In the first question of this interview, philosopher Paolo Virno is asked to explain how he can regard Marxism as a “doctrine of rigorous individualism”—particularly since the mandated ideology of the “really existing socialism” of Eastern Europe tended to emphasize suppressing individuality in favor of an elaborately professed fidelity to the collective. Virno quotes Russian linguist Lew Vygotsky in response: “the real movement of the development process of the child’s thought is accomplished not from the individual to the socialized, but from the social to the individual.” That is, we must learn to think of ourselves as individuals within a given set of social relations, a process that Virno claims continues throughout adult life: ” We constantly have to deal with the interiority of the public and with the publicity of the interior.”
In many ways, the Ostalgia show at the New Museum, which collects work by artists who were raised in the Soviet Union or its satellite nations in the Eastern Bloc, deals with precisely this question: how does one express or capture that inner sense of individuality publicly, in a society that pretends to officially deny its existence? The show presents ironic support for the idealized notion that true individuality can emerge only under socialism: Despite the manifest material hardships, the artists evince a kind of hardy, irrepressibly idiosyncratic spirit that can seem sharper, more distinctive, more authentic to jaded Western eyes. It’s easy, for example, to read the ad hoc creativity captured in Vladimir Arkhipov‘s images of improvised household gadgetry (e.g., a maraca made from foam rubber, scaps of leather, and a Fanta can; a tub stopper made from a bent fork stuck in a rubber boot heel) as proof that Eastern European living conditions forced everyone to be folk artists.
That is where the nostalgia (albeit vicarious) comes in for us: the wistful fantasy of a world in which glamour and celebrity don’t exist, so no one is under pressure to develop their identity with fame in mind. In “Ostalgia,” we see art made in a society without an art market, design devised not for a culture of consumer seduction but for individuals desperate for functionality. No crass commericalism—the pursuit of distinction in these works is not about ego but simply the essential desire to show that one existed. The works have an ontological desperation that seems to purify them.
It’s readily apparent that none of the ordinary people in the 1960s and ‘70s-era photographs by Boris Mikhailov are posing for him to improve their personal brand. The frank, earthy images utterly lack that kind of calculating awareness; they instead carry an erotic charge that depends not on conforming to commercially established beauty standards but on evincing a surprising singularity, a spontaneous particularity, as if they are only just discovering their uniqueness. Since Mikhailov’s work was not sanctioned by the state, his subjects ran real risks by agreeing to pose (often nude). This tends to make them appear as co-conspirators in an act of subversive intimacy. The feeling of forbidden liberation is palpable. Rather than being objectified by the photographs (even though they were paid to model), Mikhailov’s subjects seem instead to seize the opportunity to be truly subjectivized by them. The images allow them to express individuality for its own sake. Secret moments stolen from a surveillance state, the photos document poignant private alliances, anti-networking.
This is a far cry from what we are accustomed to in the era of social media, where the idea of secret moments is becoming unthinkable, regarded increasingly as aberrant and antisocial. It is hard to imagine achieving such intimacy or liberation as Mikhailov’s images evoke in the time of Facebook, in which not only is everything permitted—there is no repressive state forbidding personal expression—but people are pressured to share as much of that everything as possible in a tolerated spirit of self-aggrandizement. Social media have turned fears of a surveillance state inside out and made self-revelation ubiquitous, automatic, virtually unintentional. At the same time, given the sorts of skills needed to secure the jobs reserved for the “creative class,” we are forced to manufacture and parade an ersatz individuality, showcasing our flexibility and ingenuity, our ability to anticipate trends, our well-rounded sensitivity to the processes of cultural meaning making.
So despite our culture’s emphasis on individuality, we don’t generally experience it the way it’s depicted in “Ostalgia”. Instead we fret about the degree to which we are unique, make a fetish of superficial nonconformity. We are becoming used to the notion of an attention economy, in which our individuality is increasingly inexpressible except as a quantitative measure. It becomes harder to image a life that is obscure, and so such a life begins to seem as if it contains more reality. Ostalgia becomes a nostalgia not for the all-embracing social order socialist states tried to provide or their uneven successes in suppressing the effects of a class structure on ordinary people, but for the way such total systems left inadvertent room for a contested privacy that had monumental value. Now we just give it away through frictionless sharing, and many of us don’t know how to stop it even if we aren’t inclined to lend our consent.