Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Nazism and the Russian struggle against poshlost

Cliché, stereotype, and triviality then belong together and are symptomatic of a common état, condition, or disease. Stereotype is from a French word for a “solid plate of type,” further from Greek stereos, which sounding off almost sterile, means solid. From the sense of “perpetuated without change [or life]” came around 1920 a notion of something “preconceived and oversimplified.” Stereotypes and clichés are then figures of mental ossification—of thoughts lacking spark, penetration, originality, insight and truth. If Medusa’s early victims were turned into stone under her terrible gaze, modern man and his mind get comfortably numbed and killed by steady and repetitive doses of trite “truths,” echoed stereotypes, and automatic clichés. When improperly or all too commonly handled, McLuhan’s “Medium is the message” becomes one of such petrifactions or signs of petrifactions, which make their carries flat, lifeless and dumb in the face of the terrible and evils.
According to McLuhan himself, the medium and its message is supposed to work as a cliché in order to do its work efficiently: “[As] the new artifact or technology pervades the host culture as a new cliché, it displaces, in the process, the old cliché or homeostasis …”[1] Thus, the media and their messages, whatever they are, including the cliché “The Medium is the Message,” are supposed to “pervade the host“ and displace its content, its originality. In other words, we have here a formula for perfect parasite and colonization, that is to say, a figure of Western imperialism and its ideal. The least reflected and understood it is, the more unconscious to the host it is, the more perfectly and the more efficiently it is supposed to work: “We are all robots when uncritically involved with our technologies.”[2] That’s also McLuhan.

Interestingly though, the cliché, the superficial and the thoughtless apparently unleashing its power and flood on the world also match the otherwise seemingly untranslatable Russian idea of a great sin known as poshlost, as Nakobov explains, it is a systemic normalization and ritualization of dishonesty and a vulgar, promiscuously indiscriminate spirit (an anti-thesis of the spirit, that is):

“Poshlust,” or in a better transliteration poshlost, has many nuances, ... corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic, and dishonest pseudo-literature—these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing, we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know. ... The flowers of poshlost bloom in such phrases and terms as “the moment of truth,” “charisma,” “existential” (used seriously), “dialogue” (as applied to political talks between nations), and “vocabulary” (as applied to a dauber). ... One of poshlost's favorite breeding places has always been the Art Exhibition; there it is produced by so-called sculptors working with the tools of wreckers, building crankshaft cretins of stainless steel, Zen stereos, polystyrene stinkbirds, objects trouvés in latrines, cannonballs, canned balls. There we admire the gabinetti wall patterns of so-called abstract artists, Freudian surrealism, roric smudges, and Rorschach blots—all of it as corny in its own right as the academic “September Morns” and “Florentine Flowergirls” of half a century ago.[3]

Poshlost is the ”essence” of the dead souls, the new form of spiritual, political, moral, and cultural enslavement in the hands and in the minds of new bourgeois masters who are themselves the concentration of that anti-quality, which may also be defined as the fake and the false and a lack of spirituality (dukhovnosti). As Gogol explains: “[Pushkin] used to say of me that no other writer before me possessed the gift to expose so brightly life's poshlust, to depict so powerfully the poshlust of a poshlusty man [poshlost' poshlogo cheloveka] in such a way that everybody's eyes would be opened wide to all the petty trivia that often escape our attention.”[4]

If poshlost was in Russia identified soon enough as man’s and society’s great disease, which needs to be exposed and fought against, in the West, poshlost has become an aggressively demanded and promoted form of bourgeois proper conduct. In Russia, the battle against poshlost is said to have ended by the 1960s though[5]—that’s when Russia (or the Soviet Union then) became more and more ready for its sell-out by the communists themselves and the return back into the bourgeois and oligarchic fold.

Poshlost or the ability to think only in phrases and clichés and, if not, to draw a dead blank can be seen at work in an interview with a Ukrainian special forces captain from Western Ukraine, which was published by Anna News. As one listens to the captain, it becomes quickly obvious that his thoughts and responses are made of clichés, and a store of clichés is what he is drawing on. When he is put in a spot where no cliché comes to his rescue, he immediately becomes lost for thoughts and words and does not know what to think or what to say. He did acknowledge that Aidar battalion is firmly and openly Nazi, but this gave him no further thought or idea about the fact that he was fighting and killing on the same side with them and under the same high command and leadership. He also understands that his grandfathers were fighting against Nazism, Hitler, and Bandera, but again he cannot formulate or conceive a thought, idea, or opinion about his own fighting and killing for what his grandfathers were fighting against. He went to make war in Donbass because it was an order and because the certainty of prison, if he refused, would be a much greater risk for him than the possibility of dying in Donbass or the certain necessity of killing as ordered. When he is asked about the Odessa massacre, he has no thought or opinion either. He is not from Odessa, he was not there when the massacre or “it” happened, and to form any thought or opinion, he would need to see again some. Otherwise, he considers himself a well-educated, thoughtful and thinking man and he is sure that his officer’s honor has not been anyhow impaired.[6]
 Trivial, commonplace and vulgar, literally means belonging to the crossroads. Trivium is where three roads meet. As a symbol of man’s possible destinies and cardinal choices, the trivial then points not only toward a possible “banality of evil,” but also to a radical devaluation of one’s fate and its meaning—to the danger of falling for exchanging one’s mind for useless information and going down the road of the least resistance by making banal decisions and choices.  
A man loaded with phrases, with blocs of phrases that are blocking his mind, loses a great deal of what it means to be homo sapiens, what it means to be alive and well. One certainly becomes adjusted, but adjusted in a very mediated way, which for McLuhan means to be “perfectly adapted to propaganda” and hence to oligarchy or a society of robots:

Propaganda cannot succeed where people have no trace of Western culture. …. [For] to talk about critical faculties and discernment is to talk about something far above primary education and to consider a very small minority. The vast majority of people, perhaps 90 percent, know how to read, but they do not exercise their intelligence beyond this. They attribute authority and eminent value to the printed word [the media], or, conversely, reject it altogether. As these people do not possess enough knowledge to reflect and discern, they believe—or disbelieve—in toto what they read. And as such people, moreover, will select the easiest, not the hardiest reading matter, they are precisely on the level at which the printed word can seize and convince them without opposition. They are perfectly adapted to propaganda.[7]

As one sees more and more students coming equipped and fully armed with clichés and then commensurately upset when this progressing phenomenon is pointed out to them (in a society of clichés, pointing out clichés is offensive), society also becomes more and more and ever better adjusted to rising Nazism as well. That’s also the point at which what was once liberal thought starts assuming a shape and taste of a corpse and hence also the tastes of fascism and its necrophilia and love of death. 

[1] Marshall McLuhan & Bruce R. Powers, The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 18.
[2] Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, War and Peace in the Global Village (Singapore: Hardwired, 1997), p. 18.
[3] Vladimir Nabokov, ”The Art of Fiction No. 40,” The Paris Review, No. 41, Summer-Fall 1967, <> Accessed on October 15, 2014.
[4] Nikolai Gogol, “The Third Letter à Propos Dead Souls", 1843, quoted and translated by Davydov. In Sergej Davydov, ”Poshlost,” in V. Alexandrov, ed. The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 628–632.
[5] Svetlana Boym, Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 41.
[6] Интервью пленного капитана украинской армии Владислава Паршикова,” Anna News, October 14, 2014,
<> Accessed on October 15, 2014.
[7] McLuhan is here quoting approvingly Jacques Ellul. Marshall McLuhan & Bruce R. Powers, The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 60. My emphases. On McLuhan’s notion of the new rising oligarchy see, Paul Benedetti and Nancy DeHart, eds., On McLuhan: Forward Through the Rearview Mirror (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997), p. 142.

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