Tat’iana Dashkova: <i>Telesnost’ – Ideologiia – Kinematograf: Visual’nyi kanon i sovetskaia povsednevnost’</i>

Tat’iana Dashkova: Telesnost’ – Ideologiia – Kinematograf: Visual’nyi kanon i sovetskaia povsednevnost’

Moskva: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2013, ISBN 9785444800652. 256 pp.

Author
Andrew Chapman
Keywords
Soviet culture; visual culture; corporeality; fashion; hygiene; Stalin-era comedies; modernity; everyday life; grand style; canonicity

Telesnost’ – Ideologiia – Kinematograf / Physicality – Ideology – Cinema is a collection of eleven essays and articles written about visual culture, ideology, and everyday life of the 1920s to the 1970s. Each chapter interprets a variety of visual texts, placing them on a single plane for analysis: journal covers, magazine illustrations, film posters, and films themselves, all serve as source material for a discussion of the ideological formations of visual culture that became known as the visual canon of the Stalinist era (grand style [bol’shoi stil’]). One immediate weakness of the volume is that the author’s material is by no means new. Dashkova admits in her introduction that the articles have already been separately published throughout the early 2000s (many freely available on Dashkova’s academic webpage) and that the present collection presented here for reconsideration is unchanged in any way.

In the introduction, the only new section in the collection, Dashkova situates her past works against the backdrop of the changing focus in studies of Soviet culture. She accurately accounts how both American and Russian Slavists initially viewed Soviet modernity as a top-down construct arising out of its vertical totalitarian political system, and only later considered everyday life under interpreted conditions of modernity; studies from the early 2000s began to focus on practices and strategies of everyday life, a bottom-up view that dwelled on the operation and agency of subjects. Dashkova writes that this turn had an effect that both opened up new methodologies of study from fields such as anthropology, but also softened (Rus.: smiagchit’) strict semiotic-structuralist approaches (Dashkova 2013: 7).

Dashkova also uses the introduction to unite the collection as an articulation of her methodology of analysing the Soviet visual canon. She cites well-known monographs indebted to semiotic approaches, such as Vladimir Paperny’s Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two (2002), stating that while these studies are influential, they only identify a distinct set of conditions, but fail to inquire about what came before high Stalinism and how existing structures came into being. According to Dashkova, in addition to looking at cohesiveness and synchronicity (Rus.: tselostnost’), studies of canonicity must account for diachronicity as a discursive mechanism (Dashkova 2013: 9). Dashkova’s main task, then, is not to simply look for patterns in the visual canon, but rather to look for displacements, erasures, and repression of various signs over time. She likens her methodology of analysing visual culture to Roland Barthes’s notion of the punctum and the viewer’s subjectivity. Dashkova recognises and embraces the subjective process of analysing the images that stand out to her, which she calls the “reflective browsing” (Rus.: refleksiia protsessa razgliadyvaniia). She lays bare her own biases as a researcher in order to sort through and find meaning in the visual canon (ibid.: 20).

In the volume’s first essay, “Ia khraniu tvoe foto” / “I am keeping your photo”, Dashkova writes about the approaches to studying 1930s visual culture that prevailed in the 1990s, as well as the problematic aspects present in such studies. In the 1990s, she states, the post-Soviet environment fostered productive possibilities in new modes of poststructural scholarship, yet problematic areas remained with regard to studying a living culture. On the one hand, Soviet and post-Soviet intellectuals had distanced itself from 1930s high Stalinist culture for decades through ironic artistic approaches such as the Sots Art movement. On the other hand, the atmosphere of post-Soviet society during the transitional 1990s was still very much a living remnant that had not been placed under the glass of the museum display.

Dashkova is interested in how the visual canon under the method of Socialist Realism came to normalise depictions of everyday life, a construct that occurs out of the accumulation and deletion of various cultural signifiers. Throughout the first four essays, the main representations that Dashkova analyses are of women in print magazines and film. She looks at women’s magazines of the 1920s and 1930s and famous Soviet comedies of the mid 1930s, highlighting two typages of the Soviet woman: the unkempt worker found in women’s magazines and the refined, elegant, and artistic woman found in fashion magazines targeting the non-working wives of Party members. She claims that as the decade moves forward, these two character types become fused into a singular image. Dashkova also looks at how early 1920s and 1930s texts in the “pre-canonical period” (“dokanonicheskii period”) of Socialist Realism ignored the physical body of the labourer, instead foregrounding the physical process of labour itself.

One of Dashkova’s main areas of interest, telesnost’, is defined simply as a kind of physicality. Telesnost’ is not so much limited to the body and notions of corporeality as it is to wider notions of physicality and tangibility. She looks at appearance (Rus.: vneshnost’), clothing and accessories, gestures, and all of the everyday objects that surround a person (Rus.: okruzhaiushchie bytovye veshchi), terminology that should remind us of Iurii Lotman’s definition of everyday life: “Everyday life is the usual flow of life in its real, practical forms; everyday life are the things that surround us, our habits, and daily behaviour” (Dashkova 2013: 18; Lotman 1994: 10).

Film analysis in the volume is mainly devoted to the works of Grigorii Aleksandrov and the roles played by the director’s wife, the Soviet film star Liubov’ Orlova. Dashkova details how Soviet ideology is encoded in romantic plotlines, with male heroes opening new ideological perspectives for their female partners. In one article, “Liubov’ i byt” / “Love and Everyday Life,”, Dashkova presents some interesting takes on Aleksandrov’s film Tsirk / Circus (1936, Soviet Union), noting how visual erotic and romantic representations are mixed with the aural backdrop of political songs. In other articles, she writes on the role of clothing in war films , as well as on visual erotic affects (clothing, looks, gestures, etc.) throughout the films of the 1930s.

Dashkova mainly focuses on Soviet comedies because she highlights the genre’s ability to normalise, through fictional storylines, the rapid changes occurring during Soviet modernisation. Comedies were able to smooth over the changing value systems and gender roles that arrived with Soviet industrialisation under Stalin. While Dashkova limits her analysis to Soviet comedies, I feel that this viewpoint could be expanded to other film and literary genres as well, such as the production novel. Dashkova’s stance bears a noteworthy resemblance to Miriam Hansen’s concept of vernacular modernism and her investigation of the mode of melodrama (1999), which similarly discusses how melodramas act as a vehicle to smooth over social conflict in order to compensate for the upheavals of modernity.

The final essay of the volume, “Fantasticheskoe v filmakh Andreia Tarkovskogo” / “The Fantastic in the Films of Andrei Tarkovskii”, covers Solaris (1972, Soviet Union) and Stalker (1979, Soviet Union), analysing each in relation to the genre of science fiction. Dashkova writes that scholarship on Tarkovskii has largely been limited to two universalising strands of analysis. One set is grounded in explanations of his films’ larger humanistic ideas, psychoanalytical motivations, and metaphorical or allegorical meanings. The other strand discusses the filmmaker as an auteur, unlocking puzzling elements in Tarkovskii through continuity across his films. Both approaches, according to Dashkova, blind us to other areas of exploration. The first approach moves us away from film by foregrounding and perhaps imposing moral and ethical commentaries. The second approach may give us a larger view of Tarkovskii’s artistic oeuvre, yet is inhospitable to potentially productive analyses such as Dashkova’s. Dashkova looks at one defining feature of the science fiction genre – estrangement of reality – and compares this with the estrangement of the auteur from the aesthetics and ideology of genre cinema. Tarkovskii’s films thus feature a doubling of estrangement, grounded in the speculative themes of science fiction and cinema as an experiment itself. I find this chapter to be one of the best in the volume, and the reader can see how Dashkova’s thinking about canonicity in her previous essays influences her writing about genre.

To conclude, Telesnost’ – Ideologiia – Kinematograf should be of interest to scholars of visual culture of the Stalinist era. Its source material from 1920s and 1930s journals should be especially useful for those researching questions of gender, fashion, hygiene, and everyday life. The main weaknesses of the volume are rooted in its inorganic construction, which is to be expected from a collection of articles that have remained unedited since their original publication. It at times is very cumbersome to read through the numerous repetitions in the first four articles, in which the essays repeat themselves in lengthy descriptions of methodology (see pages 20 and 36 on Dashkova’s indebtedness to Barthes in forming her own concept of reflective browsing), as well as in descriptions of source materials, and of similar texts of study. Moreover, while the first ten chapters are more or less united in topic and time period, the final chapter on Tarkovskii does not really fit with the main scope of the volume. Nonetheless, one of the valuable aspects of the volume is the author’s reflective approach to how the period of the 1930s has been studied recently in the 1990s and 2000s. Her description and analysis of the Soviet culture reads less like a literature review of past scholarship, and more like a personal account of how and why Dashkova – and the field of Slavic Studies in general – continually returns to the 1930s as an object of study.

Andrew Chapman

St. Mary’s University

Chapman.drew@gmail.com

Bio

Andrew Chapman currently works at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. He has previously taught as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Dartmouth College and the College of William and Mary. Andrew is working on his first monograph, Queuetopia: Allocating Culture/Imagining Abundance. He also serves as a lead editor for Studies in Russian, Eurasian and Central European New Media (www.digitalicons.org) and is one the creators of the digital humanities project Digital Domostroi: Keywords on the Russian Middle Class (http://dh.dickinson.edu/digitaldomostroi).

Bibliography

Barthes, Roland. 1982. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. New York.

Hansen, Miriam Bratu. 1999. “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism.” Modernism/Modernity 6 (2): 59-77.

Lotman, Iurii M. 1994. Besedy o russkoi kul'ture: Byt i traditsii russkogo dvorianstva (XVIII – nachalo XIX veka). Sankt-Petersburg.

Paperny, Vladimir. 2002. Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two. Cambridge, UK.

Filmography

Aleksandrov, Grigorii. 1934. Veselye rebiata / Jolly Fellows. Mosfil’m.

Aleksandrov, Grigorii. 1936. Tsirk / Circus. Mosfil’'m.

Aleksandrov, Grigorii. 1938. Volga-Volga. Mosfil’m.

Aleksandrov, Grigorii. 1940. Svetlyi put’/ The Radiant Path. Mosfi’'m.

Tarkovskii, Andrei. 1972. Soliaris / Solaris. Mosfil’m.

Tarkovskii, Andrei. 1979. Stalker. Mosfil’m.

Suggested Citation

Chapman, Andrew. 2017. Review: “Tat’iana Dashkova: Telesnost’ – Ideologiia – Kinematograf: Visual’nyi kanon i sovetskaia povsednevnost’. ” Mise en geste. Studies of Gesture in Cinema and Art (ed. by Ana Hedberg Olenina and Irina Schulzki). Special issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 5. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2017.0005.55

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

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