Vladislav Surkov: Portrait of the Kremlin Demiurge

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In his Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, Peter Pomerantsev describes Vladislav Surkov in a singular portrait:

Though we are expecting Vladislav Surkov, the man known as the “Kremlin demiurge,” who has “privatized the Russian political system,” to enter from the front of the university auditorium, he surprises us all by striding in from the back. He’s got his famous Cheshire Cat smile on. He’s wearing a white shirt and a leather jacket that is part Joy Division and part 1930s commissar. He walks straight to the stage in front of an audience of PhD students, professors, journalists, and politicians.

“I am the author, or one of the authors, of the new Russian system,” he tells us by way of introduction. “My portfolio at the Kremlin and in government has included ideology, media, political parties, religion, modernization, innovation, foreign relations, and . . . ” here he pauses and smiles, “modern art.” He offers to not make a speech, instead welcoming the audience to pose questions and have an open discussion. After the first question he talks for almost forty-five minutes, leaving hardly any time for questions after all. It’s his political system in miniature: democratic rhetoric and undemocratic intent.

As former deputy head of the presidential administration, later deputy prime minister and then assistant to the President on foreign affairs, Surkov has directed Russian society like one great reality show. He claps once and a new political party appears. He claps again and creates Nashi, the Russian equivalent of the Hitler Youth, who are trained for street battles with potential prodemocracy supporters and burn books by unpatriotic writers on Red Square. As deputy head of the administration he would meet once a week with the heads of the television channels in his Kremlin office, instructing them on whom to attack and whom to defend, who is allowed on TV and who is banned, how the President is to be presented, and the very language and categories the country thinks and feels in. The Ostankino TV presenters, instructed by Surkov, pluck a theme (oligarchs, America, the Middle East) and speak for twenty minutes, hinting, nudging, winking, insinuating though rarely ever saying anything directly, repeating words like “them” and “the enemy” endlessly until they are imprinted on the mind. They repeat the great mantras of the era: the President is the President of “stability,” the antithesis to the era of “confusion and twilight” in the 1990s. “Stability”—the word is repeated again and again in a myriad seemingly irrelevant contexts until it echoes and tolls like a great bell and seems to mean everything good; anyone who opposes the President is an enemy of the great God of “stability.” “Effective manager,” a term quarried from Western corporate speak, is transmuted into a term to venerate the President as the most “effective manager” of all. “Effective” becomes the raison d’être for everything: Stalin was an “effective manager” who had to make sacrifices for the sake of being “effective.” The words trickle into the streets: “Our relationship is not effective” lovers tell each other when they break up. “Effective,” “stability”: no one can quite define what they actually mean, and as the city transforms and surges, everyone senses things are the very opposite of stable, and certainly nothing is “effective,” but the way Surkov and his puppets use them the words have taken on a life of their own and act like falling axes over anyone who is in any way disloyal.

One of Surkov’s many nicknames is the “political technologist of all of Rus.” Political technologists are the new Russian name for a very old profession: viziers, gray cardinals, wizards of Oz. They first emerged in the mid-1990s, knocking on the gates of power like pied pipers, bowing low and offering their services to explain the world and whispering that they could reinvent it. They inherited a very Soviet tradition of top-down governance and tsarist practices of co-opting antistate actors (anarchists in the nineteenth century, neo-Nazis and religious fanatics now), all fused with the latest thinking in television, advertising, and black PR. Their first clients were actually Russian modernizers: in 1996 the political technologists, coordinated by Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch nicknamed the “Godfather of the Kremlin” and the man who first understood the power of television in Russia, managed to win then President Boris Yeltsin a seemingly lost election by persuading the nation he was the only man who could save it from a return to revanchist Communism and new fascism. They produced TV scare-stories of looming pogroms and conjured fake Far Right parties, insinuating that the other candidate was a Stalinist (he was actually more a socialist democrat), to help create the mirage of a looming “red-brown” menace.

Living in the world of Surkov and the political technologists, I find myself increasingly confused. Recently my salary almost doubled. On top of directing shows for TNT, I have been doing some work for a new media house called SNOB, which encompasses TV channels and magazines and a gated online community for the country’s most brilliant minds. It is meant to foster a new type of “global Russian,” a new class who will fight for all things Western and liberal in the country. It is financed by one of Russia’s richest men, the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who also owns the Brooklyn Nets. I have been hired as a “consultant” for one of SNOB’s TV channels. I write interminable notes and strategies and flowcharts, though nothing ever seems to happen. But I get paid. And the offices, where I drop in several times a week to talk about “unique selling points” and “high production values,” are like some sort of hipster fantasy: set in a converted factory, the open brickwork left untouched, the huge arches of the giant windows preserved, with edit suites and open plan offices built in delicately. The employees are the children of Soviet intelligentsia, with perfect English and vocal in their criticism of the regime. The deputy editor is a well-known American Russian activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, and her articles in glossy Western magazines attack the President vociferously. But for all the opposition posturing of SNOB, it’s also clear there is no way a project so high profile could have been created without the Kremlin’s blessing. Is this not just the sort of “managed” opposition the Kremlin is very comfortable with? On the one hand allowing liberals to feel they have a free voice and a home (and a paycheck), on the other helping the Kremlin define the “opposition” as hipster Muscovites, out of touch with “ordinary” Russians, obsessed with “marginal” issues such as gay rights (in a homophobic country). The very name of the project, “SNOB,” though meant ironically, already defines us as a potential object of hate. And for all the anti-Kremlin rants on SNOB, we never actually do any real investigative journalism, find out any hard facts about money stolen from the state budget: in twenty-first-century Russia you are allowed to say anything you want as long as you don’t follow the corruption trail. After work I sit with my colleagues, drinking and talking: Are we the opposition? Are we helping Russia become a freer place? Or are we actually a Kremlin project strengthening the President? Actually doing damage to the cause of liberty? Or are we both? A card to be played?1


  1. Peter Pomerantsev. Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (Kindle Locations 1024-1042). Perseus Books, LLC. Kindle Edition.

Slavoj Zizek: The Figure of the Postmodern Magus

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When I began thinking of this essay I began rereading that hyperreader himself Slavoj Zizek not as a philosopher, but rather as a postmodern magus conjuring out of the figurations of concept and notion the dialectical patterns of his own hagiography. Reading and rereading from Zizek’s vast oeuvre, which to be honest would take a few years to read once – much less the cycle of close and careful rereading necessary for scholarship or comparison of the many Zizek’s that have cycled through various iterations, completions, and transformations. Each of his works is part of a vast autobiography of a philosopher whose only endless subject has been just that – the Subject.

There is no consistency throughout this prodigious oeuvre, and yet there is a guiding thread that has always pervaded its labyrinth: an Ariadne scarlet thread of the Subject which has led closer and closer to that fatal beast at the center: the Void. One might say that all the books have been a prismatic ensemble on this empty swirl of the Void and Nothingness at the core of the human: the Subject. Like a postmodern magus Zizek has conjured up figuration after figuration of this never restless core of the inhuman from a thousand and one perspectives, turning the conceptual universe of the philosophers, scientists, and scholars every which way to understand the endless possibilities that condition our world.

One of the best, or – should I say, most revealing works on Zizek is Daly’s Conversations with Zizek. Still worth a read to understand the self-image of Zizek onto his own past life as man and philosopher. To understand Zizek is first of all to place him in his homeland, Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, in postwar Yugoslavia. It was here that Zizek in his late teens would decided to become a philosopher. After University he was not allowed to teach philosophy, so was forced for eleven years to teach Sociology. Amusingly Zizek will tell Daly that philosophy was not his first choice:

For me, as is clear from my writings, it was cinema. I started when I was already about 13 or 14; I even remember which movies absolutely fascinated me when I was young. I think two of them left a mark on me: Hitchcock’s Psycho and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad.1

Zizek has written extensively on cinema throughout his career, one of the more interesting being Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan . . . But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock, along with The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and The Fright of Real Tears: Krzystof Kieslowski between Theory and Post-Theory among other myriad essays and asides strewn throughout his oeuvre in essays, articles, and various off the cuff remarks.       

Asked when he came to the point that he was a philosopher he tells Daly he understood the central point that “philosophy is not simply a kind of megalomaniac enterprise – you know, ‘let’s understand the. basic structure of the world’ – that philosophy is not that”. (29) Going on to describe his central insight, that in Heideggerian terms, he came to the basic question of the structure of the world is important, the “notion of the world is not simply the universe or everything that exists” (29). Rather, for Zizek, the ‘world’ is a certain historical category, and understanding what the world is means, in transcendental terms, understanding some pre-existing, at least historically, a priori structure which determines how we understand how the world is disclosed to us. “This for me is the crucial turn.” (29) So epistemology, or how we come to understand how the world is disclosed (or conditions or view onto that world) to us is more important to him than the actual ontological question of the ‘structure of the world’ per se. The point for Zizek is not to speak the truth of the universe, but rather to uncover the common conceptual presuppositions that guide our understanding of the universe, whether as scientists or philosophers, or – even common humanity. So that Kant became the model of the philosopher for Zizek, not that he was correct, but that he asked the simple question: ‘What is it that we have to presuppose is true by the mere fact that we are active as ethical agents?’ (30)

In fact, for Zizek Kant was the beginning of philosophy, rather than the culmination of a certain tradition for the simple reason that he was able to stipulate this epistemic perspective in a way that none of the philosophers before him could. With the transcendental turn (inward turn) “Kant opened up a space from which we can in retrospect read the entire canon of previous philosophy” (30). For Zizek the key is to read all previous pre-Kantian philosophy by way of the Transcendental Turn: the hermeneutical approach, rather than ontological (31).

His love/hate relation to Heidegger’s philosophy comes from the era in question, one in which almost all philosophers were influenced by the German thinker. As he tells us “I am more and more convinced that Heidegger, in spite of all the criticism which he deserves, is the philosopher who connects us in the sense that, in a way, almost every other orientation of any serious weight defines itself through some sort of critical relation or distance towards Heidegger.” (32) It’s this tension and critical evaluation of Heidegger that is key, rather than the man’s life (which Zizek and others repeatedly detest for his moral stance in relation to fascism). For Zizek many in the nineteenth century were anti-Hegelian, while many in the post-modern vision were anti-Platonists, and those that would come later became -as he, anti-Heideggereans. And, the way that many of these anit-Heideggerans would go was the notion of “Oh, yes, Heidegger was right about this, but he ‘didn’t go far enough’.” He mentions Derrida, the Marxists, Foucault, and others in this regard.

He admits that the linguistic barriers to International philosophy were prevalent in Slovenia, and yet they were all reading (Zizek and friends) the new work of Derrida (whom he would later turn away from), whose works became a revelation to him and his circle as a way to distance themselves from Heidegger’s influence. It was not until 1975/76 that Zizek and others in his circle would make the transition to Lacan we see in his work now. From 1968 thru 1975 he admits Lacan was incomprehensible to him. As he admits he was never a Marxist per se, although influenced by aspects of Althusser, for the simple reason that the hard-liner Marxists in his own country were dogmatists who were “ferociously opposed to French thought: structuralism, post-structuralism etc.” (35). Because of his interest in French thought the rulers of the educational systems in Slovenia would disallow Zizek from teaching. So he would spend several years unemployed and unemployable: “I was young, I had a child, I was unemployed and, to their credit, they were quite honest about the situation. They told me that in the present political situation it would be out of the question for me to become a teacher…” (35). So that for almost 10 years from 1969 (Graduation) to 1979 when he finally was given a post in sociology (“through my Heideggerian friends, I got a job at the Department of Sociology in the Institute for Social Sciences at the University of Ljubljana”) he lived on the skids with the help of friends.

Yet, as he admits for him this difficult period of life was not to be expunged, but rather to be what it was for him an ‘opportunity’. Telling Daly that if he’d gotten a job earlier “I would now be a poor stupid unknown professor in Ljubljana, probably dabbling in a little bit of Derrida, a little bit of Heidegger, a little bit of Marxism and so on” (37). The point for him was that such a rough and tumble life was a ‘blessing in disguise’ (38). He was able to secure for a couple of years a position as Foreign liaison for Lacanian events, and came under the tutelage of Jacques-Alain Miller for whom Zizek says that it was Miller’s Lacan to which he is subservient: “I must say this quite openly that my Lacan is Miller’s Lacan. Prior to Miller I didn’t really understand Lacan, and this was for me a great time of education.” (38) In fact it was the study of one of Miller’s seminars that would be the most formative of Zizek’s life:

a whole semester we studied Kant with Sade, line by line, then we went on to ‘Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire’, and so on. Again, this really opened up Lacan to me. Without that, it would be something totally different probably. That was my big formative experience. (38)

The other formative event in Zizek’s life came with a return to Slovenia and working within the Communist system, realizing that at root it was based on cynicism, or – as he suggests, the acknowledgement of not being too serious about one’s ideology; and, in fact, realizing that for the top echelons in the Party a distancing from those who were too dogmatic, too serious as potential threats to the stability of the party, as verging on dissidence from within.  One might see this in American politics as well, of the almost carnival Hollywood aspect of politics as charade, as a Reality TV extravaganza with clowns and puppets on the stage (and, the biggest threat is to discover someone who is too serious! to the Established Rules of the Political Game).

For Zizek having been raised up under the old Stalinist guard and hard-liners he has been immersed in that universe of meaning for so long that the metaphors he falls back on are from that era. He told Daly he has tried to wean himself from it but that it is so pervasive in his psyche that he naturally falls back into the pit. “So, if anything, the transference is still going on, I am not yet over it. I fully admit it, but it is also my pleasure.”(40)

Zizek as Con Artist comes out in his anecdotal history of the Society of Theoretical Psychoanalysis that he, Alenka Zupancic, Mladen Dolar initiated to publish works. The Society itself does nothing. Once in a while students will come from foreign lands to visit and document the archives of the Society and Zizek will relate to them that there are none, that in Slovenia to publish one must do so through an institution, so the three of them had gone through the tedious task of gaining this from the bureaucracy of the Central Committee. He also admits that another part of his con was to lift stationary from various universities he’s traveled too outside his country so that if a student or colleague needed funding to travel outside to a conference or event he would use this stolen stationary to make up a fictional introduction to gain the funds for these various travel expenses etc.

So we faked it all, whatever was needed, all the data – and of course we always invented the colloquium. I mean, I simply said ‘on behalf of’ and I faked the name so that none of my friends would be offended if it all came out. At some point I remember once that there truly was a colloquium, but I said, no, this is not ethical and so I invented another one. I said I cannot stand writing the truth, it must be a lie. (42)

This sense of the Trickster is prevalent in Zizek, another aspect of his being a postmodern Magus who uses trickery and deceit to circumvent the regulated Reality systems of Tyranny and the State. “I am a workaholic: I do my work, but I have this terrible desire to fake things at this level; to fake institutional things. I think that everything to do with institutions should be faked. I don’t know what this is, I never analyse myself I hate the very idea of analysing myself.”(43) One could probably spend a long while uncovering the traces of the Trickster Gods in Zizek’s make-up, from Loki to Coyote this sense of overturning the powers that be, of a certain cunning reason that circumvents the reality protocols that make up the Symbolic Order of the Big Other etc. But, I too, will leave that for others.

Speaking of the Philosopher as philosopher Zizek believes there must be a Collective Project, but not a collective dialogue; instead, philosophy is a singular enterprise: “No, I think that with all radical, true philosophers, there is a moment of blindness, and that is the price you have to pay for it. I don’t believe in philosophy as a kind of interdisciplinary project – this is the ultimate nightmare. That’s not philosophy. We philosophers are madmen: we have a certain insight that we affirm again and again.”(45) I remember Graham Harman suggesting that all philosophers produce at most one great idea, which they reiterate under various guises and in myriad perspectives over and over in tedious repetition. For Zizek the  idea or concept is the “Subject” under its various guises and multifaceted thought forms. In this sense philosophy is not so much the pursuit of Wisdom, as it is a madness in love with its Idea. Usually philosophers when they castigate another philosopher its because their one idea does not mesh with the one that philosopher is fetishizing. Maybe all philosophers have a monocular vision concerning Ideas, especially their own. Speaking of his troika with Mladen Dolar and Alenka Zupancic and their friendship in an ongoing philosophical community: “We talk a lot, we discuss, but ultimately we are alone, and this works perfectly I think. We don’t take any workshops together. When we need to talk, we talk. There is an old romantic formula: the true company is only when you can share your solitude, or some such rubbish. And that’s how we function.” (46)

I can see this is leading me into a long post… I’ll continue this another day. For me Zizek is a touchstone of contemporary thought. I don’t always agree with him. Yet, many have tried to disparage him, take his provocative statements and twist them about against him, which seems to be dubious at best. Many speak of him second hand, or from disparaging and erroneous critiques of his work or statements by enemies. To me if you’re going to spend time developing a relation to a philosopher, especially one who has spent time milling about in the psychoanalytical world of Freud and Lacan, postmodernism, Heidegger, Hegel, Kant, etc., then one should get to know that man behind the mask. This group of conversations may not reveal the real Zizek (is there such a thing?), but rather the refracted mirror image in its broken crystals. None of us is whole (All), we’re all mere fragments of time and memory, traces of events and non-events, scramblings of the noise and music of our age. Zizek is a part of the high-low cultural baggage of our age, a man who incarnates both its contradictions and its questions. I am not done with him. Emerson wrote a book, Representative Men. In my mind’s eye Zizek is one of those Representatives of our Age. There can be no correct view of the man or philosopher. As Harold Bloom once stated there can only ever be “interesting readings or misprisionings”. As a postmodern Magus Zizek conjures up the self-reflecting nothingness of the Subject/Self through all its mutant disguises and repetitively demonstrates the split or gap between it and that in a comedy of dialectical prose that belies the never-ending restlessness of his mind.


  1. Daly, Glyn; Zizek, Slavoj. Conversations with Zizek (Conversations) by Slavoj Zizek (2003-12-30) Polity.

James Joyce & Samuel Beckett

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Beckett was addicted to silences, and so was Joyce; they engaged in conversations which consisted often of silences directed towards each other, both suffused with sadness, Beckett mostly for the world, Joyce mostly for himself. Joyce sat in his habitual posture, legs crossed, toe of the upper leg under the instep of the lower; Beckett, also tall and slender, fell into the same gesture. Joyce suddenly asked some such question as, ‘How could the idealist Hume write a history?’ Beckett replied, ‘A history of representation.’

– Richard Ellman’s, Joyce – A Biography