EVERYTHING WAS FOREVER: THE SUMMING UP.

I’ve finally finished Alexei Yurchak’s Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (see previous post)—”finally” because it was beginning to feel like a real slog—and now I want to vent a little. Mind you, I’m not in the least sorry I read it; it had enough good bits that I would recommend it, with appropriate reservations, to anyone interested in the period. But it disappointed and irritated me on at least two separate counts. Since the second involves my own ideological orientation, I’ll save it for last and start with the more objective complaint: the book is way too full of self-important repetitions of its main thesis, and thus way too long (I’d estimate it could be cut by two-thirds with no loss whatever).
His main point is a valuable one: foreigners (and some Russians) tend to have a simplistic, and in his view fundamentally mistaken, view of late Soviet society as divided between a smallish group of brutal overlords together with their lackeys and enforcers and a much larger group of Suffering Millions, who used irony and indifference to disguise the hatred they could not afford to express. In fact, the vast majority of Soviet citizens were neither (in Yurchak’s terms) dissidents nor activists but “normal people,” who used the structures provided by the state (e.g., Komsomol meetings) to accomplish their own aims, which had nothing to do with official ideology. Furthermore, the same people were capable, at one and the same time, of believing in Communism (the ideal, not the version they were living in) and loving things the official ideology deplored, like Western rock music. These are important points, and he includes striking quotations and examples to illustrate them.
But those quotations and examples are like bits of apple included in a large and tasteless muffin made up mostly of endless restatements of his (not all that complicated) theoretical point. By comparison, Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia, by Vladislav Zubok (see this post), is an apple pie, full of delicious fruit with just enough pastry to make it cohere. And Zubok’s point is basically the same one—it’s just that he’s content to make it and then provide endless illustrations of how it worked, with a new insight or striking quote on just about every page. The difference, I believe, is that Zubok’s main interest is in having you understand late Soviet life and society, whereas Yurchak’s is in having you fully assimilate his thesis (and perhaps be able to recite it in your sleep).


In my earlier post on the book, I wrote “Once past the first chapter, you’re pretty much out of the woods in terms of postmodern obeisances,” but that turns out not to be true: the final chapter is increasingly studded with Žižek, Sloterdijk, & Co. Furthermore, the theoretical discourse gets disturbingly out of control; he can’t mention a few parodies of the sort all intelligent young people everywhere have composed from time out of mind without saying solemnly, “The striking parallel in their stiob engagements with authoritative discourse constitutes an important ethnographic fact about the discursive shifts of the late Soviet period.” In fact, so thick and fast do phrases like “formulas of authoritative discourse” and “performative shift” and “ritualized social discourse” come that the eye begins glazing over and it becomes difficult to focus on what he’s ostensibly trying to say. And the horrible suspicion grows that what he is actually doing is reproducing the effect of “formulas of authoritative discourse” in his own text—making his own references and catchphrases as ubiquitous and ultimately meaningless through repetition as Marx, Lenin, “communist construction,” and “social consciousness of toilers” were in late Soviet texts, so that the reader is forced to “deterritorialize” them (another of his favorite terms) or go mad. While that might be an amusing experiment to foist on (say) a classroom full of graduate students, it doesn’t seem fair to try it on the public at large, which just wants to learn something about Soviet culture. And the Conclusion is almost entirely a ponderous restatement of the contents of each of the previous chapters; if he’s trying to make it possible for harried students to absorb what he has to say without actually reading the preceding 281 pages, again, that seems unfair to the general reader, who probably won’t have the savvy to skip to page 282.
My second problem with the book is that Yurchak seems to share, rather than simply reporting on, the viewpoint of the “normal people” he quotes: that the dissidents were just as boring and annoying as the activists, and that the sensible person ignored the lot of them and concentrated on fun stuff like rock music or staging public fights to épater les camarades. (He clearly is friends with many of the people he quotes, and managed one of the rock groups he writes about.) While I would never condemn anyone for withdrawing from public affairs to cultivate their gardens, especially in a context in which being a dissident could bring very severe penalties, to (by inference) mock people who had the courage to protest publicly seems to me, to use a good Russian term of abuse, подло. But as I say, that’s just, like, my opinion, man.

Comments

  1. Whether it’s podlo or not I don’t know (Russians tend to share Yurchak’s opinion), but I deeply admire Yurchak for challenging the American scholarly conventional wisdom about the dissidents. I don’t see why acts of protest should be valorized for their own sake. Most of these people accomplished absolutely nothing of practical value for anybody.

  2. Here, here, Hat. I was a bit surprised at your initially positve review. I also thought that he was trying to make one point — people led normal lives — and tried to prove it over and over again. And downplayed the fear and danger.
    Slawkenbergius, what can I say that won’t have you hurling insults at me? I suppose many Russians today don’t have much respect for the dissidents, but then most Russians today know nothing about them, or know only what the mass media tells them, which is pretty much what Yurchak says. Most did nothing of practical value for anybody? Well, they kept my best friend alive. He was in prison and then a psychiatric prison hospital for his writing. They made sure he had food packages. They visited. They put his name on lists and made sure that foreign leaders asked about him. They kept records. They made sure that the world knew about, and protested, when Pentacostals or Jews or Orthodox Christians or Tatars or [fill in the blank] were arrested. And then there was that other thing they did — they played a major role in the breaking up the Soviet system.
    The best thing about the book is its title.

  3. these people accomplished absolutely nothing of practical value for anybody.
    of course not, freedom and honour have no practical value, do they?

  4. on a point of ‘practial value’: what would be the closest English word to podlo? Mean, base, low, underhand, – none seem to me to have an emotional power equal to podlo/st’.

  5. Heinous, disgusting, shabby, squalid, sordid, dispicable, dishonorable, vile, lowest of the low…

  6. In my earlier post on the book, I wrote “Once past the first chapter, you’re pretty much out of the woods in terms of postmodern obeisances,” but that turns out not to be true: the final chapter is increasingly studded with Žižek, Sloterdijk, & Co. Furthermore, the theoretical discourse gets disturbingly out of control…
    In your first post, you wrote that “on nearly every page” Yurchak went on about “performative discourse”. I called that a “dumb-ass misuse of the word” (“performative”). What I intended to imply by that – granted, I didn’t make it very clear – is that it sounds like Yurchak is a thorough-going phony.
    That’s not the fault of Žižek and Sloterdijk. Precisely because I read these guys with pleasure and profit, I have zero tolerance for those, such as Yurchak apparently, who try to borrow authoritativeness. My experience is that the Yurchaks of this world have little to say on their own that is worth reading – otherwise they wouldn’t quote so much – so I just stop reading.
    One reason why I seldom refer to Sloterdijk any more is that what he says seems to be Too Far Out for most people here. Since I can’t get his ideas across, there’s no point in continuing to bring him up.

  7. I don’t see why acts of protest should be valorized for their own sake. Most of these people accomplished absolutely nothing of practical value for anybody.
    We’re obviously never going to agree on this; I will continue to regard you as an uppity young pup who shares his generation’s rote contempt for their elders and betters, and you will continue to regard me as an old fart who shares his generation’s rote valorization of protestors who accomplished nothing of practical value (doubtless because they themselves wasted their college days pointlessly protesting the Vietnam War). I will await the day when you pups acquire wisdom, and you will await the day when we farts die off and leave the world to you (and finally stop boring you with our toothless maunderings about courageous people standing up to power). And so it goes!
    Also what mab and Sashura said.

  8. The good news is that I’m quite sure you’re incapable of writing as boringly as the Admirable Yurchak.

  9. Incidentally, I recently ran across a nice quote from Said’s introduction to the anniversary edition of Auerbach’s Mimesis (which I wrote about here), describing the opposite approach to Yurchak’s:

    Auerbach chooses to express such ideas as an integral part of his unfolding interpretive quest in the book: he therefore does not take time out to explain his ideas methodologically but lets them emerge from the very history of the representation of reality as it begins to gather density and scope.

  10. Stu–Yurchak does have a good sense of the word performative, or at least performativity is a concept that is meaningful and plays a useful role in his text. It certainly isn’t necessarily meaningful to the general reader, though.
    More generally, I think the book really suffers from having its origins in an anthropology PhD dissertation. This explains a lot of the theorist-kowtowing and the really clumsy “here’s what I’m going to do, here’s me doing it, here’s what I did” structure. As Hat says, academics are generally more willing to brush bad writing aside and appreciate the book for what it is, which, in the context of the field, is a very new and revelatory kind of argument. (Also, historians of Russia and the Soviet Union are generally very insecure about how behind the times their field is theoretically, so this book makes them feel au courant.)
    I also think one of the biggest reasons there’s so much jargon is that Yurchak is straining very hard to make his subject matter sound academically-legitimate, which is understandable. Much of his audience is composed of an older generation of academics who think anything “cultural” is automatically suspect, especially if the people involved are not major 20th century poets. Yurchak apparently thought that the only way to get across the significance of developments like stiob to such people was to browbeat them into submission. Not a very impressive strategy if you aren’t an academic.

  11. And then there was that other thing they did — they played a major role in the breaking up the Soviet system.
    The dissidents’ role in the breakup of the Soviet system was roughly comparable to the role of student protesters in ending the Vietnam War. None of the causal chains that have been coherently identified as leading up to the collapse–the budget and financial crisis due to falling oil prices and government revenues, self-reinforcing nationalist mobilization on the periphery, internal Party attempts at structural reform, and so on–involved the dissidents more than peripherally, and most of them were already leading comfortable lives in New York and Tel Aviv by that point anyway.

  12. on Zubok, I wanted to ask, does anyone know if he is the grandson of Lev Zubok, a well known Soviet historian? Lev Zubok as a young child emigrated from Russia to the US, studied at Pennsylvania university, joined the American communist party, but in 1920s came back. He lived through antisemitic purges in the 50s, but in the 60s became an authority on the modern history of the US and died at the end of the 60s as a widely respected academic.

  13. slawk: möst of them [the dissidents] were already leading comfortable lives in New York and Tel Aviv by that point anyway.
    What’s this ?? Are you implying that most dissidents were Jews ? Hmmm….

  14. What’s this ?? Are you implying that most dissidents were Jews ? Hmmm….
    Are you accusing me of anti-Semitism? As a Soviet Jew with family in Tel-Aviv, I find that a bit unsettling.
    More to the point, dissidents were often granted exit visas to Israel on a fictive basis–Zubok actually discusses the practice in his book. At some point the regime had simply decided that this was a convenient way to get rid of malcontents.

  15. Then there was the Soviet joke “A Jewish wife is not a luxury but a means of transportation.”

  16. Heh. I hadn’t heard that one.

  17. (riffing on the standard phrase “a car is not a luxury but a means of transportation”)

  18. Well, let’s see, there was Andrei Sakharov and Elena Boner. Sergei Kovalev. Three off the top of my head. They certainly played important political roles. Not to mention the legions of dissidents who typed and passed around samizdat. Unless you think that reading Solzh. Gulag and other revelatory works had no influence on the way people voted in elections in the late 1980s.
    You’d have to prove that “most of them” were living comfortable lives abroad. That sounds a bit too much like the communist accusation that all the “democrats” are now living on the Riviera.
    You’d also probably have to define “dissident.” There were dissident artists, writers, scientists, scholars, musicians, composers, engineers, as well as dissidents involved in human rights, religious movements, national liberation movements.

  19. The Congress of People’s Deputies, as far as I can tell, had virtually no influence on the outcome of the events surrounding the collapse. And support for liberals or democrats was a blip: after an initial post-glasnost burst of support, they lost most of their popular backing for good. If anything, Sakharov represented a tradition of opposition that was quickly going into the dustbin of history along with the rest of the regime.

  20. … conventional wisdom about the dissidents. I don’t see why acts of protest should be valorized for their own sake.
    Well, I _do_ see why: just like that, for their own sake. It’s good to know that there will always be people that won’t go with the herd and have the guts to stand up to brutal authority, even if they are inconsistent, disunited and ineffective.
    The value of those acts, to me, is in that they – granted, largely only in retrospect – change the meaning of what was happening a little. Think of the White Rose – no practical people there, either.
    Most of these people accomplished absolutely nothing of practical value for anybody.
    But, don’t “normal people” (or “most Russians”) who, we are being told, value private lives and practical accomplishments, also value things like Gagarin flight and assorted historic myths? One gathers that, when lack of practical value for “normal people” is being deplored in this context, the discomfort is really in that the acts in question, in retrospect, are quite unflattering for the “normal people”. Russian authorities always see to it that “normal people” are suitably spoilt with patriotic or imperialistic praise and summarily relieved of any sense of past guilt whatsoever. In this context, the mere existence of a dissident minority has, to me, some real value while this never-ending game goes on. I even suspect “most Russians” would understand, too.
    However, I do agree that the dissident movement did not topple the USSR, and that “American scholarly conventional wisdom” is wrong if does indeed presume this – or does it? What needs assimilating, then, is the fact that the regime in the USSR did seem quite popular right until the end, and all the significance of this fact for the future.

  21. Oh, we need the intelligentsia to be the conscience of the быдло, do we? I’ve heard that one before.

  22. …conscience of the быдло…
    No, I don’t believe that we need to discuss “intelligentsia” as the conscience of “the herd” unless we know what “conscience” is when applied to millions of people. I do not know, and I don’t really think that approach to be useful: I think only individual values really apply in this situation, and I value dissidents as individuals.
    But I can see how one can be vexed by a hint of such ideas, even when they are not really there. In a way, this illustrates my point about addiction to flattery :-)

  23. Oh, we need the intelligentsia to be the conscience of the быдло, do we? I’ve heard that one before.
    Is it worth the trouble to bother asking you if you honestly see nothing worthwhile whatever about trying to oppose the wrongdoing of those in power, or are you having too much fun épatering les bien-pensants? I mean, I’ve been there, done that, but I have a hard time believing you have nothing but cheap cynicism left at such a tender age. Even Yurchak at one point admits that if you got a sneering postmodernist alone, away from his gang of cynics, he would talk seriously about political issues.

  24. The Congress of People’s Deputies, as far as I can tell, had virtually no influence is like saying that les États-Généraux in 1789 had no influence on the French Revolution or the October Manifesto of 1905 on the Russian. I can only assume that Slawkenbergius’ is simply an exercise in steb.

  25. The Congress of People’s Deputies had nothing to do with the collapse? Come on. The whole country stopped everything and watched it. They heard all the debates. They heard all the complaints and arguments. The Deputies got rid of Article Six. Former dissidents wrote the declaration of Russian sovereignty. Why did no one come out and defend the GKChP 20 years ago? In part because of those dissidents and what they revealed and questioned and changed.
    That is by no means why the USSR fell apart. But their role in it is unquestionable. And I’m not at all sure that their role is part of American scholarly conventional wisdom at all.

  26. Heinous, disgusting, shabby, squalid,…
    but neither these, nor any others that I know and the way I understand them have in them the idea of deliberateness, calculatedness, intent aimed at hurting or undermining someone else. Which is in podlost.

  27. Is it worth the trouble to bother asking you if you honestly see nothing worthwhile whatever about trying to oppose the wrongdoing of those in power, or are you having too much fun épatering les bien-pensants?
    Eh, forget I asked. I’m just setting myself up for more стеб.

  28. Okay, so is the English for быдло ‘sheeple’?

  29. The Congress of People’s Deputies, as far as I can tell, had virtually no influence is like saying that les États-Généraux in 1789 had no influence on the French Revolution or the October Manifesto of 1905 on the Russian. I can only assume that Slawkenbergius’ is simply an exercise in steb.
    Actually, yeah, I wouldn’t mind comparing the CPD to the pre-revolutionary Duma. They might have had a significant role formally, but the important events were going on elsewhere (both in the republics and around Gorbachev and Yeltsin) while as an institution it was too divided and hemmed in by external pressure to act effectively. Counterfactuals are always problematic, but it’s a lot easier to imagine the Soviet Union breaking up without the CPD than it is to imagine the CPD engineering the breakup single-handedly.
    Is it worth the trouble to bother asking you if you honestly see nothing worthwhile whatever about trying to oppose the wrongdoing of those in power, or are you having too much fun épatering les bien-pensants? I mean, I’ve been there, done that, but I have a hard time believing you have nothing but cheap cynicism left at such a tender age. Even Yurchak at one point admits that if you got a sneering postmodernist alone, away from his gang of cynics, he would talk seriously about political issues.
    It’s not about “cynicism” for me or even about any abstractly-conceived attitude toward opposing those in power. I think the self-aggrandizement and self-congratulation of the Russian intelligentsia are bad things, and the imagined history of the dissident movement and its speaking truth to power represents a whitewashed and self-flattering view of the real events. Most Russians today, according to opinion polls, feel more ambivalent about the breakup of the USSR and even about the GKChP than ever, and to a great extent this is traceable to an enormous mistrust of the dissident intelligentsia. I don’t think they can just be dismissed as brainwashed or whatever, unless you’re invested in intelligentsia mythology.

  30. most of them were already leading comfortable lives in New York and Tel Aviv
    Is it anything more than a convenient viewpoint of those who moved abroad, and felt the need to justify it? Like no, don’t call us cowards, it would have made no difference if we stayed, the resistance was futile, so f**g what if теленок бодался с дубом?
    As much as most of all learned to affirm Marx’s insight about the significance of productive forces etc. (… falling oil prices and government revenues), there are many patronizing, stagnant regimes which survived economic dry spells. Until the masses repel in disgust and fear from their supposed government benefactors, the regimes cling on to life. That’s why the importance of exposing the crimes and the immorality of the regime can’t be underestimated. Or as Orwell put it, without controlling the past there is no control over the future. The dissidents may have done no more than to erode the walls of lies and silence – until the floodgates of truth opened up. Now that the flood is over, it is too easy to forget how it worked.

  31. As much as most of all learned to affirm Marx’s insight about the significance of productive forces etc. (… falling oil prices and government revenues), there are many patronizing, stagnant regimes which survived economic dry spells. Until the masses repel in disgust and fear from their supposed government benefactors, the regimes cling on to life. That’s why the importance of exposing the crimes and the immorality of the regime can’t be underestimated. Or as Orwell put it, without controlling the past there is no control over the future. The dissidents may have done no more than to erode the walls of lies and silence – until the floodgates of truth opened up. Now that the flood is over, it is too easy to forget how it worked.
    This is an example of the kind of sloppy self-congratulatory thinking I was talking about. There have been far more regimes, stagnant and patronizing or otherwise, that have survived sniping by marginalized complainers than there have been systems that have survived the kind of deep structural crisis that the Soviet Union had gotten itself into by the mid-1980s. You can look at China as an example.
    I also don’t think the regime, post-Stalin, was substantially more “immoral” than most other regimes, including those of many Western countries. But I suppose that’s a different question.

  32. Slawken, it occurred to me that I can also be accused of a self-congratulatory exaggerations :) I’m not gonna argue much, no matter how conflicted, and burdened with hindsight, I may have become about my own participation, in, as you put it, marginalized complaining, such us, at first, copying and distribution of illegal literature and collecting funds for prisoners of consience, and later, rallies and barricades.
    As to the relative depth of structural crises of economies, and the validity of Marx’s insights, I don’t think we are in serious disagreement. But as to role of “fear and loathing factor” in the demise of the USSR, I think you refuse to see the obvious. Every time another Gen Sec died, the whole nation was in grips of doomsday fear. As the joke had it, the year 1937 never happened – but it was waiting to happen. And the disillusionment spread like a contagion, from the marginalized truth-seekers to the people charged with making real decisions. Gorby’s personal disgust with the official lies about Chernobyl may have been one of the milestones; when people at the very top have visceral disgust of the system, something’s gotta give.

  33. I apologize if I’ve offended you–I hope it’s clear that I’m talking about dissidents as a category of historical actors and I certainly don’t mean that they didn’t do anything for anybody as people.
    In any case, I think it’s definitely true that the widespread disgust with the system that was prevalent in high-political circles had a lot to do with its collapse. I don’t think the system’s structural failings–as opposed, perhaps, to its moral ones–needed dissidents to expose them. As everyone knows, the hardliner Andropov was the one who pushed Gorbachev forward. In fact, I think one of the dissidents’ biggest mistakes was the fact that they (intentionally or not) ended up politicizing the need for systemic reform in a way that played into the Cold War context, meaning that any post-Khrushchev reform attempts had to initially come from the “right” or be branded as pro-capitalist or pro-American.

  34. Obviously the subject under discussion is somewhat charged, but it can also be fascinating to those less versed in the issues. I, for one, have been eagerly refreshing this thread since last night.

  35. Okay, so is the English for быдло ‘sheeple’?
    It is, except that the Russian word is not an artificial portmanteau and not a recent invention; it’s a borrowed word, the Polish for “cattle” and, I think, historically used pejoratively by nobles to mean their serfs.
    I would like to use this occasion to say that I personally detest the current sadly liberal use of it, not out of political correctness, but because I can’t imagine it being useful for anything but self-gratification by people who, by their own pretensions, should know better.

  36. Ah. In that case perhaps ‘canaille’ is better, though a bit dated.

  37. Burke’s “swinish multitude” is also a good candidate.

  38. I certainly don’t mean that they didn’t do anything for anybody as people.
    Then why did you write Most of these people accomplished absolutely nothing of practical value for anybody, which is what started our comments?
    I don’t think that all the structural and other problems in the USSR were so obvious to everyone. People knew of the problems in their town and factory, but they didn’t know how systemic the problems were. I remember the shock people felt at the revelations on the news and in what they were reading in the late 80s. I also remember people hanging on Sakharov’s every word. People learned from the human rights and other dissidents, and what they learned determined how they voted and how they acted. They voted in the democrats and dissidents and voted out the communists. They came out to protest the coup attempt and, more importantly, they didn’t come out anywhere to support it.
    Yes, today people are less supportive of the break up of the USSR. But where on earth is any evidence that this is because of mistrust of the dissident movement? How about nearly 12 years of state propaganda against the 90s? It was just the 20th anniversary of the coup attempt, and the major tv stations were forbidden to make a big deal out of it, to ask Yeltsin associates to participate in the few discussions of it, or to hold conferences. They are also forbidden to show anything about the 1990s in a good light. You don’t think that has played any role in people’s attitudes?
    I don’t see any use in all these straw men of “whitewashing” “self-congratulatory” etc. I can’t think of a single book about the break up of the USSR that insists it occurred thanks to the dissident movement. It would be wrong to assert that, but it’s equally wrong to assert they had nothing to do with it.

  39. slawk: Are you accusing me of anti-Semitism?
    No. I didn’t know how to ask the questions I wanted to ask, because I expected that somebody or other would take offense, or accuse me of anti-Semitic interpretations, or pro-Semitic ones, or whatever. So I just wrote “Hmmm…” and ran for cover.
    I was wondering 1) whether what you seemed to be implying – that most dissidents in the Soviet Union were Jews – was common belief, or common knowledge, or even in fact “true”; 2) what contributed to this circumstance; and 3) what it all might mean.
    By the way, what you wrote above is the tenor of some political commentaries in Germany that I have read, and found plausible:

    I think one of the dissidents’ biggest mistakes was the fact that they (intentionally or not) ended up politicizing the need for systemic reform in a way that played into the Cold War context, meaning that any post-Khrushchev reform attempts had to initially come from the “right” or be branded as pro-capitalist or pro-American.

    I for one didn’t assume you were claiming that dissidents “didn’t do anything for anybody as people”.

  40. … post-Khrushchev reform attempts had to initially come from the “right” or be branded as pro-capitalist or pro-American.
    Not directly relevant to any of this, but still quite interesting, this reminded me of Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s London Review piece on Orlando Figes’ book on the Crimean War, Crimea: The Last Crusade:

    …newspapers [in Britain] had for the first time a voice that had to be listened to, reaching well beyond the patrician elite which alone had dictated the course of the Napoleonic Wars 40 years earlier.
    As the names of cabinet members at the time show, that elite was still in power, and was much exercised by Russian aggression. But a new factor was middle-class England, industrious, serious, evangelical. These burghers had been taught to hate Russia by – to use a word we owe to a later crisis – a jingo press, as well as by preachers and publicists. Less impressed than Lady Charlotte by Nicholas’s good looks, the newspaper-reading public thought him merely devilish, the incarnation of cruel despotism. No publicist was more prominent, or bizarre, than David Urquhart, the crackpot Scottish agitator who sat for some years in parliament. He developed a passion for all things Turkish (including Turkish baths, which he introduced to London), denounced Russia in apocalyptic terms, and maintained that Palmerston was a paid Russian agent – an odd conspiracy theory considering the enthusiasm with which Palmerston waged war on Russia. And so realpolitikers apprehensive about Muscovite territorial designs were joined by liberals who disliked Russian oppression: a combination that could be heard again during the Cold War, as Figes points out, and indeed more recently than that.

  41. In fact, I think one of the dissidents’ biggest mistakes was the fact that they (intentionally or not) ended up politicizing the need for systemic reform in a way that played into the Cold War context, meaning that any post-Khrushchev reform attempts had to initially come from the “right” or be branded as pro-capitalist or pro-American.
    I don’t think you can separate this from the fact that that the USSR was a multi-national empire in way that most modern “immoral” regimes are not. Even in China the Tibetans and Uighurs and other minorities are a small percentage of the total population and no real threat to the state. But the existence of millions of Poles, East Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, Lithuanians, and Western Ukrainians who considered the USSR to be completely illegitimate (as well as Central Asians and Caucasians whose loyalty to the USSR was also suspect) meant that meaningful reform simply could never be carried out in the USSR without jeopardizing the foundation of the whole economic system of the empire, and the economic system was the only justification for the USSR’s control of its satellites, and even the existence of the USSR as a country . Subsequent events demonstrated just how little legitimacy the regime really had outside the Russian population. In that atmosphere I don’t see how the dissidents could have avoided Cold War entanglements. Dissidence in the USSR really did, unwittingly or not, provide support to literal enemies of the state in a way that is not true in China, or the USA.

  42. How about nearly 12 years of state propaganda against the 90s? It was just the 20th anniversary of the coup attempt, and the major tv stations were forbidden to make a big deal out of it, to ask Yeltsin associates to participate in the few discussions of it, or to hold conferences. They are also forbidden to show anything about the 1990s in a good light. You don’t think that has played any role in people’s attitudes?
    Ugh, this is the worst. I don’t know why you expats always trot out the ’90s–is it because you were isolated from what happened during that decade? Maybe you thought all the random daylight shooting was exciting, just like being in a gangster movie? And of course, your salaries were denominated in dollars, so losing all your savings didn’t mean much to you, and you were far too smart to invest in MMM, and you enjoyed going to all those nice expat bars that were opening up, and it didn’t bother you to see a bunch of nice Harvard boys stripping the country of everything they could get away with. Maybe the constant threat of the drunken and unbalanced leader suddenly declaring war on somebody rather than just going through five cabinet changes in the course of an afternoon made things exciting? Oh, and the default only made things more convenient: look, they’re putting out the prices in УЕ, I don’t even have to think in rubles anymore!
    The implication that Russian people don’t remember their own lives fifteen years ago well enough to have a valid opinion of them is the worst kind of arrogance. You don’t use the word быдло, but you might as well have.

  43. I may not be old enough to remember much, but I do remember being six years old and watching the tanks shooting at the White House in 1993 and thinking about whether this was gonna be like that Russian Civil War I had read so many Soviet books about. And I remember my father not letting me read the “crime” section of the newspaper, which always took up a full page. And I remember people all over the place selling Herbalife because there was nothing else to do, and I remember my rocket-engineer grandfather going to work for pennies for a company that imported meatpacking equipment and getting laid off because he was too old, and I remember not being able to go to my mother’s old school because the director had demanded too big of a bribe, and I remember my grandparents not receiving any pension payments for three months. Don’t tell me about the ’90s, okay?

  44. So here’s the thing… you write something provocative and then when I respond to what you wrote, you just launch into a very personal, outrageous, and totally insulting attack on me. You really have to learn to stick to the topic and not immediately try to discredit and insult and demean people who don’t agree with you.

  45. What mab said. Really, slawk, that was completely uncalled for, and you should perhaps think about why you’re unable to defend your intellectual point without accusing anyone who disagrees with you of a bunch of stereotypical bullshit. I think of you as basically a decent person, but you’re not acting like it.

  46. I remember having to show up at the hospital with your own medical supplies, gauze, and wound dressings. I remember relatives dying because the ambulance would come but refuse to treat them, for lack of medication. The 90s were definitely not fun.

  47. What mab said. Really, slawk, that was completely uncalled for, and you should perhaps think about why you’re unable to defend your intellectual point without accusing anyone who disagrees with you of a bunch of stereotypical bullshit. I think of you as basically a decent person, but you’re not acting like it.
    It’s not a matter of “disagreeing with me.” If mab had written something like “the liberals are unjustly blamed for the ’90s because they had little real control over the situation in the country,” that would have been a totally legitimate argument and one that I would even partially agree with. But the claim that I’ve been brainwashed by state propaganda and that I should pay more attention to what was good about the ’90s is something that I’ve heard from a lot of liberals over the years, almost always Westerners or Russians who lived abroad during that decade, and it gets my blood boiling. I’m not sure you understand how offensive that is. (And me and my family, all things considered, were dramatically better off than most of the population.) It’s like, I don’t know, arguing that slavery wasn’t so bad and anyway industrial capitalism was worse.

  48. Then why did you write Most of these people accomplished absolutely nothing of practical value for anybody, which is what started our comments?
    I think the distinction is pretty clear. If I wrote, in a totally different context, “the UN troops in Rwanda accomplished absolutely nothing of practical value for anybody,” you wouldn’t assume that I was claiming that each individual UN soldier was a complete waste of oxygen or whatever, would you? Likewise, it’s entirely possible that many of the dissidents were truly excellent people, but as a group and as political actors failed to accomplish anything.

  49. I was wondering 1) whether what you seemed to be implying – that most dissidents in the Soviet Union were Jews – was common belief, or common knowledge, or even in fact “true”; 2) what contributed to this circumstance; and 3) what it all might mean.
    Well, my sense is that a disproportionate number of the dissidents were in fact Jews because of the role played by the scientific/technical intelligentsia (in the Soviet sense) in the dissident movement. While most of them would have experienced some degree of official anti-Semitism, the majority were not religious or Zionist, which is why the American Jewish community was in fact much more concerned with Jewish issues in the Soviet Union than most dissidents were.

  50. I didn’t write “brainwashing” and I didn’t write that you were brainwashed. I wrote that there is a state ban on showing the 90s and the Yeltsin team in a good light on tv. That is a fact. (And it’s actually kind of an interesting fact that you might think about.)
    Turning my words into strawmen and turning me into your stereotype of some jerk expat — give me a break.

  51. So what’s the significance of that fact if your argument isn’t that state propaganda is causing people to hate the ’90s? Is it just that brainwashing is such an ugly word?

  52. I said what I wanted to say.
    And how about those Mets?

  53. “подло” (podlo)
    My bet would be on “villainous”, at least in the historic sense of the word – “typical of lowly-born, and, by implication, going against chivalric code of behaviour, dishonest, back-stabbing”: I believe “подлый” was being historically used as a technical designation of all less-than-nobly born, e.g. “подлый народ”.

  54. It’s not a matter of “disagreeing with me.” If mab had written something like “the liberals are unjustly blamed for the ’90s because they had little real control over the situation in the country,” that would have been a totally legitimate argument and one that I would even partially agree with. But the claim that I’ve been brainwashed by state propaganda and that I should pay more attention to what was good about the ’90s is something that I’ve heard from a lot of liberals over the years, almost always Westerners or Russians who lived abroad during that decade, and it gets my blood boiling.
    But Mab didn’t claim that you personally had been brainwashed; she suggested that the Russian people had been influenced by propaganda. Even if you want to go on pretending that there’s no substantive difference between those arguments, you could at least admit that the latter, the one Mab actually made, is within the bounds of polite conversation. You were the first to exceed those bounds, juvenilely. Perhaps you don’t care, but as a disinterested observer, initially fascinated with the debate itself, I was shocked by the petty turn you made it take. I thought I was in more interesting company.

  55. It depends on whose ox is being gored, I suppose.

  56. Eh, forget I asked. I’m just setting myself up for more стеб.
    Actually, I believe LH is wrong in thinking that Slawkenbergious’ opinions are tongue-in-cheek provocation against the self-righteous mainstream. On the contrary, what transpires is, alas, quite common in modern Russia, and it has to be reckoned with seriously if we want to understand what is (and was) going on. The opinions in question are far from provocative in the modern Russian context, and are, in their most widespread finished form, pure Weimar-style “stab-in-the-back” theory all over again.
    Whether or not I am correct in ascribing them to Slawkenbergius – don’t I have a right to my own straw men? – I believe such opinions to be, among much else, intellectually dishonest. As I have tried to show here, these opinions are in fact deeply imperialistically romantic without acknowledging it under their “down-to-earth normal people” guise, and can be quite blood-thirsty as such.
    What I think is worth discussing – and I would have to thank Slawkenbergius for bringing the issues up – is that the USSR would have probably existed to this day if it had nothing but internal opposition to cope with, and that the fairy-tale picture of the evil empire being toppled by Gorbatchev, freeing his long-suffering people with the help of Sakharov and Solgenitzin is, well, fairy-tale, except for the suffering that was real. When we admire the dissidents, if we do admire them, we have to admire them for what they were as individuals, not for their historic achievements. The Soviet regime was quite popular right until the end, and the “intelligentsia”, taken generally, was the great seller of the regime to the people, and some of the best “salesmen” went on to sell the new market economy and the Putin oligarchy without a hiccup. Slawkenbergius’ invective against “dissidents” supposedly living comfortable lives would have been more accurate if he were talking of these “fair-weather Westerners”. People who consciously ran any real risk of imprisonment or repression were a tiny minority in their own social strata (and some important ones didn’t even come from the literati circles). I would even dare say that such people were a minority even among those running away from the USSR, although I don’t have any hard proof for these opinions.
    As regards the 90s versus the Putin’s era: I was there at the time, and belonged to that very Soviet intelligentsia with all that this implied. It did look like Remarque’s “Three Comrades”, but I still think that, just like what the novel described, it was better than what was to come.
    Oh, and – sorry about the long-winded post…

  57. (For what it’s worth–and it’s not worth much–you are not correct in ascribing these opinions to me. I don’t think the dissidents betrayed anyone or that the fall of the Soviet Union was ultimately a bad thing. Still less am I imperialistic or romantic. And if you don’t think that many of the people who emigrated were, by the late ’80s, living fairly comfortable lives, I dare say you’re the romantic one; I don’t by any means think those people should have stayed or lived in garrets or whatever, just so they could suffer nobly for their country or whatever.)

  58. (For what it’s worth–and it’s not worth much–you are not correct in ascribing these opinions to me. I don’t think the dissidents betrayed anyone or that the fall of the Soviet Union was ultimately a bad thing. Still less am I imperialistic or romantic. And if you don’t think that many of the people who emigrated were, by the late ’80s, living fairly comfortable lives, I dare say you’re the romantic one; I don’t by any means think those people should have stayed or lived in garrets, just so they could suffer nobly for their country or whatever–all I was saying was that they were at a distance from the events when they were going down.)

  59. Oops, sorry about the double post.

  60. And if you don’t think that many of the people who emigrated were, by the late ’80s, living fairly comfortable lives
    But, what does this have to do with your claim that “dissidents lived comfortable lives”? Dissidents, generally understood in the sense of the people consciously risking repression, are not the same as “intelligentsia”, and not the same as “all people who emigrated”. If all you claimed was that living NYC was, generally speaking, more comfortable than in the USSR or Russia of the 90s…

  61. For what it’s worth–and it’s not worth much–you are not correct in ascribing these opinions to me
    Then I am really sorry about that. BTW, do you think I was totally arbitrary when making this mistake, or was it that I took your words in isolation, or…? Because I actually do think it’s worth it, you know…

  62. Look, as I said, all I was trying to say was that by the time of the collapse, many (I can’t back up “most”) of the dissidents were far away from the events (and who said everyone who emigrated was a dissident?) and no longer had any input on or even, in many cases, much connection with what was happening. This was a supplementary point in response to a claim upthread that they “played a major role in breaking up the Soviet Union.”
    How this got turned into a strawman about bloodsuckers who fed on the honest patriot and then fled abroad, I don’t know. That doesn’t even make sense in the original context.

  63. Then I am really sorry about that. BTW, do you think I was totally arbitrary when making this mistake, or was it that I took your words in isolation, or…? Because I actually do think it’s worth it, you know…
    Well, opinions evolve differently and have different valences in different contexts. Mine happened to evolve in the United States in reaction to what I perceived as widespread, delusional incomprehension of the nature of the Soviet collapse and Russian politics in general–an incomprehension largely created by several generations of self-valorizing émigré dissident or quasi-dissident intellectuals. The resulting anti-intelligentsia tone of these opinions can often sound like national-populist chestbeating, but that’s simply because the Russian version of national-populism doesn’t even exist on my intellectual horizon as something that needs to be argued against.

  64. Actually, I believe LH is wrong in thinking that Slawkenbergious’ opinions are tongue-in-cheek provocation against the self-righteous mainstream.
    Yes, I clearly was. I was trying to think better of him than seems justified. His opinions are honestly held, and to me repellent.

  65. Haven’t we been down this road once already?

  66. Yes, I clearly was. I was trying to think better of him than seems justified. His opinions are honestly held, and to me repellent.
    Whether you think my opinions are repellent or not, don’t you think it’s a bit patronizing to assume that someone who disagrees with you must just be disagreeing for the sake of épatage, and then present it as some kind of favor?
    Oh, nevermind, I regret getting into this in the first place, as I always do. As a dog returns to his vomit &c…

  67. incomprehension largely created by several generations of self-valorizing émigré dissident or quasi-dissident intellectuals
    Well, do you think this would be the same as these people: http://www.polit.ru/article/2008/09/02/people68/? Because, when I say “dissident”, I mean _them_.

  68. Well, do you think this would be the same as these people: http://www.polit.ru/article/2008/09/02/people68/? Because, when I say “dissident”, I mean _them_.
    Some of them, but not necessarily all. For me, the classic representative of the type is this guy: http://www.aei.org/scholar/2 (although I have no idea if he was actually a dissident or just an émigré), and before him this guy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicholas_Timasheff.

  69. http://www.aei.org/scholar/2 (although I have no idea if he was actually a dissident
    It would have helped your image to a degree if you typed slower, and took time to do the most basic research ahead of hitting the “Post” button. But perhaps an after-the-fact apology might help a bit, too.
    Your professional Sovietologist arrived to the US in his early 20s, to get his education in all matters Soviet in the West … and that happened back in the 1970s.

  70. Some of them, but not necessarily all.
    For example? You claimed that many, if not most, dissidents were, by the time of USSR’s collapse, self-valorizing émigrés, reasonably comfortable in America and so not entitled to an opinion about post-Soviet Russia that you remember as a 6-year-old, didn’t you, Slawkenbergius?
    And now you are saying that at least some of the people in my sample (it was the list of those who are known to have protested against the invasion of Chekhoslovakia) fit this description, aren’t you, or did I misread it again? So, whom from this list did you mean?
    Because Timashev and Aron you have pointed to instead would hardly count as “soviet dissidents”, unless I have missed something in Aron’s biography.

  71. “Maybe you thought all the random daylight shooting was exciting, just like being in a gangster movie?”
    Sorry, this is ridiculous nonsense. Russia in the 90s was not the crime filled gangster park of modern or contemporary propaganda. I lived in Moscow and Nizhny for most of that decade, in local flats, riding public transportation and spending plenty of time at alternative rock clubs and other local hangouts, and never experienced a second of real danger other than the police trying to shake us down. The people I knew who got in serious trouble in Russia were people who were trying to make a lot of money (and stepping on toes) or enjoyed hanging out with gangster types. Certainly there was crime, but not at the appalling levels people like to claim today. Life actually has gotten far more dangerous in Russia for journalists, minorities and other non conformists in this decade. Slawkenbergius is presenting a very tendentious and slanted picture of Russia in the 90s.

  72. Yeah, what you said, vanya, and besides, he said I was hanging out in expat bars. Defamation of character!
    Sorry.
    Perhaps this has gotten too high-pitched. Hat is a kind king, but he might get tired of disorder in his domain.

  73. I don’t mind disorder, but I do draw the line at personal attacks, which only slawk has seen fit to indulge in. I can only hope someday he’ll be ashamed of the sloppy thinking and Leninist character-assassination tactics he’s displayed here.

  74. At a slight distance here in Germany, I experienced 20 years of the GDR, then 20 years of the-no-more-GDR. There have been waves of neglect and exploitation (especially in the early ’90s) and, on both sides, resentment and complaining – but nothing like what I’m seeing here.
    Fear and danger swept through the GDR only in the months of 1989 leading up to the fall of the Berlin wall, when it wasn’t clear whether the Russian army would intervene again.

  75. J. W. Brewer says:

    Maybe slawk could move over to the birchbark thread and expound on how the traditional historiographic valorization of Novgorod as the nicer alternative to brutal/despostic Muscovy is all Western-liberal hogwash?

  76. rootlesscosmo says:

    Before this thread got so polarized, Hat and Slawkenbergius both drew analogies to the anti-Vietnam war protests, which they see very differently. All I know about the collapse of the USSR is from reading (newspapers, books, magazine articles, all in English, mostly by non-Russians) but i know something about the antiwar movement (ca. 1965-1975) and the way its participants have viewed it in hindsight.
    I’ve heard it said that “we stopped the war.” We certainly tried, but I think this inflates our importance and thus underestimates other factors, to say nothing of its unpleasant flavor of self-congratulation. I think it’s fairer to say that the war became a political impossibility for successive US administrations because of antiwar opinion in the US (demonstrations, election results, draft resistance et al.), growing mutinousness among US forces, increasing weakness in the US economy, and much, much besides.
    But would the outcome have been the same without any specific element, e.g. the student protests? Did Tet impel LBJ to declare he wouldn’t run again, or was it Eugene McCarthy? Wasn’t it student protesters that supplied McCarthy with the volunteers in his New Hampshire campaign? Didn’t the antiwar movement contribute to disaffection among the troops? (Watch the film “Sir! No Sir!” before you answer.)
    A character in Donald Westlake’s novel “God Save the Mark” writes a novel that asks how the Gallic Wars might have gone if the Romans had air power–no firearms, no explosives, no modern communications, just air power. What if you took the student antiwar movement (or, I suppose, the Soviet-era dissidents) out of the equation? But the question seems to me to be meaningless.

  77. An interesting disparity is that the anti-war movement has been mostly associated with the youngsters who haven’t yet made a meaningful contribution to the society before setting out to change out (although of course it cut across generations in many important ways).
    Russia’s dissidents, on the contrary, are mostly remembered as grownup professionals, as key thought leaders who already contributed a lot to the well-being of the nation before demanding reforms (a large fraction of the dissidents didn’t even formally call for changes other than enforcing the laws and affirming the rights already on the books). Sakharov created the H-bomb; Galich was a successful movie producer; Nekrasov was an award-winning author, and so on. They were essentially teachers rather than students, and that’s why their word spread far beyond the margins, all the way into the core of the ruling class to which they once belonged.
    Of course marching, anti-war style, on the streets with the college kids chanting “Commandos, Don’t Beat Us” was a fun chapter of the Soviet breakdown too, but it happened at a much later stage.

  78. I’ve heard it said that “we stopped the war.” We certainly tried, but I think this inflates our importance and thus underestimates other factors
    Sure. I’ve said for years that the antiwar movement was basically a failure. But that doesn’t mean it was meaningless! Even had I known going into it that the protests wouldn’t have affected the outcome, I’d have done it anyway, because it was the right thing to do. Same for marching against the Iraq war, knowing it was going to happen anyway. It’s helpful to remember that every life, and every civilization, is a failure if you define it narrowly enough.

  79. It’s helpful to remember that every life, and every civilization, is a failure if you define it narrowly enough.
    The single-minded search for “causality” in human affairs yields a rather narrow understanding of them. Curiously, that exclusive devotion to causal analysis is itself rarely subjected to causal analysis: what causes people to believe that causality is the only game in town worth playing ?

  80. Curiously, that exclusive devotion to causal analysis is itself rarely subjected to causal analysis: what causes people to believe that causality is the only game in town worth playing ?
    Because without a concept of causation — in law, science, history, personal relationships, and just about every other human endeavor — we’d be fucked. Sure, I appreciate the value of stepping back from time to time (and even for some professionals, sustainedly), to view the world as discrete phenomena… one damn thing after another… etc.; but is it really a mystery why more people don’t do it more often, Stu?

  81. Well, I come from the Peirce tradition, where cause-effect is replaced by producer-product: an acorn produces an oak, and so does water, and so does the soil, and so does suitable weather: it would be absurd to regard any of these as the cause, much less the cause. This is related to what Quine calls (or makes of) holism. When reasoning leads to a contradiction, we must reject a premise, but nothing tells us which premise to reject except the pragmatic “maxim of minimum mutilation”: reject that which tears up the least amount of your mental infrastructure (thus 2 + 2 = 4 is not privileged, but an awful lot depends on it continuing to be accepted).
    Kripke on necessity comes in here too, but I can’t explain just how at the moment. In my mind Quine and Kripke play the roles of Particle and Wave, and I can never explain how each is right when thinking in the framework of the other, though I have a strong intuition that it’s so.

  82. Jim: Sure, I appreciate the value of stepping back from time to time (and even for some professionals, sustainedly), to view the world as discrete phenomena… one damn thing after another… etc.
    That’s merely the obverse of interpreting everything in terms of causality. Suppose we put the conceptual pair “causality”/”randomness” to one side for a moment. Would thinking and living then be impossible ? What about this very discussion we’re having ?
    I am deprecating single-mindedness, the attempt to fit everything into one of two categories: “caused”/”random”. This is not something “most people” spend their time doing, whether they be scientists or not. It is just one distinction among many: fair/unfair, meaningful/meaningless, cute/ugly, authoritarian/democratic …

  83. Ah, well, Stu, that is more interesting — thanks for clarifying. I’d prod you for more, but it’s time for bed; maybe tomorrow. Or this weekend (I have a lot of ice cream to make tomorrow).
    John C.: Whenever you are able to explain Kripke — or further articulate your understanding of Peirce and Quine — I’ll be reading. I know them all only at the primer level, and am interested.

  84. Well, here’s Quine’s Quiddities: an intermittently philosophical dictionary s.v. “Necessity”, where he puts it very clearly and accessibly (but if this seems wearily familiar, skip down to “There remains a loose end”):

    [...] Let us come to grips with necessity as such. It is not easy. A leaf that latter-day philosophers have taken from Leibniz’s book explains necessity as truth in all possible worlds. Whatever clarity can be gained from explaining necessity in terms of possibility, however, can be gained more directly: a sentence is necessarily true if it is not possibly false. ‘Necessarily’ means ‘not possibly not’. And we can equally well explain possibility in terms of necessity: ‘possibly’ means ‘not necessarily not’. We understand both adverbs or neither. Each is perhaps the more useful in that it affords an explanation of the other, but we must cast about still for outside help.
    David Hume despaired, two centuries ago, of distinguishing between what is necessarily so and what just so happens. It is commonly said that the truths of mathematics and the laws of nature hold necessarily, along with all their logical consequences. However, this only pushes the problem back. Which of the truths about nature are to count as laws of nature, rather than as just so happening?
    Well, we are told, they should be general. No, this does not help; even the most typical singular sentences are equivalent, trivially, to general ones. ‘[James] Garfield [20th U.S. president] was born in Orange [Township, Ohio]‘ is equivalent to the generality ‘Everyone was either born in Orange or is other than Garfield.’ The further requirement is then proposed that a law of nature single out no specific object, such as Orange or Garfield. But the trouble with this requirement is that it would disqualify the laws of geology, which cite our planet, and the laws that hinge on specifying the sun and the solar system. It would leave us with the broadest laws of physics, and few occasions to apply the adverb ‘necessarily’.
    Hume was right, I hold, in discrediting metaphysical necessity. Laws of nature differ from other truths of nature only in how we arrive at them. A generality that is true of nature qualifies as a law, I suggest, if we arrive at it inductively or hypothetico-deductively rather than by the sort of trickery seen in the Garfield example. Sub specie aeternitatis there is no necessity and no contingency; all truth is on a par.
    The adverb ‘necessarily’ is much more frequent in daily discourse than called for by laws of nature, let alone metaphysical necessity. In this vernacular use the human element that I have ascribed to law is more marked; necessity commonly so called comes and goes from occasion to occasion. In the course of a discussion we are able to attach this adverb to a sentence that can be seen to follow from something on which we and our interlocutor are agreed [cf. the lawyer's definition of fact as 'point not in dispute in this case'], in contrast to the points that are still moot [in the sense 'arguable', not in the sense 'not worth arguing]. In expository writing we are apt to attach it to a sentence that clearly follows from something farther up the page, in contrast to what is conjecture or still in the course of being proved. [At this point I should talk about mathematicians' obsession with proof rather than truth, but lack the energy.]
    There remains a loose end that wants picking up. Two paragraphs back I noted the purported necessity of the truths of mathematics and the laws of nature, and proceeded to dispose of the laws of nature. But mathematical necessity calls for quite another account, hinging on something in the theory of evidence called holism, over which let us now pause for a while. The point of holism, stressed by Pierre Duhem eighty years ago, is that the observable consequence by which we test a scientific hypothesis is ordinarily not a consequence of the hypothesis taken by itself; it is a consequence only of a whole cluster of sentences [propositions or claims, in non-Quine-speak], among which the hypothesis in question merely happens to be the one in question. [This relation between hypothesis and observation is analogous to the relation between producer and product I spoke of in my previous comment: as there is no one cause of an oak, there is no one logical predecessor of a proposition. By the way, the producer-product model is not Peirce's own but was devised by Edgar A. Singer, a student of Peirce (but not of Peirce's); my father in turn was Singer's student at the University of Pennsylvania.]
    [...] The bearing of this on mathematical necessity is as follows. Within the cluster of sentences needed to clinch the implication[,] there are apt to be not only sentences from the particular science in question, physics perhaps, but also something from mathematics, and various commonsense truths that go without saying. If the predicted observation fails [that is, an experiment that tests a hypothesis provides an unexpected result], the failure could in principle be accommodated by recanting any one of the cluster. We would try to choose in such a way as to optimize future predictions, and this will have been why the particular hypothesis was fingered in the first place.
    The considerations that guide these guesses are not well understood, but one conspicuous maxim is the maxim of minimum mutilation: disturb overall science as little as possible, other things being equal. [This is the negative version of the maxim "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", beloved of skeptics (including me). It is less mutilating to the body of our knowledge of the world to reject purported evidence of paranormal powers as deception or self-deception than to extensively revise physics, chemistry, and biology to allow for their existence. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson was right to affirm that it was more likely that two Yankee professors (Silliman and Kingsley of Yale) would lie than that stones had fallen from the heavens, given the evidence he had, though the later accumulation of evidence tipped the balance the other way and made the existence of meteorites an effective certainty.]
    This accounts pretty well for the air of necessity that we attach to the truths of mathematics. Mathematics shares the empirical content of the rest of science, insofar as it contributes indispensably to the joint implying of observation categoricals, but it owes its air of necessity to our prudence in not excessively rocking the boat.

    So much for Quine. I’ll talk about Kripke another day in more detail. For now I’ll just point out a few things, the first of which is that he is the inventor of the possible-worlds explanation of necessity that Quine praises with faint damns above. In Naming and Necessity, which is most of what I have read of his, he talks not so much about necessarily true sentences or propositions, but about internal properties of objects, that is, the properties which those objects have in all possible worlds.
    In another possible world, Nixon might not have the property of being President, which shows that “x is President” is a contingent (non-necessary) property. However, if his mother had not been Hannah Milhous Nixon but another woman altogether, then Nixon would not have been Nixon but someone else altogether. In the same way, there is no possible world in which Queen Elizabeth has always been a swan (leaving aside the question of whether possible worlds in which she was changed into a swan in some way are really possible or just verbally describable, like worlds in which 2 + 2 = 5).
    Being the child of your parents and belonging to your species, therefore, are internal properties of organisms, and “John Cowan is the son of Thomas Cowan” is necessarily true. I might not have been a Peircean if my father had attended a different university (clearly a contingent property), but in all possible worlds I am a person (excluding those, as Kripke does, in which I do not exist at all). If my mother’s egg had been impregnated by a different sperm cell (my father’s or another man’s), the resulting child would almost certainly bear my name, and would quite possibly have been a Peircean too — but he would not be me, but someone else altogether, any more than I could have been Richard Nixon or the Queen.

  85. Sorry, John, but I don’t quite see what this approach does to the “causality/randomness” opposition (seems to me to be mostly about “necessity/contingency”)?
    I wonder if there are any modern takers of Antoine-Augustine Cournot’s ideas about the intersecting causality chains as the source of randomness (sorry, the link is to the French article, as the English article only tells about Cournot’s results in economics and mathematics).
    I especially like the phrase – only present in the French, and it is not clear from the text if it’s a quote or not – “if the Church is in some sense the daughter of Bossuet, Bossuet is even more a son of the Church”. Speaking of which – how does Pierce/Quine product/producer apply to history (which was why, after all, the topic cropped up here, unless I’ve missed a turn)?

  86. Thanks, John, that’s very interesting stuff.

  87. Maxim: If you stop talking about causes in favor of producers, then you escape the causality/randomness duality. The fact that a die rolls six has both caused and uncaused producers: it randomly turned up six, but the person who rolled it is just as much a producer of the six as the random factor is. If we change the person who rolled the die, perhaps we will get a three this time.
    If we had a deterministic theory (though the point of throwing dice is that we don’t have such a theory) predicting how a given die would fall when thrown by a given person in a given manner at a given time, then if the theory failed to predict a specific fall of the die, we could reject the measurement of the die, or the identity of the thrower, or the measured manner of the throw, or any of the other producers. This is Quine’s holism as explained above.

  88. If you stop talking about causes in favor of producers, then you escape the causality/randomness duality.
    That it’s so easy to slip into that duality really is fascinating. Huh, that’s the point Grumbly made to start this digression… Thanks, Stu!
    And thanks, John, for annotating that Quine quote, and the rest of your comment — it was indeed interesting.
    And somewhat familiar… Peirce was friends with Oliver Wendell Holmes, right? And didn’t Holmes have some similar thoughts about causation in legal theory — seeing it holistically as metaphysical truth, but coming up with a pragmatic definition of it for the court?
    Quine’s line about accounting for the “air of necessity that we attach to the truths of mathematics” reminded me (surely because my philosophy is so thin and scattershot) of Wittgenstein’s description in The Tractatus of mathematical truths as “tautologies”: exceptions to his language system. I’m guessing you find Quine’s approach more useful?

  89. In Peirce’s cosmology the universe evolves from perfect randomness towards ever-increasing, but never perfect lawfulness. He saw it as things getting into habits. The primordial chaos was habit-free. The more habits something has, the more it “exists.” Matter is mind “hidebound with habits.”

  90. In Peirce’s cosmology the universe evolves from perfect randomness towards ever-increasing, but never perfect lawfulness.
    At odds with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, no?

  91. At odds with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, no?
    I don’t know, is it? My impression was that in the standard conception entropy acts within organized systems. And in Peirce’s conception you never get rid of chance (=randomness) either, no matter how organized things are. But I’m out of my depth in this.
    It seems to me that unlike many of his English contemporaries, he took metaphysics seriously. At the same time there is this whimsical quality whenever he writes about it. Which I for one find entirely appropriate.

  92. My father addressed legal causation in his early article “The Riddle of the Palsgraf Case” (23 Minn. L. Rev. 46 (1938)), also very accessible verbally (though not electronically). Unfortunately I can’t summarize his reasoning here.

  93. J. W. Brewer says:

    What you want is perhaps Judge Andrews’ dissent in Palsgraf, which is a bit John Cowan avant la lettre. After saying “Any philosophical doctrine of causation does not help us” he goes on to: “Should analogy be thought helpful, however, I prefer that of a stream. The spring, starting on its journey, is joined by tributary after tributary. The river, reaching the ocean, comes from a hundred sources. No man may say whence any drop of water is derived. Yet for a time distinction may be possible. Into the clear creek, brown swamp water flows from the left. Later, from the right comes water stained by its clay bed. The three may remain for a space, sharply divided. But at last, inevitably no trace of separation remains. They are so commingled that all distinction is lost.”

  94. I don’t know, is it? My impression was that in the standard conception entropy acts within organized systems. And in Peirce’s conception you never get rid of chance (=randomness) either, no matter how organized things are. But I’m out of my depth in this.
    So am I (as usual), and I welcome correction (as always); but one relevant fact that I am pretty sure of is that there’s no such thing as a completely closed system (“closed” is the word I’m more familiar with in this context, assuming that’s what you meant by “organized”), so that the universe has been dissipating since the Big Bang, in accordance with the 2nd Law. You can see why your description of Peirce’s cosmology would at least superficially fail to chime with that fact — which has implications across the sciences.
    The failure/refusal to recognize that, re thermodynamics, no systems (including Earth) are in fact truly closed is responsible for a lot of junk literature, like this, desperate to use the 2nd Law as a metaphor for whatever bullshit is being preached.

  95. Thanks for the quote, J.W. Brewer!
    After a little Googling, I discovered that it wasn’t Holmes I was thinking of earlier, but Nicholas St. John Green, who has a quote similar to Judge Andrews’ (below) and, according to Louis Menand in The Metaphysical Club, influenced Peirce’s thinking on causation.

    Causation is the law of cause in relation to effect. Nothing more imperils the correctness of a train of reasoning than the use of metaphor. There is no single “chain of causation” By its over free use the subject of causation has been much obscured. The phrase “chain of causation,” which is a phrase in frequent use when this maxim is under discussion, embodies a dangerous metaphor. It raises in the mind an idea of one determinate cause, followed by another determinate cause, created by the first, and that followed by a third, created by the second, and so on, one succeeding another till the effect is reached. The causes are pictured as following one upon the other in time, as the links of a chain follow one upon the other in space. There is nothing in nature which corresponds to this. Such an idea is a pure fabrication of the mind.
    There is but one view of causation which can be of practical service. To every event there are certain antecedents, never a single antecedent, but always a set of antecedents,..
    There are always multiple causes for an event From every point of view from which we look at the facts, a new cause appears. In as many different ways as we view an effect, so many different causes, as the word is generally used, can we find for it. The true, the entire, cause is none of these separate causes taken singly, but all of them taken together. These separate causes are not causes which stand to each other in the relation of proximate and remote, in any intelligible sense in which those words can be used. There is no chain of causation consisting of determinate links ranged in order of proximity to the effect. They are rather mutually interwoven with themselves and the effect, as the meshes of a net are interwoven. As the existence of each adjoining mesh of the net is necessary for the existence of any particular mesh, so the presence of each and every surrounding circumstance, which, taken by itself we may call a cause, is necessary for the production of the effect.
    In this view of causation there is nothing mysterious. Common people conduct their affairs by it, and die without having found it beyond their comprehension. When the law has to do with abstract theological belief, it will be time to speculate as to what abstract mystery there may be in causation ; but as long as its concern is confined to practical matters it is useless to inquire for mysteries which exist in no other sense than the sense in which every thing is a mystery.
    Proximate and Remote Cause, pp.11-13

  96. It just occurred to me, since some readers might be even less familiar than I am with Charles S. Peirce (and since this is Language Hat), that it might be worth noting his name is pronounced PURSE, like the handbag.

  97. There are always multiple causes for an event
    That is indeed producer-product, though the new terminology seems to be definitely Singer’s and not Peirce’s or anyone else’s.
    pronounced PURSE
    Indeed. Hence my remark above that while I might not have been a Peircean, I am necessarily a person.

  98. That is indeed producer-product
    Ah, well, that is gratifying — producer-product seems well within my reach! Thanks, John!
    Hence my remark above that while I might not have been a Peircean, I am necessarily a person.
    Even knowing the pronunciation I missed it then, but I’m chuckling now!

  99. Edgar A. Singer
    No relation of Peter Singer, the Australian ethicist who teaches at Princeton? I guess it’s a common enough name.

  100. Was it Edgar or Peter who invented the sewing machine?

  101. Was it Edgar or Peter who invented the sewing machine?
    No, neither was it I.B.Singer, the Polish Jew who used to sit and chat with his friends on the benches on the median strip of Upper B’way facing downtown towards the “Little Singer Building” (on Broadway below Spring) and the Singer Building, tallest building in the world in 1908-9 at B’way and Liberty St, both designed by the Beaux Arts NY architect Ernest Flagg.
    Next week: The Gillette family. King Camp Gillette was a Utopian Socialist who published The Human Drift (1894). It proposed that all industry should be taken over by a single corporation owned by the public, and that everyone in the US should live in a giant city called Metropolis, powered by Niagara Falls. (Wikipedia.)

  102. I.B. also had a brother I.J., whereas the Singer (formerly Reisinger) of sewing machines was I.M. I.A. (Isaac Asimov) was once praised for his excellent stories of Jewish life by a well-meaning but misguided admirer. He also said that the “s” in his surname reflected the belief of his father that S was the Latin equivalent of З, based on the usual pronunciation of “Singer” in Yiddish as written on machines shipped to Russia.

  103. So it ought to have been a Z, as in azimuth – or perhaps Zinger as in Red Zinger?

  104. Yes; the usual name is Azimov (with the stress on the second syllable).

  105. Asimov, however, stressed his name on the first syllable:
    When Isaac’s at a nudist camp,
    He promptly joins the fun;
    For “When in Rome”‘s his favorite quote
    As he tells everyone.
    So when order c0mes around
    “All clothing you must doff”,
    Without a moment’s hesitation
    Isaac Asimov.
    (This works best if you have the Weak Vowel Merger.)
    Soviet editions of his works went so far as to call him Айзак Асимов rather than by his proper Russian name of Исаак Юдович Озимов, quite likely out of antisemitism.

  106. Haha. I didn’t know about weak vowel merging. I seem to do enough for it to work.

  107. Soviet editions of his works went so far as to call him Айзак Асимов rather than by his proper Russian name of Исаак Юдович Озимов, quite likely out of antisemitism.
    I doubt it (the antisemitism); it’s absolutely normal in Russian to transliterate Westernized names of people of Russian descent rather than use the native Russian versions. But I was surprised by Озимов; I had always assumed the original name was Азимов, and I had never run across the name Озимов. But apparently it’s real, though rare (and not in any of my reference books), and Wikipedia says “The family name derives from озимые (ozimiye), a Russian word for winter grains in which his great-grandfather dealt, to which a patronymic suffix was added.” Unfortunately, the ultimate source for this assertion appears to be IMDb; it’s plausible enough that I’m willing to believe it, but I’d like to see a more, shall we say, scholarly source for it.

  108. minus273′s link says the original family name was in fact Azimov and not Ozimov. What to believe, what to believe??

  109. Funny, I always regarded Weak Vowel Merged English as pretty much standard (although the British persist in their quaint accent).

  110. Asimov actually was born in Russia, though; he’s not just of Russian descent. Probably his family didn’t care about the A/O dichotomy: it wouldn’t show up in Yiddish anyway.

  111. Isn’t it mostly only the people in the Southern Hemisphere who suffer from weak vowels?

  112. Only if they’re foolish enough to drink the water.

  113. It’s hard to know this about oneself: stressed vowels are consciously noted, whereas unstressed vowels are out of focus. I’ve known about the Weak Vowel Merger for years, but it was only last year that I definitively realized (or decided) that I have it.
    Chicken is a good diagnostic word, for its second vowel is traditionally iota despite the spelling. The advertising campaign of the Chick-fil-A chain of restaurants involves a bunch of cows wearing signs that say “EAT MORE CHIKIN”, showing that the advertising folks, if not the cows, lack the merger. There are plenty of other Americans who do have it.

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