Thursday, January 21, 2010

Reality Bytes

Family In Kitchen

Any fool can start a political revolution; it takes a real revolutionary to overturn the patterns and substance of ordinary life in the search for something new and better. The Russians, who have long been obsessed with everyday life, use the term “byte” to refer to the quotidian. Svetlana Boym argues in her fittingly named book, Common Places, that Russian intellectuals have had a long and complicated history with byte. Indeed, Russians were more often than not at war with byte: they sought to overcome or surmount the banal stuff of everyday life in a quest for personal or national transformation.

Ship's Cook

The Russian tendency to think of byte as something that stands opposed to greatness--as opposed to merely representing its context or background noise--is not universal. It may also be destructive. It’s been said that Russians accept or perhaps even embrace suffering in their quest to rise above the ordinary stuff of life. Better to court war, conflagration, political upheaval, mass murder, and famine, than submit to the exigencies of soul-destroying byte.

Like Boym, Christina Kiaer has examined the question of byte, although she focuses on aesthetic approaches to the topic in her wonderful book, Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism. Fascinatingly, certain strands of Russian constructivism embraced everyday life, even eschewing “high art” traditions in the process. Some of these artists saw their principle task as revolutionaries to be that of participating in byte rather than escaping it. Some constructivists went so far with the concept that their own artistic projects were almost indistinguishable from physical culture of existing Russian peasants and proletarians. Whether this amounted to avant-garde work or its opposite is an open question.

To the credit of Russian revolutionaries, the end of the Russian Civil War saw the country actively debating almost every aspect of byte. Trotsky, still at the apogee of his political influence, wrote a treatise on the subject, and various art journals carried on a rich dialogue about its import. Trotsky’s view was that everyday life was essentially conservative in nature. The past clung to people, held them tightly to old and discredited traditions. It was crude and crass. Even people’s seemingly insignificant household objects were dangerous and ultimately counter-revolutionary. They signified proletarian attachment to outmoded bourgeois ideals, and they deflected proletarian aspirations away from worthy goals. Bourgeois-inspired objects celebrated purely aesthetic values, and largely visual ones at that.

Trotsky At Sukhumi

This was hardly appropriate for people who hoped to become better than they had ever previously been. Revolutionary material culture wasn’t predicated on a search for beauty for its own sake; rather it sought to implement principles of hygiene, mass production, rationality, and usefulness. Bourgeois material culture celebrated conservative values such as patriarchy and individuality and privacy; its revolutionary counterpart would move decisively toward values related to freedom, collective action, equality, and community. I understand Trotsky’s concerns. Material culture is like quicksand.

I think of George Clooney’s speech in Up in the Air. “Imagine you have a backpack. Imagine you can put all of your things into that backpack. “That backpack just gets heavier and heavier. You need to watch an episode of hoarders to get the full import of that speech. But even with well-disciplined byte, you’re a victim of everyday life and everyday material culture. Watch that inspiring movie about an orphan-turned-football start. Who is in charge, the family, the orphan, or the massive, tastefully decorated house that surrounds them? Byte always wins.

I have decorated my office in bourgeois display. I’ve got an antique wooden desk, inherited from my grandmother’s basement (an episode of hoarders that somehow never got taped), filled with knick-knacks, including a mawkish portrait of two dogs, inherited from grandfather, and vine wreath, made by a friendly horticulturalist for a holiday fundraising event. And of course there are books on it, Russian books, holding me back, keeping me from my revolutionary destiny. Twenty years ago I prided myself on my barren walls, my opposition to photography, my Spartan insistence on sleeping without a pillow. That was before I got dragged down by the tacky seductions of Pier One.

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