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Opening the Code: Scripting, Sincerity, and the Soviet Thaw

October 31, 2009

In December 1953, just six months after Stalin’s death, the Moscow-based literary journal Novy Mir published a series of essays by Vladimir Pomerantsev titled “On Sincerity in Literature”. Pomerantsev criticized the “varnishing” of reality; literature, he wrote, could no longer avoid reflecting and contending with “the vulgarities of life” (Zubok, 2009). Pomerantsev’s watchword, sincerity, was taken up by a generation of Soviet artists. In cinema, its great champion was the filmmaker Mikhail Romm, who as a professor at the State Cinema Institute (VGIK) openly encouraged his students to be themselves—to process and portray the world according to their own perceptions and in tune with their own sense of artistic integrity . The ethic of sincerity required not simply that one be oneself, but–a far more difficult thing–trust oneself.

Suddenly, one’s experience of the world mattered, even if that experience contradicted the world-narrative passed down from on high. If sticking to a closed cultural code meant creating works out of joint with what one saw and felt and believed, the code had to be opened. If what  one saw and felt was stirringly, disturbingly complex, it would be insincere to ignore that complexity. If the drama of personal life intersected awkwardly–or did not intersect at all–with the drama of public life, it would be insincere to portray a world in which the two were harmoniously intertwined. The closed “dominant code” of postwar Stalinism was inadequate to the artist who felt a duty (both private and public) to be sincere. Sincerity required a closer look at both the internal and external world; it required the ability to see beyond imposed codes— to create a subjective response to the disorder of the objective terrain.

Stuart Hall (1974) proposed that cultural products are “encoded” according to the producer’s value-set and subsequently “decoded” by consumers. These consumers might decode the product using the same “dominant” code as the producer, creating a direct match between how the producer wants the work to be received and how it is received. On the other hand, an empowered consumer might use a different code to decipher the work, one that negotiates with the work, questioning it in some ways and accepting it in others. Consumers might even deploy an “oppositional” code that willfully reads signs against the intentions of the producer: If you write stop, I’ll read it as go. Nikita Khrushchev’s extraordinary revelation, in his February 1956 “secret speech” to the Twentieth Party Congress, of some of Stalin’s crimes (namely those committed against the Party faithful) no doubt emboldened a subset of Soviet citizens to read highly varnished Socialist-Realist depictions of, say, 1937, with an ironic or oppositional code. Indeed, by the 1970s, ironic decoding of empty Communist orthodoxy would amount to a sort of spontaneous, ongoing passive resistance to the more marked absurdities of the regime—a stance not so much oppositional as creatively adaptive, a way of playing with the available toys in the sandbox (see Yurchak, 2008).

But in the late 1950s and early 60s–the post-secret speech period known as the “Thaw”–irony was not yet king. Many members of the Soviet intelligentsia took Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign to heart, but they were not rolling their eyes at the communist experiment; they were searching for a way to restore the presumed purity of its roots. And they were looking for guidance and inspiration in this search. In this environment, the encoders of cultural messages played an extremely important role; in the Russian tradition artists are expected to provide not simply diversion from reality or even reflection of reality, but instruction on how to live within reality. The “accursed questions”–What is to be done? and Who is to blame?–had been tacitly assigned by the people to their artists like a particularly high-stakes homework assignment. In answering these questions, it would be unacceptable for artists to continue shaping their answers with an old code that excluded observed reality. While most Thaw-era artists did not dispense with socialist realist tropes and codes (Prokhorov, 2002), they began to change the way they way they built their word-and-image worlds upon the increasingly pliable socialist realist scaffolding. If they wanted to fulfill their cultural duty, to follow the path of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and Mayakovsky, they would need to open the code to worldly input.

To open a code, though, is violate its fixed nature—that is, to make it unintelligible. Without codes, life can become baggy, formless, intimidating in its chaos. Codes are the child of the narrative thinking—the habits of thought that allow us to create scripts for our world and our lives; scripts transform the ambiguous elements of life into recognizable, “priceable” commodities in the narrative economy. If our narrative tells us that X leads to Y, we can more easily deduce the worth and meaning—that is, the codified value—of X in our lives. Can we really free ourselves from this adaptive scripting, which can so often ease the cognitive burden of life?

The opening of conventional codes is, then, one of the trickiest propositions in the creation of artistic or journalistic artifacts. No representation of life is free from some sort of restrictive code. We are all hemmed in by the limitations inherent in having a point of view, and the need to impose form on a world in flux. But there is a sort of sliding scale of representation, in which we open codes up in a number of ways: one of these is to include in our representation a reflexive awareness of our own point of view; this allows us the privilege of our own script without denying the scripts of others. Another is to populate our represented worlds with multiple voices and multiple scripts, each of which are given the space for expression and integrity–the ability to enter the story, the competition among scripts. Dostoyevsky was a master at this development of multiple voices, which Bakhtin called “polyphony”. (Sarah Young (2004) offers an outstanding discussion of competitive scripting in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and the Ethical Foundations of Narrative.)

Seen in this light, “open encoding” is the telling of tales in which the master narrative has not pre-determined the actions and attitudes of the people and the shadings of the setting. It is an encoding in which the accidents of creation are permitted to happen. This very openness to “accidents of creation” is a sort of creative ideology. It is not an outright rejection of scripting, but an awareness that the world is composed of competing scripts, all of them operating above the unscripted stuff of nature, attempting to tame that nature, sometimes succeeding, sometimes being utterly defeated, but most often having subtle, unexpected, and even unintended consequences.

Scripting, of course, takes place not only in works of art, but in political, cultural, and individual life. We are forever creating stories about our world and ourselves. When we gather a bit of power–whether the power of an older sibling, a titan of industry, or a President–we often consider it a right, or perhaps a duty, or maybe just an irresistible temptation, to make others subject to our scripts. On the grand scale, the competitive rough and tumble of human scripting does—to borrow a phrase back in vogue—“bend the arc of history”, but rarely in a direction prescribed by any single script. (This, of course, is one of the insights at the heart of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.) Totalitarianism consists in the attempt to administratively wipe out not only the humbling underlying inaccessible truths of time and nature, but also all competitive scripting about those truths. Marxism-Leninism could posit neither humbling truths nor competitive dialogue about them. It was an attempt to install a master narrative that dictated both the national dialogue and the sketch of the world in each individual mind. This is why the late-Stalinist insistence on “conflictlessness” in cinema was the apotheosis of Communist cultural hubris. It was an authorial attempt to erase contradictory words and images from Soviet life once and for all; dialectical materialism remained the religion of the realm, but the dialectic was a museum piece, in which all contradiction was pre-scripted by the master and the synthesis was a forgone conclusion, the end of dialectics.

Greg Blake Miller

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