VOICES FROM RUSSIA
SPECIAL DISPATCH FOR THE GREANVILLE POST
Moderated by Gaither Stewart
Ten Years of Shame: Arguments About Blame
THE INTELLECTUALS’ BETRAYAL
A critique of Soviet intelligentsia and its counterparts abroad
The 1990s were the years in which the intelligentsia gave up its identity and its autonomy. The intellectual [intelligent] – if he is authentic and not a pseudointellectual (an intellectual by status, a bureaucrat, a clerk, a narrow specialist in a nonindustrial sphere such as education, management, or information technology) – is a creator: a creative individual, a genius, a person engaged in the search for truth through rational (scientific) or emotional (artistic) understanding and assimilation of the world. True intellectuals comprehend their individual role as thinking subjects and their social role as enlighteners and emancipators. Genuine intellectuals are paragons of critical thinking, opposed to conformity and parochialism.
In the 1990s the intellectuals betrayed themselves. They voluntarily adopted the psychology of shopkeepers and prostitutes. The shopkeeper is oriented toward immediate material gain in order to sell more at higher prices (and avoid having goods lying around). The prostitute also sells her goods (herself) – which are, generally speaking, not at the peak of freshness – and likewise wants to sell them at top prices to a large number of buyers. Neither the shopkeeper nor the prostitute is a creator; neither produces; they only sell. In the 1990s the “intelligentsia” became a social stratum of intellectual shopkeepers and intellectual prostitutes. Mass consumption demands mass – that is, uniform, and to a large extent primitive – goods. The “intelligentsia” agreed to foist their intellectual rotgut on anyone, faithfully taking in every word and gesture of their pimps (sponsors, that is, bankers, foundations, civil servants – those who gave money, awarded grants, distributed wages, and established the rules of the game). This was done with an enthusiasm worthy of better uses, as they fulfilled each and every wish, even the most perverted, of their pimps.
The “intelligentsia” has become an estate of philistines [meshchane], a petty bourgeoisie. The “intelligentsia” is now a herd of conformists, and like any herd it is easy to control. The intelligentsia of the 1990s does not want to create, to produce masterpieces (which do not make money, for it takes decades for masterpieces to be recognized – often after the death of their maker – and they want success right now). The “intelligentsia” of the 1990s has rejected critical thinking: critical thinking is repressed (at best one is denied access to the feeding trough, at worst put in prison or killed). The absence of critical thinking, however, also means an absence of critical action – that is, the absence of creative action, revolutionary action, action that changes the world, innovative action. Of course, the “intellectuals” of the 1990s have lost their role as enlighteners and emancipators. Instead, they have discovered a hypocritical, servile contempt for their own people – viewed as mere cattle. The intellectual prostitutes and shopkeepers have adopted (as lackeys and servants often do) the views and manners of their lords.
The “intellectuals” of the 1990s believed in a postindustrial “information” society, which gave them grounds for self-justification: we are no longer dependent, they said, on those who mine coal, pick cotton, and grow grain. We live in a different, “higher” civilization – although farm products are not yet virtual but are still produced by peasants; moreover, peasants in the “third world,” who live in desperate poverty. Nor is clothing virtual: cotton is still grown and picked by peasants; weavers still weave the fabric as before, only to be repaid in tuberculosis and pneumoconiosis; and coal (without which there would be no electricity, meaning that their computers and electronic media – the entire virtual world of the pseudointelligentsia of the 1990s – would not work) is still mined by miners as it always has been, for a pittance, even as they contract silicosis and die by the hundreds annually in cave-ins and methane explosions.
The “intelligentsia” of the 1990s has become a predominantly parasitical stratum, and like all parasitical strata it is inclined toward counter-revolutionary sentiments. It has become unfashionable to be on the left. Revolution has given way to an anathema against “violence” (as if counter-revolution is not violence; as if the “normal existence” of the modern world, in which the United Nations estimates that forty million people die from hunger every year, is not the mass murder of the starving by those with full bellies).
The pseudointellectuals of the 1990s do not want to enlighten and emancipate anyone. Geniuses, creators, prophets, and revolutionaries are eager to enlighten and emancipate: the broader their circles and the greater their community, the more interesting it is for them to live, the more meaningful their existence becomes. The petty bourgeois, the intellectual shopkeepers and prostitutes, have no economic interest in emancipating and enlightening others: from their standpoint anyone who is enlightened and emancipated is an economic rival. Suddenly he is selling something, and I am not? Suddenly the pimp dotes on him, not me?
The venality of our “intelligentsia” was already obvious in the Soviet period, in the 1970s and 1980s when “intellectuals” unanimously praised the “wisdom” of the CPSU and of Brezhnev personally, although no NKVD agent held a machine gun at their backs and forced them to do this; they were simply well paid for it. But venality became even more unattractive in the 1990s, when the very people who had praised Communism under the Communists instantly became ferocious enemies of Communism under the anticommunists. We need only recall P. Gurevich, who in the 1970s and 1980s “exposed” mysticism, neo-Freudianism, and orthodox individualism while extolling Marxism but in the 1990s began to praise mysticism, neo-Freudianism, and right-wing individualism while spurning Marxism. D. Volkogonov was still compiling ideological strictures for GlavPUR in the late 1980s, branding anyone who “slandered” the Soviet army; by the 1990s he was issuing orders for the struggle against “communo-fascism” and writing antihistorical “works” demonizing Lenin and Trotsky. In the 1970s A. Tsipko wrote books on Marxist theory (illiterate, true – he even confused the titles of Lenin’s works!); in the 1980s he was a consultant to the Central Committee apparatus; but in the 1990s, as soon as he acquired a chic apartment in a Central Committee building on Dimitrov Street (many still remember the brouhaha the press made about this building in the early 1990s, when the campaign against privilege was being waged), he immediately became a ferocious persecutor of the Communist Party.
The “intelligentsia” of the 1990s have become a stratum serving the interests of those in power and those with money; they ignore the fact that these people are becoming increasingly dim-witted and esthetically undeveloped. Stalin could phone Pasternak to find out whether Mandel’shtam truly was an outstanding poet. Kennedy was able to ask someone to explain to him (“just so I can understand it”) what made Béjart an outstanding ballet master. No one can prove to Luzhkov that Tsereteli is a monster. No one could show Margaret Thatcher that cyber-punk was the most brilliant literary phenomenon in the United States in the 1980s (anything associated with the word “punk” elicited an instinctive class aversion from Maggie). To please those with power and money, one must conform to their tastes; and to conform to their tastes, one must be like Zurab Tsereteli and Sydney Sheldon – that is, one must either be a mediocrity or become one.
THE TRIUMPH OF MEDIOCRITY
The 1990s saw the victory of mediocrity over talent. The mass culture despised by intellectuals of the sixties and seventies and part of the 1980s was proclaimed an equal culture, one that completely supplanted authentic culture (because mass culture sells well, and it sells well because it is designed to satisfy the primitive tastes of the primitive minds of the “middle class”; mass culture is the authentic culture of the middle class). Entire cultural branches (which usually have a short history within the authentic culture) were destroyed in the 1990s. The first victims were the cinema and rock. As art forms, the cinema and rock emerged from mass culture relatively recently: the cinema shed the fetters of “mass culture” in the 1920s, but it emerged as an independent, serious, and authentic art form only in the 1950s, when post-Stalinist cinema developed in the “Eastern bloc” (the Soviet, Hungarian, Polish, and Czech cinematographic schools), and Italian neo-realism became dominant in Western cinematographic consciousness. Rock emerged as an authentic, serious art form only in the second half of the 1960s.
There is no more cinema. Instead of cinema we now have movies. This is no longer art. It is a part of show business. Show business bears no relationship to art (as revealed by the very name “show business”). Fellini or Tarkovsky could not exist in the 1990s; they are not related either to show or to business; they cannot be sold. Show is a strip tease, a man with two heads, a band playing out of tune led by a bare-legged, simple-minded drum majorette. In the final analysis it is Pozner or Arbatova (“a talk show”), diligently making fools of housewives on TV under orders from those in power (another version of the “soap opera” – it fills the viewer’s time, but God forbid their brains should ever be engaged). Business is business: I have a commodity that I have to palm off on the consumer; brains in such cases are downright harmful – God forbid that you should wonder whether the consumer needs such a commodity.
The shameful story of the blatantly second-rate, intolerably boring, unbearably tawdry, cloyingly sentimental, archetypally tabloid Titanic is symbolic. It symbolizes the death of cinema as art. There are many such symbolic phenomena in the 1990s: there is, for example, the solemn elevation to “modern classic” and “outstanding cinematic achievement” of the blatantly miserable and second-rate film “The Fifth Element” (designed at best for ten- to twelve-year olds), or the awarding of the Legion of Honor (!) to El’dar Riazanov for his monstrosity “Parisian Secrets”.
In the 1990s everything cinematic that was neither kitsch nor show business but art found itself banished to a ghetto.
In the 1990s, neither “The Doors” nor Janis Joplin nor “King Crimson” could exist. They are too oppositional. They are not politically correct. They are too philosophical. Finally they are unpleasantly gloomy. The attempt to reproduce Woodstock thirty years later showed how far the rock scene had degenerated. Instead of a holiday of union and love, a feast of geniuses, a communion with the pulse of the world, it was an ordinary show with crowds of half-drunk, done-up, sated, self-satisfied yuppies and children of yuppies who did not even listen to the music or express an interest in who was playing or what was being sung (which was, in fact, no longer important – this was not the 1960s). Rather they strove to be part of a “historical” event by wallowing in the Woodstock mud.
Those who resist with all their strength the spell of commercialization and musical primitivism and attempt to preserve the spirit of genuine rock are also relegated to the ghetto (in extreme cases they are made into “useful Jews” – dubbed “stars,” “outstanding figures,” “living legends,” and “national treasures” – and the British queen and the U.S. president are ready, should the occasion arise, to shake their hands and give them an official document testifying that “the bearer is a genuine member of the Judenrat in the rock ghetto”).
Using mechanisms discovered and perfected in previous decades, mediocrity with money has learned to render harmless creative people, artists, and true intellectuals. In the United States, for example, Hollywood and TV, of course, perform the role of “murderers of talent.” As soon as a talented prose writer appears on the literary horizon, he is immediately tempted with large sums of money to do screen plays in Hollywood and/or on TV. That is all that is necessary: the talent dies. The same happens to poets, only they are swallowed up in the quagmire of pop music.
Actually, it is interesting how American pseudointellectuals – the mediocrities who imagine themselves to be “art people” – reacted to this in the 1990s. Since both Hollywood and TV are interested only in people who are able to create talented, gripping, dramatic, and psychological prose (i.e., prose for which some distinct classical criteria exist and quality is easily determined by comparing it with familiar models), literary buffoons incapable of working at this level of difficulty spawn “automatic” works that have no theme, no characters, and so on. In this way they console themselves and suggest to others that only this type of prose is “truly contemporary,” reflecting the spirit of the present. Mediocrities behave the same way in poetry. Being incapable of creating interesting works within the poetic tradition (for example, it is not easy today to write original, nonepigonic, rhymed verses, especially in complex forms – try, for instance, writing a Spencerian stanza!), the mediocrities rush, to a man, into minimalism and free verse, arguing that only such verse is modern and reflects the “spirit of the times.” Actually, elemental envy of one’s more successful colleagues hides behind these “theoretical manifestoes.”
In the 1980s these people were still able to turn up their noses, snort, and stigmatize the more successful people who were part of Hollywood and the pop scene as having “sold out” and descended into low “mass culture.” In the 1990s this is impossible. They themselves have proclaimed “mass culture” genuine, venality a sign of success, and success a sign of talent.
Society’s loss of interest in modern artists (in the broadest sense) is retribution for mediocrity. Why spend money to look at a mediocre film if it is obvious that on that level I can make a film myself? So you have tens of thousands of members of the American “middle class” in the 1990s taking video cameras in their hands and making porno films in which they themselves participate, and which they later exchange with one another. But actually this is far more interesting than the analogous products that use actors whom, unlike your neighbor, you would never meet in real life.
The triumph of mediocrity was also reflected on the political scene. Brilliant politicians were supplanted by opaque, gray, wretched little people. One need only look at the physiognomy of, for instance, Robin Cook or Jamie Shea to call to mind if not a manual in psychopathology, then at least Max Nordau’s “Degeneration”. President Clinton will go down in history as a scandal involving oral sex. This is not Kennedy and the Carribbean crisis, and especially not Roosevelt with his New Deal and victory in World War II. No one assassinates Clinton, because no one needs such a Slippery Joe (unlike Roosevelt or Kennedy). The faces of European politicians, unmemorable and indistinguishable from one another, openly blend into one another, devoid of all individuality. Then there are Russia’s farcical political leaders – from the dunce Chernomyrdin, whose sole achievement was the phrase “They wanted the best, but they got more of the same” to the first delirious, then demented Yeltsin, a “second edition of Leonid Brezhnev” (I will not even mention the other Zhirinovskys).
The “intellectual elite” is no better. All our economists with their advanced degrees were complete flops in the 1990s, written off as utterly incompetent. Our sociologists did no better in all the major elections of the 1990s, unanimously predicting a crushing defeat of Lukashenko and Kuchma in the presidential elections in Belarus and Ukraine, a stunning success for Our Home Is Russia and Russia’s Democratic Choice, and the defeat of the Communists in the Russian parliamentary elections.
Even Western economists did no better in the 1990s. None of them was able to predict, or even provide a reasonable explanation of, the Mexican financial crisis or the later Asian, Russian, and Brazilian crises.
The phenomenon of Francis Fukuyama and his “end of history” could have emerged only in an atmosphere marked by the triumph of mediocrity. One need only recall a university course in the history of philosophy (in this case Hegel), adroitly pluck out Hegel’s ideological precept, and use it in praise of liberalism (no one even noticed that Fukuyama stole not only from Hegel but from Hitler as well, proclaiming the next “thousand-year Reich” – this time a liberal one!), and in a void one can earn the laurels of an “outstanding philosopher.” Even in the 1980s no one could have imagined such a thing. The French “new philosophers” were also masters of self-publicity, but even they were unable to achieve such success. Nor is it important that all Fukuyama’s postulates have proven quite untenable by the end of the 1990s – the name has already been earned. Fukuyama is already studied at the university as a “living classic,” while other philosophers – real ones – are being removed from university courses in the 1990s: Marx in Mexico, Hegel in the United States and France, Gramsci in Canada, and Unamuno and Sartre in Denmark.
NARCISSISM, HEDONISM, AND DISNEYLAND
In the 1990s art lost its social significance – with the full consent of artists and “intellectuals.” Philosophical novels, social films, rebellious poetry, political rock, frescoes and psychodelic paintings, and psychodelic dances – both socially and politically oriented (a part or a legacy of the counterculture) – vanished into the past. “Artists” withdrew into a little world of petty and deeply personal problems, to heal (and cultivate) their numerous complexes. The age of narcissism arrived, celebrating the individualism and shameless need for publicity of the ordinary philistine “ego.” In the 1990s “artists” spend their lives in persistent (often futile) attempts to attract attention and cajole money out of potential sponsors. Self-love compensates for lack of talent and imagination. Prose about nothing sits side by side with prose about love of one’s own body. (A. Ageev showed me one such masterpiece from the journal “Znamia”, saying, “That’s it, I’ve had it!” The author was describing at great length how she shaved her pubic hair with her father’s razor; who on earth could find this interesting?)
Having lost its social relevance, art lost its audience, said goodbye to society, and became superfluous in the modern world. Then it became a game (the popularity of “Homo ludens” among our “intellectuals” in the 1990s is very instructive, and so is the failure to understand Huizinga, especially his warning that play by nature exists outside morality). By transforming art into a game, “artists” of the 1990s drastically reduced the value of art and their own value as “artists,” and their “product” became something sold in a toy store, known to be unremarkable and readily interchangeable.
This kind of “art” is no longer dangerous to the System. Consequently, such “artists” are not masters of ideas – that is, Artists. No one will hang them as they did Ryleev, shoot them like Lorca or Joe Hill, guillotine them like André Chénier, behead them like Thomas More or Walter Raleigh, beat them to death in the stadium like Víctor Jara, throw them from a helicopter to drown in the sea like Otto René Castillo, shoot them like Lennon or Courier, poison them like Santeul or Li Yu, let them die in the camps like Mandel’shtam or Desnos, or burn them alive like Servetus or Archpriest Avvakum. They will not die in battle like Javier Heraud or José Martí, and no one will skin them alive like Imadaddin Nasimi. No one needs them because they terrify no one. Power respects only those it fears. By shifting their activity into the domain of play, “artists” of the 1990s became the toy of Power. All they had left was to play to exhaustion, to play themselves in the game acceptable to Power.
The 1990s signaled the triumph of hedonism. Psychologically, socially, culturally, there are three types of people: the philistine, the bohemian, and the creator (creative personality). In the 1990s the philistine and the bohemian merged, here and in the West. The bohemian adopted the values of the philistine world, and the bohemian lifestyle made inroads into the philistine world. The “Artist” learned how to hustle money for a “project” and, when the “project” was done, to turn life into one grand party with weed, grub, and sex to exhaustion, celebrating that he need do nothing for a long time except live on the money he received for completing the “project.” John Milton, who was unable not to write Paradise Lost, or Pushkin, whose “hands [were] drawn to the pen,” would not have understood this.
Of course, all this requires surplus money in society. This surplus is created, as we know, by unequal exchange with the “third world.” The hacks can produce their talentless “artistic” products (of no use to anyone) by the thousands and pump themselves full of heroin because somewhere in Latin America, Africa, and Asia (and now in Russia as well) thousands of children are dying everyday from hunger. In the 1990s the world of the middle class became an inseparable blob of philistines and bohemians, a single endless gallery, podium, TV show, sex, tourist, sadomasochistic club.
Hence the fascisization of the artistic media. Fascism became safe for the System (Chile’s Pinochet confiscated no one’s property; on the contrary, he returned what Allende had nationalized). Fascism became a game, but a game at the margins of the permissible. It is the surest way to attract attention to oneself, that is, to successfully sell oneself in a market where there are too many competitors. The clearest example of this is “Laibakh,” and the “Neue Slovenische Kunst” [new Slavic art] in general. Fascism has become part of the mainstream. The SS uniform worn by bikers, gay ballet dancers, and visitors to sadomasochist clubs; the humanization of Hitler by Fest and Sokurov – all this is merely a cultural expression of the political amalgam of bourgeois democracy and fascism in a single country (for example, Peru, where parliamentary democracy destroys the villages of 600,000 Indians, turning them into refugees, and kills 80,000; or Turkey, where parliamentary democracy destroys the villages of 3 million Kurds, turning them into refugees, and kills 200,000).
The “artist” at play is a hedonist and a narcissist; he has no chance of finding the same audience or enjoying the same demand or the same level of respect as a social artist – rebel, prophet, and “accursed poet.” In Sandinista Nicaragua there was a flowering of poetry and universal love for Cardenal, García Márquez, and Guayasamín; the partisans in Timor pray to the poets and artists of clandestine theaters as they pray to the gods; and in the jungles of Colombia the singers of songs of protest enjoy incredible honor and respect among the armed campesinos. In a world where “artists” are bought and sold – and consent to being bought and sold – they have no future as true artists do. They are commodities: their fate (and their price) is determined by the buyer, and the buyer in modern Western society is increasingly drawn to objects that are used only once.
Hence, too, comes the enthusiasm for linguistic philosophy, which is completely harmless, politically sterile. If one studies language and text (Ur-text) instead of people and society, it is by definition impossible to encroach on anyone’s property interests. Today’s linguistic philosophy is just as much the refuge of cowards as scholasticism was in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, and it is no accident that linguistic philosophy, like scholasticism, focuses on the interpretation of texts, not the analysis of practice and experience. There can be no action, no practice, without a clash of interests. Action is engaged from the outset; hence anyone who analyzes action is also forced into engagement: he looks through the eyes of either winner or loser, and even as an “onlooker” he is forced to acknowledge that there are winners and losers (which is itself humiliating to one side). Only the author of a text, not its interpreter, is responsible for that text – not to mention that exegesis does not create intellectual essences but only recombines those that already exist, whereas generalization and the analysis of experience and action do create new intellectual essences (experience and action are pre- or extra-intellectual, natural phenomena).
Hence, too, the enthusiasm for nonclassical philosophy, which is especially widespread among those “artists” and “intellectuals” who parade in “left-wing” and “leftist” garb (the same kind of attempt at attracting attention as playing at fascism). Such “artists” and “intellectuals” have always existed, but in the past authentic left-wing Westerners called them “plush” or “chic leftists” – that is, inauthentic, toy leftists. “Chic leftists” especially love Debors (since he theoretically “justified” the meaninglessness of political struggle long before Fukayama – merely in a different, pseudo-Marxist language, proclaiming the indestructibility of the thousand-year liberal Reich) and Foucault with his penchant for studying psychosocial pathology and borderline phenomena. He says, for example, that madness is an “antibourgeois” phenomenon. Of course, secretly the “chic leftists” know that madness is not antibourgeois: it does not oppose the bourgeoisie, it exists altogether apart from class characteristics. Only that which (or those who) presents a positive social project that can compete with the bourgeois project and create a new utopia are antibourgeois and consequently dangerous to the bourgeoisie (i.e., dangerous to those in bourgeois society who are involved in this). This the bourgeoisie represses. But madness is allowed. Madness is not a crime but a disease. Revolution can be proclaimed a crime, illness never.
POSTMODERNISM, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS, AND THE TYRANNY OF THE MEDIA
The 1990s were the age of postmodernism. The “1990s generation” repudiated philosophy because of its own patent inability to understand classical and postclassical philosophical texts and its fear of the struggle to change the real world. The “intelligentsia” of the 1990s enthusiastically embraced postmodernism precisely because it saw it as a justification of its own intellectual mediocrity, its creative barrenness, its political cowardice, and its social venality. For postmodernists, the “supercession” of ontology, rationalism, and philosophy in general “justified” the inability to come up with a scientific vision and understanding of the world, to understand and appropriate the legacy of philosophy (as V. Terin aptly put it at a seminar at the Center of Modern Art, “Now you do not need to read Kant, Hegel, and Marx – now you can read me, Terin”). The postmodernist rejection of the cognitive, prophetic, and didactic functions of art “justified” lack of talent and made it possible to replace the traditional production of works of art with endless “activity” oriented toward this activity as process. The postmodernist proclamation that rational action was “obsolete” (since the “result never coincides with the plan” and “the object of change responds violently to attempts to change it”) “justified” fear of repression (narcissists and hedonists are afraid not only of death, torture, or prison but of the absence of comfort and loss of the means to indulge in a variety of pleasures – can one truly live without LSD and a bidet?). The postmodern decision to grant equal status to genuine art and to kitsch, to the serious and to play, to left and right, to building and destroying, to the real and the illusory “justified” the banality of the “intelligentsia” and transformed it into a machine for satisfying the quite primitive needs of a “middle class” in pursuit of hedonistic pleasure.
Postmodernist society is Abraham Moles “mosaic culture” become reality. Society is divided into small groups, each with its own “geniuses” (utterly wretched), its own neophytes (even more wretched), its own standards of quality, its own morality, and its own fashion. Postmodernist society can no longer act as a whole; it is defenseless before those wielding power. Micro-groups are unable to unite, and they have great difficulty interacting with one another since they are secretly hostile and do not need one another. The postmodern world is a world of singles. In the ideal case, postmodern society strives toward atomization, to complete self-satisfied equality, and to intellectual limits, despite its apparent diversity (“The Machine Stops,” according to E.M. Forster). The biggest, carefully guarded secret of the postmodern world is its extraordinary political utility for the ruling elite. The elite is consolidated, engaged, and utterly rational; and it owns property, receives profits, and organizes (on purely rational grounds) world industry and the world political process. The elite is conservative out of necessity (no profit without stability); it does not play postmodernist games. (It wears stiff suits; its children attend closed schools where they receive a classical education and the nineteenth-century discipline of the rod; it buys Cézanne paintings, not the installations of Carl Andre; it listens to Beethoven in Carnegie Hall, not Michael Jackson in stadiums, etc.) The elite forces postmodernism on the “middle class” and the “grass roots,” for an atomized society is safe (it cannot take away the elite’s property, and hence their power).
If a mosaic culture is not to degenerate into an open war of all against all, political correctness is necessary. Political correctness is, according to the brilliant definition of Paco Rabanne, the “virtue of sheep being led to the slaughterhouse.” Social conflict spurs a search for allies. It tends toward globalization, and any such conflict, even though it begins with a clash among the myriad cells of mosaic society, threatens to expand into a class and race conflict (since during the course of the conflict, greater and more general contradictions and incongruities come to light, fundamental contradictions and incongruities, and blocs of allies are formed). Political correctness ensures stability by its disregard of the Other. Laziness and an aversion to understanding any other cell of mosaic society makes it possible to avoid conflict (by avoiding comparisons) while narcissistically glorifying oneself. As Christopher Hitchens observed, political correctness has not inspired people with respect for diversity; everyone is afraid of everyone else, and out of fear each tries to show no interest in the others. Hitchens called the reign of political correctness the “I-millennium” (another form of the “liberal Reich”!).
Political correctness guarantees mediocrity high status within one cell of mosaic society: the hierarchy of talent from craftsman to genius (from Bulgarin to Dostoevsky) is based on comparisons. Without comparison there can be no hierarchy. Anyone can proclaim himself an “artist” and a “genius.” “Genius” becomes a declaration: one need only gather two or three friends (drinking buddies) to start a “current” or a “school.”
In postmodern society the media become gendarme and censor. By encouraging a specious diversity of styles and groups, the media create a situation of information overload, which, as psychologists and psychiatrists know, blocks the higher (peak) psychological functions (emotional, intellectual, and creative). “Mass culture” becomes the only acceptable culture not only because it is imposed but because its reception requires no effort. A brain overloaded with information resists receiving anything that requires a serious intellectual or emotional investment.
In the 1990s the media successfully erased information deemed inappropriate by those in power from people’s picture of the world. They primitivized the picture of reality, the viewer as a person, and the criteria of taste and morality in general. Thus, the scandal of Monica Lewinsky forced hundreds of millions to meddle in the personal life of someone they did not know at the same time as it erased unpleasant reality from the “electronic picture of the world”: the partisan war in Colombia and the participation in it of American aircraft; the millions protesting in New York against racist police terror set in motion by Mayor Guiliani; and the government’s attempt to disband the strongest U.S. trade union, the Teamsters (truck drivers, etc.).
In the 1990s the tyranny of the media forces a loss of standards: it is impossible to explain in terms of postmodernist (rational) thinking why someone like Tudjman, a devotee of fascism, and the Islamic fundamentalist Izetbegovic are “good,” but the socialist Milosevic is a “monster.” In the 1990s it is unnecessary to explain anything; it is sufficient to proclaim. As a result, those at the front of the media’s cultural portrait gallery are those who are completely safe. For example, in prose writing we have Viktor Erofeev and his books that everyone knows have nothing to do with literature; Pelevin and his “Chapaev and Pustota” – an exact copy of the (morally even worse) novel “Al’tist Danilov”, that mass culture “hit” from the “period of stagnation,” and so on. The 1990s loss of standards involved not only quality but activity as well, the very existence of status. The court requires expert confirmations that Avdei Ter-Ogan’ian is an artist and acts in an artistic way, although no one demands that Prigov prove that his writings are poetry (although bad verse or no verse can already not be considered poetry).
In the 1990s the media ratcheted up changes in standards, names, and fashions. Styles and artists changed constantly – every day. Constant novelty is required of the “artist” – thus demands the market and advertising – and the demand is mechanical, formal, and esthetically, qualitatively, and fundamentally irrelevant. In the 1990s “after” means “better” – that is, if Yevtushenko writes after Byron, he must write better.
The tyranny of the media was in full display during the second Yugoslav war (the war in Kosovo). The first Yugoslav war was justly called a “postmodern war,” but the second revealed the total dependence of the postmodern “culture community” on the media, which were entirely under the control of those in power and no longer even masked their role as brainwashing machine. NATO aircraft systematically destroyed the Yugoslav media precisely because they were not controlled by NATO and provided “incorrect” information – this was stated openly. Well-known American professors unanimously complained that not one publication wanted to print articles in which they criticized NATO, and television crews refused to interview them as soon as it became clear that they opposed the war in Yugoslavia. The postmodern pseudointelligentsia, moreover, has begun quoting Roland Barthes, repeating that “every discursive system is a presentation, a show,” although the Yugoslav example in fact refutes Barthes: it exemplifies the overt destruction of the show (the game). It is an example of how one discursive system destroys another – not linguistically, not according to Barthes, not through “aggressive dialogue,” but with missiles and bombs, eliminating dialogue and imposing monologue. Both Yugoslav wars had economic causes, among others: the refusal of the ruling Socialist Party in Yugoslavia to privatize collective property and allow Western capital to buy up Yugoslav industry (altogether, only 7 percent of the Yugoslav economy is privatized, and in Serbia the figure is 4 percent). The Yugoslav leadership’s position can be explained in terms of the economic interests of the collective owners who are also the backbone of the Socialist Party, but the Western media said not a word about this, preferring to demonize one person, Milosevic. This is a deliberate dumbing-down of the viewer to the level of the benighted and illiterate Russian peasant of the early nineteenth century, who believed that Bonaparte was the Antichrist.
THE GHETTOIZATION OF CULTURE
In the 1990s authentic culture was banished to the periphery, driven into the ghetto: this is true not only of art but also of philosophy, and the humanities as well – only the last were driven into the ghettos of universities and minuscule research groups and centers. The humanities were split into dozens, even hundreds, of schools in the 1990s – and these schools did not interact with any of the others (except perhaps for the most similar; even then there were conflicts). For example, in post-Marxist European thought we have the “London school” (an outgrowth of the Yugoslav group Praxis), which was expelled from the intellectual field considered enlightened by the media, and this cell of mosaic society was represented by a small group of politically inoffensive French “chic leftists” – Deleuze and Guattari with their “Desire,” Lyotard with his “intensity,” and Baudrillard with his “temptation.” By the 1990s in France, the historical schools, which made no effort to conceal their social engagement, were bankrupt, and they were driven out of the publishing world and the universities. Only those that did innocuous things survived: for example, publishing documents and compiling commentaries on commentaries. Strictly speaking, as a discipline history no longer exists in France. What remains are pseudohistory (helpless, stripped of its methodology, and popularized) and metahistory.
Ghettoization condemns to fragmentation and oblivion those who do not accept the rules of the game imposed in the 1990s. Isolated from the media, given limited means and a limited circle of discourse and communication, and published in very small print runs, they are condemned to a struggle for survival and have difficulty finding one another.
The postmodern world of the 1990s actively hinders the acquisition of full and accurate information as well as access to the pre- and postmodern critical legacy and to authentic culture. It did this, however, not by outright prohibition (which would have made matters easier: “what is forbidden is true”) but by information overload, by overwhelming the sensory channels with “white noise.” The ghettoized opposition is increasingly torn from its own roots and is finding it more and more difficult to find not only allies but even predecessors. Thus, the theoretician of an Italian Luxemburgianists organization “Socialismo Rivoluzionario”, was quite startled when I told him that the twentieth century had produced a large number of Italian Marxist philosophers. He knew only of Gramsci; all the other names – even Labriola, Della Volpe, and Coletti – meant nothing to him!
In the United States ballet troupes that tried to resist the “ballet mainstream” – despite being isolated from one another and impoverished – have ended up in a cultural ghetto. The situation was similar in the second half of the 1960s and the early 1970s, but then these troupes were able to find one another quickly, to work together and interact (sometimes even in conflict), and on the whole saw themselves as part of the Living Theater. As a result, they were able to force society to see itself and to recognize itself. Today this is impossible because of the huge sea of ballet circles and studios for the “middle class,” where overweight Americans learn dance to pass the time, lose weight, and maintain their figures.
But the issue is not merely that the “airwaves” are overloaded. At issue is the fundamental incompatibility of two cultures: authentic culture, which is the legacy of the European tradition from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to the avant-garde; and “mass culture” (a phenomenon that exists independently in any culture, not only European or Westernized culture). Authentic culture is oriented toward genius, creativity, and dissatisfaction; the new “mass culture” is oriented toward philistinism, consumption, and comfort. They cannot coexist peacefully any more than the Nazis and the Jews could coexist peacefully in the Third-Reich.
And if today, in the 1990s, the “Nazis” hold the “battlefield,” then naturally the “Jews” are in the ghetto. Hence, for example, the splendid journal “Zabriski Rider” is unknown to the “public at large”; the remarkable painter, poet, publisher, and anarchist Tolstyi exists, as it were, outside “cultural space”; and the brilliant rock bard and performer Aleksandr Nepomniashchii has never appeared on the TV screen or on radio music stations. For the same reason, “official poetry” (from Voznesenskii to Vsevolod Nekrasov) diligently ignores the existence of Evgenii Kol’chuzhkin, an outstanding traditional poet and pupil of S. Shervinskii, who lives in Tomsk. Finally, this is why the Russian literary world pretends that the shocking parody It’s Me, Little Boris! exists nowhere in nature.
The intelligentsia of the 1990s related to the cultural ghetto in the same way that the German population under Hitler related to the concentration camps and the Jewish ghettos. That is the bill the children (grandchildren) of this “intelligentsia” – the future RAF – will present to their forebears in the twenty-first century.
By ghettoizing authentic culture, postmodern society itself drives those who find themselves in the cultural ghetto into ideological and political opposition. Thus, the journal “Bronzovyi vek” began as a purely literary publication, bordering on mainstream culture. After a few years of ghettoized existence, “Bronzovyi vek” became a publication that was openly opposed to liberalism – politically, esthetically, philosophically – to the “open society,” and to representative democracy.
THE DEGENERATION AND DECLINE OF THE POSTMODERN EMPIRE
By the end of the decade, the postmodern empire of the 1990s had begun to putrefy – at a pace that would have been unbelievable in preceding eras! – and began to demonstrate all the classic signs of degeneration and decline
Intellectual banality was never a novelty, but neither was it so massive and so destructive in its consequences (even for those who had sold themselves). On the whole, the “intelligentsia” sold out in two ways. Let us provisionally call them the “path of Stephen King” and the “path of Jeff Koons.”
Stephen King once produced talented tales that had a clear antibourgeois and antimilitarist subtext (his past as an activist in the struggle against the Vietnam War was discernible), linking the lineage of Ambrose Bierce with that of Ray Bradbury. With the advent of success (later, commercial success) Stephen King moved from culture to “mass culture” and lost face. Instead of stories, novels now appeared (listings, fees!); individual style was replaced by brisk “dialogue” and “action”; psychology gave way to stilted, repetitive images. Even his plots became repetitive – nowadays in a King work, basically someone falls into a hole in space or time or someone (something) is drawn or sucked up at the sound of a whistle (or the smacking of the lips). The number of copies printed, however, continues to climb. But interest is declining even in the field of “mass culture.” His creative and personal degeneration is apparent. It is degeneration through success.
Jeff Koons showed himself to be an incredibly talented artist in a very inauspicious field – the field of advertising. Success made it possible for him to move from the sphere of mass culture to the world of serious culture. He ridiculed the mass culture of advertising at the end of the 1980s in his series Banality. In the 1990s Koons again moved to mass culture through the pseudorebellious action film Made in Heaven. Of course, his marriage to Cicciolina belonged in the scandal columns, and in the 1990s you no longer surprise anyone with a series of photographs of the sex act in various positions (the porno industry!) even if it is oneself and Cicciolina who are the “stars.” But the rules of the tabloid scandal are observed (including the pretense that this is a “political” opposition to hypocritical, conservative, Reaganesque America, but then Madonna would be a “political fighter”!). So here we have scandal, success, money – and degeneration. The openly boring, wretched but highly paid works on command of the 1990s. This is degeneration through scandal.
For example, in our country Pelevin, who began writing stories that were unquestionably interesting if not really of genius, chose the path of Stephen King. Saraskina, who went from articles on literary criticism to articles on every conceivable topic in the “glasnost era” chose the path of Jeff Koons and then abruptly leaped into mass culture with her book on Dostoevsky’s Women.
An entire pleiad of our best-known rock musicians – Grebenshchikov, Kinchev, Shevchuk – have tried both scenarios. In the early 1990s their rock was both a scandal (from the standpoint of “official culture”) and a continuation of their success in their previous cultural activity. The end is the same for all: degeneration into barstool trivia and indulgence of the tastes of the “new Russians.”
One can witness this deterioration in the examples of such cult figures as Tarantino, Lynch, and Greenway. First, what is the meaning of “cult” when there are so many “cults” that anything that is obviously badly done (“punk loves garbage”) can become a “cult.” Second, the repetitiveness and recognizable features in Greenway, Lynch, and Tarantino, their production-line quality, soon renders them uninteresting, even outright boring, except among a narrow circle of “fans.” The “cult” is instantly transformed into a minor “sect” and dwindles to nothing.
The postmodern “intelligentsia’s” abolition in the 1990s of the dichotomy between scientific and ordinary thought naturally resulted in degeneration to the everyday, a return to philistine common sense. By the end of the 1990s the intelligentsia was already afraid to use scientific terminology and the vocabulary of serious philosophy. It speaks in professional pidgin (“deconstruction of discourse by the syntagms of representative installation” – a familiar business: only those who think clearly can explain clearly!). This fear extended to include the very term “postmodernism.” At the same time, the “intelligentsia” began to panic every time it came into contact with complex reality. For instance, Lee Rasta Braun shuns all forms of systematization: if a phenomenon is systematic, it requires systematized knowledge and systematized thinking, and systemized knowledge and systematized thinking are inaccessible to the victims of mosaic culture (a system presupposes hierarchy and comparison). Peter Fend proclaims himself to be a “politically active artist” but thinks in categories of the average American (and even boasts about it), endlessly repeating the banalities of a “left-wing
Biedermeier” and maliciously attacking Sartre for supposedly “sitting in a café his whole life holding forth on how much he hated the bourgeoisie” (although the real Sartre participated in the Resistance and in [the student demonstrations of] May 1968, personally sold “Lutte ouvrière” newspaper in the seventies, helped the “urban guerrillas” of the RAF, and inspired revolutionaries from the sixties through the 1980s, to say nothing of his direct role as a philosopher and writer). Peter Fend’s hatred of Jean-Paul Sartre is the hatred of a man in the age of degradation who cannot realize himself socially and politically toward a man who was thoroughly social and political, a man who was fully self-actualized. In other words, it is envy – envy of other times and other “rules of the game.”
The complaints of the “artists” of the 1990s that “the public is not interested” in them is a phenomenon of the same type. Here, too, “the public” is professional pidgin, a euphemism, a shameless and cunning replacement of reality by “virtual reality.” It is not “the public” that does not need the “artists” of the 1990s but society, or if you will humanity.
This is not the first time a mosaic culture has developed, but it is the first time it has been global, not confined to one country or one empire. A typical mosaic culture evolved in Austria-Hungary before its collapse. The same was true of the Greek states before they fell. A postmodern type of culture, with all its attributes – repetitiveness, citations, recombinations, emphasis on spectacle, sexualization, play – has also appeared before. Such was Europe in the age of mannerisms, in the late Byzantine empire, and in late Rome. Even small details coincide – such as the hyperbolization of the “fashion industry,” the enthusiasm for “ethnic music” and tattoos, or the transformation of communication by representatives of the “cultural environment” into in-group patter. The analogy with Rome is especially appropriate because late Rome, like the modern “first world,” was a parasitical formation – the metropolis existed at the expense of the provinces and by plundering the outlying territories, just as the “first world” today exists at the expense of the “third world.”
The classical signs of degradation and decline deprive the intelligentsia of the 1990s of all prospects. Future historians will approach the 1990s as they did the 1890s in Russia or the 1780s in France: as “the putrefaction of a sated, parasitical society,” the fin de siècle, “the growth of mysticism and immorality,” “narcoticization,” “heightened interest in and esthetization of illness and death,” “decadence,” “retreat into a world of illusion,” and so on.
The development of culture will, as it always has, proceed from sources beyond the mainstream of parasitical society – that is, from sources alien (or at least opposed) to the Western liberal postmodernist “culture.”
The “intelligentsia” of the 1990s has condemned itself to a future of oblivion and ridicule. And that is as it should be.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alexander Nikolaevich Tarasov (Russian: Алекса́ндр Никола́евич Тара́сов, born March 8, 1958 in Moscow) is a Soviet and Russian left-wing sociologist, politologist, culturologist, publicist, writer and philosopher. Up until the beginning of the 21st century he referred to himself as a Post-Marxist alongside István Mészáros and a number of Yugoslav Marxist philosophers who belonged to Praxis School and emigrated to London. Since in the 21st century the term Post-Marxism has been appropriated by Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe and their followers, Alexander Tarasov (together with the above mentioned István Mészáros and Yugoslav philosophers) stopped referring to himself as a Post-Marxist.