Peter Pomerantsev on the Politics of Feeling

One of the things you hint at is that
the reason perhaps that we’re now – that now Putin is grinning at you from every newsstand, and the reason we believe Russia is behind
everything and everyone, at the moment, is because you think we’re nostalgic for a
kind of Cold War idea – that Russia is the great other. You were saying something very interesting down there about the role that Russia plays in our
fantasy lives – could you talk about that? That’s what we talked about downstairs – I
mean how many countries, or how many cultures, political cultures, culture
cultures, can capture the imagination, captured the political imagination? And
Russia is quite good at that, I mean for all the stuff that Russia is rubbish
at, like building a fair society etcetera etcetera, what it’s always been good
at is grabbing the imagination, so you have that in 1917, you have it in the Cold
War, and now again there’s kind of, essentially you know, in many ways a very weak and flimsy country, has – you know it’s not just our, it’s not just sort of
our paranoia – has managed to capture the moment, and articulated through its
political spokespeople through its media and so on and so forth. And it’s one about cynicism, distrust, you know – it’s that whole sense that so many
other politicians are now lapping up . So I think – one thing Russia is very good at is culture in its broader sense, and I think there’s a
bit of that going on. One of my favourite sentences in your essay is – you say you know, it’s not just a time of conspiracy theory fake news, alternative facts, it’s a time of
polarization where we – or what is the line? It’s a brilliant line we say – We can’t talk to one another without spitting? Yes! I actually wanted to reedit that, I think it’s a really bad one. It’s such a good line – ‘We’ve reached the sort of polarisation where people can’t talk to each other anymore without spitting.’ Yeah that’s a bad line. I think that’s great – I realize that I’ve become socially phobic because I might spit at someone. I realized that I have – that I’m finding the social world more
frightening than I ever had before, and on the one hand I need it more than
ever before because I do need solidarity, I need to feel that I’m not completely
isolated and alone, but it’s a weird way to approach the world. I never used
to go into the world looking for solidarity more than anything else, and
I’m frightened, I’m frightened of my own politics, and I’m frightened of other people’s politics, and I’m finding if we were to talk about politics I’d – we’d wind up spitting, and so I do want some hope, and I’m not getting – there are little hints of maybe
where you could look, they’re very dark hints, but of hope in your essay. But one
thing you do say is, for a long time now, Russians have said, I just have to trust – I don’t believe the words of anyone, I don’t believe the facts, I don’t
believe anything, I have to go with my feelings, and make my way through this
fog of disinformation. You say, but how are they – what is the survival strategy for this? That’s definitely – that’s something that I would I would here in Russia in the early 2000s, I heard it in Donbass and the war
a lot, and then now I hear it from my upper-middle-class cousin in New Jersey, from people in Peterborough: the same sense, it’s literally word-for-word, ‘there’s so
much information disinformation out there I don’t trust anything, I’ll go
with my feelings,’ which is remarkable to hear that in the West. So no, I mean, if things have got worse since the polarization bit – polarization at least we’re still kind of talking to each other. So I was in DC during the Kavanaugh
nomination, i don’t know if you saw this, this judge was being made into a grand judge, a big judge – Grand Wizard – no – a big judge, and there was a lot of
fighting about it because a woman came forward very credible witness saying
this guy had sexually harassed me when we were students, but this was forty years ago, impossible to prove, and DC just became this kind of like you know this mad shouting match. But they weren’t shouting at each other, you know, and it got so bad they were like shouting at trees, and shouting
at glasses. If you’re shouting at each other there’s still some sort of face to face there. It was just like the extent to which the two sides – and there are more than two sides – just sort of like had just completely different tunnels
they were looking down, so the kind of liberal tunnel was like, this is a sign of the patriarchy winning, and everything, very sensibly, was analyzed
through that, and then the conservatives, or what used to be conservatives, I met would say, this is all a case of liberal media attack, which it was, it was like, you know, it was actually engineered in a very very sort of cynical way by some media players, both those things are kind of true, but everyone was stuck in their own tunnel, and they weren’t even just shouting at each other, they were just shouting into sort of an empty space past each other. You’re saying that
politicians these days sort of want to be caught out lying, that they lie so conspicuously and openly, as if they – as if being caught out you say is part of the point, and in the case of these guys, they’re telling it – they’re like those magicians who tell you how they do their tricks, and then do them and the
tricks still work, and you’re not sure but I’ve just been told how this happens,
but it still works. Well if you’re just telling people what they want to hear, you know, if you’re just like, your message isn’t to win them over with an argument, but just to work out, okay, what kind of, what kind of story do I feed the academics in order to get them to vote for me, you’re not going to do facts,
you’re not trying to win a deliberative argument, you’re just trying to like, you
know, feed them whatever they want to hear. Today we have the dynamics of social media, and there’s been a fair amount of studies which seem to confirm
some of this, but you know people go into social media not to have a deliberative
debate – it’s actually Facebook – they go there to have, you know, to have a little ego boost from likes and shares, in order to do that you take up the most extreme position in your little social group, and and so you know facts go out the window, you just try to say anything that pleases people. So there’s that, so I
think that’s kind of like you know the political logic already suggest that facts aren’t very necessary, but like facts are horrible. I mean facts tell you’re gonna die, facts tell you that you’re over forty, facts tell you that like you know that you’re overweight, in my case – facts are not nice, I mean why would we want facts? So the idea that politicians would give us facts is kind of surreal, I think facts are just quite
useful if you’re proving something – we don’t have a fact free conversation when it comes to building a bridge, suddenly everyone’s really really precise about all their measurements you know, it’s not like, you
don’t have any kind of bullshitting around that, so if you’re trying to prove something, trying to build something, then facts are very necessary to prove that you’re getting there. But if you’re a society which has no idea of the future anymore, whether it’s Russia in
the 1990s or now, or increasingly us, then politics isn’t about proving things
anymore, it’s not about an evidence-based argument, which you then win or lose, it’s
about a whole host of other things and I think there’s some sort of libidinal
release in saying fuck off to facts, I think maybe at some very pretentious level, and scary saying this in the LRB bookshop where half the people here are psychotherapists, I mean some sort of release from death, I think, some like, you
know, the biggest fact is death, and so Zhirinovsky in the 1990s, there was a
pleasure in this, Oh my God he just said that, Wow! nothing matters – and I think with Trump there’s a kind of a punk-like release from factuality, which comes, which gives you some sort of pleasure.

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