In distant Soviet times, I found Bertolt Brecht’s statement that “for art, not being a party member means belonging to the ruling party” the height of absurdity. Nowadays, this line has a different ring to it. It sounds okay. In any case, it makes you think.
—Lev Rubinstein (in Grani.ru)
In order to talk about democracy (people power) we have to give the word “conviction” a new sense. It should mean: to convince people. Democracy is the power of arguments.
—Bertolt Brecht, Me-Ti: The Book of Changes
The principal symptom of the cultural situation in today’s Russia is the crisis of the liberal-intelligentsia consciousness and its schism. For over fifty years the consciousness of this stratum consisted of two main components. The first component was the intelligentsia’s well-known anti-statism, its sense of empire (inherited from the revolutionary intelligentsia) as a repressive force. The second element, on the contrary, was inherited from the statist intelligentsia that had produced the famous Vekhi (“Landmarks”) almanac in 1909: the cult of private values and a hatred of everything “leftist,” everything that called the “bourgeois” into question; that is, a mindset that sanctified inequality and exploitation as the order of things. For the Vekhi crowd itself, this hatred was aggravated because they had dallied with Marxism in their youth. For the Soviet and post-Soviet intelligentsia, this hatred was stirred by their own genetic origins among those very same “socialists,” “destroyers,” and “lefties” who had planned and carried out the Revolution. While it was natural that it rejected Soviet (“imperial,” “collectivist”) reality, this type of consciousness became unbelievably hypertrophied. It was this stratum—a hodgepodge of dissidents, moderate frondeurs, crypto- or latent anti-Soviets—that captured the position of cultural hegemon in the nineties on the crest of a general anti-totalitarian wave and the collapse of the Soviet bureaucratic model. It was this stratum that rediscovered the culture that had been wholly or partly forbidden by the Soviet authorities. It was this stratum that set the tone in the press of those years. Using innocent slogans that seemed logical at the time, it was this stratum that threw its ideological weight behind the notorious reforms of the nineties.
The philosopher Alexander Piatigorsky has described the mindset of this stratum:
In order to formulate a thought—as an element of political reflection—and translate it from the realm of individual political reflection into a social/political program, not only are will and desire needed, but time is needed as well. For [the intelligentsia], however, this will and desire were directed—intentionally—towards self-isolation. This is how they thought about the authorities: Leave us in peace, cretins. Let us do our higher mathematics, theoretical physics, and semiotics, and everything will be fine. They did not understand that in fact they were violating the principle of their own political reflection. They did not have the courage and the will to recognize themselves as a political force. So, when perestroika arrived, they were completely disorganized intellectually. Because they could not help but sense—instead of “they” I should say “we”: it’s a matter of style—so we could not help but sense that this desire for self-isolation, this “leave us in peace” business was the same-old “intelligentsia bullshit.” We should at least formulate an approximate political ideal.
The qualities enumerated by Piatigorsky made themselves felt in the late eighties and early nineties, when all talk of “socialism with a human face” was fairly quickly abandoned and the newly emergent workers movement was crushed under the heel of the “democratic” reformers. The second wave of capitulation began in October 1993, when the intelligentsia almost wholly swallowed Yeltsin’s armed attack on the parliament, and ended in 1999 with Vladimir Putin’s accession to power. In this period, during which the state set course for a one-hundred-percent capitalist restoration, the intelligentsia not only rejected an outright oppositional stance, but also refused to adopt a more or less critical attitude towards the liberal model. (I do not have in mind, of course, the discrete voices of dissent that were drowned out by the choir of universal loyalty.) The space of opposition was almost wholly abandoned to the flabby monster known as the “left-patriotic” forces. Being capable of little on its own, this monster kept protest energies channeled for years to come. Ideologically, it fulfilled a single function: it scared the liberally inclined segment of society and thus was used as a weapon in the Kremlin’s con games. This weapon helped win Boris Yeltsin a second term in 1996, and it later helped crown Vladimir Putin. During this period the liberal intelligentsia was psychologically and socially split in two. One half began directly servicing the structures of capital—banks, publishers, corporations, etc. The other half decided that despite all the burdens—the impossibility of working in one’s chosen profession, cultural degradation, the thuggishness and crudeness of the new masters—they should under no circumstances whinge, express dissatisfaction, make demands or swim against the current of their times. It would have been stupid and unseemly to do this: God forbid that you might have appeared to be an uptight loser who had not been invited to life’s big party. Plus, the “red-brownshirts” were on the march. Both branches of the intelligentsia thus formed an ideal consensus. It was right at this moment that the chance for a real opposition, a real discussion, and a real political life vanished in Russia.
Now that the age of the red-brown alternative is coming to an end, another crisis point is at hand. The task that was wholly botched in the early nineties has once again taken center stage: the creation of a real leftist movement based on worker self-management, independent trade unions, and cooperation amongst grassroots movements and organizations.
How has the Russian educated class met this new challenge? For the third time in the past twenty years, it has met the challenge by capitulating. All talk of capitalism is blocked: it exists in consciousness as something taken for granted, as something that cannot be abolished. The younger generation (even its most creative and intellectual members) fights hard for its right to private life, for freedom from all talk of “politics,” “politicization” or (even worse) the “proletariat.” Any form of politicization is associated with the early nineties and thus seems hopelessly outdated. (When in fact the opposite is the case: the political paralysis that struck Russia down in the late nineties continues into the present day.) We are dealing with a gigantic cultural collapse, a systemic insolvency in which global tendencies of the nineties (the dominion of the neoliberal Washington Consensus, e.g., total privatization; the crisis of representative democracy triggered primarily by the total triumph of marketing and advertising techniques in the electoral process; the dominance of ideas like the “end of history,” the “end of politics,” and the “end of ideology”; the partial relocation of production to the Third World and the crisis in trade unionism this provoked) were filtered through the specific Russian realities of the period (the collapse of the common Soviet economic space; mass factory closures that shifted the greater part of the working class into the lumpenproletariat or the petit bourgeoisie; the monstrous triumph of “political technology”). All this was precipitated in the minds of the Russian intelligentsia in the form of an extreme social pessimism and a mistrust of all forms of active solidarity. Any attempt at solidarity is perceived either as a symptom of mental derangement or as cynical “PR.”
The intelligentsia is haunted by the old liberal saw that “everyone should mind his own business,” by the concept of the artist as private individual that was most succinctly formulated by Joseph Brodsky in his Nobel Prize lecture. At the same time, of course, the individual—for example, as a poet nominated and legitimized by his own circle—participates in various arrangements and undertakings, enjoys certain privileges, publishes in certain journals, and directly or obliquely supports certain socio-political forces and ideologies. However, the poet himself likes the idea of “privacy.” We are thus asked to believe that he is a thing unto himself; that his texts, his political stance (or its absence), and his personal qualities are things absolutely unconnected with one another. Everyone should mind his own business. Why meddle in someone else’s private life? The writer should write, the businessman should do business, the politician should politick, the political operative should spin and manipulate public opinion, and so forth. It logically follows that within a “normal” social order the various classes (as quasi-“things-in-themselves”) should be nicely independent of each another. Big-time capital should be nicely independent of the proletariat that works in its coal mines and oil refineries. Bohemians should be nicely separated from the big-time capital they serve in order to satisfy their own needs, and so on. Simultaneously, nearly every individual (especially the artist) who lives in contemporary society likes to regard himself as unique, discrete, independent of any general norms and notions, unencumbered by some sort of (God forbid) “relations of production.” Most important, whatever you want to call the present conjuncture (the “age of glamour,” the “Putin regime,” “capitalism,” etc.), it is total, there is no escaping it. That means you have to make yourself some kind of place within it. It is this set of notions—which seem obvious, but which can be traced to absolutely concrete historical conditions—that account for the near-total hegemony of “rightism” in Russian culture and politics. This rightism is characterized by a set of definite, essentially metaphysical notions about reality, about the unalterable foundations of human nature and the corresponding forms of social life. In its extreme rightist/reactionary variety, these are notions about the perennial qualities of ethnic groups, races, and nations. In the more or less liberal flavor of rightism, the market is imagined as the ultimate, unsurpassable horizon. It can never be described as a whole: all that remains is to make your peace with it and find your little niche in its vast expanses. Of course, these and other notions are primarily occasioned by the intelligentsia’s concrete condition as a stratum that services capital and simultaneously carves out for itself the niche of “private life”—the zone of free creativity, free association, etc. That is, this stratum is wholly determined by the reality of its individual conditions of production and its individual projects (private lessons, journal articles, one-off commissions) or by its being professionally embedded in absolutely verticalized hierarchies and narrow specializations. These leave the individual room for personal embetterment, but they also exclude the possibility of confronting an employer with collective demands.
Within this system, the artist is seemingly granted an automatic indulgence as the bearer of a peculiar form of political innocence. It is in this capacity that he is useful to society, and it in this capacity that he suits the authorities. Via their favorite artists (writers, musicians, actors) the masses (or rather, various sections of the population) are delivered up as it were to perennial, “apolitical” meanings, to (in)valuable masterpieces, to existential freedom. Correspondingly, the poet is the most free: unlike the artist, musician or filmmaker, he has no need for any (or any particular) means of production. (We might recall here Afanasy Fet’s statement that if there were a journal called Cock, he would print his poems in it.) It is logical that it is in the poet we most often encounter the confidence that his work is immediately linked to the stuff of life and that in any case it surpasses the circumstances of its emergence and the mechanism of its production. This sense of confidence is largely justified, and for the individual poet or artist it can be a quite productive attitude. The faith that your work can overcome the inertia and vanity of society is very important: it is one of the main stimuli for artistic work. (Without this confidence the artist will have a hard time persuading the viewer that the apple tree blossoming in the field and the apple tree inserted in the TV screen, monitor or magazine page are one and the same thing.)
When this belief, however, is shared by literally all poets to one degree or another, that is already fairly suspicious in itself. Nowadays, in fact, this confidence is shared not only by all poets, but by artists as well. What is altogether odd is that the poets and artists are joined in this faith by critics, op-ed writers, and intellectuals—that is, by folks who are primarily responsible for the content, not the form, of their works. They are thus direct (not, like artists, indirect) carriers of ideology, and hence by definition they do not get the indulgence handed out to “creators.”
Examples of the touching innocence that suffuses all the deeds of our cultural figures are too many to be counted. Ex-rock underground superstar Vyacheslav Butusov frankly wonders why it is wrong for him to perform at the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth movement’s congress. Fashionable theater director, filmmaker and TV host Kirill Serebriannikov criticizes the president between the lines while also giving lectures under the United Russia banner and serving as the Kremlin’s point man on cultural policy. Director Alexander Kalyagin signs a letter against enemy of the state Mikhail Khodorkovsky in exchange for a new theater space—where, of course, he will stage his timeless productions. And why not? Ars longa, vita brevis.
One poet-critic did a divide-and-conquer of “leftist poets” in the Internet newspaper Vzglyad.ru. (He even expressed a certain solidarity with their plight by challenging them, in comradely fashion, to engage in direct political action!) He launched his attack not merely from right field (it would not have been so awful if he had published his critique in the literary journal Znamya), but on a forum specially manufactured by the rightist authorities in order to affirm their hegemony in the guise of “parliamentary” polyphony. When I expressed my bewilderment at this, he replied: “What difference does it make where the article was published? What matters is what was in the article.” My worst conjectures about the mental state of even the most progressive, talented members of the intelligentsia were confirmed yet again.
It absolutely does not matter what motivates these people—actual political naïveté; the notion that the “artist” and the citizen are two completely different people, subject to different laws; or plain-old cynicism and cold calculation. One cannot be disentangled from the other, and this is not a matter of moral condemnation. Just as Russian culture as a whole was given the (very untimely) chance at a certain apparent autonomy, so too does each individual artist sincerely defend his own innocence, which would permit him peacefully to pursue his individual artistic projects without consideration of unpleasant political and other such factors. But it is via this sort of “innocence” and “sincerity” that the artwork becomes a commodity—not because the artist confesses that he is an undemanding sellout prepared to do anything to generate publicity. On the contrary, it is because he values himself and/or his artwork so awfully highly, and thus imagines not only that media appearances will not do him a bit of harm, but might even give him a boost.
Such notions as “sincerity” and “innocence” shape consciousness to an enormous degree nowadays. In all its dimensions (cultural, social, political, etc.) the present conjuncture is determined less by “glamour” culture, as common sense has it, and more by the “new sincerity” or, rather, by the “new emotionalism.” The new emotionalism is the cultural and ideological mainstream of our time: it embraces President Putin and writer-actor Yevgeny Grishkovets, poet Dmitri Vodennikov and poet Kirill Medvedev, political commentator Mikhail Leontiev, TV host and “politician” Ksenia Sobchak, and many, many others. I heard a speech by Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko in which he admitted that the presidential election results in his country had been falsified. Lukashenko’s total had been reduced from ninety-three percent to eighty percent: “Otherwise the EU would not have recognized them.” A surprising, quite symptomatic and rather effective instance of sincerity. The new sincerity also includes Live Journal, which segregates absolutely sincere poets in one corner of the blogosphere, and equally sincere Nazis in another.
In culture, the new sincerity emerged in reaction to the brain-twisting bankruptcy and intellectualism of postmodernism, and, on the other hand, to the hang-ups of (post-)Soviet consciousness. At some point, direct statement and an appeal to biographical experience as a zone of authenticity were the weapons used to smash at least two discourses—the crudely ideologized discourse of Sovietness and the ascetic, incorporeal, cultish discourse of the underground. Nowadays, the trend towards “sincerity,” “emotionalism,” and “direct statement” (with their appeals to biography, etc.) becomes ever-more reactionary.
When it overcame the “worst” aspects of postmodernism—for example, elitist gobbledygook and the rejection of grand narratives and universalist meanings—the new emotionalism also overcame its definitely positive qualities: an irrepressibly critical mindset and intellectual subtlety. While the postmodern, despite its original critical potential, ended up merely presiding over the ideal consensus of pluralism and the global market, the new sincerity reconciles these same market interests with the idea of the resurrected author and the direct statement. This has unleashed an endless flood of ventriloquism (lyrical, essayistic, “political,” etc.) in which any attempt at analysis, any possibility of taking action, taking a stance, and making distinctions are drowned. In this flood it is impossible to distinguish sincerity from paid provocation. One fuels the other: emotion is a means to cover up lapses in ideology (argumentation), while ideology is a means to stoke the emotions and bewitch the masses. It is not hard to put the hyper-emotional individual in the necessary frame of mind. The authorities fear this sincerity, but they also try to use it. They let young neo-Nazis scare the folks at home with their sincere hatred while at the same time keeping them in check. They give young poets and actors the chance to scream and swear on the stage of the Polytechnic Museum, but they also send them a signal: Do what you want. You are free artists. The main thing is not to make a fuss and meddle in politics. You are smart cookies and know very well that it is a nasty business. Your art will outlive you (and us) all the same. Leave politics to us.
Without having clearly understood the ambivalence of postmodernist theory, the new emotionalism rejected the “death of the author” and replaced the dead author with the uniquely alive, all-consuming first person. It gave him the right to say whatever his heart desired. Marx is dead and so everything is permitted. Whereas “under postmodernism” the (dead) author was the medium of language, which still harbored “schizoid” (emancipatory) capacities, nowadays, when the long-awaited freedom of utterance has been scrambled with a neoconservative ideology, the poet once again becomes the vessel through which God speaks. This God is nothing other than the rumbling, convulsions, and contrivances of capital. Like the Fates of antiquity, the individual inevitably collides with this new god wherever he might try to run and hide.
Seen in this light, the complaint of the poets—why don’t we have decent criticism in Russia?—has a touching ring. I have a crude and simple answer to this question: because in the west, all the critical theories of the twentieth century passed in one way or another through the Marxist school, borrowing from it, altering or rejecting it. Until the same thing happens in Russia, there will be no criticism of any kind in Russia, neither criticism of poetry nor criticism of power.
In reaction to the cultural and political situation in the Germany of his day (1930), Bertolt Brecht wrote the following. (I quote this text nearly in full because I am certain that it is as relevant now as it was then.)
The modesty of the avant-garde’s demands has economic grounds of whose existence they themselves are only partly aware. Great apparati like the opera, the stage, the press, etc., impose their views as it were incognito. For a long time now they have taken the handiwork (music, writing, criticism, etc.) of intellectuals who share in their profits—that is, of men who are economically committed to the prevailing system but are socially near-proletarian—and processed it to make fodder for their public entertainment machine, judging it by their own standards and guiding it into their own channels; meanwhile the intellectuals themselves have gone on supposing that the whole business is concerned only with the presentation of their work, is a secondary process which has no influence over their work but merely wins influence for it. This muddled thinking which overtakes musicians, writers and critics as soon as they consider their own situation has tremendous consequences to which far too little attention is paid. For by imagining that they have got hold of an apparatus which in fact has got hold of them they are supporting an apparatus which is out of their control, which is no longer (as they believe) a means of furthering output but has become an obstacle to output, and specifically to their own output as soon as it follows a new and original course which the apparatus finds awkward or opposed to its own aims. Their output then becomes a matter of delivering the goods. Values evolve which are based on the fodder principle. And this leads to a general habit of judging works of art by their suitability for the apparatus without ever judging the apparatus by its suitability for the work. People say, this or that is a good work; and they mean (but do not say) good for the apparatus. Yet this apparatus is conditioned by the society of the day and only accepts what can keep it going in that society. We are free to discuss any innovation which doesn’t threaten its social function of providing an evening’s entertainment. We are not free to discuss those which threaten to change its function, possibly by fusing it with the educational system or with the organs of mass communication. Society absorbs via the apparatus whatever it needs in order to reproduce itself. This means that an innovation will pass if it is calculated to rejuvenate existing society, but not if it is going to change it—irrespective of whether the form of the society in question is good or bad.
The avant-garde don’t think of changing the apparatus, because they fancy that they have at their disposal an apparatus which will serve up whatever they freely invent, transforming itself spontaneously to match their ideas. But they are not in fact free inventors; the apparatus goes on fulfilling its function with or without them; the theatres play every night; the papers come out so many times a day; and they absorb what they need; and all they need is a given amount of stuff. The intellectuals, however, are completely dependent on the apparatus, both socially and economically; it is the only channel for the realization of their work. The output of writers, composers and critics comes more and more to resemble raw material. The finished article is produced by the apparatus. (Bertolt Brecht, “Notes to the Opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahogonny,” in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York, 1964), pp. 32–33)
Six years later, the Marxist Walter Benjamin would write another essay as relevant today as it was then, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In this essay, Benjamin also registered the process by which capitalism mutates into fascism. He lists such concepts as “creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery—concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense.” Instead, he attempts to introduce concepts that are “completely useless for the purposes of Fascism.” In Charles Baudelaire, Benjamin demonstrates that under capitalism the idea of the absolute artwork transmogrifies into the idea of the absolute commodity. Nowadays, this commodity is the “individual” project. Moreover, the idea of the “absolute artwork” and the idea of the “individual” “biographical” project happily complement one another. Whereas for the art business the biographical subtext is a necessary supplement to the work-qua-commodity, in the mediasphere the artist’s work is, on the contrary, a bonus (often non-obligatory) to his media image.
This situation confronts Russian leftist art with a choice. In the practical absence of any coherent leftist movement whatsoever, Moscow leftist artists of the nineties (however we might relate to them individually) acted as custodians of the leftist tradition in its different varieties. In the new century, on the contrary, several of these artists have chosen or been forced to emigrate (Alexander Brener, Oleg Mavromatti, Avdei Ter-Oganyan), while those who have stayed behind in Russia (Dmitri Gutov, Anatoly Osmolovsky) have chosen the “institutional” path: without breaking with their leftist identity, they have linked themselves to established galleries and semi-official projects. It is probable that Dmitri Gutov has chosen the “way of Livshits.” (A major Soviet philosopher, Mikhail Livshits was a symbol of conformism for the liberal intelligentsia; now that this very same intelligentsia has become mired in a new strain of conformism, Marxists have renewed interest in his work.) Anatoly Osmolovsky pitches his current “conformism” as the necessity of working inside (neo-bourgeois, national, religious, etc.) discourse, rather than denouncing it from the outside. Alas, the voices of these artists merge with today’s general loyalist-apolitical background noise. We will continue to hope that the course their work takes proves that they were right. In general, however, we have to admit that when leftist artists appeal to pure art, this is usually a good sign that a period of reaction has arrived. (In this connection, we might recall Rodchenko: his idea of an engaged treatment of form, in the twenties, gave way—in the thirties, when engagement was enforced—to the idea of pure form.)
The author of the most brilliant individual project of the past few decades is, of course, Eduard Limonov. Hence, during the nineties and until recently, it was practically impossible to find a vantage point from which a critique of Limonov would sound persuasive. To moralize about his excessive “frankness” meant exposing oneself as a hypocrite. To accuse him of “fascism” usually meant succumbing to faux “demo-schizoid” sentiments. Those who tried to write about him in a facetious or directly negative vein (e.g., Lev Danilkin in Afisha magazine, or the writer Alexander Kabakov) made flagrant fools of themselves because they instantly wound up in the system of coordinates set by Limonov himself. In this system, the critic automatically came out looking—on the strength of his record as a writer, politician, and man—like Limonov’s inferior. This has to do, of course, with the universal persuasiveness and effectiveness of Limonov’s style and lyrical hero, and the fact that Limonov himself is a glossy mags journalist and critic and ideologue and whatever else you like. But it also has to do with the fact that any criticism automatically provokes (even when Limonov himself does not make this explicit, although sometimes he does) a “tough guy” reaction from the position of experience: live the life I have (visit as many cities and countries, write as many books, romance as many women, form a charismatic independent political party like I did) and then you can criticize me. All his heroes, even people more famous than he himself (for example, Salvador Dali), end up looking like fairly miserable secondary characters on the pages of the brilliant novel of his life. That is, by using the genuinely unique “experience” transmitted through his books, by first combining literature with biography (life-construction), and then both of these with politics, Limonov really has removed the possibility of comprehensively criticizing his life and work for a long time to come.
There is, however, the sense that after a fifteen-year reign the age of Limonov’s cultural hegemony (in which there were definitely progressive elements along with the National Bolshevism and red-brown ideologemes) is coming to an end. Nowadays, his political career (irrespective of whether it lasts much longer) plays a directly negative role, forcibly locking the entire politics of resistance and leftist politics along with it into the tropes of Limonov’s life project—the cult of personal charisma, the strategy of the media scandal, etc. That is why leftist groups now have such a hard time opposing the purely spectacular tactics of the National Bolshevik Party, which is underwritten by the Limonov project. With his cocktail of Nietzscheanism, nationalism, and “leftism,” shaken and stirred with a good measure of autobiographical authenticity, Limonov has been able to attract a number of protest-minded Russian young people to his battle flag.
Baudrillard argued that the revolution of 1968 was brought low by its hyper-diffusion in the media. The art actionism and direct interventionism of the nineties led either to the spectacular, often quasi-fascist actionism of NBP or to today’s crossroads, where leftist artists choose between working for the art market and looking for alternative strategies, such as “activist research” (e.g., the What Is To Be Done workgroup). They thus attempt to solve the problem faced by leftist political groups as well: how to wrap your message in an acceptable, effective form without resorting to vulgarly spectacular outbursts and cheap tricks.
The artist who wishes to call himself leftist today thus finds himself wandering between these two poles. He definitely wants to make an impact on society; he makes no secret of this and so is skeptical of the concept of “pure art” (which is either an appendix to the individual media brand and/or mainstream ideology, or is ghettoized from the get-go and disconnected from the present and the future). On the other hand, he does not want to transmit himself directly through the media apparatus and is compelled to employ it gingerly and critically.
For me, a vital experience in this respect was my protest outside Kalyagin’s theater. I conceived it as one in a series of pickets—that is, as a maximally democratic means of expression, something accessible to anyone and bereft of any claims to artistic value, innovation, etc.—organized by the Forward Socialist Movement (Vpered). It was instead perceived as an art action—in part because of my tussle with the theater’s security guard, in part because the liberal-rightist critiques focused almost exclusively on biographical details—Brecht’s biography, my biography, the critic’s own biography. This was a tellingly unreflected impulse: instead of discussing my undertaking as an effective or ineffective civic/political gesture, writers fished out truths, half-truths, and outright lies from their own or someone else’s biography. For example, “Brecht himself made able use of capitalist mechanisms,” or “The picketer has wealthy parents,” or “I spent my childhood in a proletarian neighborhood and I know firsthand what the proletariat is like.”
I was born in 1975. My dad was a journalist and bibliophile. Mom worked as an editor at Soviet Writer publishing house. Dad has his heyday during perestroika: he interviewed cultural figures for Ogonyok magazine, which was then read by millions. In 1991, he and I went to “defend” the Russian White House. In the early nineties, he hosted a cultural affairs program on TV. His heyday did not last long, however. In the early nineties, he conceived a passion for roulette. Since he was a gambler by nature, he soon lost everything he could lose. He gambled away all his property—our apartment and his library—and he also borrowed huge sums of money from the mafia. We lived in rented flats in a state of constant threat. I was once held hostage. In 1994, my mom and I spent a month in Israel in order to escape the mafia. Then we came back to Moscow, where I got a job as an ice-cream seller. (One morning I showed up for work after celebrating my birthday the night before. I was hoarse from drinking, but my customers all thought I had gorged myself on ice cream. It was funny.) Aside from this, I also worked as a warehouse hand and a bookseller. I could describe the Moscow of those years from the viewpoint of a fevered, nearly homeless young man who was a stranger to everyone. Sometimes I slept at home, more often I slept at the homes of friends, but I practically lived on the streets. Because it was only on the streets, lost in the crowd, that I was free. All round there reigned an unhealthy commercial hullabaloo, on the one hand, and poverty, hunger, cynicism, collapse, and agony, on the other. From 1992 to 1996 I studied in the history department at Moscow State University. From 1996 to 2000 I studied at the Literary Institute. During this period I also worked as a journalist and critic: I wrote reviews and articles for newspapers and magazines, and I translated. I gradually arrived at the understanding that, not only as a journalist, but even as a translator, I was not able to fit into this reality. I recorded this fact in the first line of my first coherent poem, which I wrote at the beginning of 2001. Nowadays, from time to time I do editing work that a publisher friend gives me. My main source of income is the money my girlfriend earns. Until recently, this was 700 dollars a month, but after an exhausting two-month battle her salary was raised to 1100 dollars a month. The three of us—me, my girlfriend, our kid—live on this money. Recently, I thought about where I draw the line between affordable and expensive. I realized that if you take a typical meat or vegetable pasty as the standard, then my limit is around twenty rubles. This, of course, has nothing to do with the real sum of money I might spend, for example, in a day, and it has nothing to do with the amount of money in my pocket. Psychologically, though, that twenty-ruble pasty remains for me the line between . . . UGGGHHH!!! WHAT FOLLOWS FROM THESE FACTS? DO THESE DETAILS—SOMETIMES AMUSING, SOMETIMES SHOCKING OR LACHRYMOSE—MEAN ANYTHING? DO THEY JUSTIFY OR DISCREDIT MY POSITIONS? DO THEY CONFIRM ANY OF MY GRIPES OR DISCREDIT THE POSITIONS HELD BY OTHER PEOPLE?
It is funny that the use of tabloid “facts” jibes nicely with tiresome declarations that Marxism is outmoded, etc. One more grimace of the “biographical project”? (Including my own, of course.) Perhaps this is what Pasolini had in mind when he said, “I’ve never liked exposés of any kind. There’s something petit-bourgeois about them.” Just as unavoidable is the dubious moralism that always rears its head when media strategies of one sort or another are criticized from a post-underground viewpoint: the talk will inevitably be about “PR,” about betraying the ideals of pure art, etc. During the days of unofficial art, when working within a small underground circle was in fact a challenge to the political order, this stance was partly justified. (However, the well-known thesis about “aesthetic” disagreements with Soviet power had its own consequences; see again the passage from Piatigorsky, quoted above.) Today, autonomy—meaning the absence of more or less strongly applied external ideological pressure—is the central mythologeme for the bourgeois artist, linked to his “private role.” Naturally, the idea of engagement is discredited in his eyes from the beginning: he calls it “party-mindedness.” In keeping with the principle “Let everything take its own course,” he is certain of his own independence; he says that he does not want to move any masses and that in fact he does not move them. Exercising, however, his right to see in a Brecht play, for example, his own private meanings, he blows them up and transmits them via that rather powerful ideological apparatus known as the bourgeois theater. In any case his work is used—by the artist himself as well as by the institutions that as it were rescue the artist from ideological “guilt” by taking it upon themselves. They use the artist for their own ends, but they give him a channel for self-expression and shower him with material and symbolic dividends. (Each institution usually has a fairly well-articulated ideological line. The artist might not have one. However, ideological qualities are latently manifested in form insofar as every artist bears within him the most various traits of his stratum, class, community, social group, etc. These traits might be maximally concealed at the moment of artistic creation but they are actualized when the work is presented to the public via the way in which these communities consolidate the existing political regime and in the way the latter is in turn plugged into the capitalist world-system.)
The artist is linked to his milieu, stratum, and community via shared—corporeal, historical, cultural—experience. In the creative act this link is expressed spontaneously: it therefore really is a moment of autonomy, which is possible only outside any kind of conscious ethics, pragmatics, rational designs, etc. Outside the creative act the artist can think, meditate, and calculate as much as he likes about how to make this contact happen in reality, to actualize the potential stored up in the work. It is however, only in this way, only spontaneously, by turning into a kind of crazy blind cucumber, that he is able to generate form. Form is what genuinely links the individual with biography, with experience, with those unelucidated, chaotic, energy-heavy clots in which his history closes ranks with collective history. Only in this way can we punch a hole through reality—and fill someone with hate, support someone, make someone think, make someone feel the oppression you both suffer. Hence such notions as form, sincerity, and “personal, biographical experience” are, I think, principally important for politicized art as well. Manipulating your own or someone else’s experience—in art as in politics—leads in the final analysis to failure. It generates a false unity—that is, the latest ideologeme or “individual project,” in which even personal or cultural experience remains only an apology for impotence and conformism, or a collection of sentimental baubles, or the tawdry “knowledge” that the proletariat is crap, while capitalism is forever. You should not talk about “historical experience.” It is not your experience but the experience of the “Bolshevik” Mayakovsky, the “Trotskyist” Shalamov, the “Socialist Revolutionary” Mandelstam, and others. This experience has been turned over to the spinmeisters and media wizards, the market reformers and corporate structures. I think that if the new form of political experience has to be lived through and the task of the “leftist” actionists of the nineties was to plug their bodies into the media, then the task of the leftist artist today is to link up with grassroots movements and the uprisings of the oppressed. If he does this, the artist will reconnect with history, with those artists, philosophers, and militants who have been largely neglected or emasculated in today’s “post-political” world.
When the leftist artist is cut off from these processes or these processes fail, he will remain a successful or failed trickster in the eyes of his detractors. The events of his life will remain elements of his individual biography—or, perhaps, a footnote or chapter in a dead “history of art.” This is a history of victors, a history to which, says the artist Ilya Kabakov, “not everyone will be admitted.”
Many specimens of the “critique of cultural production” in the twentieth century were based on the notion that through his stratum, class or society every individual is connected to every other individual. When he realizes that his labor is alienated from him or used against him and his kind, he can stop working, quit playing the game, shut the apparatus down. He can try and change the situation. A characteristic gesture in this sense was Pasolini’s abjuration of his own cinematic “Trilogy of Life,” in 1975:
First and foremost, these two impulses were the driving forces behind the struggle for democratization of the “right” to freedom of expression and for sexual liberalization; they were the two main objects of progressive aspirations in the fifties and sixties. Later, during the first stage of the cultural-anthropological crisis that had ripened by the late sixties, when the unreal subculture of the mass media began to dominate, “innocent bodies” and the archaic, confused, vital anarchy of their sexual organs seemed the last bastion of authenticity.
Today, everything has changed radically. First, the progressivist struggle for democratization of self-expression and sexual liberalization was abruptly blocked when the powers that be of consumerist society decided to demonstrate tolerance—a tolerance that was as generous as it was false. Second, the very authenticity of innocent bodies has been violated, falsified, and seduced by consumerist society. Moreover, this violence against the body even became the most obvious characteristic of the new epoch of humanity’s development.
Nevertheless, overcome with irritation or contempt, my critics, as I have already said, continued blindly to travel the “straight and narrow” road, which they considered it their duty to foist on others—the road of the struggle for progress, a better standard of living, liberalization, tolerance, collectivism, etc. They were not aware that degeneration is the consequence of their having falsified their own values. [. . .] On the whole, Italy has become an apolitical country, a dead body with purely mechanical reflexes. That is, nothing happens in Italy except the adaptation to its own degeneration, which it attempts to escape only at the verbal level. All is well.
This was written, moreover, in a country in which political life was seething—where there was a real struggle between leftists, rightists, and centrists; where many were aware of the threat of a fascist coup along the lines of Allende’s Chile. This situation unraveled in large part because of the Communist Party: thanks to its “historic compromise” with the Christian Democrats, Italy became a normal neoliberal country in which, of course, there was no longer any place for Pasolini. The fundamental symptoms of the neoliberal mindset, which Pasolini predicted with horror in the last year of his life, we can observe in today’s Russia. Here, the typical intelligentsia gesture of refusing to shake hands (the supreme gesture of liberal intolerance, based on the notion that any political/ideological opponent—any “commie-fascist”—is simple a scoundrel, or at best a nutter) becomes ever more old-fashioned and is passing out of usage. Instead of new means of political self-reliance, however, the “non-handshake” has been supplanted by a flabby tolerance. Why choose at all? Why divide people into “reds” and “whites” or something else when there is something precious and curious about everyone? Postmodernism’s bottomless “sensitivity” has been extended into the new age. When he is prepared to do anything to be understood, the individual turns into a glamour puss, into a commodity. Compared with private human emotions—love, loneliness, fragility—any debunking, criticism, truth claim, objectivity or meaning strikes the observer as blasphemy. Do not ask the artist what he meant or whom he works for—he is not supposed to think about such things! How can we speak of analysis and theory when we are dealing with feelings—love, happiness, understanding—things that are hard to come by in this world? What can we accuse the artist of when he makes people feel good? How can we blame the filmmaker who entertains people after they have spent a hard day at work? Who are we to find fault with the actor who—although he just “faked” his “orgasm”—has made another person happy? However counterfeit and false the “national ideology” is, whatever economic interests it conceals, what is wrong with giving people a sense (albeit illusory) of confidence and community? Finally, can we really denounce this “plastic” world if it alone can maintain a fragile equilibrium, conceal real contradictions, and thus prevent even more serious catastrophes?
All these questions really come down, of course, to the one and only question that hangs over our country and the whole world today: IF EVERYBODY IS HAPPY, WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE IF WE HAVE ALL BEEN TRICKED?
Far from everyone is happy, however, and this means the trick has not worked yet.
In Woody Allen’s Match Point (a quasi-adaptation of Crime and Punishment) a sequence of accidents leads to the concealment of the hero’s crimes (the murder of his lover, who had become pregnant and was distracting him from family and career, and the murder of her next-door neighbor, an old lady who might have been a witness to the first crime). Only the police investigator sees the truth in a dream. The hero continues his career, and his wife finally gives birth to the child they had long wanted. Woody Allen quite transparently and unobtrusively makes a comparison between Dostoevsky’s world and ours. In Dostoevsky’s world—where devils and grand inquisitors generate and murder one another—supreme, divine justice reigns. While it might surrender the battlefield for a time, it will nevertheless strike back later with terrible force. However swimmingly things go for the criminal, sooner or latter truth and justice will burst through the chain of accidents and re-establish equilibrium in the world. For the Christian Dostoevsky, this restoration takes the form of repentance, not punishment. The investigator serves as the mediator of this supreme, divine justice. In the postmodernist world of Woody Allen, justice is not a given. A game is played in which everything depends on an accident: which side of the net the ball falls on. This sense that reality is fragile, that it teeters on the edge, dominates nowadays. It defines the so-called (neo)liberal consciousness and the near-total paralysis of political functions that accompanies it at the moment.
Prophecies of imminent catastrophe—the breakup of the country, a civil war of all against all, foreign intervention, the advent of a repressive regime—have been in the Russian air for the last several years. A stack of novels about future disasters has been published recently—for example, Sergei Dorenko’s 2008. In this novel, the political realm has been maximally “stabilized,” sanitized, and “managed.” (Three loyalist parties—United Russia, LDPR, and the “social-democrats”—sit in parliament.) Chechen terrorists blow up a nuclear plant near Moscow. The capital is emptied, and Limonov and Co. easily occupy the Kremlin. In an ominous and fantastical manner, the imagination of writers reflects the mythologeme of vengeance that has gripped the imaginations of many Russians since the nineties. If we translate this mythologeme into more or less plain speech, it would say something like this: During the past fifteen years, reality has so often been mangled, distorted, and raped; so many legal, moral, and ordinary human commandments have been broken; so many people have allowed their intellect, authority or knowledge (or, simply, their stupidity, lack of talent, and cynicism) to be used in so many disgusting affairs and deals, that NOTHING GOOD CAN COME OF ALL THIS. The longer vengeance is postponed, the harder the blow will be when it does finally strike. Thus, even today’s relative prosperity makes a quite ominous impression. The authorities can, of course, use their petrodollars and media to extend this illusion for a long time to come, but they cannot make it last forever. In the context of this myth (which, moreover, is not all that far from reality), the “fascists,” for example, just like Dorenko’s Chechens, are the instruments of vengeance and the restoration of justice. They are heralds who bring the news that one can manipulate and deceive people for a long while, but not forever. False reality will nevertheless be struck down by true reality, which of course might turn out to be much more terrible. In the minds of the loyalist intelligentsia, such ideas are today refracted in the latest capitulation. Let things be the way they are (they think): this is better than if the “red-browns” and “fascists” (or the Muslims, the Chinese, etc.) were in power.
Today, however, the only possible alternative to “wise” capitulationism and gloomy epic “vengeance” is “truth” in its absolutely concrete everyday sense, the struggle for truth, and the formulation of coherent political demands.
There is a myriad of people in the world who are making all sorts of demands. These demands often conflict with one another. What unites these people, in the first place, is the sense that traditional electoral institutions have outlived their usefulness. The other half of humanity either supposes that politics is not its “business,” or it keeps faith with the notion that it can transfer some of its functions to the authorities and thus retain the private sphere for itself. The authorities are supposed make decisions for these people, do something for them, save them from something—Russian fascism, Islamist terrorism, Chinese expansionism. These are the reference points through which the potential watershed between right and left runs today. (Moreover, this is the case all over the world.) Leftists are those people who are prepared to become political subjects, who are not willing to shift this function onto someone else’s shoulders.
The only question is whether these people (who are already leftists in the political sense: that is, they make property relations the cornerstone of thought and action, not culture, ethnicity, religion or civilization) are sufficiently strong and uncompromising to propose to the masses (once the latter have decided that something depends on them) a radical political project instead of twentieth-century socialist or fascist totalitarianism, or parliamentary democracy, which has run its course. And instead of what apparently lies in store for us in the coming decades—intra-capitalist rivalry between national (or, for that matter, transnational) bourgeois elites, who employ various ideological ruses—American “democracy,” Chinese pseudo-communism, Iranian “Islamism,” Russian nationalism—to solve their own problems: carving up spheres of influence, etc.
At the turn of the century, the massive anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle and Genoa, (which shook neoliberalism to its core) and the attack on the Twin Towers (which happened on the anniversary of Pinochet’s anti-socialist coup in Chile—an event which was masterminded by the US and signaled the advent of the neoliberal age) ended the cultural hegemony of the postmodern (whose sense, after all the breakthroughs of the sixties and seventies, boiled down to a reconciliation of pluralism and capital). Capitalism was once again called into question; a new phase of criticizing capitalism began. A new form of political reaction likewise emerged: the “clash of civilizations,” the “axis of evil,” etc. Thus, the conflict between metaphysics (the idea of “perennial”—ethnic, national, confessional, civilizational—values) and dialectics (the idea of flow, of the interdependence and mutability of things) has once again became relevant.
Political and cultural life in Russia bears the heavy stamp of metaphysics. As we have already seen, the metaphysical mindset of the creative intelligentsia is based on the notion that any product of immaterial labor exists independently of its context and speaks for itself. Similar notions unite the majority of current politicians and successful artists, who do not mind participating in official and semi-official art projects because they assume that you can and must make a deal with the authorities. True, one can try and swindle the authorities by taking their money and using it to make an oppositional statement. Because they are dominant in the consciousness of even highly educated people, who also entertain in their heads the possibility that “the authorities” are in fact sponsoring and controlling “opposition” parties and movements, such notions lead to the absence of real political competition.
The opposite stance holds that civil society does not arise through any kind of “mutually beneficial” compact with the authorities, however loyal they might be to their constituents. Civil society arises only from below—only as challenge, demand, confrontation. As a reflexive field, culture also arises in this way—because action, artwork, and thought are to an enormous degree determined by circumstances, conditions, and context. One cannot criticize the Putin regime without also assessing your own place within it as a critic or artist. It is impossible to criticize authoritarian Russian democracy without also appraising the role of the US or Israel, without mentioning the global division of labor, without recognizing how the situation here in Russia is a projection of processes at work throughout the world. You cannot help but understand how much your own consciousness determines your social being and impels you to accept various viewpoints as “obvious.” We again have to grasp the banal truth that we cannot avoid politics. Political passivity is also a form of participation in history and is equally responsible for its twists and turns.
For half a century the liberal intelligentsia insisted that the subject of civil society was a strong property owner with a secure private life. It has now been confronted with a situation in which the private lives of a conformist and apolitical middle class blossom as they never have before in Russia even as political life has become an utter wasteland. All that is left of the liberal-westernizing project are verbal carcasses like “this country” (instead of “our country”), “bloody regime,” and “universal human values.” Strictly speaking, the universal rejection of the nineties is what binds the current loyalist electorate. The very same liberal reforms (privatization, monetization of pension benefits, etc.) are carried out much more smoothly under the sign of moderate patriotism and soft authoritarianism than under slogans that call for a return to the “civilized world.” One half of the intelligentsia swings precipitously to the right: they are inclined to believe in the “clash of civilizations” and they look to “perennial” (national, ethnic, confessional, civilizational) values for support. The other half persists in its belief that Russia has once again turned off the high (western capitalist) road of civilization.
The fundamental cultural gap, the principal challenge and necessity in this situation is the creation of a new class of leftist intellectuals who will take onboard the history of leftist thought, leftist politics, and twentieth-century leftist art, and who will acknowledge, via western Marxism and neo-Marxism, their own involvement in the international socialist project, which is undoubtedly the principal cultural and political task of humanity today. Because it is precisely the widest possible popular participation in governance—not the pursuit of career opportunities, pure creativity or private life—that is the next step we must take. If humanity does not take this next step, it will be doomed to moral and physical degeneration. The strange slogan Socialism ou Barbarie is as relevant as it ever was. In order to have the opportunity to remain a private individual in the future, one will have to make ever-greater sacrifices: to swing further and further to the right, to become more and more enclosed within individual projects and private domains, within narrow, profitable specializations. More and more of the territory captured by the Enlightenment and civil society will be ransomed to the corporations, media wizards, and spinmeisters. Fear of “wild” Chinamen and Mohammedans will have to rise, and claims about the total nature of capitalism, the end of the working class, the end of the class struggle, the end of politics, and so forth will have to be made with less and less possibility of appeal. All these concepts plunge the individual into a long, murky dream in which he imagines himself the hero of the cultural resistance, a total sell-out scumbag and/or an independent private citizen. It is only when we awake from this dream that we can see that there is an absolutely unglamorous world around us. In this world, people who have never read Marx or Benjamin rise again and again to the challenge: they resist, they struggle, they reach a clear understanding of their common interests as members of a class or a collective. In this world, the rabid reaction of capitalism to every collective dream, to every independent trade union, is irrational as it were, but in fact this reaction is utterly logical and justified. Because this is precisely where the last frontier lies, where the thin blue line runs. This is the place where what so rarely takes place in poems, novels, and films happens: the battle for reality. It is only after we have recognized the reality of this struggle that we will be able to talk about separateness, individuality, the possibility of real pluralism, civil society, and the battle of ideas, forms, and poetics. It is only then that we will be able to talk about “apoliticism” and “privacy” as risky and culturally productive PERSONAL challenges rather than banal projections of UNIVERSAL individualism, political apathy, and irresponsibility. (Or, for example, about Live Journal, which definitely has a lot of progressivist, purely socialist potential. Until, however, we understand that it is an apparatus that springs directly from the conditions of its production and use (which are more and more thoroughly reincorporated back into it) Live Journal will never be more than a recreational form in the best case. In the worst case (as with “direct democracy” as a whole), it becomes the weapon of the most ideologically active group—neo-Nazis, for example.)
I am certain that unless it comes to understand the things I have identified in this essay, the Russian intelligentsia will become the indirect or direct agent of bleak political reaction.
Literature will be scrutinised.
The men who are seated in gilded chairs only to write
will be questioned about the men who wove their clothing.
Their books will be scrutinised not for their own sublime reflections,
but for the words dropped in passing that make it possible
to form an opinion about the men who wove their clothing.
It is this that will be read with interest because it is in this
that the qualities of the illustrious ancestors will make themselves known.
Whole literatures, consisting of refined turns of phrase,
will be examined in order to prove
that where there was oppression, there were also rebels.
Prayerful appeals to divine beings
will be used to prove
that earthly beings trampled one another.
The elegant word-music will expose the fact
that many had nothing to eat.
—Bertolt Brecht, “Literature Will Be Scrutinised”
Source: Kirill Medvedev, “Literature Will Be Scrutinised”: The Individual Project and the New Emotionalism . Translated by Our Swimmer