On April 10, 2017, Sergey Zenkin presented a lecture entitled “Revolutionary Event and Literary Discourse” as part of the REEEC Distinguished Lecture Series. Dr. Zenkin is a Professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities. His lecture focused on the works of two French philosophers, Maurice Blanchot and Paul Ricoeur, through which we can gain a more complex understanding of revolutions and their subsequent interpretations.
Dr. Zenkin introduced his lecture with a point about how history is interpreted. He said that, in antiquity, history was interpreted using the reigns of monarchs and emperors as guides. Currently, however, history is interpreted using chronological points as guides, especially wars and revolutions. History is, therefore, inhuman and catastrophic.
Turning to theoretical analyses of revolutions, Dr. Zenkin noted that revolutions are imbued with an aura of heroism and entail both creation and destruction. In Maurice Blanchot’s analysis, literary creation is based on rupture. The act of writing or speaking serves to separate the author from his subject. Likewise, revolution is a “fabulous moment” in which history is emptied out. The revolution is distinct from human time, desires, and projects. The individual is no longer relevant and is replaced by the community. Blanchot viewed the revolution from within, which removes it from chronological history. He also viewed revolution as a “total event” or “super event” because it overturns the world. The totality of the revolution ultimately necessitates that it be viewed from within because there are no external points of view. Moreover, there are no possible actions because all that could be done has been done already. Perhaps the only response available is seeing. However, according to Blanchot, there are no spectators, but only readers who interpret the revolution after it has occurred. The readers can confirm or reject thought about the revolution and therefore imbue it with meaning. Through their interpretive work, the revolution ultimately becomes history.
Paul Ricoeur offers a different interpretation on revolution. He argued that there is a homology between texts and actions because both are separated from their subjects and constituted of material objects. Moreover, neither actor nor author can control the consequences of action or text. The author addresses his text to an indefinite audience. The audience reads his work and this implies action as well—a reaction to the author’s text. Ricoeur also analyzed “events of foundation,” which are extraordinary, total events affecting an entire nation or all of mankind. These events combine both negativity and creativity. Zenkin posited that, for modernity, the “event of foundation” is the revolution. Revolutions are endowed with meaning through the reactions that they evoke, such as commemoration through semi-religious rituals or repetition. Ricoeur also analyzed revolutions through the frame of mimesis of total events. The mimesis of total events shows that revolutions are paradoxical, endow absolute and negative freedom, and generate a rupture which must be sustained.
Dr. Zenkin concluded his lecture with a brief discussion of Yuri Lotman’s analysis of revolution as both culture and explosion, which normalizes revolution. Zenkin suggested that we ultimately cannot choose between revolution and normalization, writing and interpretation, or culture and explosion.
Kathleen Gergely is a first-year REEEC MA student. She is also a 2016-2017 FLAS Fellow for Russian.