Everybody’s Talking (And No One Says a Word)

Accusations of zombification are a useful tactic in the general undermining of all political discourse, in that they serve as a substitute for actual evaluation. The very question of free speech is thus rendered moot: rather than evaluating speech, according to its worth, its sincerity, and its effects, speech can be entirely dismissed.  Speech becomes excess (either as the flood of verbiage that zombifies its audience, or as the meaningless sounds uttered by the zombified subject).  The zombie who repeats what he or she has been told is something of a hybrid (a zombie/parrot);  the classic zombie does not speak at all.  

The dismissal of so much speech as nonsense is a powerful idea (rooted in Orthodox hesychasm, if one wants to bother to go that far).  It suggests that perhaps the discourse would be more productive if more people would choose to be silent.  The political advantage that such silence might hold for powerful elites is clear, but it also parallels an aesthetic judgment that partakes of a different kind of elitism.  Recall Anna Akhmatova’s lament that, through her example, she encouraged women (poets) to speak, and now she only wishes they would shut up.  

Decades later, Milan Kundera mounts a sustained critique of a vapidly confessional culture in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, populating his novel with graphomaniacs who labor under the illusion that their inner lives are worth expressing. Kundera captures this idea in one of the novel’s most powerful images, that of  six apparently anxious ostriches on display in a zoo: 

The ostriches were like messengers who had learned an important message by heart but whose vocal cords had been cut by the enemy on the way; so that when they reached their destination, they could do no more than move their voiceless mouths. (129)

Written in 1979, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting targets a capitalist commecial culture that is still largely analog, and that still finds its abject other in the world of “developed socialism.”  Yet in the decades that have seen both the digital revolution and the collapse of communism, Kundera’s skepticism about the proliferation of words seems prescient.  The intelligentsia’s handwringing about the market’s vulgarization of culture would be quickly superseded by the occasionally disturbing democratization of discourse on-line.  

And this is where the regime and the opposition come together: the regime apparently assumes that people are idiots easily duped by what they see on television, but their message is coated in populist invocations of the common people’s values.  The opposition finds itself falling into the trap of agreeing with the regime’s attitude towards the population; hence the repeated, disdainful use of the word “быдло”(bydlo) to describe them.  An obsolete word for cattle, “быдло” as a collective noun describing stupid, lumpen masses, is separated from the zombified only by species.

Next: Astakhkov Sergii and the Idiot Box