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  • Exploring Sublime Imperfections: How the Non-perfected is Framed as Beneficial

Exploring Sublime Imperfections: How the Non-perfected is Framed as Beneficial

In September, the Research Centre for Contemporary Culture, an interdisciplinary unit inside the HSE Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities, held a seminar on ‘Analysing “informal” practices in (digital) cultural economies’. Delivered by Dr Ellen Rutten, Professor of Literature at the University of Amsterdam, the seminar focused on terms that allow us to more consciously talk about modern cultural economies. In an interview with the HSE News Service following her seminar, Dr Rutten spoke about Sublime Imperfections project, her other current research work, and ongoing collaboration with HSE.

— Could you say a few words about the Sublime Imperfections project and how it began?

 Sublime Imperfections is a research project that I coordinate at the University of Amsterdam and that is funded by the Netherlands Scientific Organization. The project started in 2015 and it ends in 2020.

In the project, two PhD students and I explore an aesthetic and social trend to frame the non-perfected as benefit rather than a bother – in ragged jeans or rickety-looking café interiors, for instance, but also in paintings, poems, or films that promote a logic or aesthetics of imperfection. We use existing studies of the imperfect to ask why is it so popular today to project positive values onto imperfection. Which larger social, aesthetic, and historical questions underpin our preoccupation with the non-perfected?

The project is ongoing, but in past years, we did formulate some tentative answers to these questions. The first is related to the collective dreams and fears that, as a rule, motivate ‘cults of imperfection.’ Throughout modern history, a heightened interest in the imperfect often coincides with radical social and technological transitions. In response to these transitions, people start worrying about core life values that may vanish in the process – authenticity, for instance, sincerity, or humanness. In the age of industrialization, for example, thinkers like John Ruskin promoted imperfection as a token of humanness and self-expression. Ruskin favoured humanmade (and error-ridden) human creations above the ‘accurate mouldings, and perfect polishing, and unerring adjustments’ of ‘seasoned wood and tempered steel.’ He believed that to ‘banish imperfection is to destroy expression.’

In our analyses, we have seen that artists, philosophers, filmmakers, marketeers, psychologists, and many others today similarly say: we should cherish mistakes and blemishes, as they compensate for values that threaten to disappear in times of technological advancement

According to this (quite popular) logic, the imperfect can make up for a contemporary loss of authenticity, sincerity, humanness, and of individuality.

A second preliminary answer that we can distil from our analyses relates to the spread of the same values across different social and creative domains. Thinkers and practitioners in different professional fields project different functions and promises onto the imperfect. Psychologists present a tolerance of imperfections as gateway to wellbeingin the face of all-pervading mediatization; designers frame wonkiness as a hallmark of humanness in hi-tech times; and philosophers argue that without life’s existential lack of perfection there would be no such thing as human desire. We compare and try to map the various functions and promises that the non-polished and the non-ideal today fulfil for their advocates, and to understand the different stories that drive the persistent present-day longing for imperfection.

— What was the trigger for this line of research? What first got you interested?

— In November 2007 in Helsinki, I visited a conference lecture about the language of padonki – the typo-lauding online Russian slang that was so popular in the mid-2000s. The lecture was part of a panel hosted by the team of the Future of Russian, a project that examined the impact of digitization on Russian language at the University Bergen in Norway. The padonki’s love for typos, so I learned from the lecture, was also sparked by technological transitions. ‘The bettir the didgital spelchekkurs, the moor the rusian languich lozis itz spontuneitie and tcharm’ (‘Па мери савиршенства кампютырных спилчекирав руский изык ишо болще патеряит сваих нипасредствиннасти и абаяния’), so they argued, in classic padonki spelling.

Just before visiting that conference, when I was between academic jobs, I had been working as a design journalist for Frame, an Amsterdam-based journal devoted to interior design. For this journal, I interviewed both young and established designers, and with time, I began to notice that many promoted glitchy and purportedly rickety designs as a counter-response to technological advancement. One example out of many is Dutch designer Maarten Baas’ furniture series Clay, which was an instant hit at the Milan Design Fair of 2006. The Clay chairs and tables boasted an emphatically amateurish look, as if a child had moulded them by hand. Design professionals lauded Baas’ visual logic of ‘functional imperfection’ and his preference for ‘organic forms’ over ‘the hands-off preciousness’ of computer-generated design.

After hearing about glitches and imperfections repeatedly at Frame and then again at the lecture in Helsinki, I began thinking about other situations and domains in which cultural producers and consumers shun perfection. I started wondering: what explains the craving for imperfection that so many people today share? And which desires do they satisfy by embracing the non-perfected?

About a year after the Helsinki conference, the same Future of Russian project whose panel I visited in Helsinki opened a vacancy for postdoctoral research. I summarized my thoughts on these questions in a research proposal for that position, and to my immense joy, I got the position. That is how, in the spring of 2009 in Bergen, my research on the imperfect started.

— What are the criteria you use in dealing with imperfections? It is known that there are no criteria for ideal beauty, for example.

— Yes, criteria are fluid in the examples that we analyse. We circumvent that potential problem by not setting any criteria ourselves.

Rather than the slippery concept of imperfection itself, we study an affirmative rhetoric of imperfection – or, put more plainly, statements in which designers, psychologists, bloggers, etc. call something imperfect-but-good


 Whether the things they call imperfect indeed deviate from a perfect norm or beauty ideal, and what exactly that norm or ideal is: those are not questions that we try answer in the project. It is the rhetoric itself that interests us, and the fears and dreams that feed it.

— There is a very wide range of areas where you see imperfections, from torn jeans to non-standard vegetables. Is there a 'leader' where you have found more examples? What are some of the most vivid and original examples?

— When I started this project, the research corpus included multiple samples from my time as a design journalist at Frame. I found additional relevant examples in existing analyses of the imperfect – such as the monograph Triumph of Imperfection, in which Rumanian cultural historian Vigil Nemoianu unravels how Romantics answered to the radical social changes of their days with ‘an acceptance of the notion of imperfection’; or Eli Clare’s wonderfully subtle and angry attacks on ‘the ableist invention of defectiveness’ in his book Brilliant Imperfection.

But a true treasure trove for helpful examples has been everyday life: the canteen in my own university building (whose designers opted for an emphatically wonky, rickety look); the weekly book magazine of my daily newspaper (whose reviewers tirelessly laud new music albums, books, and art exhibitions for their authentic ‘imperfections’); a talk to a friend in need (who felt much better after listening to a podcast that told her to ‘embrace her imperfections’)… In recent years, I have spent much time in systematically collecting and ordering these and other seemingly trivial examples.

— Do you have such examples for Russia?

— As a Slavist, I devote ample attention to developments in Russia.

Apart from examples that I come across while traveling or reading up on Russian culture, literature, and politics, I actively examine popular (and often orientalizing) discourses about Russia and imperfection


These include discussions about the low imperfection tolerance that traditionally permeates Russian official discourse and ideology, with the ‘perfectionist’ (as some call it) Soviet ideology as notorious example. What also interests me is a cliché which flourishes despite or perhaps thanks to that top-down perfectionism. This is the belief that Russia is a more imperfect nation than other nations, and that the country is so interesting precisely because it is not perfect. Nineteenth-century intellectuals already lauded a Russian lack of aesthetic refinement as a remedy for ‘the inauthenticity of Western Europe’ – so Christopher Ely demonstrated in an insightful analysis of nineteenth-century Russian art history. And anthropologist Dale Pesman says that, in post-Soviet Russia, ‘“imperfections”’ are ‘co-opted as positively valued aspects of national character.’ This happens within Russia, but I see the same trend among travel agencies and concert halls in Amsterdam: to ‘sell’ Russian artists, musicians, or trips to Russia, Dutch marketeers eagerly revert to the myth of Russia as a country whose imperfections lend it an authentic lure.

— Is this something you’ve written about?

— Yes, I discuss these developments within a transnational theoretical framework – a choice that I discuss in some detail in a chapter in an upcoming study devoted to Transnational Russian Studies. This volume, which was conceptualized and edited by my colleagues Andy Byford, Connor Doak and Stephen Hutchings, offers interesting alternatives to a tradition in Slavic studies to read cultural and political developments mostly along national lines.

With Sublime Imperfections, I also approach that tradition with caution: we try not to overemphasize the ‘uniqueness’ of those examples that we collected in Russia or that we read in Russophone materials. To give a concrete example: for the chapter in Transnational Russian StudiesI unpack the rhetoric that Russophone online daters use to attract partners. I zoom in on the claim of a 40-something Muscovite who promotes ‘imperfections’ and character flaws in his profile text. A closer look at his dating profile, his social and educational background, and his proclaimed literary and musical preferences tells us that a ‘Russian’ reading of his claims would be reductionist: they are likely to feed on a rich menu of social, cultural, religious, and linguistic practices and beliefs. Some of these practices and beliefs we can call ‘Russian,’ but more often, they are part nationally, part locally, and part transnationally defined.

— Your latest published book was Sincerity after Communism. What is its main message?

— In Sincerity after Communism, I offer a genealogy of Russophone discussions about sincerity – the quality of saying what you really think or feel – between the Perestroika years and today. These discussions are part of a larger, transnational debate on moving beyond postmodernism, which I outline in detail in the book. But my main focus is Russia, and Russophone sincerity rhetoric in particular. I trace calls for a ‘post-postmodern’ sincerity and pleas to revive sincere expression in Russian literature and new media (by Dmitrii Prigov and by Russian bloggers, for instance), but the book also addresses developments in film, architecture, design, art, music, and fashion.

In my analysis of ‘sincerity talk’ in these fields, I share three core findings. First, the ongoing debates on the Soviet experience – and the question of how to cope with that experience – colour recent Russian visions of a renewed sincerity. Second, in the late 1990s and 2000s, Russian artists and critics began interrogating the nexus between sincerity and (commercial) strategy. And third, with time, post-Soviet debates about sincerity often tackle the question of what is honest and real in a hyper-mediatized world. From the 2000s onwards, a recurring thread within both the Russian and transnational public debate on mediatization is the question of how digital, social, and mobile technologies impact on artistic sincerity and authenticity.

— What are you working on now?

— Right now, I am working on a paper for a wonderful conference that colleagues in Amsterdam are organizing, on Global Critical Pedagogies. The organizers claim that in ‘the context of discussions about the Anthropocene and current geopolitical changes – including the upsurge of populisms and nationalisms worldwide, and the alleged rise of Asia – there is a renewed urgency to re/thinking knowledge production and dissemination.’

At the conference, I will examine and analyse this pedagogical preoccupation with imperfection. Why do pedagogies of imperfection flourish today? Which promises do pedagogic practitioners project onto the imperfect? Those are questions that I will be examining in the coming weeks – for the conference, but also for a workshop on Imperfect Knowledge that my team will host on November 1.

— Are you working on any special joint projects with HSE?

— During an earlier visit, Natalia Samutina, from the HSE’s Research Centre for Contemporary Culture, and I set in motion a cooperation between HSE and Amsterdam’s Faculty of Humanities with help of our universities’ Internationalization Departments. This spring, that plan materialized into a formal collaboration agreement. This means that from next year onwards, students from HSE can organize stays at the University of Amsterdam relatively easily and bureaucracy-fuss-free, and ditto the other way round.

On a more personal level, Natalia has visited our university several times now, in part to participate in events hosted by the Sublime Imperfections project. She gave quite helpful input at a project brainstorming session, as well as a talk that she is currently reworking into a contribution to a cluster publication that I am preparing. At the moment, Natalia and I are in conversation about joint future research plans.

At HSE St. Petersburg, I am also collaborating with Rita Kuleva, with whom we are conducting a project devoted to youth participation in St. Petersburg’s cultural scene. In this project, which is supported by the Dutch Consulate in St. Petersburg, students from both Amsterdam and St. Petersburg are involved.

— How did your lecture at HSE go?

— It is always a great pleasure to discuss my ideas at HSE. This was my third visit to Natalia’s Centre, and each time I have been impressed by the quality of the debates there. 

Both students and staff members are very well versed in up-to-date theorizing about contemporary culture, aesthetics, and social dynamics, and from our talks, I invariably take home multiple new to-reads and to-dos. They are a real research treat for me

This time we had a particularly stimulating discussion about agents and objects. My impression is that at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis – my academic home basis – we primarily focus on (cultural, aesthetic, and other) objects, whereas our colleagues at the Research Centre for Contemporary Culture concentrate first and foremost on (social) agents. That difference in research approach is a fruitful point of departure for further joint thinking – even after an hour-long discussion, I felt that we were only at the beginning of such a joint dialogue.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service

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