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Hypernormalization

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Neoliberalism is an ideological project characterized as being pro-market, pro-investor, and based on an instrumental rationality, which downgrade people to tradable goods, like in slave ownership societies.  As the means to meet some economic ends. It re-shaped the relationship between societies, governments and the market, leading to fake or criminal conducts and practices.

In this form, neoliberal ideology has permeated throughout all of global society promotes hypocrisy as reality definitely does not conform to neoliberal expectations of neoclassical economic myth. In this sense it reminds many observers Brezhnev USSR with its large distance between "official" and unofficial truth, news and behaviour. Which produces a set of behavioral patterns typical for a theocratic society consisting of a large percentage of non-believers, but unable to escape.

As demonstrated in the following popular (but actually not very correct) saying  Neoliberals pretend to make statements that corresponded to reality, and we pretend to believe them.

At last states of Brezhnev socialism few pretended to believe official propaganda. It was openly and very bitterly mocked.  I once dropped in some hardware store in Riga , Latvia. And I was shocked that  the radio on the salesman desk was tuned to the Voice of America and nobody is paying slightest attention to this gross violation of Soviet norms (Formally Voice of America was classified in the USSR as propaganda station of American imperialism -- and it really was such. In most places it was jammed, but in Baltic republic this was tricky as they were very close for Scandinavian nations  with multiple retranslaters on different short wave frequencies which allowed to escape jamming. Most Soviet people understood that and the goal of such propaganda really well. But it also provided alternative channel for news and that was valued by Soviet citizens who stopped to believe official propaganda long ago was were thirsty for any alternative new channel, even poisoned by specific propaganda and disingenuous in coverage of facts like the Voice of America definitely was) 

We see the same phenomenon with RT today.

Amazon.com- Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More- The Last Soviet Generation (In-Formation) (0884882278937)- Alexei Yurchak- Books

Soviet socialism was based on paradoxes that were revealed by the peculiar experience of its collapse. To the people who lived in that system the collapse seemed both completely unexpected and completely unsurprising. At the moment of collapse it suddenly became obvious that Soviet life had always seemed simultaneously eternal and stagnating, vigorous and ailing, bleak and full of promise. Although these characteristics may appear mutually exclusive, in fact they were mutually constitutive. This book explores the paradoxes of Soviet life during the period of "late socialism" (1960s-1980s) through the eyes of the last Soviet generation.

Focusing on the major transformation of the 1950s at the level of discourse, ideology, language, and ritual, Alexei Yurchak traces the emergence of multiple unanticipated meanings, communities, relations, ideals, and pursuits that this transformation subsequently enabled. His historical, anthropological, and linguistic analysis draws on rich ethnographic material from Late Socialism and the post-Soviet period.

The model of Soviet socialism that emerges provides an alternative to binary accounts that describe that system as a dichotomy of official culture and unofficial culture, the state and the people, public self and private self, truth and lie--and ignore the crucial fact that, for many Soviet citizens, the fundamental values, ideals, and realities of socialism were genuinely important, although they routinely transgressed and reinterpreted the norms and rules of the socialist state.

Igor Biryukov on November 1, 2012

A cautionary tale

" In America there was once a popular but simplistic image of the Soviet Russia as the Evil Empire destined to fall, precisely because it was unfree and therefore evil. Ronald Reagan who advocated it also once said that the Russian people do not have a word for "freedom". Not so fast -- says Alexei Yurchak. He was born in the Soviet Union and became a cultural anthropologist in California. He employs linguistic structural analysis in very interesting ways. For him, the Soviet Union was once a stable, entrenched, conservative state and the majority of Russian people -- actually myself included -- thought it would last forever. But the way people employ language and read ideologies can change. That change can be undetectable at first, and then unstoppable.

Yurchak's Master-idea is that the Soviet system was an example of how a state can prepare its own demise in an invisible way. It happened in Russia through unraveling of authoritative discourse by Gorbachev's naive but well-meaning shillyshallying undermining the Soviet system and the master signifiers with which the Soviet society was "quilted" and held together. According to Yurchak "In its first three or four years, perestroika was not much more than a deconstruction of Soviet authoritative discourse". This could a cautionary tale for America as well because the Soviet Union shared more features with American modernity than the Americans themselves are willing to admit.

The demise of the Soviet Union was not caused by anti-modernity or backwardness of Russian people. The Soviet experiment was a cousin of Western modernity and shared many features with the Western democracies, in particular its roots in the Enlightenment project. The Soviet Union wasn't "evil" in late stages 1950-1980s. The most people were decent. The Soviet system, despite its flaws, offered a set of collective values. There were many moral and ethical aspects to Soviet socialism, and even though those values have been betrayed by the state, they were still very important to people themselves in their lives. These values were: solidarity, community, altruism, education, creativity, friendship and safety. Perhaps they were incommensurable with the "Western values" such as the rule of law and freedom, but for Russians they were the most important. For many "socialism" was a system of human values and everyday realities which wasn't necessarily equivalent of the official interpretation provided by the state rhetoric.

Yurchak starts with a general paradox within the ideology of modernity: the split between ideological enunciation, which reflects the theoretical ideals of the Enlightenment, and ideological rule, which are the practical concerns of the modern state's political authority. In Soviet Union the paradox was "solved" by means of dogmatic political closure and elevation of Master signifier [Lenin, Stalin, Party] but it doesn't mean the Western democracies are immune to totalitarian temptation to which the Soviet Union had succumbed. The vast governmental bureaucracy and Quango-state are waiting in the shadows here as well, may be ready to appropriate discourse.

It is hard to agree with everything in his book. But it is an interesting perspective. I wish Alexei Yurchak would explore more implications of Roman Jacobson's "poetic function of language" and its connection to Russian experiment in communism. It seems to me, as a Russian native speaker, that Russians put stress on form, sound, and poetics. The English-language tradition prioritizes content and meaning. Can we speak of "Hermeneutics" of the West versus "Poetics" of Russia? Perhaps the tragedy of Russia was under-development of Hermeneutics? How does one explain the feeble attempts to throw a light of reason into the loopy texts and theories of Marks, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin? Perhaps the Russians read it as a kind of magical text, a poetry, a bad poetry -- not Pasternak or Blok -- but kind of poetry nevertheless?

Nils Gilman on April 23, 2014

A brilliant account of the interior meaning of everyday life for ordinary soviet citizens

Just loved this -- a brilliant study of how everyday citizens (as opposed to active supporters or dissidents) cope with living in a decadent dictatorship, through strategies of ignoring the powerful, focusing on hyperlocal socialities, treating ritualized support for the regime as little more than an annoying chore, and withdrawal into subcultures. Yurchak demolishes the view that the only choices available to late Soviet citizens were either blind support (though his accounts of those figures who chose this path are deeply chilling) or active resistance, while at the same time showing how many of the purported values of Soviet socialism (equality, education, friendship, community, etc) were in fact deeply held by many in the population.

While his entire account is a tacit meditation on the manifold unpleasantnesses of living under the Soviet system, Yurchak also makes clear that it was not all unpleasantness and that indeed for some people (such as theoretical physicists) life under Soviet socialism was in some ways freer than for their peers in the West.

All of which makes the book function (sotto voce) as an explanation for the nostalgia that many in Russia today feel for Soviet times - something inexplicable to those who claim that Communism was simply and nothing but an evil.

The theoretical vehicle for Yurchak's investigation is the divergence between the performative rather than the constative dimensions of the "authoritative discourse" of the late Soviet regime. One might say that his basic thesis is that, for most Soviet people, the attitude toward the authorities was "They pretend to make statements that corresponded to reality, and we pretend to believe them."

Yurchak rightly observes that one can neither interpret the decision to vote in favor of an official resolution or to display a pro-government slogan at a rally as being an unambiguous statement of regime support, nor assume that these actions were directly coerced. People were expected to perform these rituals, but they developed "a complexly differentiating relationship to the ideological meanings, norms, and values" of the Soviet state. "Depending on the context, they might reject a certain meaning, norm or value, be apathetic about another, continue actively subscribing to a third, creatively reinterpret a fourth, and so on." (28-29)

The result was that, as the discourse of the late Soviet period ossified into completely formalist incantations (a process that Yurchak demonstrates was increasingly routinized from the 1950s onwards), Soviet citizens participated in these more for ritualistic reasons than because of fervent belief, which in turn allowed citizens to fill their lives with other sources of identity and meaning.

Soviet citizens would go to cafes and talk about music and literature, join a rock band or art collective, take silly jobs that required little effort and thus left room for them to pursue their "interests."

The very drabness of the standardizations of Soviet life therefore created new sorts of (admittedly constrained) spaces within which people could define themselves and their (inter)subjective meanings.

All of which is to say that the book consists of a dramatic refutation of the "totalitarianism" thesis, demonstrating that despite the totalitarian ambitions of the regime, citizens were continually able to carve out zones of autonomy and identification that transcended the ambitions of the Authoritative discourse.

Marina

4.0 out of 5 starsThe book about me and my generation

February 10, 2016

Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase

The author describes some experiences of the last Soviet generation. I belong to this generation and I found the book, mostly, true to the facts I know. It states that super-normalization of authoritarian discourse, eventually, made Soviet social organization meaningless and fragile. However, describing the main mode of the culture as principally un-political, the author does not tell the whole truth. He underestimates hidden resistance to the system, which was the norm for my generation. The book does not touch important role of KGB and KPSU in forming the cultural process by forbidding some art, by arrests of independently thinking people. This shadow of KGB forced people to use Aesop's language, putting the meaning of statements not in the text but in subtext. We all knew how to read this Aesop's language and had some fun with it. If the book reflected this aspect of our life, it would be much closer to the truth I know.


Julia Lerner

5.0 out of 5 starsPerforming admiration

March 21, 2006

Format: Paperback

The anthropological account of post-modern society offered in this book is certainly one of the best I encountered in recent years. By brilliantly and engagingly analyzing the late soviet society, the author provides us with original analytical insights into the peoples' relations with ideology, discourse and ritual. A perennial social laboratory for all kinds of cultural experiments, Russia in its soviet phase served A. Yurchak as an empirical field whereby to conceptualize the paradoxical, non-dichotomous and multi-layered post-modern social condition. Moreover, Yurchak joins the exclusive club of genial authors who succeeded in touching the intangible uniqueness of the "soviet experience" - i.e. everyday life, way of thinking, forms of language and power, performance of dream and fake. Thus, this reading is necessary for both the favorites of lively intellectual reading and for everyone who pretends to understand something about "Russians", even if they are already post-Soviet and therefore similar and close on the one hand, but different and inconceivable on the other.

As anthropologist and Russian by origin, I try, in my everyday experience, to explain to my colleagues and friends the world I came from and to show how relevant this world is to any cultural and intellectual account of contemporary life. Yurchak's book is a great contribution to this challenge.

E. Samms

5.0 out of 5 starsEverything Was Forever, Until It Was No More

October 12, 2008

Format: Paperback

This book was really eye opening. I did not know much about the Soviet generation or Soviet Union except for the little taught in high school, but this book showed me how these people lived and interacted in their daily life. It was really fascinating and just a great read. I definitely recommend this book.

 


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