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Beats per Minute, Centimeters per Inch
On NATO's Expansion and Its Cultural Shockwaves
Please see the bottom of this post for important announcements about my new book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, which had its official “pub day” this week on March 22.
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I said last week that Putin has “taken the world hostage” by threatening to use nuclear weapons in order to defend the territorial sovereignty of Russia, and I certainly count my own mind and faculty of attention among the captives. Some of you might be tired of this subject by now, which now enters its fourth week as my exclusive focus in this space. I expect I’ll get back to regular programming soon, as, God willing, the font size of the New York Times’ front-page headlines begins at long last to shrink back to something closer to normal. You might be particularly tired of hearing from me on the subject, as plainly what you are seeing here is not expert analysis, such as you might expect from, say, Timothy Snyder or Anne Applebaum, but rather the essayistic laying bare of unstable convictions, fleeting worries, and divinations from long-ago memories of formative experiences in Russia.
So I begin today with a two-part warning. First, please don’t take what I have to say as if it were coming from a self-styled expert. Read me, but don’t “listen to me”. Second, don’t listen to the experts either. For the most part, they are only resorting to old-fashioned Kremlinology, which is itself a variety of divination, as for example when they try to read secret meanings from the expression on Defense Minister Shoïgu’s face when Putin says Russia will make use of any defensive measures necessary, “… в том числе и ядерные / including atomic weapons”. The heart is a dark forest, and the face is seldom a true window of it, and if that’s all we’ve got, we might as well just admit our ignorance.
There are, of course, some experts who are careful to confine themselves to facts, as for example relating what we know about how many “nuclear suitcases” there are in the Russian top command (like their cosmonauts to our astronauts, these are, I believe, the same thing as what we call the “nuclear football”, with which Trump familiarized us a few years back when he delighted in swinging it around at Mar-a-Lago), who holds them, what the protocols are for operating them, and so on. Thus I take someone like Kristin Ven Bruusgaard to be the good kind of expert: informative, sober, agnostic at the right moments. In general I am also sympathetic to the school of international-relations theory that goes by the generic description of “realism”, as represented most prominently by John Mearsheimer, which, as I understand it, seeks to describe how states behave in morally neutral terms, as we might describe the Brownian motion of particles. Russia, the realists will tell you, is not exceptionally evil, or at least its evil has nothing to do with understanding its motions, and to dwell on its evil is to depart from the search for the real material causes of its present actions as but one of many empires in world history — in the ignorance of which causes we will of course remain poorly positioned to figure out how to stop these actions, and to do so without escalation. The Zelensky cult, by contrast, the ersatz Ukrainian patriotism that has taken the West by storm, floats on pure moralism, a conviction about the good uncoupled from any concern about the real. It is, as David A. Bell has rightly discerned, the victory of BHL-ism over sober realpolitik.
I don’t know whether this is mere Kremlinology or not, but the most heartening sign I have seen since the beginning of the invasion came just this past Friday, when in a surreal and rambling statement Putin found it worthwhile to invoke the plight of J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, who has in more recent years become notorious in some circles for her “TERFism”, that is, her resistance to some of the dogmas concerning gender identity that have taken over a number of institutions in the West, and the acceptance or rejection of which now function as a shibboleth of belonging to one or the other of the poles of our inane culture-war quagmire. It is significant that the phrase Putin used to describe the issue (if I heard him correctly) was гендерные свободы / “gender freedoms”, where the adjective, gendernye (here in the nominative plural), is a straightforward borrowing from English, rather than something constructed from the Slavic root род/rod. As mentioned previously, the liberalizing tendency, as in Vladimir Nabokov’s father’s coinage circa 1905 of равнополый/ravnopolyï, to describe homosexuality, pushes in the direction of finding native semantic equivalences, rather than allowing a word to preserve its импортный (“imported”) character. This is quite different from “imported” English words in German, “Gender” not least among them, but also “City”, “Team”, “Fitness”, etc., which are generally received as “cool” and “with it” rather than with suspicion, as so many lexical Trojan horses. That’s how alliances work.
Anyhow, with his generals mutinying, his troops retreating from Kyiv, his tanks exploded, and millions of Ukrainian lives lost or ruined, Putin really wanted us to know that he is no fan of “gender freedoms”, and that accordingly he stands in solidarity with J. K. Rowling in the face of her cancellation. With the harsh US-led sanctions regime, Russia too, he wished to suggest, is being “cancelled”. Honestly, if this is what is on Putin’s mind right now, I have to presume that the world is a good deal more stable than I imagined it to be just a week or two ago: stupid as all hell, but stable.
When I heard this speech, for the first time in the past twenty years I was able to envision a post-Putin Russia of the near-future, in which the former autocrat follows the model of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, learns English, and takes to Twitter to grouse about whatever is rubbing him the wrong way from moment to moment (the former president of Iran, who once stoked his people’s chants of “Death to America!”, has recently been seen weighing in on the athletic rivalry between the University of Michigan and Ohio State). Be honest: you’d “love to see it” too. I’m only being slightly facetious when I say that I would agree to exempt Putin from any risk of ending up in The Hague if he were to take up the role, after Trump’s long tenure, of Shitposter Laureate. (There would be another, utterly non-facetious discussion to have about the efficacy and meaningfulness of international war-crimes tribunals; I happen to believe that in the current global circumstances they threaten to exacerbate conflict rather than to resolve it, as they enact victor’s justice in a multipolar world where the status of the victor is always temporary and reversible.)
Again, I could be wrong. For all I know Putin believes he has been called by God to suppress “gender freedoms” everywhere in the world, and intends to use military means to pursue this end. One thing of which I am certain however is that Putin has already succeeded, if only temporarily, in ending the tremendous asymmetry of attention that had prevailed between the US and Russia since the end of the Cold War.
Many Americans, particularly those in their twenties and thirties, had scarcely given Russia a thought prior to last month. This includes not just average Americans, who often cannot be expected to know who won the Civil War, let alone the Cold War, but also high-ranking politicians, who even now would clearly rather be talking about, say, Ibram X. Kendi’s Antiracist Baby than about NATO’s Article 5. I don’t want to say anything in outright opposition to representative government, but it does indeed seem to me peculiar that we have decided to conduct our politics in such a way that the people who like to make decisions about which books should be banned from Texas public schools and so on are the very same people who decide what kind of weapons we should install in Estonia. Most of these people, it seems to me, are equipped with minds much more naturally suited to thinking about the former sort of problem, and there is perhaps no greater threat to world peace than to require them, especially under pressure from media chatter and various interest groups, to stretch their repertoire so as to include international relations.
If average Americans, along with members of the chattering class and with elected officials, have not spent much time thinking about Russia in the past years, the situation could not be more different among their counterparts in Russia itself, and indeed in all of the former Warsaw Pact nations, where the presence or absence of the US, disguised as an international alliance under the banner of NATO, has been a matter of fundamental existential significance.
I have already mentioned in this space that as early as 1990 I encountered, in Leningrad, a veteran of the Great War for the Fatherland who warned me that Russia would be back, and that I and my cohort of American students were short-sighted fools as we marched around like we owned the place. And this was before the Soviet Union had officially collapsed. Some months earlier in the same year, in East Berlin, I saw placards and graffiti imploring some non-specific reader: Stoppt dem NATO-Anschluss. That is, stop NATO’s expansion into the DDR, which is to say that the far-left authors of this commandment conceptualized the reunification of Germany as if it were an echo of the Anschluss of Austria, when Hitler invaded that country in 1938. Already in the early 1990s, I mean, there was a counternarrative forming in the East and about the East, promoted both by the Western far-left and by average people from the Eastern Bloc who were unsurprisingly alarmed to see their countries crumble overnight, according to which the core rationale of Atlanticism was not defense but aggression. I do not hold this view, but I also do not think you are being a serious analyst if you do not make any effort to work your way into the mind of someone who does hold it.
Over the course of that same decade, the war in Yugoslavia, leading ultimately to NATO bombardments of Serbia, exacerbated this perception, and provoked significant rumblings from Belgrade to Moscow about pan-Slavic fraternity and solidarity, even if Russia was at the time far too weak to take any real action. It is at the nadir of this weakness that Putin was thrust forth, in 1999, as if congealed out of pure ressentiment. Soon enough he showed up in Washington DC, making the rounds. George W. Bush, that simple child, said of his homologue in a joint press conference: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy – I was able to get a sense of his soul.” This was a striking moment, as Putin was standing right next to him with his dead and inscrutable eyes, a man with qualia as unknowable as those of Alice the Goon, to whom it struck me at the time he bore a peculiar resemblance. Of course Bush fils knew nothing about Russia, or about the historical legacy Putin had lived through, or what it meant to him. And so a decade after I got chewed out by a Soviet war veteran, the president of the US continued to give off more or less the same vibe of naïveté that I admit to having given off in Leningrad.
1999 is the same year Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary joined NATO, and there was a great deal of rationalization of this move at the time on the grounds that these states were always, rightly understood, essentially Mitteleuropa and not Osteuropa, that their “values” were seamlessly continuous with those of some idealized vision of fin-de-siècle Vienna: there were Freudians, surrealists, art-nouveau pâtisseries, good coffee with whipped cream on it, etc., unlike in, say, Romania and Bulgaria. Yet five years later, Romania and Bulgaria were admitted too, and no one dared this time to claim that this was on the basis of any “natural” reunification of equal members within a broader cultural-historical ecumene. It was pure geopolitical maneuvering, the subsumption of a good portion of the Balkans, which had always been more or less vassalized by one empire or the other —usually Russian or Ottoman—, into the protected space of the Pax Americana. A diplomat I know from one of the NATO “Class of 2004” countries, which included not just part of the Balkans but also the Baltics, was given a diplomatic assignment in a Western European capital in 2008. On arrival he followed the standard protocol by visiting all the other ambassadors in town and paying his respects. Every visit but one was entirely pro forma, while the Russian ambassador was waiting with a message for him: “We will never forgive you.”
Still, in Romania, in the first decades of the twenty-first century, one could lead a complete life without thinking much about Russia. Things were always different in the parts of Southeastern Europe that had been even more fractured and as it were “Balkanized” by the legacy of the Cold War. This led to some almost cargo-cult-like excesses on some occasions. When President Bush paid a visit to Albania in 2007, he found his face plastered all over the famous pyramidal construction originally built for the dictator Enver Hoxha, like some sort of pharaonic mausoleum. Like the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, who inspired the Rastafarians to worship him when, after weeks of flooding, he stepped out of his airplane in Jamaica in the spring of 1966 and a rainbow appeared in the sky, Bush was entering into a world he could hardly have understood, and triggering sentiments that bordered on the religious.
In 2014, on a visit to Pristina, I went to the Museum of the History of Kosovo. It was mostly just a shrine to Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright, with various knick-knacks on display that had been left behind from their visits there some years earlier. Just a few kilometers away, in Serbian-controlled Mitrovica, there were enormous murals on the sides of apartment blocs depicting the likenesses of Putin and Slobodan Milošević. There is no way you could spend more than a few hours in Kosovo without discerning the inch-by-inch stand-off between the American empire and what was left of the Russian one: the same stand-off that, today, has Joe Biden announcing boldly that Russia must never penetrate even so much as “one inch” into NATO territory. I have seen Biden’s “inches” consistently translated into French, German, Ukrainian, and Russian as “centimeters”, which does make one wonder —again, facetiously— what would happen if the Russians were to spill, say, 1.5 centimeters, or .59 inches, over the NATO redline.
The hard-edged conflict between powers naturally found its echoes in the productions of popular culture as well, and could have told anyone who knew how to read culture, and who was curious about studying cultures other than their own, that Russia was not down for the count. By the mid-1990s a form of “IDM” (“intelligent dance music”, perhaps the most presumptuous genre designation ever) had emerged in Russia that thematized Russian distinctiveness in relation to Europe, and that expressed sentiments varying from jadedness about Europhilia to straightforward national chauvinism. One good example is the 1997 song “Евро”/“Euro” by the Russian band Н.О.М./N.O.M., which describes all of the various “Euro”-prefixed things Russian society was now expected to swallow. One line in the song culminates with an exasperated refusal “to kiss Euro-asses” (еврожопы целовать). It’s a pretty catchy tune, relatively more sophisticated than the heavy electronic, ultranationalist “turbofolk” that was circulating in Serbia at the same time as the soundtrack to brutal massacres.
Perhaps no cultural phenomenon is a clearer condensation of the stresses of imperial collision than the Slovenian band Laibach, a name inspired by the German form of that country’s capital city, Ljubljana. I recall seeing the video for “Leben heißt Leben” on MTV’s 120 Minutes in 1987, a cover version of the mullet-headed Austrian band Opus’s 1985 hit “Live is Life” (sic), marvelling at the distorted fascist iconography, the Alpine scenes of deer in the forest, the over-the-top martial presence of the group, and thinking, in my fifteen-year-old fever-brain: “Holy shit. I have to know more. I have to go wherever this is coming from” (this is strange, since I was never as masculinist as other boys who might have been taken in by this stuff, and my enduring tastes from that era are the ethereal Cocteau Twins and, a bit later, the cutesy Belle and Sebastian, rather than any high-T rivethead outbursts). By 1990 I was in London, fielding threats from a pod of “redskins” (i.e., skinheads, but on the far-left) for wearing a Laibach T-shirt adorned with various totalitarian symbols, including a swastika. But it’s an ironic swastika, I tried to explain to them, a next-level swastika. Don’t you lads know who Laibach is? (I was foolish, and I sincerely regret ever having worn a garment with a swastika on it, ironic or not.)
The band has had the improbable fate of being the concitoyens of Slavoj Žižek, who was more than happy to ham it up in front of the camera in the 1995 documentary, Laibach: A Film from Slovenia. Though stuttering, he was nonetheless far more articulate in explaining the idea of the “ironic swastika” than I had been. According to Žižek, Laibach’s aesthetic sensibility emerged in the context of Titoist Yugoslavia as a form of “resistance through overidentification”. Žižek furnishes some bullshit digressions about Lacan that are supposed to make this make sense, but the idea is really quite simple and you do not need to know anything about the objet petit a or whatever in order to grasp it. The band took up and transformed the symbols of twentieth-century totalitarianism, always with an air of deadpan sincerity. When these symbols came from the communist experience, they were nominally “correct” relative to the official line of the regime under which they lived, but to be embraced with such supercilious vim could not fail to come across as subversion.
By 1994, when I was in Moscow, NSK “consulates” had proliferated throughout Eastern Europe. This stood for Neue slowenische Kunst, or “New Slovenian Art”, of which Laibach was declared to be the “musical wing”, as, say, Sinn Féin is the “political wing” of the IRA. The consulates had taken to issuing NSK “passports”, and I heard at least a couple of reports, likely invented, of successful international travel with them. The NSK State was, whether this was clear to its participants or not, a parody of the chaotic jockeying for sovereignty underway in the region of this art project’s greatest success. That an arts collective from Ljubljana should present itself as a sort of deterritorialized microstate at a moment of significant geopolitical realignment is, I think, something that remains worthy of analysis.
But there was another significant development in this collective’s “musical wing” that I wanted to highlight. In the 1980s, under Tito, Laibach’s music had been alternately brutal, industrial, ultra-macho, and borderline unlistenable, or it had been crafted to accompany productions of the Ljubljana theater scene, as, most notably, 1987’s ingenious Krst pod Triglavom/Baptism beneath the Triglav Mountain (Laibach still exists, incidentally, but somewhat in the same way Jefferson Airplane still exists: under the name of “Starship”, performing at the Missouri State Fair with numerous lawsuits pending and no original members present). This changed, however, with the 1992 album Kapital, which marks a shift to electronica, to music whose principal signature is its number of BPM’s. Some of the songs on this album retain the brutal genius of the 1980s, notably “Le privilège des morts”, which couples deep bass with vocal samples of the Alpha-60 computer, from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 Alphaville, posing questions from the surrealist poet Paul Éluard’s 1926 work, Capitale de la douleur. But for the most part the music is cheap and disposable, and this seems to be intentional. It is the music of capitalism.
Two years later, the band releases another album, called, of all things, NATO, also BPM-driven, but now making explicit the military arrangement that was alone in a position to back and to ensure the free flow of capital throughout the continent. These two albums use the common language of vocal sampling in lieu of singing, which had spread from early hip-hop-inflected dance-music frivolities, throw-away lines such as “Mars needs women”, but already turned to overtly political themes as early as Keith LeBlanc’s 1983 tribute to Malcolm X, “No Sell Out”. NATO is a work mostly of covers, including such well-chosen songs as the band Europe’s 1986 nuclear-apocalypse anthem, “The Final Countdown”.
Kapital and NATO, taken together, even if they are musically mediocre, mark a world-historical shift. The move from guitars to synthesizers and artificial beats is one that had occurred already on several occasions in Western bands, most notably in the transformation of Joy Division into New Order a decade earlier (a band that also, though far less controversially, took inspiration from Nazi themes; of course David Bowie was doing this in the 1970s as well, and by 1981 the phenomenon was sufficiently widespread that the great Lester Bangs felt compelled to warn, unsuccessfully, against Naziphilia in the New York no-wave and post-punk scenes). The Ur-shift, from guitars to synthesizers, had happened already a decade prior to “Blue Monday”, when Ralf and Florian of Kraftwerk fame abandoned the neo-psychedelia of their earliest albums, in favor of an aggressively artificial sound.
In the West this shift was generally motivated by a mix of laziness and, in its more inspired instances, jocularity (as in Kraftwerk’s ingenious “Pocket Calculator” of 1981, which includes the line: “By pressing down a special key / It plays a little melody” — an explicit abnegation within the song itself of the human responsibility to generate the song!). In the East, by contrast, the shift was a sign of absorption into the new global order, the order of disposable goods and plastic beats. That these plastic beats, from N.O.M. to turbofolk, would also become the soundtrack of those supporting the anti-hegemonic counternarrative against NATO expansion, is one of the great ironies of the cultural ramifications of recent geopolitical history.
In the twenty-first century, we will find the Moldovan one-hit wonder O-Zone staging their Eurodance hit “Dragostea din tei” (more commonly and affectionately known as “The Numa-Numa Song”) as a command performance in Astana before the Kazakh autocrat Nursultan Nazarbaev. We will find Russian popular culture largely in tune with the vulgar aesthetics of Eurovision, and flourishing subgenres within Russia of hilariously lowbrow rave-rap most akin to South Africa’s Die Antwoord, as well as thriving rap scenes that include linguistic minorities such as the wonderful Kazan-based Tatar rapper Tatarka (herself prone to self-Orientalizing, as in this video shot on location in Tashkent).
All of this, I think, bespeaks an unresolved tension in what they used sometimes to call “the Second World”. Russia might now aspire to cultural autarky, but it’s already thick with BPM’s, floating around its sovereign territory like microplastics and other waste products of capitalism. The tension is expressly thematized and heightened with NATO at precisely the same time NATO is doing its best —depending on how you see things— either to defend the territorial sovereignty of the newly free countries of Eastern Europe, or to heighten tension with the weakened empire from which they have been freed.
The autarkic aspiration is as unrealistic as the junk products of global culture are undesirable. When the desire for autarky can generally only find its expression through these junk forms, you can be sure that the tension will not resolve itself anytime soon.
And now, some book updates. As I mentioned, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is was officially published on March 22. Order your copy now!
I am heartened by the critical responses I’ve seen so far, and I wanted to at least try to keep a running record here of what has come in from various quarters.
Four Columns has a very nice review from the esteemed critic Eric Banks, who writes: “One of the pleasures of Smith’s philosophical tour is to note how frequently the implementation of ideas and their consequences jump domains.”
Porchlight Books, which may seem like an obscure venue, provided what I find to be a very insightful and somehow touching review, and I encourage you to read it. I especially liked the following passage: “Smith ends the book pondering where in the body our soul resides. (That might seem like an odd ending reading this now, but it won’t be by the time you reach the end of the book.)”
I’ll be giving a talk tomorrow, Monday, March 28, at 7pm London time, in the “Digital Dialogues” series of The Philosopher Magazine. You’re free to join us if you like!
I was on Andrew Keen’s “Keen On” podcast to talk about the book.
To be honest I’m already getting kind of exhausted listing all these links. I know I was also reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, but I can’t find the link, I think I already shared it here before, and in any case it’s behind a paywall. My publisher tells me the book is going to be either reviewed or discussed, in the coming weeks, in the New York Times, The Nation, The New Yorker, The American Conservative (!), and in several other venues as well. I’m very happy about this, and I’ll try to provide information as it comes out. But I hope by now I’ve given you enough of an indication of the book’s promise that you will consider it worth your while to buy a copy.
In other not-directly-book-related news, I was on the “Unsiloed” Podcast with Greg LaBlanc.
Finally, I was very happy to go on my friend Jennifer Frey’s podcast, “Sacred and Profane Love,” to talk, of all things, about Cormac McCarthy’s wonderful 1979 novel, Suttree. Listen to the two of us in action!