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There is something uncanny in this quote from Marx, torn out of context and pasted into a fresh document 150 years after it was written. [1] It’s like looking into a mirror where there should be a window. It describes the status quo of our own spectacular world: a massive accumulation of non-representations, all divorced from consciousness. But at the same time, this is a world where self-representation, implying self-consciousness, claims to be everywhere, on mobile devices, in cars, airplanes, and even on remote desert islands. Representative machines previously only available in big clunky institutions are now open for everyone’s use. Consciousness is everywhere as a potentiality. But the pressure is too great. You have to represent. You have to hand in this text. Don’t think. Write. Self-expression before self-knowledge; find the right quick phrase for a certain state of subjectivity, shot out ultra-rapid in a network of friends, where it quickly loses connection to the consciousness that supposedly created it, becoming a micro-commodity, or a firing neuron in some collective mind we do not yet fully understand. Stop complaining. Represent.

Of course, Marx wasn’t talking about representation in the artistic, cultural, or linguistic senses. In these particular sentences, he meant political representation. The quote above comes from an impassioned plea for the freedom of the press in covering the deliberations of the Rhine Province Assembly 150 years ago, one in a series of articles for the Rheinische Zeitung where Marx works through all the linguistic mis-representations and purely unconscious lapses in the available documentation of the closed Assembly’s proceedings. Part of the articles’ polemic program is the battle against direct censorship and other more intricately hypocritical means of keeping the work of government far from the public gaze. Marx is attacking a state that sees itself at a complete remove from its subjects, hovering above them as a police helicopter. We should see. We should know. We should worry. Мarx is demanding transparency.

Transparency is still a sore topic today, as sore as a face full of botox. The presidential elections in Russia are the perfect example. Everybody can see. Everybody knows. The election was rigged. But for the first time in more than a decade, there was a campaign against the main candidate. Started on Facebook and LiveJournal, it spread in all political directions among the depoliticized, largely docile post-Soviet urban population who have kept busy acquiring the self-representational skills of so-called creative capitalism for the last ten years. This process bears all the marks of a civic “coming to consciousness,” in which all the contradictory subjectifications of the last 12 years become visible, devirtualized in unprecedented mass meetings. These have effectively have cleaved and even broken the back of the state’s self-proclaimed monopoly on political representation. Then again, many if not most of the new representations corresponded to the three-second gaze I mentioned before: soundbites, slogans, and phallic pointers, a little like Voina’s penis painted on the drawbridge across from the FSB last summer, that macho potency symbol as a gesture of impotence against the obvious yet total opacity of power. John McCain was jubilant: the Arab Spring had arrived on “dear Vlad’s” doorstep.

Meanwhile, the regime led its own campaign. Its sitting-duck president-soon-to-be-premier Medvedev introduced a reform package, while the president-elect Putin worked his way through the demands of the leftists, nationalist, and liberals, playing the state socialist clientelist apparatchik, the law-and-order patriot, and the privatization-legitimator all at once. For the most, it was clear that these eclectic messages rehashed older speeches, and that their writers were poorly masking the seams of their ideological Frankenstein. Reality is more radical that ideology. It was clear he’d had implants or injections in his cheeks, it was clear that the mass meetings on Poklonnaya Hill and Luzhniki Stadium were staged and paid. And the demand for transparent elections? Nothing easier than that. The sovereign, famously out of touch with the internet, gives a command to Medvedev’s “nanotechnologists” to put webcams in every polling station, just like he ordered the installation of webcams to observe the building of houses in provincial Russia after the firestorms of 2010. Putin 2.0 provides total electoral transparency via the site, requiring authenticated login (and contact access) to use its Facebook app. Driven by Google Maps, it provided live feeds from almost every place in Russia. You could observe the polling for hours and use your PC to log any irregularities, probably the FSB servers logs all your friends.

A small price to pay to watch the triumph of non-representation: beautiful views of empty polling stations, then crowds of people, all exercising their abstract votes. A feast for an eye trained in critical realism, a total panorama of society, so used to security cameras that they were unconscious of being watched. Well, mostly. On the margins, some were having fun, misrepresenting in one way or another. One girl dropped her pants and showed her ass to the camera in a village polling station, an unconscious version of the topless Ukrainain feminist protest performers of Femen, maybe, or maybe a fake, like the regime’s camera teams filming fictitious riots in Moscow on the days before the campaign. Somewhere out in Tyumen, the electoral commission decided to party once the vote was done. Oops, the camera was still on, but so were the disco lights. There was other funny stuff, but mostly it was just the prose of life, friends and relatives waving at one another. My father-in-law waved at my son, only to be eclipsed by Russia’s Paris Hilton turned Jane Fonda Ksenia Sobchak and nationalist liberal anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, at least that’s what I thought, as I frantically made star-struck screenshots to catch these two preeminent election observers. A new form of unconscious vision for non-representative sovereign democracy, perfect for capitalism at the stage of its ultimate decline. That is really something to brag about for the former KGB officer, his face still shiny with crocodile tears.

It would be convenient to end at this point. But I really don’t want to say that consciousness has been preempted by representation and destroyed by security camera transparency. Actually, if you agree with the things Marx wrote in The German Ideology, it is only misrepresentation – as articulated in a fundamentally unjust, divided process of production and reproduction – that creates consciousness, and not the other way around. [2] The election prompted a wave of real-life activist election observation, which has so far uncovered massive abuses, giving the opposition a sense of what “a long march through the institutions” would mean. If the last sentence of the Marx-quote (“What I do not know, I do not worry about”) describes the mood in the year before, there is now a real critical awareness of the extent of corruption, and not only in the rigged elections, but also in everyday life. People are waking up and basically recognizing that they have been living in a post-Soviet neo-capitalist wonderland that would have both Marx and Kafka giggling with confusion. But the “coming to consciousness” is not just that people are learning to criticize the regime in all its guises. It is more than proverbial or immaterial, more than a representational game. As Alexei Penzin noted in a recent text, it is a physical experience that annuls previous representations. It is enacted as a bodily phenomenon, as biopolitical presence. Anyone who has been to the demonstrations knows that.

It feels like being funneled into a vortex, each social atom spinning for itself. Though spinning isn’t the right word, exactly. There is no mass hysteria, only a calm “Brownian motion,” as the former KGB officer can see from his helicopter, social atoms, pushed from brand to brand in a highly regulated security cordon. There were flags at the center, in front of the stage, that’s where the cheers came from, the divided and conquered opposition of the last years, joined by new movements both from the left and the right: neo-nazis and anti-fa. The majority remained silent, save the odd skeptical comment or joke. As the meetings progressed (with turnouts of up to 100.000 people, unheard of since perestroika), the Mayday-type columns at the center became more pronounced, as did individual attempts at Facebook-like self-expression. Even the ancient materialist philosophers that Marx studied in his dissertation knew: atoms inevitably take on an conscious identity when they swerve, collide, and bond with other atoms. Especially when the police cordon tightens, and the outside pressure grows.

So far, under pressure, the opposition represents only those few definite things upon which there is a consensus among the liberals, leftists, and nationalists, as well as the previously apolitical majority of protesters. The demand for Putin and his party of crooks and thieves to go away, and the call for fair elections. Most other agendas are subject to conscious underrepresentation, swept under the table or into the unifying subtext of a national awakening. This neo-romantic civic self-consciousness is clearly and stridently Russian: it conflates the confidence of the bourgeoisie, the aspirations of the urban service class, the demands for better conditions from workers and pensioners, the disappointments of the disenfranchised petit bourgeois proletariat, the theologizing philosophies of the true believers, and the varying resentiments of all these groups. Migrants and other victims of Russia’s neo-colonialism are excluded. Foreign opinions are suspect. The most consensual figure for now is moderate nationalist liberal and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, another macho super-slav. At the meetings he gets more air-time than the others. His speeches are short loops of circular reasoning (“we won’t leave, they should leave”), curiously divorced from the consciousness of those who they are supposed to represent, more prayers than speeches.

Prayers are what Marx once called the heartbeat of a heartless world. They misrepresent real aspirations and desires, twisting them out into a long line of false expectations that become a physical presence and a material force. Here, I have to think of the half a million pilgrims who stood in line to touch a relic of the Virgin Mary’s pregnancy belt at Christ the Savior Cathedral in late November 2011, right before the opposition’s constituents underwent their political epiphanies. Unconsciously, this grotesque procession looked like an update of 19th century Russian realism in the age of immaterial labor: pensioners, off-duty security guards, clerks, office workers, waitresses all devoutly crawling through the cordon as the mirror image of our own pilgrimages to Opposition meetings. “Black robes and golden epaulettes,” “an Easter procession of black limousines,” while “gay-pride is sent off to Siberia in shackles,” as Pussy Riot sang in their recent punk-prayer at the same church, in which they ascended onto the dais of the altar to perform a song with the brutally clear chorus “Mother of God, chase Putin away.”

What makes this quick-and-dirty hyperbole, lip-synched to go viral as a bad (or bad-ass) reproduction on YouTube so spicy as an image is that it consciously misrepresents the protests, reducing them to calls for insurrection and open violence through ultra-leftist radicals wearing Commandte Marcos baklavas. This is exactly the kind of iconic image the protest movement has been trying to avoid, with its emphatically anti-revolutionary rhetoric, its consolidation around patriotic if not national-democratic values, and its respectful avoidance of any critique aimed at the Russian Orthodox Church as one of the state-ideological apparatuses that has filled the void left behind by the Communist Party. By resorting to such conscious hyperbole, Pussy Riot’s incantation channels an apolitical indignation that otherwise cannot rise above the horizon of civic concern and fear at the most forcible possible repression.

Pussy Riot really seems to have hit the mark, in terms of creating a (mis)representation that sparks a far broader “coming to consciousness” than the consciously flat, restrained slogans offered by the Opposition so far, but the fears that have stunted and confined those articulations are not unfounded. The repressive apparatus is immense. A intra-agency task-force was created to find and apprehend two of Pussy Riot’s key activists on shaky if not non-existent legal grounds, stripping Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of their masks, and turning them into two beautiful young mothers who now may face up to seven years in jail. [3]

This overly harsh response has drawn the broadest criticism, and not only from the usual suspects: even leading clerics in the Russian Orthodox Church have come out in defense of the activists by asking for the mildest possible punishment, some even amplifying Pussy Riot’s critique, and attacking the hypocrisy of their own institution. But even more importantly, Pussy Riot has raised an unexpected and under-represented feminist voice in the current opposition, putting the “miss back in representation” [4] in the most decisively gendered way. This is not just about the president-elect and his machismo, presently undergoing a midlife crisis like that of many fellow president-philanderers, like global neoliberalism on the whole. Nor is just about about what contemporary Russian capitalism has done to women over the last 20-30 years, how it has subjected them to a forcible regendering, replacing that contradictory thing called Soviet emancipation (though implictly heterosexist and homophobic) with a consumerism rife with 1950s-style chauvinism, underpinned by the reinstated simulacra of traditionalist patriarchy in the age of the internet.

This re-gendering mirrors other similar processes of expropriation and re-subjectification that have taken place over the last 20-30 years. Former Soviet citizens from the Central Asian Republics – once subjects of all the contradictory and doubtful (inter)nationalism the Soviet Union offered – have become subaltern migrant workers from distant friendly dictatorships, (re)productive slave labor, for now completely absent from the Opposition meetings, unrepresented, though probably fully conscious of the benefits of the present paternalism over more stridently xenophobic systems of exclusion. Another would be the expropriative privatization (mislabeled as corruption) of the entire bulk of the Soviet Union as such, which at the same time still unconsciously exists, reproduced daily in almost every institutional behavior and every representation, rearticulating its faltering health care system, its educational system (once mighty, now in ruins), its housing developments, and its transportation networks, all turned into sites of a continual reproductive, expropriative, unrecognized labor that continues on Facebook in an endless loop. The only chance combat this spectacle is to let it tell the truth unconsciously, heightening its contradictions with its own instruments to create a gap where all the mis-representations of production and reproduction could truly bring forth something like genuine collective consciousness.

[1] Karl Marx. Debates on Freedom of the Press and Publication of the Proceedings of the Assembly of the Estates. Rheinische Zeitung, No. 130, Supplement, May 10 1842. Online at:

[2] Cf. Karl Marx/Friedrich Engels. The German Ideology. 1845. Online at:

[3] For more information on Pussy Riot’s incarceration, visit and join the Facebook Group “Free Pussy Riot.”

[4] Many thanks to Hito Steyerl for this brilliant formulation.

David Riff (born 1975). Art critic, artist, curator, translator, and member of Chto delat. Lives in Moscow and Berlin.