’The Slavs’ in 032c, issue 11, 2006.
THE HOW AND NOT THE WHY OF THE NIGHT.
The story behind a name, a collective, or an identity is often a convoluted one. Telling it, though, can unlock a particularly heterogeneous inventory of ideas, human relationships and politics.
The name Slavs started with a love-affair between an ethnic slav and a non-slav who spoke Russian. After some time, the romance ended but the collaboration continued unabated as both shared certain intellectual, linguistic, and emotional affinities for peoples very much in the West but still so refreshingly from the East. We chose to call ourselves Slavs to redeem a decidedly subjective selection of passions, thought-processes, and behaviours lying at the heart of the largest ethnic and linguistic group in Europe. While the real slavs increasingly look west, we cherish, caress and redress their eastern heritage. We are care-takers of an unabashedly personal interpretation of a diffuse heritage under siege.
Our friends were incredulous. Was it a reactionary throwback to another era? Our family was concerned. Is there really a common heritage to be found amongst such a thoroughly diverse group of nations? What does socialite Slovenia have to do with a slower, more diligent Slovakia? As is often the case, the problem lies with aspirations. Between what we want to be and what we will always be. Slavs know to wish for the former without curling our lips at the latter.
WE WANT TO LIVE FOREVER. NOT ONLY INTO THE FUTURE BUT ALSO FROM THE PAST.
As children, Slavs could never have known that the east would one day move west. What a strange idea. Who would have ever thought a direction could move in another direction? While Parisians, Londoners, and New Yorkers move east within their respective cities, to escape the ghost of gentrification and real-estate prices, the geopolitical establishment presents the shift west as manifest destiny. Today, a Polack sees himself first as a Polack, second as a European and third, if pushed, as a slav. In an attempt at semantic seduction, Eastern Europe now calls itself Central Europe. A new Atlanticism pulses between Poland and the Ukraine. But such manoeuvers often hide an unforgiving past. For too long now the slavs has faced the sunset, and too often forgets to bask in the morning sun. We try to correct that position. Like archeaologists of the everyday, Slavs aim to excavate those singular moments when the Tatar and the Mongol free themselves from 700 years of tattered revisionism. We want to be evenly tanned. So we face Eurasia only to bring it to bear on what remains for us an admittedly, and unashamedly, Eurocentric culture.
Slavs come from far away but are no closer to understanding where ‘here’ begins and ‘there’ ends. The slavic penchant for the absurd stems from a glut of being dislodged, often from within, as if from one’s own present. Displacement happens long before the search for work or studies, it happens in utero.
But Slavs at home are no less displaced than Slavs abroad. We are not nomads. We are rooted to one too many places. What’s more: the places in our heads and hearts sometimes fail to recognize the ones on the maps and vice versa. We are the hair on a mother’s head, pulled in different directions by her numerous children. It hurts but, as John Cougar once sang, it hurts so good. The country we call home, the country we used to call home and the country we dream to call home are all very distinct and disparate places. It is the result of a productive schizophrenia: we are in all of them at once, a ravishing sensation but one tempered by the slow, sobering devastation of never being in any one entirely.
Slavs do not mince words. Nor are we consensual. Criticism by its very nature must sting. But that is no excuse to turn to a qualifer for an antidote. ‘Constructive’ criticism is simply a less frontal and partially handicapped term. Fat-free butter has no place in Slavs’ critical vocabulary.
THE SWEET LONG-RUN
Slavs do not spend time. In the Slavic thesaurus, under duration there is no dollar sign. Time is not money because there always was plenty of the former but never much of the latter. For half a century, the two did not even occupy the same latitude and longitude. Now, though money is bountiful for the select few in certain Slavic countries, time remains somewhat antipodean to late capitalism. We do not measure time with colleagues, friends or family in barter-like terms of dinner, a coffee, or a drink. Slavs might stop by your home not for half an hour but half a month, not leave the house, not do much of significance, in the sense of being productive, but simply be present and pass the time with you.
Slavs daydream. Picking up the pieces from an oft-shattered vase, we glue them back together defiantly, knowing full well the vase will be tipped over once again by a clumsy history. When Slavs dream, it is a heavy, almost catatonic dream. One so removed from reality that it redeems the very radicality of what a dream originally suggested: another world, not this one, one where things were not possible but impossibly possible. Yona Friedman once said, “Everything is not possible, but there is more possible that you can possibly imagine.” In the west, we are told our dreams can come true, if only we apply ourselves. There’s a rank positivism that breeds amnesia. It originated in calvinist America, only to cross-over first via Blair and then via Berlusconi with differing degrees of success. Slavs are interested in failure, what it exposes, the pressure and accountability that it breeds. Dreaming is about process more than result. It is the path of thought turned into a line of flight, an escape from something more than the procurment of something, the fantasy more than the speculation of a job, the reverie of a payrise, or the hope of a score.
NOW AND NEVER
Until very recently, Slavs would spend countless years in higher education to learn the way around a world that was hitherto forbidden to them. Leaving the country was strictly forbidden, speaking to foreigners would arouse suspicion from the authorities. Languages were an abstract area of study. So it is that Slavs are very well educated…but with no endgame in mind. As a child reared in an unprecedentedly prosperous west, it is difficult not to look fondly on a recent past where education was considered threatening by the powers that be and foreign languages were considered as useful as astrology.
LONG LIVE LONG LIVE!
DEATH TO DEATH TO!
Slavs either drink to get absolutely hammered or do not drink at all. It is an honest restitution of alcohol to its proper place, as a vehicle for intoxication. If the west sips, the east absorbs. Where the west consumes, keeping the alcohol at a safe distance, the east devours and has trouble keeping it at arm’s length. Slavs look dumbfounded at people imbibing at cocktail parties. The casual-ness is disheartening. Are the umbrellas, the straws, the mixers, the improbable names all a side show to distract from the main billing? Slavs sit around a table, tête à tête, and each shot is performed in a ritual of increased intimacy. We commemorate alcohol. In fact, we Slavs have a weakness for commemoration. We like to mark the passing of every tea, every meal, every letter, every conversation, every instant, as if it could be our last. In his ‘l’Abécédaire’, Deleuze asks: if food is such a wonderful thing, how come we find it unbearable to eat alone? How come we need a conversation or company to go with a meal? Deleuze, like the Slavs, did things excessively (alcohol being one of them) or did not do them at all.
In popular culture, much has been made of this all-or-nothing approach to life. It’s been touted as a particularly facile genre of radicalism. Too often, it’s an affectation, and one that trades on a destructive or unhealthy cachet. Let it be known that Slavs are not punks. Life is hard-edged enough not to resort to the donning of dark clothes, dark make-up, and dark hair all by light-skinned people. With no need for faux extreme genres or real extreme sports, Slavs live the wildly dizzying swings from one extreme to another as the natural course of events. The day before yesterday nazism, yesterday communism and today capitalism. It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.
Colette, the Parisian boutique, invited Slavs and Tatars to participate in a collection of t-shirts for Uniqlo. Spring/Summer 2006.
We want language to be equally affective and analytical but our aspirations are, from the outset, weathered by a sense of defeatism, rupture, or equivocation best described by Antoine Compagnon in his book Les Antimodernes (2005). That is, we know we will likely fail but suspend disbelief and try our damned-est to succeed nonetheless.