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From the “Inoperative Community” to the “Workgroup” :: Oxana Timofeeva (Chto delat?)

The phenomenon of the “tusovka” as a local form of being for the artistic and intellectual community may seem unique, see but it appears exceptionally limited in the context of its epoch, look especially if one understands “epoch” as the specific disposition of significance or significances whose sharing makes A and B into contemporaries. In reality, angina each “epoch” gives rise to its own models of communication, its own models for socializing creative labor, using the failures that discredit the experiences of the past as its point of departure.

The phenomenon of the “tusovka”[1] as a local form of being for the artistic and intellectual community may seem unique, but it appears exceptionally limited in the context of its epoch, especially if one understands “epoch” as the specific disposition of significance or significances whose sharing makes A and B into contemporaries. In reality, each “epoch” gives rise to its own models of communication, its own models for socializing creative labor, using the failures that discredit the experiences of the past as its point of departure.

Failure as fate: the euphoria of existing together is limited in time. It is limited by the moment in which the results of its promise are perceived in a negative light. This disappointment presents communication with new demands again and again, supplying form to a special history, in the process of which the idea of the community itself becomes subject to total problematization, denaturalization, virtualization and other similarly serious intellectual procedures. As such, the notion of “community” that dominated the 1980s-1990s proves to be the complete opposite of how the “community” was understood in the 1930s, for an example.

As fascist regimes took form all over Europe, this word had a primary significance for all shades of discourse. It seemed that freedom and sovereignty could be little more than an act of some ‘being-together’; against the backdrop of the active critique of the metaphysics of subjectivity and their ideology of bourgeois individualism, this demand was simply fundamental. Conservatives like Ernst Juenger reveled in nostalgia for the community’s lost organic integrity, while Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois and other radical thinkers cultivated the idea of the “secret society”, the “holy conspiracy”, “brotherhoods” and “orders”. Hannah Arendt insisted upon the “political community”, while Marxists appealed to “party spirit” etc.

In the period that followed, the intensive coming-to-terms (i.e. re-vision) of the totalitarian nightmare through normalizing liberal consciousness revealed a number of dangers that any communitarian expectancy entails. Due to its utopian nature, it found a rather elegant, “neat” way of refusing to legitimate any collective project that seems too ambitious, one of which, last but not least, is called “communism”.

This traumatic experience gave rise to a persistent phobia toward any form of active consolidation, which were now understood as necessarily pregnant with “totalitarianism” or “fascism”. Even friendship, notwithstanding all of its obvious right-mindedness, found itself under suspicion. This suspicion seems justified to the point of truth: there is no convincing rational basis for friendship, for the undisguised and arbitrary preference for one over the others. Which kind of logic is at work within the community of friends? If it is the logic of mutual recognition, then this is nothing but a thoroughly Hegelian logic of absolute dominance and its endless expansion. From the perspective of an exterior observer, there is no stringent difference between friends and conspirators: what unites them? What mischief are they plotting?

This threat of an uneven redistribution of power seems to emanate from hotbeds or cells of collective effort, which, consciously or unconsciously, allow for a greater concentration of power than any ordinary individual can muster.

The “tusovka” as a special type of community is different of all others in that it develops a unique sensitivity in relation to this threat. Thanks to the fundamental research undertaken by the Moscow art critic and curator Viktor Misiano, the word tusovka has become a term of its own right, entrenching itself firmly in our vocabulary, opening up a long-term perspective of possible and necessary problematizations in different contexts (including the philosophical context, among others). Our present analysis will not call the legitimacy of its usage into question. Terms have long lives, unlike the phenomena of reality that lie behind us. One can assume with a great deal of certainty that the term “tusovka” will survive the tusovka as a social phenomenon. Yet it is this social phenomenon – and not the term – that is the object of our critique here and now.

There can be little doubt that the tusovka is a certain type of community. Nevertheless, it is neither a collective, nor a group, nor a sodality, nor any other kind of dense social body. Perhaps its most adequate theoretical correlate could be found in the “inoperative community” (Jean-Luc Nancy): being-with regardless of any outer identity, be it nation, family, people, party or whatever else. This community is inoperative because it refuses to produce any kind of work that subjects its representatives to this identity, whose intensity would facilitate a sufficient concentration of delirium to pave a direct route to “fascism”.

The tusovka arises as a reaction (“allergic”, among other things) to collectivism. Its milieu is dispersed and atomized, almost transparent: any coagulation within its bounds immediately becomes recognizable and attracts a heightened degree of attention. The high social density and low transparency of the group against the backdrop of the relatively diffuse, defused community – tusovka – appears like a cancerous tumor: it has the tendency to expand, grow, capture space, and contaminate. The only way for certain groups or creative collectives not to contradict the logic of the tusovka described above is if they immediately admit their situative quality and their fatality (such as in the famous “Scotch Party” action by Moscow’s “Radek” group, in which sticking people together with scotch-tape is manifested as the only possibility for connection between people).

This is why, for an example, friendship is organically unacceptable for the tusovka in its manifestational form. Friendship has been compromised endlessly, by the irrationality of its foundations, by excessive loyalty to itself and the others, by the mutual acceptance of necessary fictions, and by the anxious expectancy of betrayal. The tusovka – in contrast – is a community of loners, “those who are bereft of community”, whose level of self-reflection is so high that it allows them to keep from falling prey to illusion, to keep for walking into the trap of the euphoric benignity of friendship.

This “refusal to fall prey” to illusion represents a completely unique state of mind. It assumes that any small other is fraught with the Big Other (a certain instance of dominance), which is why it provokes nothing but disbelief. The other is always a potential usurper or imposter, laying claim to your own piece of the symbolic resource. Perhaps we can call this state “paranoid democracy”, a “republic” whose main and even sole constituting principle would be the panicked fear of regressing to the state of “empire”, a fear that reaches all the way to inner means of repression.

The characters (actors) of the tusovka manifest a known degree of suspicion toward one another: the mechanism of mutual recognition, characteristic for the community of friends, is replaced a mechanism of mutual non-recognition, or provocation. Communication becomes an experience (experiment) in the sense of an examination (trial). The other is subjected to this examination again and again, under the conditions of a strange presumption of malicious intent (“guilty until proven innocent”), in the spirit of De Sade’s utopia, where humanity is evil “by nature”. This is the source of the milieu’s apparent aggression and inner tension. It expresses itself in its emphatic mistrust toward any open-heartedness in statements that belong to the genre of invectives and does not rule out the direct application of physical violence.

In this space, the artistic gesture is an appeal (to the hostile world), performed by the loner, but only to the degree that the world is understood as wholly social – in other words, it is a performative gesture, whose condition of possibility is a certain community. The dynamic and even the very existence of the tusovka – its life – is defined by the concrete interactions between these gestures of mutual provocation, rejection, contestation, calling-into-question. In this way, the community implements the up-and-running mechanism of external censorship, calling for its “subjects” to respond to its statements and presenting it with high intellectual standards.

Arrested in constant tension, the community holds social inertia at bay and keeps itself from falling into any kind of non-reflexive factionalism with its tendencies toward narcissism and flattery. Sustainable, strong associations (such as the group of friends) will tend to forgive and sometimes even encourage certain “all-too-human” manifestations that would be completely unacceptable to subjectivity left to its own devices – on that depressive peak of crystal-clear consciousness to which solitude will throw us. In this sense, the regulatory ideal of the tusovka is a maximum of honesty.

But what exactly is a maximum of honesty, if not the complete absence of communication? Isn’t any word that our mouths might utter automatically a “lie”? Only the loner can follow the path of extreme purism “in truth”. The imperative of honesty condemns the loner to dwell in an absolute minority, alone against the entire world. The tusovka strives to be the kind of community in which everyone enjoys inner freedom, in which every loner is right in his or her own way; it strives to be a community without communication, a paradoxical community of individuals isolated from one another.

What sets it apart from the “inoperative community” in the classical understanding of Nancy is an aggressive anarchic individualism of sorts. The space of the tusovka is constructed so that the moment of individuality is recognized as the key, primary in relation to all local and largely tactical interactions.

The singularity that composes the “inoperative community” only exists together (and is hardly primary in relation to this “togetherness), in its display of the being-with that expresses an event in common. The tusovka, however, consists of individualities that avoid contact, for which the event does not yet exist. For something to happen, it is not enough for atoms simply to drop into space. “One needs a clinamen” (Nancy).

The tusovka is based upon the following axiom: first, there are individuals with their own individual interests. With their own talents. With their own creative solutions. Basically, with their own authentic and priceless property. And these individuals step into some relation, but in a way that they themselves (self-ness as (a) property) do not touch upon one another. Only their interests touch upon one another (yet another definition of alienation).

In other words, the tusovka is the cultural expression of capitalism in our local variant. And this is its pathological contradiction: in attempting to evade the relation of domination-submission, finding its source in the other, it declines communication (in favor of competition, for an instance) but continues to find support and solace in the Other (Capital).

Power is chased out through the front-door, but seeps back in through the walls of mistrust. The capitalization of relationships within the artistic community catches negatively oriented consciousness unawares over and over again, returning it to archaic forms of dominance. Every step of the way, rebellion against everything congeals in an arbitrary hierarchy, based upon an irrational absolutization of market-relationships.

As a result, aesthetic criteria begin to dominate over ethical and political criteria in the evaluation of relationships, since neither ethos nor polis are capable of withstanding an absolute that has been declared with such brutality. The breakaway of the aesthetic from the ethical-political is compensated by its binding to capital as an outer guarantee for “truth”. This is mistakenly understood as “autonomy”, when in fact, it simply facilitates the processes of decay within the community.

However, it would be a misconception to assume that the situation described above could find a positive resolution through the help of institutionalization on a large scale, or through the forcible imposition of ready-made surrogates for “ethics” and “politics”. For an instance, it is impossible to abolish the use of “dirty PR-technologies” (provocations, mudslinging) within the community in the name of some higher (ethical, political or purely administrative) instance – instead, one needs to create conditions under which they will simply seem inappropriate. Any appeal to the outer Other, be it “Market”, “State”, “God”, “Russia”, “Europe” or whatever else leads to the same result – in fact, the Other simply does not exist.

The answer to the historical challenge of the situation – in which yet another project of the community is in the process of suffering a defeat before our very eyes – could be more optimistic than is “customary” at present. All one has to admit is that not all communication automatically entails a relationship of dominance and submission. The existence and successful functioning of a complex organism such as the tusovka bear witness to the fact that the manifold forms of realizing the idea of community have not exhausted themselves at all.

It is no coincidence that the word “communism” has gained a new resonance of late; it becomes clear that this word was not drowned fully in the hysterical tears of the Cold War. Against the backdrop of the final exhaustion of the individualist project’s resources, the urgency with which this word confirms its right to existence is no longer obscured. “On the side of communism” (“on the left”) it is important to emancipate onself from the paranoid structure of the “autonomous individual” with its furious struggle for power, fame and money in an empty, defused space with voices and specters of its own unrecognized simulacra.

It is obvious that common sense as a type of statement – which completely determines the individualist project extrinsically – is close to psychotic delirium in terms of structure: in the emptiness of its despair, without the other as a goal and a condition for communication, “singularity” aims for the extrinsic, subjectless language of the big Other, beginning to reproduce it to the point of complete identification and even aggressively forcing it upon others, tending toward the “fascist” type in its extreme. The figures of this language – be they “market”, “property”, “talent”, “the law of the fist”, “power”, “blood”, or, for an example, “soil” – are themselves naturalized and recognized as ultimate arguments.

Only creative collectivity is capable of producing enough of a therapeutic resource with any pretense toward outer normalization – after all, it primarily entails working with the experience of the (intrinsic) other. It is here that politics begin, (not to be confused with the medial representations that any Situationist critique will describe in terms of total alienation!), an attempt at relationships that reflect the polis in what we might call its ancient meaning, only without slavery.

Here and now, this becomes partially possible through the active self-organization of communities through the creation of microgroups. On the strength of their limited number of participants, they provide a possibility for direct communication based on solidarity and mutual control; in other words, they essentially implement “direct democracy”. Under such conditions, there is no need for the Other – it is we who define the “ethical (and in a sense, the political) horizon”, in the process of a ceaseless revolution of consciousness.

The models according to which relationships in groups are constructed can differ from another quite substantially. However, there is one principal moment that they share: this type of group is capable of maintaining an open dialogue, moving beyond simple binary oppositions of recognition-refusal, dominance-subordination, and other “artifacts” from the “old world”. Even the possibility of such dialogue and the perspective of many projects-in-common that it entails seem to breathe new life in the community.

In particular, one can see this “new life” in the intensity of the prolonged discussions around collective projects such as the “Lifshitz Institute” or the workgroup “Chto delat/What is to be done?”, new zones of collective creativity, mobilizing artistic space sequentially, in spite of the tusovka’s exclusive claim to dominance. If in the 1990s, the appearance of such groups was a challenge, it is now a summons. Thanks to the experience of the tusovka, the community’s reflection and self-criticism have reached a level that finally permits a return – after a long period of “war of all against all” (Rousseau) – to attempts at unification – down to the rewriting of the “social contract”. But these attempts at being-together are no longer naïve.

To insist upon collectivity, no matter what, and to hone and refine the filigree forms of communicative experience, whose possibility rests upon the fact that the recent approach to the question of community from the perspective of total suspicion has been “sublated” or “resolved” through the tusovka’s absolute negativity – this is the unconditional imperative of the epoch that we already want to call “ours”.

If one agrees with Nancy that the question of the community is an ontological question, that is, that the question of community is a question of being, one must recognize that we are only at the very beginning (and this is normal for thought in general), that we have not yet begun to “say we”. This beginning means we have yet to attain community: perhaps “communities” never really existed; perhaps the community lies ahead; perhaps its presentiment, however dim it may seem today, is the presentiment of communism.


[1] The Russian word “tusovka” could be translated as “incrowd” or “scene”. It describes the specific form of non-committal sociality that dominated the small intellectual-artistic community during the post-Perestroika period. Its parameters and paradoxes have been described extensively in Viktor Misiano, “The Cultural Contradictions of the Tusovka”, in: Moscow Art Magazine, Digest 1993-2005, Moscow 2005, pp. 38-47, Alexander Sogomonov, “Tusovka with the Right To Entry And To Exit, in: ibid. pp. 49-55.

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Deschooling Classroom

Deschooling Classroom is a project that addresses the contemporary independent cultural scenes in the region, researching and offering an alternative to the hierarchical models of education in the art and culture. Methodologically, the project moves away from the concepts of individual authorship and expertise, and advocates open collective educational structures where self-organised communities facilitate horizontal production, exchange and distribution of knowledge.