropologii

Valerii Podoroga: Vopros o veshchi: opyty po analiticheskoi antropologii

Moskva: Grundrisse, 2016, ISBN 978-5-904099-23-7, 348 pages.

Tyler Adkins
Valerii Podoroga; contemporary Russian philosophy; philosophical anthropology; contemporary art; thing theory.

Continental philosophy is once more going “back to the things themselves” (Husserl 2001: 168). The past decade has seen a profusion of philosophical programmes, which, while agonistically diverse, share as a common denominator a focus on the Тhing, the object, and that which lies beyond the traditionally understood philosophical subject. Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory, Graham Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology, and Quentin Meillassoux’s Speculative Realism are a few of the more well-known representatives of this trend. Vopros o veshchi represents Russian philosopher Valerii Podoroga’s entry into this crowded philosophical landscape, albeit from the standpoint of his own long-standing philosophical project of “analytic anthropology.” Podoroga elsewhere describes analytic anthropology as a form of non-synthetic philosophy aimed at reconstructing the experiential preconditions of systems of thought, recovering the basic images and metaphors underlying various cultural artifacts. Podoroga’s foregoing philosophical work has applied this method to literary texts and the plastic arts, tackling the mimetic structures of Russian literature (Podoroga 2006), and more recently the temporal structure of contemporary art (Podoroga 2013). Given the thematics of Podoroga’s work, it is not surprising that Vopros o veshchi is as much about the questions of contemporary art and its trajectories as it is about things, tout court. In his preface, Podoroga nonetheless justifies this narrow focus with the assertion that, given the indirect relation of the average person in post-industrial society to the crafting and production of objects, art remains the last “refuge of the Thing and things” in contemporary society (Podoroga 2016: 13).

Such a definition of the Thing would seem very specific; but, by Podoroga’s own admission in the book’s foreword, Vopros o veshchi is less an articulation of a discrete theory of the Thing as it is a series of essayistic investigations of the appearance of the Thing in various areas of experience. While the object of Podoroga’s inquiry at times appears to be the Thing and thingness in its broadest sense, the concrete focus of the book is usually the work of art (proizvedenie) qua Thing, or rather the contemporary art object on the brink of the dissolution of its thingliness (veshchnost’) into the event, the happening, the performance. In spite of its fragmentary style, Vopros o veshchi derives its conceptual unity from a continual return to this question of the thingliness of the art object: what does it mean to experience works of art as things, and what is the implication of contemporary art’s rejection of the concrete thinghood of the work?

Vopros o veshchi often feels like a private tour through an eclectic museum of objects and texts, with Podoroga briskly expounding on each piece before hurrying along to the next. This is not just a stylistic quirk. The book’s peripatetic style corresponds to Podoroga’s conception of the Thing and its method of analysis: The fragmentary style of the book – oscillating between literary and visual analysis, theoretical explication and personal anecdote – captures something of the simultaneous intimacy and distance which Podoroga ascribes to the Thing. Its style also sets Vopros o veshchi apart from the sweeping speculative philosophy characteristic of many texts of contemporary New Realism. Podoroga is instead more at home in the methods and concepts of 20th century phenomenological investigation, and his conceptual indebtedness to, for example, Martin Heidegger’s early and late writings on the Thing and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s embodied phenomenology becomes clear in the text.

The book’s first chapter is the closest it comes to explicitly articulating a theory of the Thing as such. For Podoroga, “thingliness” is not so much an eidetic quality of parts of reality as it is a state of tension between the two countervailing moments in which the Тhing appears in our embodied consciousness. On the one hand, to evoke the Тhing is to apply the absolute metaphysical lowest common denominator, the most basic form of unity prior to any other form of determination. In this capacity, Thing is the name for something for which no other name fits: as soon as the Thing moves into some determinate sphere of usage, it ceases to be a Thing and transforms into an instrument, a tool, etc. On the other hand, the Thing is not just a metaphysical placeholder but something concretely given to the senses: it is that which is seen, felt, made, and possessed. Podoroga christens these two countervailing moments of the Thing with reference to Walter Benjamin: the Thing-without-Aura and the Thing-with-Aura. For Podoroga, the answer to the question of the book’s title lies between these two extreme modes of being of the Thing: between the “living” Тhing enveloped in corporeal relations of sight, touch, and movement, and the тhing stripped of its characteristics and embeddedness in a milieu. Podoroga’s thematisation of thingness dismisses a speculative metaphysics of the Thing outright: without embodied being-in-the-world, thingliness and the Thing as such cannot exist. Podoroga’s conception of the Thing also has a curiously normative shade to it: Vopros o veschi often juxtaposes the living, richly corporeal Thing of pre-modern art and handicraft to the enervated, lifeless mere-object of mass industry and contemporary art. This note of nostalgia for a pre-modern, authentic Thing often makes Podoroga seem more at home among John Ruskin or William Morris than the Speculative Realists.

Podoroga develops the theme of the embodied nature of human relations to the Thing in the second chapter, which goes into greater detail on his understanding of the notion of aura. Rather than beginning directly from the Benjaminian understanding of the aura, Podoroga instead starts with an exploration of the aura in classical antiquity and Christianity, in its role as mist, veil, or halo. The envelopment of the classical aura withdraws the otherwise nearby object from the observer, and it is in this coincidence of the distal and the proximal, the “closest closeness of the distant, or the remoteness of the most near” that Podoroga locates the aura of the Thing (Podoroga 2016: 53). Podoroga links the auratic nature of the Thing, its simultaneous nearness and withdrawal, to both human visual perception and the act of contemplation itself. In the former case, Podoroga draws on the work of both Walter Benjamin and Russian philosopher Pavel Florensky to present the aura of the Thing arising from the embodied visual experience; the aura, Podoroga, argues, encompasses the object when it is perceived both in its proximity to the observer and in its simultaneous immersion in a background or environment. Locating the Thing in the play of distance and nearness requires a slowing down of perception – what Gadamer called the “tarrying” demanded by the work of art (Gadamer 2001: 76-77) – and it is the tarrying provoked by the aura of the Thing which Podoroga associates with the act of contemplation (sozertsanie) itself. The modern breakdown of the aura as described by Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction takes place as the Thing loses its corporeal presence in the field of the embodied observation, deracinated from the observer and its environment. The dissolution of the Thing’s aura, according to Podoroga, transforms the Thing into a mere object, which possesses a relationship only to other objects and not to the observer. Whereas Benjamin saw the end of the auratic as an opening for new forms of potentially revolutionary mass culture, Podoroga is more pessimistic: the dissolution of the Thing into a parade of transitory objects marks a disruption of the structures of experience on which the work of art as such is based.

In the third chapter, Podoroga turns to uncanny things – dolls, masks, toys – which lie at the murky boundary between Thing and person. Citing examples as diverse as the Noh masks of the traditional Japanese theatre, Hans Bellmer’s dolls, the performance art of Petr Pavlenskii, and the American horror film Chucky, Podoroga locates these uncanny phenomena at the intersection of two processes – the personification of the Thing, and the de-personification or reification of the person. The doll or mask thereby has a liminal status, at once revealing both the symbolic or sacral surplus to be found in things and the visceral material thingness of the human body itself. The “enlivened” Thing shares this uncanny liminality with the corpse, of which it is a sort of mirror double. As with his theory of the aura, Podoroga’s conception of the thingly uncanny is premised on a fundamental doubling in our relation to the Thing: dolls and masks invite our bodily sympathy or identification, but at the same time repulse us with an image of the dead or dismembered body.

Podoroga continues to explore the embodied relation to the Thing in the fourth chapter, which comments on the tactile relation to the Thing as mediated by the human hand. The hand grasps, seizes, and appropriates the external world, establishing itself as the foundation for other techniques of assimilation like binocular vision and intentional thought. The hand, however, is also that which gives: it externalises, extends, and creates, not just discrete things, but the haptic-visual life-world in which human beings live. In this sense, the human hand plays a vital role in the play of distance and nearness in which Podoroga sees thingness arising. Revisiting Martin Heidegger’s notion of “Zuhandenheit”,or readiness-to-hand, he argues for the centrality of the tactile in both Heidegger’s early and late analysis of the Thing: the hand, as that which mediates nearness, is that which brings the spatial, sensible world and the things within it into being– it “allows the Thing to be” as both proximal to us and independent (ibid.: 139). In this chapter, Podoroga is predominantly interested in this creative – if not demiurgical – role of the hand, and particularly the link of the artist’s hand with the things it creates. Examining the sculpture of August Rodin, the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, and the studio recordings of pianist Glenn Gould, Podoroga is once more concerned with the transformation of the work of art in the modern period: if, as he argues, the hand calls the world and its things into being, what becomes of the artwork and even consumer objects in an age of relatively ‘hands-free’ mechanical production and technical mediation? If the classical understanding of the authenticity of a work of art involved an intimate spatial and temporal link between the Thing and the hand of the artist, what is an authentic (podlinnyi) work of art in the age of its seriality and iterability? The issue of mediation between the hand of the artist and the things which it creates pre-exists the age of high-tech mediation – Podoroga cites the necessity of reproducing bronze sculptures from casts, for example, as well as the continual reproduction and reinterpretation of musical works by performers. The universalisation of this form of mediation in the contemporary world, however, undermines the categories of authenticity, tactile skill, and virtuosity on which previous artistic judgements were based. In this analysis, Podoroga again displays a nostalgia for an idealised pre-modern intimacy between craftsman and Thing, virtuoso and artwork. It is unclear in his account, however, why contemporary objects lack tactile immediacy for those using and producing them.

Vopros o veshchi’s fifth chapter is an extensive meditation on collections and collecting. For the collector, the things which she collects are the antithesis of the commoditised object: collected things are removed from the circulation of commodities reducible to exchange value. Furthermore, the collected Thing is also removed from the sphere of use value. What the collected Thing costs, and even what it does, is immaterial to the collector. Instead, the collected Thing achieves its value in relation to the desire of the collector and its unique place within the constellation of her collection. In its emancipation from use and exchange value, the collection takes the form of a luxury, a Bataillean excessive expenditure. It is not coincidental then, that the collections which Podoroga describes in this chapter occupy extremes of the usual value spectrum: the valuable and rare artifacts catalogued by Joris-Karl Huysmans’ protagonist Jean des Esseintes (novel À rebours, 1884) and French designer Yves Saint Laurent on the one hand, and the refuse catalogued by the Soviet Avant-garde poet Konstantin Vaginov, and the homemade Soviet artifacts (samodelki) collected by Russian artist Vladimir Arkhipov, on the other. Standing external to the logic of the commoditised object, the passion of the collector can impart a sacral, auratic halo of value to both treasure and junk (khlam). The uniqueness and non-interchangeability of every Thing in the collection, its intimacy with the collector as part of his own life-history and of a collective material history which the collection documents, renders the collected Thing the opposite of what Podoroga has hitherto referred to as mere objects. The true Thing possesses its own biography and is bound up in human biographies, and it is precisely this aspect of thingliness that is revealed in the collection.

The final chapter explicitly approaches the question with which Podoroga begins the book: namely, what remains of the artwork after the contemporary liquidation of its thingliness? According to Podoroga, the art object as Thing is a collateral casualty of the Death of The Author in contemporary artistic production. If, as Podoroga has argued up to this point, the classical masterpiece or handicraft received its aura of thingliness in part from an intimate bodily and temporal connection with its creator, then the extraction of the artist and her intentions from the aesthetic horizon of contemporary art profoundly changes the phenomenology of the art-Thing as such. Shorn of its thingly aura, the contemporary art object operates on the logic of tautology. Unlike the things of the passionate collector or pre-modern craftsman, the contemporary art object has no biography. Instead, according to Podoroga, the contemporary art object “is what it is,” without the need for further justification, narration, or recourse to the old mimetic principles which previously undergirded aesthetic judgement. Instead, a common device of Avant-garde art in the last century becomes the art object which self-liquidates its own thingness, announces its short-falling from the wholeness of the Thing. Podoroga’s key examples of this approach are René Margritte’s La Trahison des images / The Treachery of Images (1928-29) and Les Promenades d'Euclide / The Promenades of Euclid (1955), images which force the observer to recognise that the objects depicted therein fall short of the full reality of the Thing. In the “self-destruction” of the work of art, formlessness, lack, and emptiness become the primary qualities of the art object – while it cannot entirely liquidate its materiality, the contemporary work of art becomes a war against thingliness itself, embracing the fleeting, the interchangeable, and the alienated.

While Vopros o veschi thoroughly traces the disintegration of the modern work of art qua Thing, Podoroga unfortunately does not venture beyond this horizon to imagine what thingliness in the era of near universal technical mediation might look like. Indeed, given Podoroga’s tight linking of the Thing with the human body, this possibility is foreclosed by his very conception of the Thing itself. His insistence on the ineluctable mutual constitution of the embodied subject and the Thing places him within the philosophical tradition Quentin Meillassoux describes as “correlationism,” that is “the idea [that] we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (Meillassoux 2009: 5). The correlationist framework is precisely what philosophical projects like Meillassoux’s Speculative Materialism or Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology reject: the tethering of philosophy to consciousness at the expense of the “great outdoors” of extra-subjective reality (ibid: 7). In defining the Thing exclusively within the frame of human experience (even if this is a very corporeal, tactile experience), Podoroga implicitly takes up the conservative position of 20th century correlationism against the radical anti-subjectivism of current philosophical trends. Disappointingly though, Podoroga nowhere explicitly confronts the critiques of correlationism offered by those like Meillassoux – of the various contemporary New Realist or New Materialist philosophers; only Latour receives a cursory nod in the book’s first chapter. In failing to directly engage with contemporary anti-subjective philosophies of the Thing, Podoroga lets slip an opportunity to counter assaults on correlationism with an updated phenomenological understanding of the Thing. Instead, Vopros o veschi’s meandering style, its avoidance of firm philosophical programmatics and general pessimism about the disconnection of objects from intimate, pre-modern tactility affirm rather than dispute critiques of correlationism. Notwithstanding its eloquence, Podoroga’s Vopros o veshchi is an example of the present deadlock of correlationist thought: it can ever more masterfully tarry with the questions of world and mind, reformulating its contradictions with greater precision, without escaping from the circle of experience which is both its object and method.

Tyler B. Adkins

Princeton University


Tyler B. Adkins is a doctoral candidate in the department of anthropology at Princeton University. His dissertation research ethnographically examines the temporalities and materialities of food and work in Russia’s Altai Republic. His other research interests include new philosophies of realism and materialism, vernacular design, and the material cultures of (post-)Socialism.


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Meillassoux, Quentin. 2009. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Bloomsbury Publishing.

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Suggested Citation

Adkins, Tyler. 2019. Review: “Valerii Podoroga: Vopros o veshchi: opyty po analiticheskoi antropologii”. Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 9. DOI:


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