Punk Band Pussy Riot’s Story and Political Affect

The text of a project on Academia.edu.

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.

Active Ruination (ISIS)

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

ISIS: Active Ruination and Performativity of Public Execution

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.

A Portrait of the City in the Uncertain World

What is city? How does it function? Is it a mirror of Utopia? Is it an agglomeration of infrastructure of different types? Is it a mythical space? Enchanted vision? An embodiment of precarity and uncertainty? A system where affect circulates? Perhaps everything above and more.

*

People are infrastructure, according to AbdouMaliq Simone. Whereas “infrastructure is commonly understood in physical terms, as reticulated systems of highways, pipes, wires, or cables.” (Simone, 2004, 407), “infrastructure” might be read in broader terms. For instance, like interactions of city residents that “engage complex combinations of objects, spaces, persons, and practices. There conjunctions become an infrastructure—a platform providing for and reproducing life in the city.” (Ibid, 408).

However, when the talk is about people as infrastructure, I cannot shed the feeling that by nature of infrastructure (which does not generate itself, as it were, but is organized or at least repurposed, as repurposed ruins, for example), the subjects are exploited / used as infrastructure, rather than form infrastructure by interactions through their own volition.

But in Simone’s thought “people as infrastructure” construct themselves as such: “Such infrastructure remains largely invisible unless we reconceptualize the notion of belonging in terms other than those of a logic of group or territorial representation. People as infrastructure indicates residents’ needs to generate concrete acts and contexts of social collaboration inscribed with multiple identities rather than in overseeing and enforcing modulated transactions among discrete population groups.” (Ibid, 419). I wonder if another productive way of thinking about people as infrastructure would be, considering people’s relationships and interactions being structured in collaboration and negotiation with other agencies, not only them as acting subject. What happens to people as infrastructure when biopolitics is taken into account? How does that change our view of a city?

*

Susan Buck-Morss in the chapter “Dream World of Mass Culture” of “Dialectics of Seeing” draws attention to the urban space as an enchanted space: “In the modern city, as in the ur-forests of another era, the “threatening and alluring face” of myth was alive and everywhere. It peered out of wall posters advertising “toothpaste for giants”…” (Buck-Morss, 254). City is an enchanted place where allegories and myths unfold. French poet Louis Aragon whose work Buck-Morss analyzes in connection with the dialog between Walter Benjamin and Surrealism, suggests that industrialism, at least on its early stage, is mythic: “He acknowledges that the new gas tank gods came into being because humans “delegated” their “activity to machines,” transferring to them “the faculty of thought”: “They do think, these machines. In the evolution of this thinking they have surpassed their anticipated use.”” (260).

Dream is a state of mind for Benjamin, and, it could be added, sleepwalking is a state of living. It is under the hypnosis of their desires, intentions, plans, and hopes, that citizens make everyday transactions.

*

Zeiderman, Kaker, Silver, and Wood begin their “Uncertainty and Urban Life” with another vision of a city, a city as a site of constant precarity, city called Octavia, whose dystopian image belongs to Italian writer Italo Calvino. To quote the article, “It is a “spider-web city” hanging over a void between a pair of steep mountains, “bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and cat walks.” Getting from place to place requires great skill, for there’s nothing but clouds below for hundreds of feet until you hit the valley floor.” (Zeiderman et al, 2015, 281). Johannesburg, also the field site for the authors, could be characterized by “contingency, fluidity, and unpredictability,” like markets—and in this flux, “uncertainty has become internal to ways of analyzing and interpreting cities as well as to ideas of how to create the cities of tomorrow.” (Ibid, 300).

*

Nagel Thrift introduces in the article “But Malice Afterthought: Cities and the Natural History of Hatred,” published in 2005, re-introduces the concept of misanthropy as the affect which circulates in the city spaces. Tracing the history of misanthropy, he remarks: “Thus, in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England, misanthropy was understood as a problematic state, but certainly not a state that was mad, iniquitous or perverse.” (P.9 of a manuscript downloaded from the author’s website). “But by the middle of the nineteenth century, such sentiments were fast going out of fashion in the face of a more pious stance to life which valued a controlled and benevolent heroism of the everyday and which increasingly regarded people-hating as a psychological affliction (often, indeed, caused by unrequited love) which must needs be combated by social programmes and self-restraint, although in mid- and even late-Victorian literature a series of radical or maudlin haters still continue to crop up as characters and attitudes, as instanced by authors like Dickens, Bronte, Eliot, Browning, Hardy and Conrad.” (Ibid).

I think this conceptualizing of misanthropy is fascinating but the reason the concept, quite unlike “melancholy” or “nostalgia” went out of circulation (and would not be returned) is that it dispersed into many different kinds of hatred, such as misogyny, misandry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, sociopathy, xenophobia, etc.—directed at particular groups of people based on gender, race, social orientation, etc. Some of these “hatreds,” phobias, and dislikes, are pathologized and announced to be a mental disorder (sociopathy), while others tacitly (or publicly) approved.

Misanthropy thus indeed links to affects of the past, and evokes literature—thus, whole number of heroes in Russian literature: Onegin, Pechorin, Chatsky, Bazarov, etc.—those of Pushkin, Lermontov, Griboyedov, and Turgenev’s literary works—could be said to be misanthropes, romantic heroes full of disdain and contempt to the society for which they were excessive, which they knew all too well, and could, as deeply, in some sense, moral beings, although corrupted by cynicism and skepticism, no longer respect. It is not rare to encounter a young woman or a man in Russia now who would claim that they are misanthropes, but not unoften you would see the glint of life in their eyes, and a great interest and compassion to other people. In other words, misanthropy is more of a romantic pose taken on the way potions were drank for the purpose of making the face to appear paler.

Thrift criticizes the nonexistent understanding of what is affect: “I have been involved in investigations of urban affect or mood for a number of years now, but can say that touching this sphere remains an elusive task, not least because so many definitions of affect circulate, each with their own problematizations.” (Ibid, 6). Since 2005, there is not much of clarity in this regard, if not to the contrary the increasing complexity and bifurcation of what people mean by saying “affect.” On the one hand, it is great to have a notion in active discussion which everyone uses to the best of their capacity. On the other hand, the enigmatic and unagreed-upon nature of affect makes one think that when we are talking about affect, we are talking about a number of different things each of which deserves its own name. Thrift proceeds with giving his own curious definition, or rather a bunch of definitions, of affect—the definition perfectly working together with all the definitions of affect I had had insofar encountered, they all for some reason put incompatible and sometimes mutually exclusive characteristics together: “For example, affect can be understood as a simple or complex (cursive mine—V.O.) biological drive, a pragmatic effect of the pre-cognitive or cognitive interactions of bodies, a set of capacities for affecting or being affected by, the communicative power of faciality, and so on.” (Ibid). Of all those understanding only “a set of capacities for affecting or being affected by” links to Spinoza, who introduced affect as a philosophical category, rediscovered by Deleuze and Guattari, and redistributed henceforward.

 

 

References

Buck-Morss, Susan. The dialectics of seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Mit Press, 1991.

Simone, AbdouMaliq. “People as infrastructure: intersecting fragments in Johannesburg.” Public culture 16.3 (2004): 407-429.

Thrift, Nigel. “But malice aforethought: cities and the natural history of hatred.” Transactions of the institute of British Geographers 30.2 (2005): 133-150. (I quote this article here by the manuscript downloaded from the author’s website, hence different pagination and perhaps text discrepancies.)

Zeiderman, Austin, et al. “Uncertainty and urban life.” Public Culture 27.2 76 (2015): 281-304.

Death by Disgust

In Tristles Tropiques Claude Levi-Strauss mentions a questionable but symptomatic cause of death for native population during colonization:

“In was used to be called Hispaniola (today Haiti and Santo Domingo) the native population numbered about one hundred thousand in 1492, but had dropped to two hundred a century later, since people died of horror and disgust at European civilization even more than of smallpox and physical ill-treatment.” (Levi-Strauss, 1974, 75)

We would frame it today as death from depression and stress, probably, but this kind of claim does not sustain a critique for the reason that it could not be supported with hard scientific evidence: there is no way to create a chart comparing numbers of people who died from smallpox and physical ill-treatment, to sum it up, and compare to the numbers of those who died of horror and disgust.

The reason why I remembered it, however, is the passage in Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture which speaks to this Levi-Strauss’s fragment, even if in a roundabout way:

“War may be, as it was among the Aztecs, a way of getting captives for the religious sacrifices. Since the Spaniards fought to kill, according to Aztec standards they broke the rules of the game. The Aztecs fell back in dismay and Cortez walked as victor into the capital.” (Benedict, 1934, 31)

Unlike Levi-Strauss, Benedict does not ascribe here European white sensitivities to native populations, but her statement is questionable in a similar way because it seems to imply that Aztecs fell back in dismay not because they were overwhelmed with surpassing forces but because they encountered a fight which broke their warfare standards.

I have no doubt that the affects of the kind–such as disgust, dismay, repulsion, horror, contempt– took place and played a role in establishing a power balance in different regions, and in regard to those subjugated each of those affects was but another tool of obliteration.

Intimidation and fear are powerful weapons which lay at the core of terrorist strategies of conducting the war (and the word “terror” is fully embedded in “terrorism”).

I wonder what kind of research question might have been possible here. How exactly such affects shape social interactions and participate in the decline of native populations? This might be one way to look at it.

References

Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. Cambridge–Massachusetts, 1934.

Claude, Levi-Strauss. Tristles Tropiques. Translated from the French by John and Doreen Weightman. New York, 1975.

Affect, Pervasive and Elusive

What is affect? Affect circulates through different spaces, it is multifaceted and flips easily from one ridge to another: individual and collective, private and public, owned and disavowed, approximated and distanced, embraced and avoided. Affect is visceral, olfactory, visual, tangible, palpable. It is atmospheric and pertains to luminosity, pulsation, and texture. What is affect? Notoriously hard to define, whatever it is, it does not mean anything, rather, affect provokes, arouses, triggers, disappoints, vexes, throws off balance, enamors, and disgusts. Affect is a deeply embedded feeling, the feeling worked into the body, it is the way the body is broken down to the settings in which it operates; affect is a state of soul, mind, and gesture. Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg define affect in following categories: “Affect arises in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon. Affect is an impingement or extrusion of a momentary or sometimes more sustained state of relation as well as the passage (and the duration of passage) of forces or intensities. That is, affect is found in those intensities that pass body to body (human, nonhuman, part-body, and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passages or variations between these intensities and resonances themselves.” (Seigworth, Gregg, 2010, 1). The number of “key terms” emerging in this passage – in-between-ness, passage, intensities, circulation, resonances – map out the unsteady territory of affect in public imagination. Affect is like phlogiston believed to be emerging during combustion in the 18 century: “In general, substances that burned in air were said to be rich in phlogiston.” (Conant, 1950, 14). During combustion, object dephlogisticate. It is possible to be dis-affected as well. Similar to objects rich with phlogiston, bodies are “said to be saturated with affect,” and it’s the circulation of affect that makes affect evident.

Do Robots Only Matter in the Context of Our Humanity?


In "A Cyborg Manifesto" Donna Haraway employs the notion of cyborg in order to question what it means to be human, but engages with it rather on the level of metaphor, I think. "By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated by hybrids of machine and organism. In short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics." (Haraway, 2006, 118)

It is fair to claim we are cyborgs but I think the justification to this claim should be extended and developed. We transplanted a part of our mnemonic functions into machines, and extended all kinds of facilities, but in essence we remain pitifully human, which is most evident in human/nonhuman interactions. Many people think that it would not be morally right to torture the robot (Calo, 2016). What is telling is how we anthropomorphize robots and why this way and not some other. Why is it wrong, for example, to torture robot, whereas it feels no pain, and why it is not wrong to shower a robot with your affection, whereas it is an inanimate object?

The first time I became fascinated in robots, I think, was at the time when Tamagotchi became ubiquitous. You had to care about them. This electronic creature required to be loved: fed, cleaned, and played with. It could also die. Terrible tragedy. Mortal robot.

The relationship which you built with a Tamagotchi was an extension of breather/breather interactions. Breather is the term which Tim Choy proposes to employ instead of "life form," as well as instead of definitions reinforcing hierarchical structures, like "human/nonhuman," "animate/inanimate," and other possible dualities. Breather becomes a figure of life connected to other breathers through the medium of air. Now robots are in a strange realm in regard to breathers, because some of them also need air for functioning, they consume air and therefore in some sense breathe.

The relationship between a Tamagotchi and a human carer is the relationship between an imagined breather and a real breather. The robot becomes a prosthesis of our own humanity, empowering but also signifying absence, injury, wound, loss, deficiency and lack.

References

Calo, Ryan. Robots in American Law. Talk at the University of Texas in Austin, 3/22/2016

Haraway, Donna. A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late 20th century. Springer Netherlands, 2006.

Choy, Tim. Breathers Conspire! Drawing Breath Together. Talk at the University of Texas at Austin. 3/7/2016

Baffling Disparity Between the Sound of the Word and its Surprising Meaning

“Stéphane Mallarmé, amazingly sensitive to the sound texture of language, observed in his essay Crise de vers that the word ombre is actually shady, but ténèbres (with its acute vowels) suggests no darkness, and he felt deeply deceived by the perverse attribution of the meanings ‘day’ to the word jour and ‘night’ to the word nuit in spite of the obscure timbre of the former and the light one of the latter.” (Jakobson, 1965, 34)
I surely did have this kind of wonder before, and articulated it.

Some Words

Some words mean just what
You would expect,
Like, onomatopoeia,
Struggle, breakthrough, dance, cooing,
Coconut, disguise, and latte.
They are transparent
In their look, sound, and the path of syllables alternating
Between stressed and unaccented
In an enduring rational succession;
On the chessboard of vowels and consonants
Former and latter
Measured in a reasonable balance.
Other words
Are just more elusive.
They seem to pretend to appear to be something
They are really not.
For instance, love*,
Hate°,
Scream^,
And dash`.
________________________________
*evidently, «love» should mean «a sort of yellow stretchy marmalade,» based on the way it sounds and looks
°a screeching of the wheels on the sharp turn
^tin pipes of the old red-brick houses
`a small golden fish hiding under the green log in a gleaming round pond shadowed by a willow
How much this feeling is amplified when you study a language that is not your native, is hard to convey. When I started speaking English, it was a constant source of feeling deceived and cheated on. Clearly “itch,” “notch,” “luminosity,” and “glory” are on the right places; but what about “vanguard” (a heavy fog), “darkness” (whiskers), “agglomeration” (a gluten-free sweet of sorts) and other ridiculous things? One can imagine a text written in this manner, but for it to be read it should be supplied with an ample commentary produced by the author.

Saussurean guess of “arbitrariness” of assigning the meaning to sound is not of much help. How does this arbitrariness come to life? Who orchestrates it and how? Language is perfected by all its speakers day and night, now how can it have this vortexes of inexplicable disparity between the sound and its meaning?
Reference

Jakobson, Roman. (1965) “The Quest for the Essence of Language.” Diogenes. 13(51): 21-37.