Leonid Nikitinsky: Discourse of a serf and 13 emeritus professors

21 October 2023

by Leonid Nikitinsky

Source: Novaya gazeta

If legitimacy is replaced by loyalty, then how strong can such a foundation be for the authorities?

Recently it became known that Svetlana Drugoveiko-Dolzhanskaya PhD had been dismissed from the Philological Faculty of St Petersburg State University, from which she had graduated in 1988 and where she had worked all the following years. The reason for this was her examination as a witness for the defence in the trial of Sasha Skochilenko. Drugoveiko criticized the expert conclusion of her colleagues in the Philology Faculty, who asserted, in particular, that the information about the actions of the armed forces of the Russian Federation posted by Skochilenko on price tags in the Perekrestok store on March 31st of last year was ‘known to be false’, as it differed from the official data of the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation.

The St Petersburg State University Commission on Ethics, represented by 13 emeritus professors, found that Drugoveiko ‘called into question the professional competence of St Petersburg State University experts and the status of St Petersburg State University as an expert organization,’ and ‘does not care about its reputation and does not contribute to strengthening its authority as the oldest university in Russia and one of the leading educational institutions in the country.’

Skochilenko, who suffers from a disease which makes her stay in pre-trial detention unbearable and dangerous, has been held on remand for more than a year and a half already – she was one of the first defendants detained under Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code , which had just entered into effect. Since then, the ‘information’ posted by her on the price tags has basically ceased to be challenged by anyone – for example, the erroneous enlistment for participation in the Special Military Operation of conscript soldiers, which is still being used to incriminate her as a disseminator of ‘fake news.’

This is all about violence.

In this example we see how its metastases are spreading deep and wide, affecting lower and lower levels of ‘law enforcement.’ The political decision to take repressive measures against ‘fake news’ was made at the highest level in March of last year, but, when police picked up dozens of ‘criminals,’ it turned out that in the ‘information’ being distributed there were more often than not no signs that it was ‘known to be false,’ or even anything at all other than calls for peace. This prompted investigators to order dozens of expert reviews, substantiating the charges. Experts’ conclusions have formed and will continue to form the basis for the sentences, in place of the conclusions that the judges should have drawn themselves.

As we can see, hundreds or thousands of people, whose status and authority are less defined the further they are from the point of political decision-making, are already participants in this downward flow of the application of state violence. Now, for example, thirteen ‘emeritus professors’ from St Petersburg State University, whom the leadership of this renowned educational institution compelled, in substantiating the ‘amorality’ of Drugoveiko-Dolzhanskaya, to take part in the lie on which the ‘Skochilenko case’ was originally built, have been involved in this process.

The executors of violence are already somewhere on the level of personnel departments, where, remaining invisible, they monitor the actions of other professors and students, so that in the case of the slightest deviation from the ‘party line,’ they too will be subjected to punishment.

In order for all this to work, the state needed to dismiss in advance hundreds of rectors (deans, directors, etc.) from various of its own, and even from formally independent, educational institutions (and likewise from schools, clinics, housing departments, etc.) and replace them with more loyal ones. Or to ensure loyalty by ‘putting pressure’ on those who continued to hold their positions.

On the lower levels, random and voluntary ‘executors of the law,’ whose authority and status are coloured by ‘statehood’ only for a time and ad hoc (in relation to a specific case), are involved in the process of coercion, which remains, in essence, a proceeding of state (and the dismissal of a professor, as well as the expulsion of a student from a university – is also an act of state power). But if we replace ‘colouring’ by ‘staining,’ we see everyone ends up in the shit – which is the most important part of today’s strategy of state security.

We have already analysed cases under Criminal Code Article 207.3 many times from judicial standpoints and we will come to no fresh understanding by that route. Let’s try to look at this history from another point of view and in other terms.

Manuel Castells  — one of the currently flourishing mainstays of the sociology of mass society – notes in his book The Power of Communication: “The powers that be govern society with the help of violence and discourse, moreover the tighter its grip on discourse, the less its need for violence” (and vice versa — we might add). What we observe today in Russia appears to refute this formula: the powers that be have a very “tight” grip on “discourse” and yet the amount of violence employed while so doing is not lessening, it is growing. Clearly, both concepts – “discourse” and “violence” — need to be further refined.

The concept of “discourse” was proposed by philosopher Michel Foucault in his reflections on power and knowledge, with Foucault establishing a very close affinity between them. Society entrusts power to whoever is deemed knowledgeable, but also whoever has been given power appoints those who are knowledgeable and determines the actual content of knowledge, which is far from necessarily true. 

This is precisely the process we see in the example of the Skochilenko-Dolzhanskaya case: the “knowledge” disseminated by Skochilenko was deemed “known to be false” on the basis of the “knowledge” of the trial experts, which is accepted as true since it is endorsed by the powers that be. The latter are seeking to punish Drugoveiko-Dolzhanskaya who dared to contest that knowledge and to force her out to the margins. 

From this point of view, what we usually class as acts of political repression (and this is also true) appear as an attempt to seize the discourse. One knowledge competes with another, but one is armed with violence while the other is unarmed. 

And a couple more general but important remarks: discourse does not start anywhere (there is always “something already there”) nor does it end in anything: although the powers that be will punish “erring” participants as the discourse develops, the veracity of the knowledge remains an open question. After all, times change but discourse goes on forever.

Skochilenko and after her the informant, interviewer, investigator, judge, “experts”, Drugoveiko-Dolzhanskaya, the thirteen emeritus professors and Mr. Yu. V. Penov, the St. Petersburg State University prorector for legal matters who sought them out – are participants in this specific offshoot of a now widespread discourse. Now we are also included among them: me as the author of this piece and you who have read it and come to an opinion about it, which only now might be voiced. Also contributing to the development of our discourse are those whom the powers that be have turned into its passive conductors (again these are our thirteen emeritus professors) and even those who simply said nothing when their conscience required utterance. 

Returning to the duality of discourse and violence, of which Castells speaks, let us clarify that the powers that be coordinate seemingly random violence with discourse and impose it upon on its participants with the aim of giving it a specific direction. The “judicial” standpoint foregrounds coercion but that is not the aim here (although sadists of various stripes may be encountered along the way). The aim is to seize the discourse. The aim is to rewrite the historical narrative, including recent history and the present, in such a way as to establish an honourable place for the powers that be in the “knowledge” that is being imposed. Far be it from me to ascribe a clear understanding of this mechanism to the actual perpetrators of violence – on the contrary, it can only be seen from the outside: the view from inside is obscured by so-called patriotism, which is also “knowledge”, and the powers that be that shore it up. And among the perpetrators of violence there are not so many people inclined towards reflection (except, possibly, for a percentage of our thirteen emeritus professors). The powers that be seize the discourse by means of imposing their agenda on mass media outlets that they control and on textbooks (in our country, that’s the St Petersburg State University) and in general in the institutions where cadres are reproduced by means of encouraging certain utterances on social networks – which are less strictly controlled – and of punishing others.

The threat of punishment or loss of status is also coercion while Castells’ formula in respect of  “the less its need for violence” seemingly applies only to harsh acts of repression.

And here this must be supplemented by pointing to gentler forms of coercion. And the arsenal of such measures in conditions where the state in one way or another controls the entire economy and social sphere is, as we understand, varied and, sometimes, unexpected (as expressed by the phrase, “Now look what’s happened to us”).

Discourse in the sense we employ (following Foucault) nevertheless continues to develop “autopoiesically,” a term commonly used by Niklas Luhmann in his systems theory, implying not only self-creation but also the self-organization of discourse. The ability of the authorities to plant pieces of non-true information in the discourse is not without limits: as a “living organism” it can reject them — readers of our generation will remember how this happened in Soviet schools. But here the workings of conformism come to the authorities’ assistance. It is no coincidence that historically “conform” has the same root as “comfort.” Indeed, by sharing officially supported knowledge (for example, about a special military operation), a participant in the discourse escapes the problematic area, where one can fall victim to the diffuse violence, for the comfortable field of conformity (and here, again, are our thirteen emeritus professors!).

This fusion of violence, discourse, and conformism is very robust. However, as historical experience shows, sooner or later it cracks — in the form of an “intrusion of reality.” Here we take the framework of Jacques Lacan, who argues that “man is born straight into the imaginary.” It is hard to argue with this: after all, as “people” we are not born physically, but instead through the process of socialization and by assimilating numerous conventions, starting with the naming of objects in our surroundings and continuing with complex social norms and myths. But this does not mean that the Real does not exist — according to Lacan, it occasionally “intrudes,” and in a “terrible” way.

The word “terrible” here is not an evaluation, and certainly not an ethical one, but a degree: anything that is not “terrible” enough simply does not pierce the armour of the “imaginary” and the “symbolic.” Pioneers of protest branches of discourse may simply have a lower threshold of sensitivity. What most people would tolerate as a mosquito bite they feel as unbearable pain (as is the case for Skochilenko).

The authorities strive to keep the discourse within the limits of “what can be imagined” – its mainstay is the psychological self-defence of the majority. But Vladimir Kara-Murza, Aleksei Gorinov, Igor Baryshnikov and hundreds of others – “foreign agents” and simply those who are not silent – also have a powerful impact on the self-propagation of discourse, speaking from the position (in Lacan’s paradoxical classification) of the “master”. To simplify, Lacan’s “master” is the one who sets the dominant signifier, dictating the agenda for a given branch of discourse, while the “slave” (e.g. Solovev on his channel) is forced to speak reactively.

Strategically, the authorities stand to gain more by simply ignoring the statements of Skochilenko, Gorinov, and others: what doesn’t exist in the discourse, doesn’t seem to exist in reality (which is another trick, but one that needs to be conceptualized separately). But here the authorities fall into their own trap. Indeed, their tactic is to attempt to publicly and demonstratively punish statements that do not agree with their “knowledge,” to replicate examples of repression so that others will also be discouraged.

The “terrible” intrusion that those who don’t remain silent stubbornly point out not only ends up in the broader discourse, but it is also reinforced by the heinousness of the prison terms that the courts issue simply for acts of speech. A Molotov cocktail like this is capable of piercing the comfortable body armour of at least some of those who have so far kept within the bounds of “what can be imagined.”

What would the cries about peace and love from the Sermon on the Mount be worth to us (and here we are all contemporaries) if Jesus had not backed them up — voluntarily, though reluctantly (“Let this cup pass me by”) — with the horror of his own crucifixion? Such a sacrifice is not meaningless — it is perhaps the only way the slave, with the gesture of the master, can overcome state violence and turn the discourse in the right direction, towards peace, love, and the Sermon on the Mount.

In Hegel’s dialectic, from whom Lacan (for one) borrows this image, the “slave” is an ambiguous figure; in particular, he possesses more potential than the “master.” The master, having once known victory, rests on his laurels and seeks only to maintain his position, while the slave works, learns, and grows, in order to one day challenge this superiority. Therefore, our thirteen emeritus professors do not deserve the title of “slaves”: they have already learned a great deal, but they are still too scared to “rebel” (well, even in the form of “calling off sick”) — they are more like serfs, bondsmen of discourse.

What does shifting the angle of view from legal to “discursive” give us? First of all, as has been said, legal analysis is already pointless – everything is clear on this point, we can only wait and, where possible, bring changes in the discourse closer to realisation. But if we have nothing to counteract state violence (as the sayings go, ‘there is no defence against a crowbar’ and ‘you can’t beat the shoe with a whip’ – all this is true, but it is wrong to leave things at that), then in the sphere of discourse we still have resources to fight for “domination” starting with changing its very agenda.

Within political discourse, a struggle is going on for the legitimizing narrative that – with references to history and/or to the projected future – explains to “society” why this particular distribution of power/knowledge within it is just and promises the greatest good for all.

Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man, which proclaimed the final victory of the liberal-democratic model of the state and became a sensation in 1992, is today – in a world that is in fact almost on the brink of World War III – perceived as an exotic delusion. But perhaps Fukuyama was simply too quick with his conclusion, which does not make it inherently wrong. Here is how he explains the logic not of the victory of liberal democracy, but the defeat of past dictatorships: “The critical weakness that eventually toppled these strong states was in the last analysis a failure of legitimacy [emphasis mine -LN] — that is, a crisis on the level of ideas.

Modern people have ceased to believe in a God who leaves them no room for human freedom. And no dictatorship has anything to offer people except a dictator-god (possibly – in the form of the inevitable victory of the next “…ism”). This is the “crisis on the level of ideas” – from the point of view of the future, only democracy is able to legitimize itself, without trying to force itself through violence on the discourse and leaving the question of the future always fundamentally open.

Hannah Arendt, in her 1969 work On Violence, suggested that the basis of political authority is the internal consent of the community, and that violence, on the contrary, undermines it. Such an idea could have matured – if the tools to express it had already existed – in ancient Greece or somewhere in Russia at the turn of the 13th century: Genghis Khan did not need legitimacy in conquered territories where violence decided everything, but without consent within the political discourse of his own nomadic state, he would not have lasted a single day in power.

In an autocratic regime, the authorities try to legitimize themselves by reference to history, which more often than not turns out to have been corrected or invented. Unable to fully control “horizontal” (network) media, they seek to make their positions secure with the help of (in Marshall McLuhan’s classification) “vertical media” – laws and monuments, established as it were for centuries. But both laws that are nonsense from the point of view of law and legislative procedures and the self-made statues of the likes of Stalin and Ivan the Terrible have no future, because those authorities who plant their “knowledge” in political discourse have no future either.

Violence – complex or “hybrid”, soft in appearance – can ensure the authorities loyalty for some time, but not cannot provide legitimacy. The twofold mechanism of discourse-violence will collapse as soon as the soothing note of comfort is lost, and with it, conformism.

Resistance is possible. Although peaceful, non-violent resistance today is, to say the least, risky. But it is not pointless. That is what I wanted to bring to your attention here.

Translated by Alyssa Rider, Melanie Moore, Nina dePalma and Simon Cosgrove

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