Mutatis mutandis: Only Lifestyles Have Changed

Perry Anderson concludes his two-part critique of Dmitri Furman, the Russian scholar of comparative religion and, after 1991, post-communist societies, with the remark that Furman “preserved the dignity” of the terms “liberal” and “democrat” — rare enough in either Europe or America. A nice sentiment but a weak conclusion to these longish articles, which are still well worth the reading (LRB, 30 July / 27 Aug, 2015) .

Like Furman himself, Anderson draws upon a impressive range of learning. There is much to be gleaned from both reviewer and reviewed about the impact and nature of major world religions, as well as about power and politics in the gamut of post-Soviet societies. the swoop which extends from the Baltic states down across eastern Europe to Moldava and Ukraine and those on both sides of the Caucasus, then on to the Stans in central Asia.

Dmitri Furman’s shift from the sociology of religion to that of politics is telling. Since he had imagined that Soviet society as constituted prior to 1991 was capable of reform, perestroika and glasnost, the downfall of Gorbachev jolted him to change field of study. He wanted to explain the intricacies of the former Soviet colonies and what these might reveal about the future of Russia itself.

Perry Anderson himself was formed intellectually just before the ferment of the sixties, but already in 1962, he had assumed the editorship of the New Left Review, with which he is still associated. In fact, the two pieces in the London Review of Books coincide with the publication of the August, 2015 issue of New Left Review 94, which he edited, Incommensurate Russia.

There is no need to resurrect here the debates which prevailed in Western Marxist circles in those years, and I would not be the most objective person to do so. Suffice it to say that the underlying temper of the times, which was utopian, romantic, some would say adolescent, did not lend itself to Realpolitik. In the sixties and for a while into the seventies, even those committed to transforming the world, to use Marx’s phrase, were tempted to imagine that it would be enough just to change lifestyles. Mutatis mutandis: not much has changed, except lifestyles.

Geistesgeschichte, the discipline at hand here, does have explanatory powers, despite its weakness for the metaphor of entelechy — the innate unfolding towards its telos of something botanical, as if ideas were plants. The history of ideas can also slip easily into the embrace of mesmerizing ideals. Such comes with the territory, since ideals are in part ideas. Any idea, when it becomes compelling, can metamorphose into an ideal. That is one of the underlying themes of what we have idealized as Greek philosophy and the myths upon which it is based.

For Furman, democracy and the drive toward it was real enough to speak of “imitation [as opposed to real] democracies”, like the simulacra which arose in  the post-Soviet world and have now found their fully realized form under Vladimir Putin in Russia — the dog here being shaken by its tail.

Yet we should ask ourselves if it is sufficient to qualify as a legitimate “non-imitation” democracy just to have a system which allows alternation between, say, US Republicans and Democrats, instruments as they are of two adverse camps within the same oligarchy? Just maybe all mainstream parliamentary and constitutional democracies are “imitations”, as Luciano Canfora asserts in La democrazia: storia di un’ideologia. They all need glasnost and perestroika.

Misplaced Anxieties of Green Ecology?

  • Ecologists should turn their attention from mere global warming to a more frightful threat. What happens to the environment after we humans have our first full thermonuclear war, the chances of which are greater than than most think, according to The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists? Some optimistic specialists argue that in a bad but not worse case scenario several billion, about half of us, might survive. Any way you cut the cake, that catastrophe poses far greater danger to humanity and to the present state of nature than a few carbon-induced degrees of heat distributed across the planet.

Here is a real world game theory problem to work out: how much effort is it rational to put into staving off global warming, whose consequences may be manageable, as opposed to striving desperately to prevent nuclear war, which, if it does happen, will eliminate the very possibility of the game in which this question can be asked?

Or does it make any difference?

Never Turn Yourself In

One doesn’t have to be an avid reader of Michel Foucault to see that our willing participation in social media is a new and invidious form of confession, which he understood as the most intimate instrument of institutional power and control. As we delineate and expose our wishes, wants and needs, our likes and dislikes, we willingly provide the information necessary for our own manipulation and subjugation. We make our selves into subjects, unless we learn instead to simulate, dissemble, bluff, fake, counterfeit, feign or sham. Never tell the truth. Never turn yourself in.

Heidegger Is the Dubbyk of Twentieth-Century Philosophy

He and his vocabulary of charms haunt us, to the point that Dasein no longer needs the italics of a foreign word. The expurgation of Yiddish from German culture — admittedly a backhanded way to speak of the Holocaust — meant that a promising rival cognate of sorts was obliterated from wide currency. Doikayt could be translated as “here-and-now-ness” (Da-keit in German, as opposed to Da-sein, “being there”). It was a guiding principle of Bundism, the organized social democratic movement in eastern Europe whose focus was to seek alliances with other distinct and even sometimes hostile cultures, customs and religions in multicultural societies. After all, there is no escape possible from the principal contradiction, which is capitalism. So why go anywhere? Doikayt lost out to the escapist Zionist ideal of “somewhere-other-ness” (but a somewhere “we” once were). A relique of twentieth-century political nomencature, doikayt survived for only a few more decades, confined to the Yiddish-speaking diaspora, a seed without issue. As for Dasein, it has, alas, prospered, a fetish to wield within the English-speaking critical-theoretical academy, snaring us in convoluted tangles of speculative meaning from which there is no exit.

On the importance of Yiddish to high German literature, see Deutsch-Jüdischer Parnass: Literaturgeschichte eines Mythos, Willi Jasper.  As for the relation German once had with the Yiddish language: Was ist Deutsch?, Utz Maas. Finally, for bios and close-ups of the literary figures in the Canadian diaspora who wrote in Yiddish and Hebrew, there is Cents ans de littérature yiddish et hébraïque au Canada, Heim-Lieb Fuks et Pierre Anctil. In the mid-twentieth century, small cells of Bundist affiliation influenced Canadian social democracy, in the big cities at least. The history of the Prairies was entirely different, but no less an extension of ideology forged in eastern Europe, not necessarily, it goes without saying, in the Pale. 

— H. H. N.

What’s in a Name?

“In the mid-1970s F.M. Esfandiary (Fereidoun M. Esfandiary / فریدون اسفندیاری) legally changed his name to FM-2030 … to break free of the widespread practice of naming conventions that he saw as rooted in a collectivist mentality, and existing only as a relic of humankind’s tribalistic past. He viewed traditional names as almost always stamping a label of collective identity—varying from gender to nationality—on the individual, thereby existing as prima facie elements of thought processes in the human cultural fabric which tended to degenerate into stereotyping, factionalism, and discrimination.”

< Wiki: FM-2030