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#8: State of Emergency

Alexei Penzin /// Ukraine: Revolution Under Construction

It is more pleasant and useful to go through the “experience of revolution” than to write about i t ..

V.I. Lenin (“The State and Revolution”)

The narrative of the current debates on the nature of the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine explicitly or implicitly is defined by the notion of the difference between revolution and its imitative construction . It is this difference that generates all of the further ideological combinations of position. In the structural turn of events that concerns us here, it is not yet important what characterized this revolution, if indeed it was a revolution. Instead, the main question is whether we can record the event of revolution at all, whether this event had its place. If so, the events in Kiev cannot be reduced completely to media-propagandistic contexts and manipulations, following the contemporary philosophical notion of the autonomous event, which is not pre-determined in terms of significance. This argument can be approached in a dialectic mode, a mode which does not seem to be theoretical “retro” in this case, since it allows us to actualize the line of thinking on revolution that began as early as the 19th century.

It is more pleasant and useful to go through the “experience of revolution” than to write about it ..

V.I. Lenin (“The State and Revolution”)

The narrative of the current debates on the nature of the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine explicitly or implicitly is defined by the notion of the difference between revolution and its imitative construction . It is this difference that generates all of the further ideological combinations of position. In the structural turn of events that concerns us here, it is not yet important what characterized this revolution, if indeed it was a revolution. Instead, the main question is whether we can record the event of revolution at all, whether this event had its place. If so, the events in Kiev cannot be reduced completely to media-propagandistic contexts and manipulations, following the contemporary philosophical notion of the autonomous event, which is not pre-determined in terms of significance. This argument can be approached in a dialectic mode, a mode which does not seem to be theoretical “retro” in this case, since it allows us to actualize the line of thinking on revolution that began as early as the 19th century.

1. Thesis . Our first and most natural attitude would be to believe in the phenomenology of revolution, that “changed state” of society, the logic of exceptions and emergency, when people on the streets smile, stay awake for days and night, eat irregularly, talk to strangers and climb onto monuments in the order of striking mass- performance , as the Moscow artist Anatoly Osmolovsky once did during his radical period. We could see all of these things in Kiev.

2. Antithesis . For more than a decade, the work of image-workers has taught even the most innocent political observers in Russia to mistrust this entire euphoric spectacle. The educated milieu has unwilling become a political theater-audience, a strict, collective Stanislavsky, with his famous “I don’t believe you!”. On the next level, this antithetical position is supported by the theory of a chain of “velvet revolutions”, planned by some secret group of subjects, a story that has been vocalized by many of the Russian mass-media that are under state-control.

It is possible to continue the quarrel between these two positions for a very long time, in the bad infinity between two dogmatisms. In understanding revolution as the romantic spontaneity of sincerity and immediacy, the first position seems quite naive, while the second position seems dismally trivial and insensitive to the historical moment. But isn’t it better to admit that the seeming clarity of the choice between revolution and construction is simply – and fundamentally – flawed?

It makes sense to clarify one of characteristic traits of revolution, at least for the time being: in all of its historical forms, the revolution is always closely connected to ideas of tampering, “PR-technologies”, the actions of “foreign agents”, that is, with ideas of those very “constructions” that are seen as its conceptual opponents, which is actually what this entire argument is based upon. We might admit, for a start, that revolution as such is not characterized by immediacy . An admission of this sort blocks both political naivete and the stagnant sophistication of its sceptics.

At this point, it becomes important to remember Marx. His examination of the revolution of 1848 “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” brings much clarity to this question. Allow me to quote: ” And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language . Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. ” Marx goes on to note that this kind of reference to the symbolic resources of the past serves the purpose ” of finding once more the spirit of revolution, not making its ghost walk again. ” ( https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm ).

This fragment has attracted a great deal of attention throughout the 20th century, when the strange costumes and theatrical aspects of the revolution began to reveal themselves more noticeably. Walter Benjamin, for an instance, compares revolution to the sudden leap of a tiger, a leap which tears apart the linear progression of history, bringing back the voice of the oppressed of all era in one fatal moment. But we are interested in broadening and opening this analysis. Marx says that revolution dresses itself in the clothes of bygone epochs, and we are more interested in the idea of changing dress and compulsive theatrality of revolution than in its hidden and often controversial addressing of the part. (In appealing to these very arguments of Marx, Benjamin essentially ignored the rest of the text, in which Marx says that that the proletarian revolution will not be afflicted by this reactive reference to the past; yet in doing so, he does not contradict his broader comments on the “adoption of [its] language”.)

In this way, Marx has supplied us with a rather subtle observation, in which dramatized production and elements of disguise are a part of the revolution’s “essence”. Bereft of any native resource of legitimacy, faced with the opening chasm of a new world, the revolution falls back onto magical rituals, incantations, disguises and performances in creating its own values and symbols. The source of its authority, authenticity, or recognition are elsewhere; it only summons them through its frenetic incantations. (It is hardly coincidental that one of the leaders of the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine, Julia Timoshenko has been given the nickname of “Pannochka”, alluding to the witch from Gogol’s story “Viy”.) Based on contemporary experience, one might add that this incantation does not necessarily address the resource of other historical epoch, but can also draw upon other spaces, other cultures, countries, or other political territories.

Since the revolution itself always necessarily entails elements of appropriation and theatrilization, it will always be possible to ascribe the heterogeneity of its complex to some political subject behind the scenes, be it at home, or better yet, abroad, insurmountably distant (“America”). Furthermore, if one considers that the logic of the market has penetrated the darkest corners of contemporary thinking, revolution cannot be immune to the idea that it can be sold like any other product, as a valuable historical event. There are many obvious examples; take, for an example, one of the latest vulgar theories that links the Great October Revolution with funding from the German general staff, or the conspiracy theory on the destructive influence of the CIA on the course of events throughout the period of the Perestroika. In the 1990s, “advanced” liberals-postmodernists declared that the October Revolution had, in fact, “not taken place at all”, that its entire narrative was simply produced and set into scene “by the Bolsheviks, once they had seized power”, and that the film “October” played an important role in making this production by showing the pathos-laden scene of the masses storming the Winter Palace. In a sense, the terrorist attacks of September 11th also fit into this revolutionary model of “the autonomous, unsubstantiated event”; one only has to look at all of the haziness that shrouds this date to the present day.

This constituent characteristic of revolution explain why any radical shift in society is always shrouded in foggy, sceptical speculations. They translate the uncertainty of revolution, this gaping, inexplicable blank, into the language of money, graft, and “political technology” that surrounds it, a language that is more comprehensible to the mass-audience. If, as Marx writes, the revolution makes use of a heterogeneous and exotic “appropriation of language”, onto which it attempts to superimpose its own phenomenology, then the dominant ideology attempts to translate the revolution into its own normalizing language, constantly enacting the opposite – i.e. literally counter-revolutionary – operation.

This means that there is no such binarism as “revolution” vs. “construction” – the very notion and praxis of revolution already contains this ambivalence and mediation. When it is subjected to a corresponding treatment by the contemporary, spectacularizing mass-media, this aspect of revolution is intensied so much that the revolution itself seems like a pure imitation. Thus, the position which we initially defined as “naivite” and “sophisticated banality” are nothing but fragmentary and therefore false moments in the dialectics of revolution .

Writing on his time, L.D. Trotsky, in his “The Revolution is in Danger!”, commented yet another wave of strikes and demonstrations that flared up in Petrograd in July 1917, in the interval between the revolutions. The press saw these events as evidence of plotting by foreign agents and stoutly demanded a special inquiry. Answering this call, Trotsky wrote: “But even today, we can say with great certainty that the results of this kind of inquiry can cast light on the work of the Black Hundred and the secret role of gold from Germany, England or even Russia itself; it can illuminate this place or that, but no legal investigation will ever be able to change the political meaning of these events . The masses of workers and soldiers in Petrograd were not and could not have been bought.”

We too might say that revolution always contains elements of constructed performance; if one invokes these elements in search of an ideal example, one can even receive a real echo, but this does not change its political meaning. Isn’t the notorious “velvet revolution” actually a fantasy of the real revolution, a revolution before the revolution, in its pre-predicative existence, thanks to which we can gain a tangible idea of a certain historical albeit ambivalent and suspicious chain, a chain to which it can be connected, a chain from which it can derive its shaky legitimization and its ontological weight?

Of course, it is difficult to aspire to any categorical conclusions in the framework of such a short text, so that these comments should be seen as little more than a working hypothesis. Yet nevertheless, one thing is clear: to see nothing but political theater everywhere, brushing aside the event, conformistically defending oneself from its summons, seems counterproductive today. This would mean subordinating oneself fully to the power of the spectacle and sharing in the cyncism and skepsis that is forced upon us actively in order to block any and all political actions. Our habit of seeing nothing but complex, alienated and fragmented games of hidden interests, investments, and medial interpretation everywhere can deprive us of the capacity for seeing the chanc for an authentic and radical transformation. In this sense, the almost complete absence of any clear or strong voice from our Left as an answer to the event in Ukraine seems rather sympomatic.

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