I examine the performance of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot in the Christ the Savior Cathedral, Moscow, 2012, and the immediate political context of this performance. Three members of the group were arrested, accused of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, and sentenced to two years in prison. One member was released on probation, the others were granted amnesty after they served nearly the full sentence. A relative harmlessness of the crime in comparison to the severity of the punishment was striking. Looking at the feminist activist group Pussy Riot and their most famous performance, I examine how political and civic activism can be read, interpreted, and practiced in the neoliberal context. I suggest that Pussy Riot is a telling story revealing the nature of Putinism as a Russian multicultural neoliberal project. By exercising state power over the female bodies of Pussy Riot protesters, the political imaginary of the Putin Modern strives not only to discipline the bodies of political activists, but also to perpetuate a patriarchal oligarchic regime maintaining a status of the second-class citizenship for women and sanctioning and condoning the genderization of those whom it deems fit. I argue that the reason Pussy Riot’s performance generated a political affect was that they, consciously or not, worked with Russian “cultural memory.” A spiritual practice and a tradition of the Orthodox sanctity called jurodstvo underpinned their actions in the given cultural context. The trial, in turn, evoked a specter of the show trials conducted by the Soviet state. The power dynamics at play during the performance followed by the trial, made many people co-participate by interpreting the events, articulating positions, and changing sides. The “meaning” of the action was, and still is, intensely contested.
I uploaded my article on “active ruination” (namely ISIS’s affective ruining the space practices) on academia.edu. Years will pass before I get it published so it might as well just dwell there
As atrocious actions, public executions and world-making endeavors of ISIS analyzed in terms of performativity open the space for questioning the dominant ideas of history and politics. ISIS released the video of the shooting of 25 Syrian soldiers at the Palmyra ruins in the beginning of June, 2014. On the video, the executioners, most of whom appear to be teenagers, parade the soldiers on the scene of the amphitheater, kneel them down and shoot. The Palmyra amphitheater is present as a visible two-fold reminder of spectacle: as arena of violence and the metaphor for the arena of violence. A crowd, children among them, watched the execution. I argue that the public executions serve several goals for ISIS: not only does ISIS compose propaganda messages, but the very lawlessness and atrociousness of the executions function as a powerful claim of the group’s legitimacy as a state in the ISIS imaginaries. Through the staged executions, ISIS seeks to create the world of power which is alternative to the Western world. In the process of creation of this world, ISIS generates landscapes of violence, and produces spaces haunted by killings. An attempt to redefine ancient ruins and to reenact medieval executions, is a claim to build a world of alternative historicism.
Benjamin, writing about the Klee’s “Angelus Novus” painting, portrays the angel of history, as it were, caught by the wind of time and being carried away by the force that exceeds the angel’s capacity to resist it:
“The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” (Benjamin, 1968, 258)
The angel that we see in Klee’s painting is indeed disheveled.
In his curls one might even see something resembling of Benjamin himself.
What interests me here, however, is not an imaginary or real semblance of the work of art and the portrait of the thinker who muses upon it. Perhaps as much as it is possible to claim that the work of art is always to this or that degree a self-portrait of the author, the work of art appropriated for an analysis (especially this far-winged as Benjamin’s analysis is) is also reading in the work of art of something to which the work of art serves as merely a pretext, that is to say, a self-portrait of sorts as well.
The past, which is constantly re-evaluated, by everyone, and in particular by the state, with some moments summoned and some, erased, appears in the image of a bunch of debris, detritus, floating in the wind of history (of progress) in Benjamin’s vision. The past, moreover, does not “exist” but is summoned. Not only every summoning of the past is arbitrary, divergent, creative, and interpretive, but there is no way “it really was” either, contradictorily to, or, rather, additionally to Benjamin’s assessment “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” (Ranke)” (Benjamin, 1968, 255). History, written and re-written in the interest “of the ruling classes” (Marxist thesis), we see increasingly in the modern times, is but an agglomeration of myths. Public does sympathize with the victor, and will always be sympathetic of victors–however, from a metaphysical point of view, the true victor is the one who lost the fight, and in this case the sympathies are uncertain. However official propaganda would frame the events, there will always be a recalcitrant part of the society stubbornly empathizing with the “losers,” preparing the soil for the dragon’s teeth to grow into a new, tomorrow-victorious, army. (As an example might serve the Whites opposing the Reds in the Civil War in Russia. Despite the victory of the Red Army, the White cause was not entirely defeated, and although there is no point in history when it could win either, there were always sympathies during the Soviet times for the defeated, which is also connected perhaps with the Orthodox moral demanding mercy for the conquered.)
It is necessary to put “the pile of debris before” the angel–which are, despite that they are situated in front of his eyes, are the debris of the past, unequivocally, since he’s dragged by the wind into the future–in context with ruins Benjamin mentions in the “Exposé” of 1935 to The Arcades, the fragment that did not make it into the later, 1939 version of “Exposé”:
“Balzac was the first to speak of the ruins of the bourgeoisie. But it was Surrealism that first opened our eyes to them. The development of the forces of production shattered the wish symbols of the previous century, even before the monuments representing them has collapsed. With the destabilizing of the market economy, we begin to recognize the monumets of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.” (Benjamin, 1999, 13).
To decode the Benjamin’s link onto Balzac, it is best to examine this piece by Balzac quoted in The Arcades Project under code C2a,8:
“The ruins of the Church and of the aristocracy, of feudalism, of the Middle Ages, are sublime–they fill the wide-eyed victors of today with admiration. But the ruins of the bourgeoisie will be an ignoble detritus of pasteboard, plaster, and coloring.”<Honoré de Balzac and other authors,> Le Diable á Paris (Paris, 1845), vol. 2, p. 18 (Balzac, “Ce qui disparait de Paris”). ▯ Collector ▯ [C2a,8] (Benjamin, 1999, 87).
Here, regardless of how often the bourgeoisie’s palaces are seen in ruins, only for them, it seems, to be built anew with no regard to the proverbial past, Benjamin talks about the anticipated ruins, the ruins that are to be, the ruins that we can see in the future before they are ruins: about the material debris and traces of that present which is about to turn into the past.
Balzac is even more visceral in his description of these ruins: “ignoble detritus of pasteboard, plaster, and coloring.” One might expect decay and putrefaction in these amorphous piles that are indeed perhaps are better called rabble than ruins, in comparison to the ruins retaining form referring to the previous socio-political formation, that of feodalism. Like aristocracy is the ruling class of feodalism, bourgeoisie is the ruling class of the formation known as capitalism in the Marxist taxonomies. In the Balzacian detritus it is not difficult to see the Benjaminian pile of debris carried away from the face of the angel of history, also carried away by the supreme force of progress. But what it tells us beyond what it tells about unfulfilled dreams of progress and failed expectations? When does the production of these debris ends? In the impossible, ideal moment when the past is finally restored just “as it all was”, the dead resurrected, the mankind redeemed, and the final judgement of history has been irreversibly pronounced?
Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1999.
Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. Schoken Books, New York, 1968.
“The great obsession of the nineteenth century was, as we know, history: with its themes of development and of suspension, of crisis and cycle, themes of the ever-accumulating past, with its great preponderance of dead men and the menacing glaciation of the world.” (”Of Other Spaces” by Michel Foucault,diacritics / spring 1986. Translated from the French by Jay Miskowiec)
“As is well known, the great and obsessive dread of the nineteenth century was history, with its themes of development and stagnation, crisis and cycle, the accumulation of the past, the surplus of the dead and the world threatened by cooling.” (“Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” by Michel Foucault. Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. Edited by Neil Leach.* NYC: Routledge. 1997. pp.330-336)
“As we know, the great obsession of the nineteenth century was history: themes of development and arrest, themes of crisis and cycle, themes of accumulation of the past, a great overload of dead people, the threat of global cooling.” (“Different Spaces” by Michel Foucault in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. 1998. The New Press New York. Edited by James D. Faubion. Translated by Robert Hurley.)
As Foucault in the first sentence of his lecture, delivered on the 14th of March, 1967, to the Architectural Studies Circle, which was later published under the title “Des Espaces Autres” in the issue 5 of the journal Architecture-Mouvement-Continuité (October, 1984; 46-49), later known broadly as the “Foucault’s Heterotopia Writing,” may or may not have said, the nineteenth century was occupied with:
– development and suspension
– crisis and cycle;
– ever-accumulating past (past) or the past’s ever-accumulation (accumulation);
– preponderance of the dead,
– and the treat of the global cooling
I wonder if surplus of the dead makes the Leach’s Foucault into a Marxist.
* the name of the translator of this piece in Leach’s volume is omitted. in the Acknowledgements section we read the editor’s gratitude for the permission to publish the piece expressed in the following expressions: “Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies: Theodor Adorno, ‘Functionalism Today’, trans. Jane Newman and John Smith; Ernst Bloch, ‘Formative Education, Engineering Form, Ornament’, trans. Jane Newman and John Smith; Michel Foucault, ‘Other Spaces: The Principles of Heterotopia’.” perhaps it is reasonable to suggest that Jane Newman and John Smith did the translation; the very title of the Foucault’s piece in the edited volume differs however from the title mentioned.
Wittgenstein makes two strong claims in the (extremely short) Preface to the work of his life, and the most widely read work of his, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
First, “Indeed what I have here written makes no claim to novelty in points of detail; and therefore I give no sources, because it is indifferent to me whether what I have thought has already been thought before me by another.”
And the second, possible only in connection with the first, “the truth of the thoughts communicated here seems to me unassailable and definitive.”
This is, I am afraid (and exhilarated) to say, is how all great books are written. In a great silence with which only eternity is capable to provide us.