Archive for December, 2011

Books

Saturday, December 31st, 2011
Image of spines of three books, the 1973 Vintage edition of Sartre's 'The Road to Freedom'.

The three Vintage editions of 'The Road to Freedom', bought in 1980.

I was 21 when I bought these Vintage editions of Sartre’s ‘The Road to Freedom’ trilogy. Then, I saw in the protagonist Mathieu a hero fighting a lonely battle to keep some measure of freedom. Nine years later, at 30, I saw Mathieu as a coward who failed himself and everyone that mattered to him. The other characters all seemed too flimsy and contrived to take seriously. Now, at 52, only a few bright moments are left intact: the visual resemblance of the scenes of his estrangement from his friends Daniel and Brunet to a Surrealist painting, a few of the dialogues.

I still like the covers.

Vernacular typography: improvised house number

Thursday, December 29th, 2011
House number drawn 6 freehand on old house

House number in Gasthuismolensteeg in Amsterdam.

Kind of interesting: the house painter drew this number freehand.

120,000 protesters in Moscow

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

What I find most striking about the recent protests in Russia is the political sophistication the protesters are showing across the board, from organizing, to dealing with state-hired goons, to fighting the propaganda war and collaborating with independents and rivals. ‘Connectedness’ (‘Young and Connected, Office Plankton Protesters Surprise Russia‘) may be multiplying the force that brought tens of thousands of a new breed of politically active Russians into the streets today. But here’s another hypothesis: the experience of working in mid-level positions for large, modern capitalist organizations has acted as a political training ground.

The modern company as political training ground

For almost two decades now, young to middle-aged Russians have been working for modern companies – many of them multinationals. There, they have become acquainted with something that they never encountered before: politics. Not the Big Politics of the past. Rather, the everyday business of negotiating one’s position, forming strategic alliances within the organization, securing benefits, and anticipating and surviving the bigger shifts caused by external forces and higher-level decision-makers.

This has ‘politicized’ them in an indirect, but powerful way: it has de-throned an older, dysfunctional conception of politics they’d inherited from Soviet times. One in which they were essentially helpless.

Absurdity and suffering

This concept of ‘politics’ was captured well by ethnographer Nancy Ries in her book Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation During Perestroika. As one reviewer put it: “Dire stories about poverty, hardship, and social decay recited constantly during perestroika served to fabricate a common worldview–conveying a sense of shared experience and destiny, and casting Russian society as an inescapable realm of absurdity and suffering.”

Those of us who spent time in the 1990′s in Russia, remember how difficult it was to challenge that view. Any suggestion that perhaps – just perhaps – some of the pragmatic politics that worked elsewhere, might also work in Russia – was met with derision.

And with fabulous explanations of politics, each more melodramatic than the last, spiced with vast conspiracy theories, stereotypes of the eternal ‘suffering people in hate/love with their tsar’ which would rise like a phoenix forever from the ashes of change, the eternal Russian (or ‘Soviet’) mentality, which was simply averse to individualism, capitalism, etc. etc. etc. Fact-checking was waved away as a silly Western illusion. Rather, these stories were supported by ancient, archetypal lore. I remember one explanation of the Russian character (alcoholic, spineless, incapable of initiative) based on a ‘collective’ technique of felling trees practiced by serfs. Like all good fish stories, these had to end with a bang, which usually took the form of predictions of ‘polnaya razrukha’ (total collapse).

Greedy guys in suits

Now, all those middle-class people realize that the ruling classes are simply the same greedy guys in suits that they see in the workplace, fighting for influence, with or without brains, money, ethics, connections and all those other things that everybody else has or doesn’t. And the new Russian middle class is well acquainted with strategy, in both action and communication. They see how lumbering and out of touch the regime is. They take heart in the fact that they’ve outwitted it in some ways already. (The regime’s suggestion that US money was behind the protests, was ridiculed by protesters with signs with slogans ‘demanding’ their pay from them US State Department.)

Let us wish them all well, this holiday season, and hope their protest becomes a movement which transforms Russia for the better!

The blogger Dmitrii Chernyshev provides a great page of pictures.