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Models of Personal Conversion in Russian cultural history of the 19th and 20th centuries

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Edited By Jens Herlth and Christian Zehnder

This volume offers a view of modern Russian intellectual culture as shaped by the dynamic of conversions. The individual contributions examine a rich variety of personal conversions occurring in a culture in which the written word enjoyed a privileged status and, historically, was closely linked to the sacred. However, the essays presented go beyond the original meaning of conversion as a change of religious beliefs. They address shifts in style, aesthetic outlooks, and mindsets, political and ideological transfigurations as well as religious conversions in the true sense of the term.
Whether at the level of culture, society or biography, the study of conversions opens the way to profound reflections about questions of identity, cultural ruptures, and continuity. The awareness of former conversions and the possible «convertibility» of one’s own ideological, spiritual or social stance has been among the central traits of Russian intellectual culture during the last two centuries.
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Slavic Conversions

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“Conversion”, broadly understood as an exchange from one unit (of measure) to another, has unlimited possibilities when understood metaphorically. Cultural processes consist of permanent conversions, especially since Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron used the term “le capital culturel” in their Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1973: 71–112) to denote nonfinancial social assets and thus defused the contrast between materialistic economy and sublime cultural creativity. All values became almost boundlessly convertible. Not only styles and epochs in art and literature can be conceptualized as a conversion of one “unit” of representation to another, but also every work of art changing the cultural axiology can potentially be seen as a convertor. Explicit conversions are changes in versification, transferring one sense-producing system to a different one. Avant-garde poetry, especially zaum’ (transrational) poetic language and the Opoiaz group of Russian formalists were known for similar reversals, proceeding “technically” and “pedantically”, as Galin Tihanov says when characterizing Russian formalism (Tikhanov, 2001: 281). Every semantic turn in literary convention is retrospectively a kind of conversion. Let’s consider the change from the strict dactylic hexameter of the Iliad and Odyssey to rhopalic verse (in which each word contains one more letter or one more syllable than the previous word) of the Latin poet Ausonius. Every literary word could be seen as a kind of conversion of nonaesthetic meaning to the realm of “literariness” as Jakobson called it in his “Noveishaia russkaia poėziia” (“Recent Russian Poetry”) (Jakobson, 1921: 11), trying to...

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