Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Narratives of Decline

Atavism and Degeneration as Interdiscursive Narrative Models in Russian Culture between 1880 and 1900.

Dr. Riccardo Nicolosi


At the center of my proposed research are Russian adaptations of narratives of degeneration and atavism in the last third of the 19th century. These take place in an interdiscursive field between science (psychiatry and criminal anthropology) and literature, leading to a biologization of social disintegration processes which is unusual in Russian culture.

With the “discovery” of degeneration and atavism, European cultures in the last third of the 19th century reacted to the fears of anomie emerging through the perception that progress had a threatening “night side.” As medical models of explanation for deviance phenomena such as insanity, criminality or alcoholism, felt to be spreading “epidemically,” degeneration and atavism are conceptualized in the discourses of psychiatry (B.A. Morel, V. Magnan, P.J. Möbius, R. von Krafft-Ebing) as well as criminal anthropology (C. Lombroso). Not least on the basis of detailed catalogues of stigmata, these promise to make visible in clear fashion phenomena of social disintegration. Yet the permanent shifting of the border between normal and pathological leads to a semiotic openness bordering on non-refentiality, which in turn calls into question the heuristic usefulness of such concepts. The enormous success of atavism and degeneration, however, can be explained (according to the hypothesis) by the structure of the narrative models which constitute them, guaranteeing their scientific coherence and evidence. In the case of degeneration, a narrative based on determinism and heredity reveals itself as a genealogical history of decline with a teleological binding of the subject (Sujetfügung). In the case of atavism, the narrative is about collective processes of regression which threaten to bring progressive society back into the realm of “unassociated sameness“ (Spencer) of primitive societies. In both cases the narrative is formed as a dynamic field of forces in which both a linearization segmenting and creating meaning and a maximal semiotic openness are operative. This in turn guarantees the narrative a high degree of flexibility in describing disparate conditions of deviance.

Russian psychiatry reveals an intensive (and to this point unresearched) reception of degeneration and atavism narratives, with the help of which various phenomena of anomie can be explained; these can be seen as appearances of a collective neurological disruption. Specifically Russian in this is the postulating of a connection between the “pathological” modernization of Russia and the Western-oriented reforms of the 1860s. Thus psychiatrists associate the concept of social disintegration with an organic deconstruction which—with variances in ideological weighting--had been formulated already in the 1870s by the populists as well as the Slavophiles or Pan-Slavists (N.Ja. Danilevskij) although the “destruction” was understood to be a consequence of the “infecting” of the social organism with Western ideas (from capitalism to liberalism). This narrative of decline, typical for Russian culture and based on the opposition “Russia vs. Europe,” experiences in the psychiatric context a biologistic reinscription particularly emerging in the reception of atavism theory in its constituting idea of the “born criminal” (Lombroso).

Near the end of the 1870s, Russian literature developed narrative models which correspond structurally to degeneration and atavism narratives, in part anticipating them in the form of: 1) the novel of degeneration which emerges in debates with French naturalism (E. Zola) and gives fictional form to various social types of genealogical death (cf. for example the degeneration of the landed aristocracy in M. Saltykov-Ščedrin, the mining entrepreneur in D. Mamin-Sibirjak, and the city-bourgeoisie in the works of P. Boborykin und I. Jasinskij); and 2) the literary sketch (očerk) dealing with atavistic conditions in the country (the peasant literature from F. Rešetnikov to S. Karonin) and in the city (the literature of the impoverished districts from V. Krestovskij to V. Giljarovskij). The discourse-analytical examination of this (broadly speaking) naturalistic literature, which had been previously overlooked, brings to light a biologistic dimension to Russian culture of the 19th century. On the basis of a postulated “immunity” of this culture to ideas such as Social Darwinism or racial theory, this approach has received little recognition up until now. At the same time, it will be demonstrated how the literary development of narratives of decline favors the emergence of types of writing that anticipate –in their reduction of eventfulness—the prose of Russian modernism (Chekhov).