Prophetic Irony

Just over one month ago, on April 15, Ukraine was saddened to hear about the loss of an outstanding sergeant, an aerial recon specialist of the 59th Separate Mechanised Brigade. Pavlo Petrychenko was a volunteer serviceman, blogger, initiator of a high-profile petition to ban commercial gambling advertising during the war, as well as a campaigner against the spread of gambling addiction among the military, as well as a co-founder of the Who Killed Katya Handziuk activist movement, which fought for the just punishment of those responsible for the brutal murder of Ukrainian anti-corruption activist Kateryna Handziuk. But it is also worth mentioning another aspect of Pavlo, his work as the author of the niche blog Archipelago95, which was active right up until the outbreak of the full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war.

What was Archipelago95? It was a small satirical blog whose posts combined the atmosphere of documentary texts from the Stalinist period (or, less often, other authoritarian regimes of the 20th century) with the political realities of Zelenskyy’s presidency. In the pre-war context, this blog was just one of many corners of the Telegram with specific political humor. A few jokes from the channel are worth recounting here:

“When the Great Leader received (at his place on Bankova Street) the Locum Tenens of the Patriarchal Throne Epiphanius, the latter showed up for the meeting in a secular suit, not in episcopal vestments.

The former humorist puffed himself and asked:

– Are you afraid of me, but not of Him?”

А. Danilov “Notes of a Secretary” – 2028.

Or else:

“We don’t care, Comrade Zelenskyy, on which side Belorussia enters the war. If it’s on our side, we’ll need 10 divisions to save it from defeat. If it is against us, the same 10 divisions will be needed to defeat it”.

Chief of the General Staff, General Oleg Shiryaev

Petrychenko’s blog was an example of simple postmodern humor, where the ironic treatment of the totalitarian seriousness typifying Stalinism coexisted with the ironic treatment Zelenskyy’s times, which were completely devoid of seriousness, because Zelenskyy’s background and election campaign were not associated with earnestness—an actor of questionable comedies with a post-ideological political program. That is, the essence of the Archipelago95 humor was a simple play on the contrast between Zelenskyy’s concentrated postmodern figure and the atmosphere of Stalinism, which is the contrast between the regimes of power that were implemented in the same territories less than a hundred years apart. On the one hand, there was the worst possible culmination of the modern project, the totalitarian integration of Western Marxist modernity in the lands of the former Russian Empire. On the other hand, there was postmodernity brought to its apex in the ideologically uninhabited spaces of post-Soviet Ukraine.

This would all be just a story about niche online humor, if not for a few moments that reflect Archipelago95’s relation to the complexity and remarkability of the historical moment that unfolded in February 2022.

The first is that, even before the outbreak of a full-scale war (i.e., even when nobody could predict a full-scale invasion for sure), Archipelago95 predicted with extraordinary accuracy certain events that occurred later, after the invasion. One of the most prophetic sketches was this one published on February 13:

“On one of those days at the Headquarters, I witnessed a very significant conversation that clearly shows Zelenskyy’s role in repelling Russian aggression, as opposed to Poroshenko’s malicious assertions about the Supreme Commander’s low importance during the war.

There was a discussion about reinforcing territorial defense units with military equipment. A phone rang. The Supreme Commander, taking his time, went to the telephone and picked up the receiver. When talking, he never held the receiver close to his ear, but kept it at a distance, as the volume of sound in the device was amplified. A person nearby could hear the conversation freely. The call was made by the obese speaker – R. Stefanchuk. He told Zelenskyy that he was in the Parliament (with a group of deputies, holding a meeting on defense issues).

– Well, how are things going there? – the President asked.

– The Parliament raises the question about the state authorities in Kyiv risking to fall into the clutches of the Russians if they attack from the territory of Belarus. It is necessary to evacuate everyone to the West, and the President should immediately move to Lviv!

A rather long silence reigned….

– Comrade Stefanchuk, ask your fellow deputies – do they have shovels? – asked Zelensky calmly.

– One moment…

A long pause followed again.

– What kind of shovels, Comrade Zelenskyy?

– Whatever kind.

– One moment…

Quite quickly Stefanchuk reported:

– The shovels, comrade Zelenskyy, are in the Parliament’s affairs department!

– Tell your fellow deputies to take these shovels and dig their own graves. The Parliament will stay on Hrushevsky street, and I’ll stay in Kyiv. Goodbye.

А. Danilov “Notes of the Secretary” – 2028.

This anecdotal sketch predicts an attack on Kyiv from Belarus, the fact that some parliamentarians would fall into panic, the President’s unexpected decision to stay in Kyiv when there were already battles in the city, and even further doubts among opposition politicians about President Zelenskyy’s role in countering Russian aggression. The phenomenon of this visionary writing is that a parody narrative, which is based on contrast, on the radical incongruity of characters from one era with the speech and decisions of another, suddenly becomes prophetic writing, which senses reality before it happens. That is, these two registers of language have specific pathways of actualization: contrasting humor, in its virtuality, combines things that make it impossible, while prophecy is the illumination of the virtual, which contains knowledge about its own actualization.

In some sense, this situation is a reversal of Marx’s popular formulation that history repeats itself twice, “first as a tragedy, second as a farce.” Here we see how a farce, a joke that carries an ironic acceptance of the post-historical nature of the present, suddenly becomes a non-fictional story that, though it has not become a tragedy (thanks to heroic resistance that neither the Russian regime nor Western politicians expected), is situated on this same categorical level.

It is this deep conceptual gap between a farcical joke and prophecy that demonstrates how the Russian-Ukrainian war is more than just another post-historical manifestation of geopolitical chicanery. That is, the war is something that cannot be fully described solely by schematizing international politics and the spheres of interest between hegemonic states and corporations. Instead, the sharpness and depth of the gap can be explained by the existential nature of the Russian-Ukrainian war, which hybrid wars (including the War on Donbas in 2014-2022) do not have. Such an explanation is based on the idea that historicity (especially in the sense where it is equated with modernity) is fundamentally existential in scope. However, the problem with conceptualizing something as existential is that this concept remains a rather empty amplifier of the next word if there is no explanation of how it operates. In the case of the existential nature of war, we can speak of its two interrelated dimensions: the logic of war, which becomes the logic of the social that makes full-scale military resistance possible, and the sensuality of war, which ethically legitimizes this logic and sustains its production.

The Logic of War

A high-stakes war, which is precisely what the current Russian-Ukrainian war is, imposes a pragmatic logic on the actors involves. A deviation from it may be worth the results of a military campaign, territories or many human lives. The peculiar paradox of this logic is that the form of organization of the social that it offers and its role in the system of the social are one and the same. In other words, the essence of the logic of war is to place the needs of military confrontation above other principles of the organization of the social. In other words, the key aspect of this logic is its comprehensiveness, the need for it to dominate over other logics of organizing the social in wartime. For a society at war, this form of social organization is not just “one of the” ideological variations of the interpretation of reality, but is a necessary companion of the war situation itself.

The “logic of war” is burdened with a certain philosophical monotony, because the conceptualization of the phenomenon of war as such (and not in conjunction with other phenomena, be it “revolution” or “ideology”) is very limited: it is difficult to recall the authors whose works have remained relevant through the years besides Sun Tzu and Clausewitz. This logic is well illustrated by Joseph Stalin’s mythical statement about the prospect that the Soviet struggle against Nazism might be supported by the Vatican and the Pope: “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?”

What matters first of all is not the very fact of domination by pragmatic logic in times of war, but the fact that this domination is exclusive, and that no other, alternative logic of power or logic of the political can equal it. This is clearly at odds with contemporary Western political culture, in which such a metanarrative logic would be regarded as something frightening, but at the same time, of course, remains tacitly desired among the agents of various ideological logics.

The logic of war is quite consonant, among other things, with the Bolshevik pragmatic, and even machine-like, instrumentalization of class resentment. Traces of this legacy can be found in some fragments of Archpelago95, because their ironic relation to the atmosphere of Bolshevism’s triumph coincides with the atmosphere that prevailed with the full-scale war. And, despite Russia’s attempts to appropriate the Soviet legacy, Ukrainian military resistance resembles in its structure the Soviet confrontation with Nazism in World War II; in both cases, it is the strategy of tapping into mass affect in favor of a defensive war. At the same time, the contemporary Russian strategy works quite differently, as it cannot (despite the intensity of propaganda) ensure the necessary level of affective involvement of the population in the war, so it compensates for this with the financial attractiveness of military service, because the population and budget allow Russia to keep to this mechanism.

Another thing that is important to understand about the logic of war is how it overlaps with the logic of the social that dominated in peacetime, instrumentalizing or suspending it to enable coexistence: for example, a democratically elected president becomes the supreme commander, and civilian production enterprises supplement their work with military orders. However, in the case of market logic, due to its high flexibility and tendency to symbiosis, it tries to compensate for the loss of hegemony in the social by finding new, less obvious ways to establish its authority. This is also an example of what the author of the Archipelago95 fought against. After all, the prevalence of gambling among military personnel is precisely an example of how many people, upon being mobilized (i.e., being fully involved in the logic of war, mentally and physically), are captured by the market and subjugated to its needs, despite the fact that their bodies are not available to be used to create commercial profit, and their time is subordinated to military service. Often, the military logic itself is open to compromises with the market logic, accepting mutually beneficial terms of cooperation but maintaining clear boundaries of interests. Eventually, this modern ambition of war logic becomes what makes it almost the only logic of the social that is able to maintain its own autonomy and boundaries in contact with the market logic.

The Sensuality of War 

During the war, in tandem with transformations in the logic of the social order, transformations of sensuality also occur. And here we are not talking about the perception of war as an amplifier of feelings, but about the complex interweaving of feelings actualized by war. Ukrainian society today is full of wartime stories, many of which are saturated with pain, while others are full of joy and love. Thus, the logic of war has a sensual underside, and this underside has a diverse spectrum and an impressive level of intensity. The key position in this spectrum is, of course, the pain of loss that war brings in the form of tens, and probably hundreds of thousands of graves. But it is also the joy of reunions after long months of frontline separation, and the new intensity of touch and inspiration when hundreds of thousands are crowdfunded daily for the needs of the frontline in the society of the poorest country in Europe.

What does this tell us about war itself, or at least about full-scale wars such as the Russian-Ukrainian war? First of all, that war exists simultaneously on the level of pragmatic “logic of war” and on the level of affective sensuality, and that these two spheres are mutually stimulated. The process of mutual stimulation is the processing of the affective into the strategic. Under martial law, the functioning of the affective-logical bundle is ensured, first, by a much more efficient infrastructure of the war logics than what we are used to seeing in peacetime. Second, the infrastructure adapts to the manifestations of the affective, offering very efficient ways of conversion. Here again, the phenomenon of Ukrainian military fundraising and volunteer activity is an excellent example. And we are not talking about a few centralized initiatives, but about a whole swarm of campaigns that are massively carried out by millions of Ukrainians for the units where their loved ones serve.

However, it should be understood that this mechanism does not work as a fully automated processing of affect into warlike logical action, and has a certain margin of error.

One of the structural problems of the process, in such cases, is resentment, which changes the algorithm of affective processing and directs it into actions that are not part of the pragmatic logic. Above all, this way of engaging in what is happening is peculiar to civilians, whose simmering affects of guilt and rage demand involvement in the historical event. That is, given the innate tendency of resentment to destructiveness, affectivity is sometimes converted not into actions that correspond to the logic of war, but into various forms of quasi-participation. A good example here is the ironically named “language front,” a neurotic form of activism by some civilians aimed at fighting the Russian-speaking segments of Ukrainian culture. What further supports the thesis that this phenomenon is neurotic is that those who often engage in this highly unproductive activity for the course of the war are people who, before the full-scale invasion, spoke Russian, but who now find themselves filled with a painful sense of guilt about it.

Of course, resentment is not the sole cause of such unproductive investments of affect. The widely built-up infrastructure of war is still not omnipotent and misses some vital emotional resources that escape the power of its pragmatic mechanisms. So, it cannot be said that such processing is done directly: to do so, the military-industrial complex would have to acquire an apparatus like the one we saw in The Matrix. Nonetheless, despite this lack of omnipotence, war is, among other things, a way of organizing the social in which an affective (or even more broadly, emotional) phenomenon is processed into radical organized action.

At the same time, this affective-logical machinery is a kind of anti-philosophy, because the pragmatic mechanization of social processes, in a context of acting with existential risks, naturally sacrifices the space of the rhetorical, which includes the philosophical conceptualization of the sensual. It is this conceptualization that often stands between the sensuous (or affective) and political action in the contemporary European political tradition. It is worth noting that when it comes to the impossibility of the space for the rhetorical mediation of the sensuous, it should not be taken as an attempt to conceptualize military censorship or something similar. Of course, it is about something else, namely the very nature of war, and the conceptualization of the sensual simply loses out to the mechanisms of transforming it into a practice of war, necessary in the moment. Understanding these rather obvious things is crucial for the very possibility of a meaningful dialogue between Ukraine and the West. After all, the pragmatic logic of war and the process of its exploitation aimed at the vital forces of emotions and affects leaves no room for philosophical or rhetorical refinements. The key to an effective struggle, however grim it may sound, is the construction of the machinery of the social, the mobilization not only of financial resources but also of human bodies and their emotions, affects, sentiment and efforts. In a situation of war, such machinery is essential to ensuring its minimum competitiveness, especially when you are a poor republic inferior in resources to your rival.

Lastly, an extremely important aspect of the history of Archipelago95 is that it managed to grasp two intentions: a radical form of ironic post-historicity and an equally radical return of history. But this grasping did not happen somewhere at the distance of the observer; Archipelago95 became a point of accurate reflection on its own era. Thus, the last post in Archipelago95 is dated February 23, because on February 24 the war had already begun. The decision to silently end their activities is perceived as Archipelago95 dissolving into a historical moment that also actualizes certain elements of their own literary narrative. This project appeared as an irony of the post-historicity of Ukrainian reality, foresaw the imminent return of history at an existential scale, and finally obeyed the historical moment it itself had predicted. After all, what could be a greater tribute to the historical moment than to cut off words? To plunge into the silence of completion and say nothing more.