Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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July 12, 2007
Bakhtin at the lightbulb factory

Terry Eagleton in a book review last month cast a momentary light on a delightful fact about Mihkail Bakhtin:

[Bakhtin] settled in Saransk, where he lived for a while in a disused jail and taught at the Pedagogical Institute as a one-man world literature department. He also gave a lecture on aesthetics to workers at a lightbulb factory, and became something of a local celebrity.
(emphasis supplied)

A different, wonderful article by Eugene Matusov, mainly about Bakhtin's teaching methods, provides a little more detail about the lecture:

He was skillful in tuning his presentations to diverse audiences at any level.

For example, in the late 1950s, he gave a lecture on literary aesthetics at a lightbulb factory in front of as many as 700 electrical workers.

The article is here (.pdf).

A reconstruction of Bakhtin's lecture, as pieced together years later by the fragmentary notes of the baffled factory workers in the audience, show that Bakhtin opened his presentation as follows:

You won't believe this, but fifty years from now, some of the people who read books by me will laugh at this joke:

Q: How many postmodernists does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Two. One to ponder the subtextualities of change regarding the cultural hegemony of the electrical/manual pseudoduality, and one to call the janitor.

Heh heh. Isn't that a killer?

Heh. Heh.


How about this one?

Q. How many deconstructionists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A. Even the framing of this question makes a grid of patriarchal assumptions that reveals a slavish devotion to phallocentric ideas - such as, technical accomplishment has inherent value, knowledge can be attained and quantities of labor can be determined empirically, all of which makes a discourse which further marginalizes the already disenfranchised.

Heh heh.


Hoo boy.

Hey, how about that Vsevolod Bobrov?

OK, I lied about that whole last part (joke sources here and here).

But doesn't the idea of a lecture in a late-1950s, Soviet lightbulb factory sound quaint?

Actually, on further research, no it doesn't.

The Saransk lightbulb factory seems like it may have been a pretty big deal at the time, as was Saransk, both in its own way.

Some basic info on the city is here. The school at which MB taught seems to have become today's Mordovian State University. The school's website offers some more info on Saransk here.

If MB lectured at the big Saransk electrical equipment factory now known as LISMA, a picture of the place is here.

A history of that factory, which goes back to 1949, is here. The plant did not come into production until after several years of construction, until 1956. The factory's first lamp was manufactured only some 72 hours after the first public readings of Khruschev's "On the Personality Cult and its Consequences" speech, and right around the third anniversary of Stalin's death. The factory employed over 16,000 people, or around 17% of the Mordovian industrial labor force.

A big source of pride in the factory's first few years seems to have been the development of its ability to make fluorescent bulbs. These seem to have been a somewhat big, new thing in the 1950s. They had been introduced to public consciousness in the USA at the 1939 World's Fair. After the war, in the USA, fluorescents had only surpassed incandenscent bulbs in prevalence of use by around 1951.

[What if anything does the backdrop condition of the Soviet economy of the early-to-mid 1950s say about whether building the new factory in Saransk was an important thing or not? How much cash did the USSR have to throw around back in the early 1950s on a new electrical equipment factory? What was the state of the general Soviet economy?

This is a huge topic. I am not expert on it -- or anything. However, the period seems to have been one, there, of much economic transition to new priorities. Some scattered evidentiary pieces:

from Mark Harrison's January 2007 "The Soviet Economy: War, Growth, and Dictatorship" (.pdf):
In other words, by 1954, with Stalin's corpse already on view in the Red Square mausoleum, recovery from the effects of World War II was only half complete.

Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag: A History:
Within days of Stalin's demise, his henchman Beria, and then Khrushchev, began dismantling one of the dictator's proudest achievements, namely his concentration camps. They did so for many reasons. . . . . Most of all, though, they did so because the camps were an economic disaster and had distorted the society they were supposed to help build.

from Harrison and Byung-Yeon Kim's's 2001 paper "Plan, Siphoning and Corruption in the Soviet Command Economy" (.pdf)
[I]n the early 1950s the authorities pursued a policy of stabilising money wages and allowing living standards to rise by forcing down retail prices.

from Isaac Deutscher's "The Failure of Khruschevism," (.pdf) in the Socialist Register, 1965:
In the middle 'fifties Moscow was compensating many Communist governments for the wrongs inflicted on them: it disbanded the Joint Stock Companies through which Stalin had controlled the Chinese and Eastern Eurpoean economies; it annulled the unequal trade treaties he had imposed on them; and it gave up other forms of "penetration."]

In any case, it is easy to imagine that the new lightbulb factory was something of a regional showpiece.

Back then, the factory seems to have been part of a collective manufacturing association called Svetotekhnika. The magazine Svetotekhnika, "the official mouthpiece of state organizations responsible for the development of lighting equipment in the USSR," goes back to 1931. "," meanwhile, today seems go to an electrical products group's website that has no English-language content but does at least feature a graphic of the form of a woman who looks like the lovechild of the Silver Surver and Grace Jones. Mordovia seems to be proud to this day of its electrical equipment manufacturing industry.

During the Soviet era, however, the electric lightbulb apparently was an invention of huge importance. The lightbulb was known as nothing less than "the lamp of Ilyich [Lenin]." A stirring vintage photo by Skurikhin (one of his many great ones) of some peasants reading by the light of one is here.

Moreover, you can't have a lightbulb without electrity, and you can't have electricity without electrification. Lenin and the Soviet Union took electrification very seriously indeed. Lenin famously wrote, in 1920:
Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.

[Writing 16 years later in The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky put an anti-Stalinist spin on Lenin's saying, when he wrote:

Lenin once characterized socialism as "the Soviet power plus electrification."

That epigram, whose one-sidedness was due to the propaganda aims of the moment, assumed at least as a minimum starting point the capitalist level of electrification. At present in the Soviet Union there is 1/3 as much electrical energy per head of the population as in the advanced countries.

If you take into consideration that the soviets have given place in the meantime to a political machine that is independent of the masses, the Communist International has nothing left but to declare that socialism is bureaucratic power plus 1/3 of the capitalist electrification.

Such a definition would be photographically accurate, but for socialism it is not quite enough!

(Heh heh. Heh.

How about that Vsevolod Bobrov?)]

At the same time, Matusov's article points out how Bakhtin's dialogic mind and teaching methods served in some clever ways to undo totalitarian pedagogy from within.

Thus, I like to imagine that MB's lecture was a two-way discussion with the lightbulb factory workers.

I imagine how they might have agreed to put in motion some kind of secret plan to try to remake the human mind, in ways that Lenin might not have imagined, through a sneaky agenda that would not reveal itself for decades, with MB working from the theoretical end and the lightbulb workers from the physical/technological end.

For the electrification of the Soviet Union, which the lightbulb workers worked in the service of, turned out to be merely a part of a much larger, transformational, 20th century global wiring.

McLuhan thought about the implications of how the electrification of the planet meant an extension of the human nervous system, with the result that "all such extensions of our bodies, including cities - will be translated into information systems."

No less a quintessential contemporary artifact than Wikipedia describes itself as "an intensely dialogic phenomenon."

So I foggily imagine Bakhtin appealing to the workers, something like:


When you go back to your assembly line and make your lightbulbs, think about what I said in this lecture.

If you do, I predict that your creations will magically absorb my ideas -- and me.

My ideas will become electrons, and inject themselves into a network that someday will span the globe, to influence all humanity.

Thereby, together, someday, we will revolutionize human consciousness!

Or at least it will be the closest thing to a symbolic way for me to get myself the heck out of Saransk.

A definitive collection of lightbulb jokes are here.

Some philosophy-related jokes, of which an overlapping category involve lightbulbs, are here.

[Though that last link does omit what is my favorite lightbulb joke of the instant, which is buried here:

Q. How many speech act theorists does it take to change a light bulb?

A. Do you really want to know or are you simply asking me to change it?