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Violence as a Signifier of the Sacred



Mark Lipovetsky, University of Colorado Boulder


Wednesday, September 27, 2017 - 4:30pm


Pigott Hall (Bldg. 260) room 216




Violence as a Signifier of the Sacred

This paper will analyze a few of the best-known examples of the treatment of violence as a signifier of the sacred in Soviet and post-Soviet literature, and through the analysis and contextualization of these examples will attempt to decode the semantics of the most influential discourses on violence. The concept of sacred to be discussed is limited to the area of the “non-divine sacred,” to use Sergei Zenkin’s term, rather than the religious concept of sacred; this conceptualization of sacred is mainly associated with the avant-garde (Benjamin, Bataille, Caillois, and subsequent totalitarian aesthetics).  In this context, the sacred is inseparable from the act of transgression, and violence as one of its forms. Further, what Foucault defines as limitlessness is, in effect, a version of the sacred created by modernity, including Soviet modernity. This newly designed (or rediscovered) sacred encompasses both “positive” and “negative”; it seeks to embody the transcendental in both sublime and abject forms, but most frequently, it conflates these two concepts in indivisible unity.

The association of the sacred with violence has been discussed in many studies, most importantly, in René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred. Girard’s concept of the sacrificial crisis seems applicable to Soviet culture, which is punctuated by such crises: Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Terror, World War II, and the collapse of the USSR. Each of these crises is marked by the prevalence of violence, and each of them creates what Girard defines as the crisis of cultural differences, meaning that when the difference between non-pure and purifying (sacrificial) violence has been lost, the entire cultural order subsequently collapses. The crisis of cultural differences, in turn, requires new forms of the sacred to be created; this suggests the isolation of forms of violence which would be perceived as purifying and sacrificial, i.e., as signifiers of the sacred. This is why, in Girard’s words, “The genuine heart and secret soul of the sacred consists of violence.” In this paper I will focus on three interpretations of violence, epitomized by such seminal texts as Evgeny Zamiatin’s We, Isaac Babel’s “Salt,” and Mikhail Zoshchenko’s “Nervous People”.


MARK LIPOVETSKY is Professor and Chair of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Born and educated in the USSR, since 1996 he has worked in the US. He is the author of nine books and more than a hundred articles published in the US, Russia, and Europe. He also co-edited twelve collections of articles on Russian literature and culture of the 20th-21st centuries. His research interests are diverse, and include Russian postmodernism, New Drama, and Soviet literary and cinematic tricksters, as well as various aspects of post-Soviet culture. Among his books, the most recent are Charms of Cynical Reason: The Transformations of the Trickster Trope in Soviet and Post-Soviet Culture (2011) and Postmodern Crises: From Lolita to Pussy Riot (2017). Currently, Lipovetsky is working on a critical biography of Dmitry Prigov (together with Ilya Kukulin) and editing Prigov’s collected works for the NLO Press in Moscow. In 2014, Lipovetsky received an award from the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages for his outstanding contribution to scholarship.