Thanksgiving Is Ruined
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.
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?
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?
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. "Svetotechnica.com," 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."
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:
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?