(Yellow Man, David Scher)
“… shit is incapable of doing anything about about the fact
that it’s shit”
— Kirill Medvedev, “Pornocracy”
The Russian writer Kirill Medvedev has been described as a poet, essayist, blogger, activist, and none is inaccurate. He also used to be a translator, before he quit working for commercial houses, renounced his copyright, and took to the streets — and sometimes the forest — to pursue politics and hermitude. It’s No Good, the first published English translation of Medvedev’s writing, centers this departure, paying tribute to his crisis of confidence. What makes Medvedev remarkable is that when faced with the contradictions of leftist literary intellectual life, he chose to do something. Or nothing, depending on how you look at it.
It’s No Good is not an optimistic book. The volume lacks even the small material joys of Charles Bukowski, whom Medvedev translated into Russian. Mevedev takes a lot from the dirty old man of American poetry; he uses the same combination of anecdote and insight set in long stanzas at the halting pace of a few words per line. They’re both revolted by the world and their own place in it, and want desperately to be left alone with their work. But while Bukowski is able to find some measure of happiness in the small things in life, Medvedev’s poetry can only end in self-recrimination. Compare Bukowski in “if we take—”:
“These things, and others, in content
show life swinging on a rotten axis.
But they’ve left us a bit of music
and a spiked show in the corner,
a jigger of scotch, a blue necktie,
a small volume of poems by Rimbaud.”
with Medvedev at the supermarket when he finds himself feeling sorry for grocery products after finding a good bargain in a poem excerpted from “Incursions”:
“I bought some fish fillets
and two cans
of that incredibly cheap paté
which I named
‘paté for the poor’;
walking out of the supermarket
with those products
I thought of how often
in my confrontations
with the face
of the society of consumption
sentimentality replaces disgust.”
Where Bukowski has booze, women, and the associated aesthetic experiences, Medvedev has a commitment to leftist politics and an accordant discontent with even temporary psychological relief. He has painted himself into a familiar corner; everything Medvedev sees is dripping with complicity. Behind every shopkeeper is not only an Eichmann in waiting, but a small cog in a giant Eichmann machine. The petty careerist intelligentsia milieu in which Medvedev finds himself is just another form of social consent, another way to dirty your hands. He finds no refuge in their anti-capitalist pretensions. The floor is lava, and no poem will help you climb the bare walls.
In the essay “My Fascism,” which despite rambling at times seems to weigh more than anything else in the collection, Medvedev details the thinking behind his break with the literary world and his retreat to a blog in the context of a contemporary Russian situation that offers no clean way out. He knows that his expressing concern over the way literary intellectuals become compromised by success is little more than pre-approved internal critique: “The thing is that for worries such as I have, for qualms such as mine, people IN THIS SYSTEM often receive presents—and I would not like to receive any presents.” One pleasant outcome of Medvedev’s refusal to trifle with THIS SYSTEM is that he declines the gentleman writer’s obligation not to name names, preferring to call out compromised institutions and individuals within his own social circle. “Of course, political views should not be the reason for splitting with someone. Actually, no. It is precisely political views that should be the reason,” he writes by way of self-justification. The gossipy thrill, however, is somewhat dampened without an insider knowledge of Russian literary politics.
While many writers seek use the Internet to escape isolation and obscurity, or to continue factional debates online, Medvedev is searching for some peace:
“Of all the many kinds of artists that I know, the only one I like right now (and I should say that I am not this kind of artist yet myself, but I hope to be) is the artist-monk, who has (like a real monk) no rights, only responsibilities … in this context praying consists of living an honest life and creating uncompromising art so as to balance out the amount of dirt with which the rest of the social body is filled—be it a narrow stratum, or your nation, or all of humanity.”
Medvedev is searching for an out, an emergency exit that once through will enable him to practice critique without feeling like he’s trying to jump by jerking Heavenward on his shoelaces. While Michael Walzer has positioned this tension between the critic’s connection to the social center and tendency to drift to the margins as essential to the vocation, that’s a 20th century formulation from a time when the answer to society’s problems seemed located between two poles. The critic, like Goldilocks, was supposed to moderate between extremes, taking from Marxism a concern with social justice and from modern liberalism a distaste for revolutionary violence. But this created a kind of trap: A set of concerns can’t compete with an absolute injunction, and Thous Shalt Not Murder combined with a state/family monopoly on force is a solid bulwark against any sweeping social change.
This point was made with shocking clarity by Zack Beauchamp for the liberal blog Think Progress in a post called “What Progressives Stand To Gain From Economic Radicalism.” In a response to Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara’s call for a renewed socialist left, Beauchamp is rosy about what this might mean for liberalism:
“If history is any guide, American radicals end up furthering the objectives they share with liberals, like expanding the welfare state, while failing abjectly to advance the ones they don’t, like the abolition of private property or the overthrow of the constitutional order. So long as radicals eschew the use of political violence, something progressives unflinchingly oppose on both principled and practical grounds, there’s little to fear, and potentially something to gain, from a rebirth of America’s leftist dreamers.”
It’s a surprisingly bold statement; Beauchamp fails to realize that you’re not supposed to say it out loud. He draws a stark line on liberal cooptation that should make anyone to the left of Elizabeth Warren shiver. Medvedev derives the existence of similar ideological fetters in Russia: “We also know that we should not kill. Beyond that we don’t know anything. Except we suspect that even what we do know—that you must not kill—can also be a form of pressure, or a trick; it can even be a way to murder.”
One outcome of post-Cold-War unipolar realignment has been the full subordination of critiques of class society to critiques of political violence. By the end of the 90s, the bloody century’s lesson was clear and legible: No ideology is worth killing for, except that one. Even if the left were backed into violence, necessity isn’t the mother of appetite. As Mevedev puts it in a poem:
“All those years of discussing the victims of the revolution
have frozen our blood,
have turned us into
frightened ducklings, unable to defend our own rights,
much less someone else’s”
There’s a resonance here between these fears and Mevedev’s translator, publisher, and American advocate Keith Gessen’s self-critical musings on his own arrest at Occupy Wall Street. In his first-person account for the New Yorker, the n+1 editor tells of his apprehension for sitting in the middle of a Wall Street intersection. When the police seize the first kid, Gessen seems almost ashamed that he isn’t prepared to do anything about it: “It was a peaceful, vegetarian crowd. People took out their cameras, and iPads, and camera phones, and chanted ‘Shame!,’ but that was about it. A different sort of crowd, seeing one of its most vulnerable members handled this way, might have reacted more directly.”
It’s one thing to publish Brechtian militancy in translation, or to look back with regret at your fear of conflict, but when confrontation with the state was at hand, the editors of n+1 saw fit to publish a naive and beseeching letter to the police asking them to join the protests instead of repressing them. Needless to say, it didn’t happen like that. Political science professor Corey Robin — one of the leading intellectual lights of Sunkara’s socialist revival — is the cofounder of the accurately named protest affinity group “Cowards for Peace.” It’s hard not to notice that these are some of the characters Medvedev spits on, quoting the opposition figure Lev Alexandrovich Ponomarev at a protest:
“‘I know you, you spoiled little socialists,
unable to defend yourselves or others.
ignorant of your rights.
Little marginal whiners.
Old maids from the library.’”
Like Gessen, Medvedev is eager to critique the ground beneath his own feet, but every step he withdraws just exposes more compromised space. No matter how far he backs himself into a critical corner, the terrain never changes. The author concedes that as a critic he’s easily digested by the powers that be, but by fleeing this position he merely broadens his declared enemy’s diet. His plan seems to have backfired; far from a hermit, now Medvedev is translated into English, his poetry analyzed in New York literary journals. It’s a transcontinental flight from the frying pan into the flame for a writer ostensibly set against contributing to bourgeois culture.
Ultimately what sets Medvedev apart is his sinking understanding that there is not much he’s likely to do about any of this but try to run away. The only ways he could avoid a crushing pessimism about his own social role are to underestimate his enemy or overestimate himself, neither of which Medvedev is inclined to do. “We have two choices. Either we patiently build the labor unions … or we have to do something really ugly, because no radical art actions are going to help here, are going to get through,” he writes. “What comes now is the period of stern and sober political choices; cruel analysis; and serious action. Though these, too, probably won’t happen.” The “it’s no good” of the title is closer to “it’s no use” than “things are bad.”
But if Medvedev’s answer to “What is to be done?” is “Nothing I can realistically expect to be capable of,” it’s still unclear what exactly the stakes are. At times he yields to a sort of Fight Club politics of choice, in which capitalism and its daily practice appear as a trance that people acquiesce to out of weakness and complacency, as when he writes “In the modern world, it turns out, you don’t need to be a ‘wolf’; all you need to do, sometimes, is agree to a tiny compromise.” In Fight Club or The Matrix (both released in 1999), one man sees through the illusion and chooses to violently withdraw, catalyzing the breakdown of society at large. The emphasis is on the refusal to be another mindless drone, and from there it all seems so easy. Medvedev wants everyone to stop living compromised blood-soaked lives, he wants not to live a compromised blood-soaked life himself. Yet there’s no red pill or savage schizoid self to whisk you away to a life of noble, unambiguous struggle; wishing and hoping and hiding won’t make it so.
Medvedev wants a universalizable ethical and revolutionary act, one that he can perform and advocate without hypocrisy. But the search is fruitless, and at times he seems to see no alternative to throwing up his hands and heading for the hills. Hermitude has low Kantain ethical stakes, not least because almost no one is likely to follow Medvedev’s example. It’s the same with “patiently building the labor unions” — by counterposing it against “something really ugly” Medvedev sets up the reformist strategy as an ethically safe form of resignation rather than something he has real confidence could work. He presents it as the historically minded leftist’s version of those told-you-so post-election bumper stickers: “Don’t blame me, I patiently built the labor unions.” The context for the comparison is the framing and imprisonment of a labor activist, and you can read the sighs in Medvedev’s line breaks.
Left melancholy animates Medvedev’s poetry and prose alike, but that doesn’t mean he shrugs his shoulders into an end of history conclusion. After all, co-publisher n+1 still bills itself as “the magazine that believes history isn’t over just yet.” Just because he doesn’t have any idea what to do doesn’t make the liberal capitalist form terminal. At his most figurative, Medvedev reveals what’s really at stake in his dilemma:
“a rupture will come
and some as yet nonexistent people
(like a person vomiting into a sink)
will lean over us, like over a dead crazy cuttlefish (again)
like over boiling cups,
like over crazed vegetables,
(like over crazed cucumbers)
just as we, right now, out of stupidity, strangeness, satisfied inertia
want not to be forgotten
(we’d like to leave
tails behind us), we want
to leave something”
What he fears more than being unable to shoulder the burden of history is not being asked to. Medvedev comes to the same conclusion as Marx: The class that buried feudalism and engineered the rise of the present order won’t be the one that lays it to waste. But faced with a historical dead end, the bourgeoisie still universalizes its experience. If there’s nothing we can do, then there’s nothing to be done. It’s a class defined in part by its inability to admit what Kafka knew: “There is hope—but not for us.” Medvedev doesn’t see much in society worth defending, but that insight is no sword in a stone. It doesn’t make him something he’s not.
Even though it’s bound to fail on its own terms, as a geography of the leftist critic’s melancholic corner It’s No Good is a significant achievement. No matter how far Medvedev pushes himself to the margin, an exit never appears at his back. Inch by tortured inch he refutes the theorists who try to smuggle the so-called creative class into a multitudinous revolutionary subject. Only once we conclude there’s no universal and exemplary ethical act to be performed does it become possible to experiment with risk and consequence. That Medvedev and those of us who find ourselves in similar situations won’t be revolutionary heroes, that our choices, allegiances, and opinions aren’t the crux of what’s to come does not necessitate self-exile. History has supporting roles, even if it’s hard to get a class of Hamlets to play them.
“a drunken Nazi is captured by the army, and he keeps saying something, begging
them not to kill him, because, he says, he’s not a Nazi, at least
not a member of the SS, he’s a communist, a worker from Leipzig,
the snow has stopped falling;
a Nazi is a Nazi” - Medvedev