These are my personal notes on Alexei Yurchak’s book. This book was written for an academic audience. The interesting ideas were mixed in with a lot of oh-so-specialized terminology and plenty of references to other academic & philosophical works.
[p 50] “The language had become what I term hypernormalized – that is, the process of its normalization did not simply affect all levels of linguistic, textual, and narrative structure but also became an end in itself, resulting in fixed and cumbersome forms of language that were often neither interpreted nor easily interpretable at the level of constative meaning. This shift to the hypernormalized language in which the constative dimension was increasingly being unanchored is key for our understanding of late socialism.”
Basically, hypernormailization means that the soviet government standardized official language, graphic design, ceremonies, broadcasts etc. to such a degree, that there was no “real meaning” there anymore – just standard performance. This is different than my understanding of how Adam Curtis presents the term in his 2016 documentary. Treating things that the authorities/bosses want as purely performative is not a sign of societal stagnationt. It’s just normal life. Or are we being slowly boiled and missing the fact that it isn’t normal at all? 😄
[p 104] Activists and dissidents: people who take the forms of discourse literally. Either literally as the truth (activists – who feel that reality falls short of the communist ideal. Speaking sincerely in formulaic language, like belligerent patriots), or as literally false (dissidents – what communists say is inconsistent with the reality, and that’s bad.) The general population tended to stay away from either.
[p 110] Svoi and “normal people”: those are ones who understood that the norms had to be followed, criticism was no one’s personal faults, and participated in the performance to avoid causing problems for others.
[P 120] Members of the Komsomol committee would take time during work to go to the Raikom office. Once their task was done, they’ll go to the museum/do personal tasks for the rest of the day. Nobody knew what they were up to. They were off on “official business”…
[P 126] Niels Bohr: there are clear truths and deep truths. A clear truth is opposed by a lie. A deep truth is opposed by another equally deep truth.
Some people stopped engaging with the system. “Vnye”. Being either for or against it implies buying into it. This is different than the people who were part of the system and followed it’s forms pragmatically. Vnye people minimized their engagement in a harmless way. I wonder if this is similar to the way in which fewer people in Toronto & Ontario are voting now.
[P 183] Rock on Russian Bones: engineers copied western vinyl records onto x-ray photo plates.
[P 205] The “Imaginary West” was a western world built on fantasy. Brand names, labels, mysterious mis-translated song lyrics, empty alcohol bottles. The appeal of these was not the brand itself or the capitalist idea, but contact with an imaginary interesting world. When travel to the West became possible, and then when the Soviet Union collapsed, people could see for themselves that the west was pedestrian/ordinary. And it hurt to lose this imaginary world.
Ex: Western beer didn’t taste as good as people imagined it would, and it never took off in Russia.
[P218] Specific songs were forbidden, which implied that a band’s other albums /songs were permitted. For amateur rock music shows, it helped that the Komsomol committee organized them as celebrations of Communist holidays: less opportunity for criticism.
[P257] Gerontocracy: by the early 80s the Politburo members almost haven’t changed in 20 years. And they were old. They’ve become immortal icons in the minds of ordinary people, so it was jarring when they began dying of old age.
At this point, I’m getting a different interpretation of the book than Adam Curtis: I think hypernormalization is about the forms and rituals of society becoming calcified. Yes, some people escaped into a fantasy world (weird artsy performances like Mi’tki and Necrorealists), but others carved little spaces for themselves and used the system to their ends… This is normal human living…
[p295] The late Soviet system was not stagnant. The old formulaic performance of discourse allowed people to invent their own world/use the system towards new ends. The collapse came when Gorbachev made it ok to use new formulas of official speech & to dig into the meaning of these words/symbols rather than treating them as rote performance. The system was flexible because it appeared immutable and everlasting. Once you started questioning that fact, the old workarounds/adaptations couldn’t survive.
I’m not reading anything to support that people thought the system was fragile/on the verge of collapse.
This book doesn’t cover any experiences of parents / minorities / people with grownup commitments.
If you’re interested in Hypernormalization, you might also like reading:
How Not to Build a Country: Canada’s Late Soviet Pessimism Avetis Muradyan
The outsourcing “Point of No Return”: after you’ve outourced a sufficient amount of your production, you can no longer design / debug / create anything new. You need to be close to the Making of things to be an effective designer.
OUT-SOURCED PROFITS –THE CORNERSTONE OF SUCCESSFUL SUBCONTRACTING by L. J. Hart-Smith. An analysis of the costs/downsides of outsourcing at Boeing:
The China hack: How McDonnel Douglas got outplayed because of their short-term thinking: https://prospect.org/economy/the-china-hack-and-how-to-reverse-it/