Silence, Insouciance, Takesmanship
Finding a Way to Write in Wartime
Now you can read me with the new Substack app! Download it here:
Today’s ‘stack will principally involve “housekeeping”. I said explicitly a week ago that the war in Ukraine has left me literally speechless, and I meant it. I was able to squeeze out some speech a week ago nonetheless, mostly by soldering together various fragments already written, by descending into mean-spiritedness in a vain effort to be funny, by “just saying whatever”. I can’t rely on the strategy of gonzo bricolage week to week, and so today I can only confess the stubborn silence of my “inner voice”, the homunculus who lives inside me and, when things are going right, dictates what I have to say.
This silence may come as a surprise, as I generally both teach and practice insouciance in the face of global crisis — I believe there is a moral imperative to do so: maintaining good spirits both for the sake of one’s own survival and the survival of good spirits themselves, so that the world, when any given crisis has passed, should still know what good spirits are. Although maintained with a solemn air of duty, this insouciance is sometimes received by others as a sign of my simply not caring, and if you receive it in that way you will likely wish to criticize me, now, for finally caring when it comes to the citizens of Kyiv or Mariupol, but not of, say, Syria, Iraq, or Yemen.
Yet part of this personal crisis of silence is indeed that when the war comes home to me —and Ukraine is my home, give or take a few borders, hours, train changes— I only feel more painfully the utter emptiness of the rhetoric by which my own native empire has asserted its power around the globe, the sheer reign of force that only trails values along behind it as a self-justifying wake, the sinking realization that I may end my days under the same sort of attack that the US has excelled in exporting, and that if this happens there will be nowhere to turn, no earthly authority whose hands are clean. Perhaps I am only stupid, and I need a backyard demonstration of what war is, in order to understand what war is, and to hate it; perhaps I lack the “empathy” necessary to really feel it even when the war is somewhere I can be reasonably sure will never cause me any inconvenience. But stupid as I am, I am feeling it, and part of this feeling is a feeling of the inadequacy of language, of being able neither to stay on subject nor to change the subject, of everything being either too pursed-lipped somber or too flippant.
One way of saying the same thing is that this war looms heavy enough that quick-draw take-mongering seems an obscenity, while writing about Pliny the Elder on wind or whatever seems almost as wrong — still preferable, if forced to choose, just not anything of which I am currently capable. I expect I’ll be back at it soon enough.
I continue to believe that Substack is a forum particularly well-suited to drop-outs from the takes-industry, the conscientious objectors of the take-wars. This belief has only grown stronger recently, as the company has made significant new efforts to keep its writers’ work at a safe distance from the algorithmic and metrics-based forces that are the life and death of statements made in social media or indeed, at this point, in legacy media. To this end, Substack has recently introduced an app that enables you to get your favorite Substack authors’ work custom delivered to you through the app rather than through e-mail. Download it here:
I don’t fully understand the benefits of the one way of reading over the other, but I am inclined to believe Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie when he writes that this app will be an important part of our return to “the time before we gave up our minds for dopamine hits…, before ads infected every corner, before every pixel was an attempt to hook you, when great minds wrote for people instead of algorithms.” This is pretty rapturous talk, and whether you fully understand how the app is going to bring about such a return, or whether you’re like me and you simply follow a strategy of early adoption without understanding, please just get the app and follow me there.
I recall seeing, in Germany in 1997, a US Army propaganda film from 1945 entitled Deutschland, erwache! / Wake up, Germany! It was shown to German prisoners of war, who were aggressively reminded by the film of the existence of such quintessentially German characters as Beethoven and Goethe. Hitler had deviated the German nation from its natural path and destiny, the film told the captive boys, but fortunately now, after his defeat, we find many other anchors of a splendid German identity to grasp hold of as we rebuild in peacetime. It is significant that this was 1945, and not 1939 or 1941, when the inhabitants of Allied countries were significantly more muted in their celebration of anything at all from Germany.
I find this sort of cycle so unfortunate, so foreign, as if current politics had any place in a mature and edifying relationship to history. In the present moment, I am stunned to see ordinary people expressing hostility towards individual Russians, past or present, with no connection to the Putin regime. I am even more stunned by the widespread toleration of this hostility by the media and by those in power, as if it were an unambiguous expression of righteous anger against the invasion. I see in it a deep confirmation of my fear that human beings are nothing more than bloodthirsty fools, and that there is no illusion more powerful than the belief in one’s own righteousness, which makes the thirst for blood appear as a virtue.
When I first started studying Russian the only instructional materials I could get my hands on were records produced by the US Navy Defense Languages Institute. I knew how to say Руки вверх! / Hands up! before I knew how to say Слава Богу! / Praise God! The reduction of a whole nation and its history to its role in a possible military confrontation, I mean, is not new to me. As I went to university, though, I found people with a rather wider range of interests in Russia than the US Navy had, and I studied Pushkin, and Andreï Bely, and the “Song of Igor’s Campaign” with people whose fundamental disposition to Russia was not one of wariness.
But the prominence of Russianists in American universities was itself a consequence of the Cold War imperative to know your enemy, and I came at the tail-end of this paradoxical golden age of American Slavic studies. Within a few years of my graduation, many Russian departments would be elided with other modern languages; within a decade, Arabic and Middle Eastern languages and cultures would come to occupy the primary position as the object of funding initiatives driven by wariness yet resulting in at least some real intercultural knowledge and understanding.
For the moment, as Russia imposes itself on our forgetful and easily distracted consciousness, no one is yet seeing the value of knowledge and history of the place; the righteous stance for the moment is proud ignorance, coupled with a vapid and transparently late-adopted Ukrainophilia. This extends even to boycotting “Russian” restaurants and supermarkets, which of course in the United States are often in fact owned by Ukrainians, or by people who, when they emigrated from the Soviet Union, would have been hard to classify —by their own lights— as either Russian or Ukrainian.
I’ve been working on a trade book called (working title) The Philosopher and the Tsar: How Leibniz Made Modern Russia. This is the project for which I received my Cullman Fellowship in 2019-20, where I was the designated user of the Slavic collections of the New York Public Library, practically with my own dedicated area librarian (to whom, again, infinite thanks). It seemed at the time I was studying the region of the world people care least about, except perhaps as it entered into concerns about the legitimacy of Trump’s election.
Now, although the place is again one of intense interest, this remains an interest born of wariness. It is just now sinking in for me —and I know that this is the least of the world’s problems, but perhaps it is also an instructive nanoproblem containing lessons of potentially general interest?— that my book project is going to be scrutinized and judged according to the megrims of a market that is always affected by world events, and that can only ever pass through phases of indifference, hostility, and brief curiosity followed by indifference again. I may be doing the equivalent of trying to celebrate Beethoven or Goethe in 1941. This realization, that the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences or the Kamchatka Expedition or Dmitri Mendeleev’s years of study in Halle are not simply and obviously worthy of attention in their own right, but that to pay them attention requires a certain historical clearing to open up, in which questions about the problem of any Russia-focused writing’s stance towards Putinism have already been worked out, is depressing as hell.
All I know how to do is to keep on being interested in the things I am interested in — hence the long track-record of “insouciance”, which may just be a record of reliably holding forth in indifference to the market, which in turn is something like a quantified version of the general cultural vibe. I’ve always been aware that this insouciance is not not political (see, e.g., my piece “The Politics of Curiosity”, in Curiosity and Method: Ten Years of Cabinet Magazine, Cabinet Books, 2013), and have been prepared to defend it when necessary as a disposition to the political that resists the gravitational pull of takesmanship. It is this same general spirit of my work and of my “interventions” that has sometimes caused me to seem like a “contrarian” over the past years, as so many of my own social class and professional cohort shifted overnight to a whole new way of speaking, while I just kept on trying to hone the things I’d already been trying to say for a long time. I could have told you at any moment over this period that the new way of speaking was not underlain by any real commitments, and that what was motivating it could move on to another target or cause or victim, depending on how you see things, tomorrow. And so now, overnight, it is the Ukrainian diner at the corner, and not sporting kente cloth or lifting up BIPoC voices, that offers the surest signal of righteousness. But it is not sincere, it never was sincere, and it shrouds a horrifying bloodthirst.
Other than this warning, I find, again, I don’t have much to say right now. This is a moment when insouciance seems impossible, and all speech seems to launch rotten from the mouth, however constructively it was intended, in the form of a superfluous take. At such moments what one can best do is a bit of housekeeping, launch an app; beseech readers to bear with us, assure them that we’ll be back.
In the meantime, if you would like to help Ukrainian refugees and victims of the Russian invasion, I still think the International Red Cross is probably the most secure and effective way to do so right now.
There are numerous small NGOs helping refugees in various countries bordering Ukraine. One that I’ve heard about from several sources, Homo Faber (a shout-out to Max Frisch?) is operating in Poland. You can send them a bank transfer here:
Stowarzyszenie Homo Faber; Purpose: Ukraina; IBAN: PL 93 1940 1076 3069 8598 0000 0000; SWIFT: AGRIPLPRXXX; Name of bank: Credit Agricole Bank Polska SA, ul. Legnicka 48, 54-202 Wrocław, Polska. You can also try to send money by PayPal: Stowarzyszenie Homo Faber, ul. Chopina, 41, lok. 2, 20-023 Lublin, e-mail: email@example.com.
Poland has had the most refugees, and also the most international attention. While accepting relatively smaller numbers, no country has been more impressive than Romania in its expression of solidarity and in the willingness of its ordinary citizens to make real sacrifices in order to help. Information is constantly being updated and this resource may already be somewhat old, but here is a list of some individuals and organizations, especially in northern Romania at the border, who are helping, along with information in some cases about how you can support their efforts.
Here is a rare live video of the Russian-language Kharkiv-based band Kazma-Kazma, performing in Moscow in 1991. I knew them briefly in Moscow in 1994, and often wondered what happened to them. They were extremely talented composers and musicians, exemplifying in its pure form a remarkable artistic tendency, forged underground in the Soviet period, that draws both on traditional folk culture and on an intensely anticommercial avant-gardism successfully recovered from long deep-freeze storage after its suppression in the USSR in the 1920s.
The same folk eclecticism is much better known in the post-Soviet period from the Kyiv-based band Dakha Brakha, which has successfully toured in the US and even become a favorite of the NPR Tiny Desk crowd (they’re very good; I’m not knocking them!) Early footage of this group shows its members sporting “tribal” dreadlocks and dabbling with didgeridoos, very much with the same general aesthetic sensibility as the Polish “ethnocore” band the Magic Carpathians, or indeed the Polish author Olga Tokarczuk. The existence of this enduring scene, which draws on and perhaps exploits romantic ideas about one’s own cultural exoticness —“self-orientalizing”, as Edhem Eldem would say— for me testifies to the broad familiarity of Ukraine, Poland, Galicia, both the parts of that general region that currently figure on maps, and those that do not, much better than, say, Zelenskyy’s appearance in 2006 on the Ukrainian version of “Dancing with the Stars”, where he plays up to the hilt the parallel aesthetic in that region of “estrada”, the neverending schlock of Schläger, of bargain-basement Eurovision routines, infantile soccer-ball or flamenco-themed costumes. Estrada testifies sooner to the existence of a shared culture between Ukraine and Russia, indeed from the Pontic Steppe to Lake Baikal. There is on the other hand nowhere in the world like the Carpathians.
Now might also be a good time to subscribe to this newsletter — in the reasonable expectation that I will be returning to form, or returning in a new form more suited to our times, very soon. Subscribers get a weekly essay delivered to their e-mail (or to the app!) once a week, and have full access to the archive dating back to August, 2020.
And again, finally, please download the app and read me there. Good things are coming, I promise.