Valery Podoroga: Mimesis. The Analytic Anthropology of Literature

London: Verso, 2022, ISBN: 978-1786636676, 305 pp.

Serguei A. Oushakine
Erich Auerbach; Theodor W. Adorno; Søren Kierkegaard; Friedrich Nietzsche; Martin Heidegger; Gottfried Leibniz; Michel Foucault; Pavel Florenskii; Sergei Eisenstein; Jacques Derrida; Mikhail Iampolskii; Fedor Dostoevskii; Nikolai Gogol’; Andrei Belyi; philosophy; postclassical philosophy; postmodernism; poststructuralism; mimesis; anthropology.

How does one approach a book of a philosopher who insists on being an anthropologist, despite all indications to the contrary? How does one understand this investment in creating and maintaining a terminological façade that embraces a very different kind of structure within? And what is the point of this façade in the first place? Valery Podoroga’s volume under review suggests a plausible answer to these questions – mimesis, that is to say, an ability to imitate; a capacity to appropriate; a skill to uproot, which is coupled with a desire to transpose conventions and approaches from the place of their origin to a new location. Speaking about Voltaire’s works, Erich Auerbach in his foundational study Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature succinctly expressed the gist of the mimetic faculty: “Voltaire arranges reality so that he can use it for his purposes” (Auerbach 1946: 411). Mimesis, then, could be seen as a purposefully re-arranged reality, a reality under control, a reality with a maximised use-value. How and to what purpose do these operations of re-arranging, controlling, and maximising (the value of) reality present themselves in Podoroga’s work?

Trained as a philosopher at Moscow State University in the late 1960s, Podoroga completed his graduate degree in 1974 at the Institute of Philosophy, a research division of the Soviet Academy of Science, where he held a position until his sudden death in 2020. A product of the Soviet system of higher education, Podoroga was distinctly non-Soviet (yet barely anti-Soviet) in his academic choices and intellectual trajectories. His two dissertations dealt with continental philosophers – the first one presented a “critical analysis” of Theodor W. Adorno’s philosophy of language (1979); the second explored “communicative strategies” of Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger (1992). An avid reader with broad interests, Podoroga was an effective commentator and talented synthesiser, too: his earlier books offered a striking mélange of philosophical ruminations inspired by key texts of European philosophers and Soviet thinkers – from Gottfried Leibniz to Michel Foucault; from the theologian Pavel Florenskii to the avant-garde film-director Sergei Eisenstein.

Podoroga’s deep knowledge of the continental philosophical landscape created a useful platform for building a network of productive international and intellectual exchanges. In 1987, in the midst of perestroika started by Mikhail Gorbachev, Podoroga set up a Laboratory of Postclassical Philosophy Studies under the auspices of the Institute of Philosophy at the Academy of Science.1 The exact content of the “postclassical studies” remained vague, and perhaps, deliberately so. Still, the term was transparent enough to highlight a radical break with the ossified intellectual traditions of the official Soviet Marxism. Within a very short time, the ‘postclassical’ became a buzzword in post-Soviet academic circles, and Podoroga’s Laboratory emerged as an important intellectual hub for ideas and scholars in Russia.

The Lab was also a crucial vehicle for disseminating new (and newly available) knowledge. In the early 1990s, Podoroga and his colleagues initiated a book series called “Philosophy on the Margins: An International Collection of Modern Thought” and invited leading poststructuralist and postmodernist intellectuals from the US (Fredric Jameson, Susan Buck-Morss, and Annette Michelson) and France (Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy) to join the editorial board of the series. Against the backdrop of quickly imploding Soviet academic reputations, the names of international intellectual stars on the masthead of the book series generated a valuable effect of intellectual authenticity, global connectedness, and social credibility.

Produced with the publishing house “Ad Marginem” (created in 1993), this affordable series introduced the mass post-Soviet reader to the texts of Marquis de Sade, Leopold Sacher-Masoch, Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Roland Barthes and, of course, Jacques Derrida (among others). In 1990, a few months before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Podoroga’s institute even organised Derrida’s visit to Moscow, and “Ad Marginem” later published his short essay “Back from Moscow, in the USSR”, eagerly highlighting the fact that this was the first text by Derrida that was originally printed in Russian. As a graduate student in philosophy at St. Petersburg State University in the first half of the 1990s, I vividly remember that for my generation of humanities scholars-in-training, the striking abstract cover of the book series stood for intellectual openness and experimentation. It was a proxy party card that promised membership in the community of a new way of thinking and writing. Surprisingly, ‘philosophy on the margins’ was very much a mainstream thing in the Russia of the 1990s.

By the end of the century, Podoroga’s research interests would significantly shift, though; his academic unit would change its name and status as well. In 1997, the Laboratory dropped its ambiguous “postclassical” identity to become a division (Rus. “sektor”) of “the analytic anthropology”. Efforts to popularise and disseminate the best examples of the “international modern thought” in Russia were slowly replaced by his expansive attempts to rely on Russian literature for tracing “the emergence of the idea of the (literary) work”, as Podoroga would explain it later in his Mimesis (Podoroga 2022: vii; original emphasis).

Mikhail Iampolski (currently a professor at New York University), who worked at the Laboratory and actively contributed to the book series in the 1990s, recalled recently that the meaning of “the analytic anthropology” was far from being obvious back then. To clarify the situation, Podoroga was even compelled to publish a short Dictionary of Analytic Anthropology in 1999.2 A small number of extensive entries explained what seemed to be the main concepts/terms of the new field – from “the Event, “Mimesis”, and “the Other” to “the Anthropology of the Body”, “the Cartography of the Body”, and, finally, to “the Body without Organs”.

Symptomatically, analytic anthropology itself was never properly defined in the Dictionary. Instead, with a broad stroke, Podoroga glossed over the notion of “anthropological analytics” as a method of retroactive reconstructions of the experiential conditions that generated various systems of thinking, or, to use his own words, as “a temporally distant recursive co-experiencing (Rus. “soperezhivanie”) of the basic representations and metaphors of the irretrievable experience. And the word “anthropological” is deployed here to highlight the “irretrievability” of this experience of thinking in the past”.

This idiosyncratic perception of the anthropological is important, and I will come back to it later. Here, I want to highlight another – generic – aspect of the Dictionary, which would become especially prominent in Mimesis. In his short introduction to the Dictionary, Podoroga presented his entries as “drafts (Rus. “proekty”) of essays”, downplaying any desire for certainty, finalisability, and, I would add, responsibility. Taking a radical historicist stance, Podoroga insisted that any system of thinking is historically situated and therefore future readers of philosophical or literary texts could never be experientially coeval with them. At best, the readers could hope to approach these systems of thinking only tangentially, indirectly, and/or remotely. To put it simply, any study of systems of thinking is doomed to be analytic and discrete, non-synthetic and decidedly non-systemic. In the preface to Mimesis, Podoroga reframed this approach in anthropological terms: “We are other readers, other than the ones that came before us; today, we are the anthropologists of literature. That is why the author whom we are trying to meet can be compared to a guide-informant who explains the tribal rituals in a language that an anthropologist would understand” (ibid.: xii; original emphasis).

Podoroga’s antiquated understanding of the anthropological encounter is noteworthy, but it should not be misunderstood. The ‘savage mind’ approach that he proposed in Mimesis (and elsewhere) was used less to exoticise the writers of the past than to produce an intellectually controllable ‘reality’ – non-systemic, non-synthetic, and located at a safe distance from the place of its origin. The Russian version of the book emphasised this aspect of his analytic anthropology directly. Unlike the definite subtitle of the English translation, the Russian Mimesis promised no coherent outlook of the field. Instead, the book was framed as a collection of “materials for the analytic anthropology of literature”, that is to say, as a collection of only partially processed sources, as a reality re-arranged only to a point.

It is somewhat ironic that Mimesis: The Analytic Anthropology of Literature which appeared in English with the support of the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation seems to have taken Podoroga’s fascination with non-systematicity and partiality even further. The translation is a highly abridged compilation of two books that came out in 2006 and 2011 in Russia. To streamline Podoroga’s prose for the Anglophone reader, some chapters were excluded, others were significantly abbreviated, and all the supplementary materials included in the original were completely excised. The English version is three times smaller than the Russian original (300 pages vs. more than 900). As a result, the experimental and laboratory nature of the original is almost entirely lost. True, some of Podoroga’s signature devices are still there: Evgeni Pavlov successfully retained in his translation the fragmentary quality of Podoroga’s writing, the whimsicality of his non-linear thinking, and the categorical nature of his judgements and pronouncements. Yet, behind this experimental façade, Mimesis unexpectedly hides a very traditionalist approach to Russian literature. Emphatically postmodernist in its form, the book is very structuralist in its content.

As Podoroga tells us, Russian literature could be divided into two opposing camps: the “so-called ‘courtly-noble’ or ‘classicist’ literature” vs. “the other, experimental” literature (ibid.: vii). Each camp demonstrates a unique orientation. The “classicist” approach to literature (“mimesis-1”, as Podoroga calls it) relied on external reality for replicating it within the text. By contrast, the “experimental” approach (“mimesis-2”) took literary worlds themselves as its starting point, mimicking various languages, styles, and narrative patterns. Putting the “classicist” literature aside, it is precisely “experimental” literary works that Podoroga subjected to his anthropological analytics in Mimesis.

Of course, the organising binary used by Podoroga for sifting through the wealth of literary texts is not new. In different variations the same dichotomy was routinely played out in Russia and the USSR throughout the last two centuries: the official art and literature were contrasted with their underground or dissident counterparts; the conservative – with the revolutionary, and the traditionalist – with the avant-garde. What is somewhat novel in Podoroga’s approach is not the split itself but the writers – Nikolai Gogol, Fedor Dostoevsky, and Andrei Belyi – that he linked in the volume with “the other literature”.

The choice is as puzzling as it is misleading. Certainly experimental, these writers and their literary contributions, nonetheless, have become canonical foundations of Russian literature – both in its imperial and Soviet versions. Moreover, all three writers have been habitually seen as the indispensable aesthetic and literary sources of Russia’s “modernism of underdevelopment”, which was so convincingly explored a few decades ago by Marshall Berman in his All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. If Dostoevsky is ‘an Other’ of Russian literature, then, who is its ‘normative’ core, then?

Hardly convincing, Podoroga’s partial and incomplete mimesis of Russian literature is quite understandable. The segment of reality that he carved out for his analytical exercises allowed him to maintain a non-systemic and non-synthetic worldview, devoid of any meta-narratives and generalising concepts. This is not to say that he refrained completely from any generalisations; yet his generalisations were more metaphorical than analytic (or conceptual). As if resuscitating the philological conventions of the 1960s–1970s, Podoroga re-organised the works of Gogol, Dostoevskii, and Belyi by arranging them along new metaphorical axes. To foreground the experimental – defamiliarising – nature of the writing, the literary work was examined through the lens of a particular guiding metaphor (motif?) that originates and recurs within each author’s texts.

For instance, this is how Podoroga reconstitutes Gogol’s work: “It would not be a significant simplification to declare that Gogol’s literary work is a kind of peculiarly constructed heap, for example, ‘a heap of all words’ where a word is a heap of all letters. Indeed, a work becomes a heap (or is gathered into a heap); it is a work-heap in its transformations, modifications, growth, expansion and disintegration” (ibid.: 52; original emphasis). In his own commentaries to Mimesis,3 Podoroga took this line of thought to the limit, explaining that the world of Gogol’ “is one continuous heap – everything will be a heap of everything else, including itself. The heap is the steppe, cloud, spilled peas, handful of ashes, beads of sweat, and the pyramid of skulls in the war paintings of V. Vereshchagin. The heap is the outrageous hoarding of Pliushkin, his ‘old junk’, his ‘lack’ and ‘shame’ and it is the register of Chichikov’s ‘dead souls’, their ‘excess’ and ‘wealth’. The heap is the whole world of material substance, which opens into an endless series of heap-like images” (ibid.: 319; translation is amended for consistency; original emphasis).

With the same passion and determination, Podoroga reframed Dostoevsky’s work around the metaphor of “plan”, and Belyi’s – around the idea of “eruption”. Meticulously mining literary texts for endless variations of the chosen metaphor, Podoroga demonstrated again and again how heaps were arranged by Gogol, how plans were subverted by Dostoevsky, and how eruptions were experienced by Belyi. No doubt, his search for the lowest common metaphoric denominator is impressive but it begs a basic question: when everything can be potentially reduced to a single idea or image, when everything could be reframed as an emanation of some basic matrix, then, what is the analytic use of the reductionist move that consistently devalues and discards any manifestation of difference?

Moreover, when following Podoroga’s dizzying terminological excavations of sameness, we never quite learn why these metaphors (and their infinite variations) were endowed with such a formative power by these writers. Being completely taken by the transformations, modifications, growth, expansion, and disintegration of his metaphors, Podoroga remains unfailingly oblivious to the forces – literary and otherwise – that made these metaphors historically meaningful in the first place. Larger social contexts that might have precipitated the emergence and proliferation of these metaphors and these ways of metaphoric thinking are firmly bracketed off. Such elements of the literary field as readers, patrons, critics, stylistic conventions, or forms of literary production, circulation, and consumption (to name just a few) are resolutely kept aside in Mimesis. Social lives of literary and artistic texts – the starting point of any anthropological study – have been transformed into something that looks like a herbarium of expressive means. Flattened. Static. Preserved.

Text is an enclosed – irretrievable – system of thinking that is accessible only partially, Podoroga keeps telling us in Mimesis. But if literature has been reduced to a heap of words, then the analytic anthropologist of this literature is nothing but a heapster, a bricoleur, a vernacular engineer who re-purposes found objects – objets trouvés? – for his own goals, following the beat of his own drum.

How do we read, then, a book of a philosopher who insists on being an anthropologist while performing a philological exercise? I suggest we follow Podoroga’s basic insight: approach his book tangentially and read it non-systemically – as a non-synthetic ensemble of arresting observations, imaginative comparisons, and perceptive interpretations. As a text whose original coherence is irretrievable. Use it for building your own reality – the materials are already there. Enjoy a mimesis of your own making.4

Serguei Alex. Oushakine
Princeton University


1 Лаборатория постклассических исследований Института философии РАН.

2 Podoroga, Valerii. 1999. “Slovar’ analiticheskoi antropologii”. Logos 2: 26-88.

3 Published separately in Russian Studies in Philosophy Vol. 54, No. 4 (2016).

4 This is an extended version of the book review The other literature: A Russian philosopher’s take on the literary canon” that was published by The Times Literary Supplement on July 28, 2023.


Serguei Alex. Oushakine is Professor of Anthropology and Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. His latest publication is The Pedagogy of Images: Depicting Communism for Children (Toronto University Press, 2021), co-edited with Marina Balina.


Berman, Marshall. 1982. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. New York.

Derrida, Jacques and Ryklin, Mikhail. 1993. Zhak Derrida v Moskve: dekonstruktsiia puteshestviia. Moscow.

Podoroga, Valerii. 1979. “Kriticheskii analiz filosofii iazyka Т.V. Adorno”. PhD dissertation. The Institute of Philosophy of the USSR Academy of Sciences.

Podoroga, Valerii. 1992. “Vyrazhenie i smysl: Kommunikativnye strategii v filosofskoi kulture XIX-XX vv.”. PhD dissertation. The Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Podoroga, Valerii. 1999. “Slovar’ analiticheskoi antropologii”. Logos 2: 26-88.

Podoroga, Valery. 2016. “Anthropograms: A Self-Critical Approach”. Russian Studies in Philosophy 54 (4): 267-358.

Suggested Citation

Oushakine, Serguei A. 2023. Review: “Valery Podoroga: Mimesis. The Analytic Anthropology of Literature”. Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 17. DOI: