Sunday, June 15, 2008

the difference between one and zero

In her June 1966 preface to Part Three of The Origins of Totalitarianism [1950], Hannah Arendt writes that totalitarianism can perhaps best be identified by what can exist when it is no longer:
“The clearest sign that the Soviet Union can no longer be called totalitarian in the strict sense of the term is, of course, the amazingly swift and rich recovery of the arts during the last decade. To be sure, efforts to rehabilitate Stalin and to curtail the increasingly vocal demands for freedom of speech and thought among students, writers, and artists recur again and again, but none of them has been very successful or is likely to be successful without a full-fledged re-establishment of terror and police rule. No doubt, the people of the Soviet Union are denied all forms of political freedom, not only freedom of association but also freedom of thought, opinion and public expression. It looks as though nothing has changed, while in fact everything has changed. When Stalin died the drawers of writers and artists were empty; today there exists a whole literature that circulates in manuscript and all kinds of modern painting are tried out in the painters’ studios and become known even though they are not exhibited. This is not to minimize the difference between tyrannical censorship and freedom of the arts, it is only to stress the fact that the difference between a clandestine literature and no literature equals the difference between one and zero.”

Arendt notes that totalitarianism is experienced as a "zero" environment, in which not only does art not have a public, it is also not produced. The above then, the change that appears "as though nothing has changed," is her description of the "thaw," a word she uses hesitatingly to describe the process of destalinization following the death of Stalin. It seems that this tension--"the difference between one and zero"--is raised in particular through the genre of lyric poetry. Emily Lygo has written of the "embargo on lyric poetry" during the Stalin era, but this seems to involve, for her and for the others, the idea that despite the official taboo, writers continued to produce poetry, among other things, "for the drawer." She and other historians of Soviet destalinization would perhaps prefer to discuss this period as one of the "impoverishment" of lyric poetry, which suffered most because it was the most direct form of expression. Those loyal to the party line might have felt differently, or justified the impoverishment of individual expression for the sake of upholding communal solidarity. Here, lyric suffers simply out of the moral sense that there were "more important things to do." But this argument is also one that seems to be echoed whenever this discussion is raised, since it involves deciding or placing a judgment upon the art that can actually do something to achieve political or social justice. In short, this is the issue that Arendt seems also to highlight; one part of it is something like seeing change where there appears to be none, and the other part, perhaps implicit, is that you would have to hold off, or not be swayed, by the insistence of the need to make decisions about moral, or artistic, or aesthetic realities. Perhaps I can't write anymore regarding this here, but it seems that at this point, Zizek's arguments about "complexity" being used to avoid making decisions you need to make could be seen as iterations of this problem. I think it's also interesting that Arendt wants you to see something where nothing appears; Zizek to see "nothing" or the "real" where something appears (in his language, to "discern the hidden necessity") as an irreducible antagonism. The location of antagonism in Arendt's formulation is always deferred, however: here, not one v. zero, but the difference between one and zero, also not locating the point at which ideology becomes itself, but about identifying the perceptual desire to see "one" in the first place.

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