Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Slavoj Žižek, tr. Ian Dreiblatt, Verso, 2014.
I enjoyed reading this short correspondence between Tolokonnikova, a member of Pussy Riot who was sentenced to two years in a Russian prison camp, and Žižek, the famous philosopher who was asked to write to her.
The pair did not know each other before they began corresponding. Apparently, Tolokonnikova was reading one of Žižek’s essays while she was being held in detention in Moscow and expressed a desire to meet him, but before arrangements could be made she was sent away to prison in Mordovia. They did, however, begin a correspondence, although the letters were subject to translation, and her letters were censored by the prison authorities.
I was immediately struck by Tolokonnikova’s courage in her defiance of Putin’s regime, and I was also impressed by her fierce and steely intelligence. Of course, she was writing with an audience in mind, but she comes across as determined and resolute in her political activism. She is very forthright about her opinions and I thought she was incredibly brave in what she said in her letters, considering the fact that she was locked up in a hell-hole prison and things could always be made a lot worse for her.
In his letters, Žižek starts out by being solicitous and asking if Tolokonnikova is alright and expressing his empathy and solidarity, but then he moves into full lecture mode and begins to theorise about the whys and wherefores of political activism, seemingly oblivious to the fact that political activism is not at all theoretical for her: she is living her political activism and suffering in prison as a direct result of it, whereas he is living safely in the West and merely philosophising about hypothetical situations. He says that he hopes she has time to read and write, and I got the sense that he was imagining her living in a spartan but clean prison cell somewhere, idling away the long hours in not too much discomfort. I found his questions about her physical conditions quite jarring to read, because the book includes an open letter Tolokonnikova wrote a year after she and Žižek began corresponding, in which she details why she was going on a hunger strike. She tells how she is being forced to live in disgusting and appallingly unsanitary conditions, without proper food, subjected to brutality, violence and bullying, and made to slave for seventeen hours a day sewing clothes for the Russian market. She wants people to know what she and the other inmates are being made to experience at the hands of the massively corrupt Putin regime. I doubt that Žižek knew about the reality of her existence and it sounds as though he was genuinely interested in her wellbeing, but there is an obvious disconnect between her reality and his perception of it. As the letters progress, it seemed to me that although she appears grateful for his public interest in the Pussy Riot case, she isn’t very impressed with being lectured to and being discounted as an intellectual lightweight who needs to have to have various philosophical theories explained to her. (I thought that some of what he wrote fell into the category of mansplaining, although that may be a bit harsh. Aware that the letters would be published and that he was writing for a wider audience, his theorising was probably very deliberate. However, Tolokonnikova is clever enough to match his big-brain thinking, and although her style of discourse differs from his, I found her letters to be far the more interesting from a philosophical point of view. Also, it seemed to me that although Žižek tried to be kind and offer her comfort, Tolokonnikova made it clear that she was no damsel in distress: she wasn’t looking for personal sympathy, but for a political ally.)
“The Deleuzian philosopher Brian Massumi clearly formulated how today’s capitalism has already overcome the logic of totalising normality and adopts instead a logic of erratic excess: the more varied, and even erratic, the better. Normalcy starts to lose its hold. The regularities start to loosen. This loosening of normalcy is part of capitalism’s dynamic. It not a simple liberation. It’s capitalism’s form of power. It’s no longer disciplinary institutional power that defines everything, it’s capitalism’s power to produce variety – because markets get saturated. Produce variety and you produce a niche market. The oddest of affective tendencies are okay – as long as they pay. Capitalism starts intensifying or diversifying affect, but only in order to extract surplus-value. It hijacks affect in order to intensify profit value. It literally valorises affect. The capitalist logic of surplus-value production starts to take over the relational field that is also the domain of political ecology, the ethical field of resistance to identity and predictable paths. It’s very troubling and confusing, because it seems to me that there’s been a certain kind of convergence between the dynamic of capitalist power and the dynamic of resistance.”
“You really think ‘today’s capitalism has already overcome the logic of totalising normality?’ I say maybe it hasn’t – maybe it just really wants us to believe it has, to accept that hierarchisation and normalisation have been exceeded…
Late capitalism’s anti-hieratic and rhizomatic posture amounts to good advertising. You and Brian Massumi are right to point out that capitalism today has to appear loose, even erratic. That’s how it captures affect – the affect of the consumer. When it comes to manufacturers (especially the ones who aren’t located in high-tech business parks) this ‘velvet’ capitalism can afford to change its stripes. But the logic of totalising normality still has to continue its work in those places whose industrial bases are used to shore up everything dynamic, adaptable, incipient in late capitalism. And here, in this other world hidden from view, the governing logic is one of absolutely rigid standards, of stability reinforced with steel. Erratic behaviour is not tolerated from workers here; homogeneity and stagnation rule.”
Tolokonnikova is as forthright as she is brave and lets Žižek know that she’s not feeling sorry for herself and she doesn’t want his pity. Pretty soon, in fact, Žižek realises that she’s a whole lot smarter than he gave her credit for and that she doesn’t need him to ‘explain’ or ‘theorise’ about anything. What she needs is to discuss things on equal terms. She needs him to be a comrade in epistolary arms against the brutal and oppressive regime she is standing up to. At least, that’s how I interpreted it. I don’t know if they ended up being friends in real life when she was released from prison. Somehow, I don’t think they have much in common. He came across as living entirely in his head, whereas she was willing (literally) to put her body on the line in her fight against Putin’s regime. Anyway, I came away from reading what Tolokonnikova wrote with great respect for her integrity and a renewed interest in her political activism.
Don’t waste your time worrying about giving in to theoretical fabrications while I supposedly suffer ’empirical deprivations’. There’s value to me in these inviolable limits, in my being tested this way. I’m fascinated to see how I’ll cope with all this, how I’ll channel it into something productive for my comrades and myself. I’m finding inspiration in here, ways of evolving. Not because but in spite of the system. Your thoughts and anecdotes are a help to me as I negotiate this conundrum. I’m glad we’re in touch.
[I’m sure this was written as much for the censors as for herself, but I admire how she remains strong and refuses to give in or give up.]