Stop Making Sense

A world in which one’s ideological opponents are, a priori, “zombified” (or, in the American case, duped by “fake news”) is a world in which words are no longer trusted. More specifically, words are taken to be purely performative, their constative value (assessed according to truth or falsehood) becoming less a matter of cognition than of affect and allegiance. Engaging with the demonized discourse (whether “zombification”,  “propaganda”, or “fake news”) starts to look suspiciously like engaging in it. 

This is the logic (or, perhaps, anti-logic) that animated the protest movement of 2012, when Russians in the capitals took to the streets in response to “rigged" elections (another phrase that now carries more venom than it does meaning).   Protesters carried signs with playful slogans that resembled clever status updates on Facebook taken to the streets.  The protests combined two important features:  the sheer fact of bodies on the streets and an absurdist refusal to engage with official rhetoric on its own terms.

The protests and the actionist art that grew out of them refused to fall into the trap of the articulate.  This is the essence of Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer, which set aside all notions of reasoned argument in order to make a set of emotional, deliberately shocking performative statements.  Pussy Riot did not argue with the regime (at least, not before their trial, at which point they pulled off a stunning code switch and assumed the roles of articulate intellectual dissidents); they yelled at it. 

The denial of discourse is an even more prominent feature in the work of Pyotr Pavlensky, who first came to fame for literally sewing his lips shut in response to the persecution of Pussy Riot (a stance that night have availed him better than his verbal statements in response to the recent rape accusations against him). His subsequent abuse of his own body (nailing his scrotum to Red Square, cutting off part of his ear on the roof of the Serbsky psychiatric institute) appropriates, as Anastasia Kayiatos so deftly argues, the nonverbal language of defiance practiced by Gulag inmates in Soviet times. 

The rhetoric of zombification, like the zombie plagues of film and fiction, spreads inexorably through contact and engagement.  The main difference is that the heroes of zombie tales know that they can't stop zombies through argument, nor do they think their opponents are dupes of a machiavellian power.  The response to zombies and zombification cannot depend on words.  It is not that words fail us, but that words have already failed us before we even began to fight. 

 

Next: 

Chapter 6: 

Words of Warcraft: 

Manufacturing Dissent in Russian and Ukraine

A War with No Name