The Invisible Armada

Image by Juan Alberto Casado, all rights reserved

Contemporary democracy as a Potemkin village... (1/3)

By Alain Brossat

23 March 2022

“We all have, far away in the darkness of our minds, a smelly slaughterhouse. Sometimes, but rarely, it smells good”

Pierre Mac Orlan, The Quay of the Mists

The more contemporary democracy advances in age, enters its late age, the more it resembles a Potemkin village.

By restoring colors to the image of the Potemkin village, it would be a question of trying to break the conceptual lock that locks the reforming critique of contemporary democracy in reverential forms and condemns it to perpetually turn in circles. It is indeed that, being based on the same premises (never submitted to the critical examination) as the one whose decadence deplores, it remains captive of the same diagram, homogeneous in all points to this very regime of institution of the social and the political of which it is the sorry mourning. The overbidding in the rhetoric of deploration is here what comes to replace the sharpness of the criticism or the faculty to really differ from what one draws up the balance sheet of bankruptcy - "Our democracy at the end of breath", "A democracy so tired", "a system in breakdown", "France has pain in its democracy" - all this in a single article whose conclusion turns short, in the incantatory style: "But ours [our democracy] still has to prove that it is breathing so that all French people - and not just a minority - start believing in it again. So that they extract themselves from the dead sea where they bathe today, and find the Mediterranean where this democracy was born"[1].

This "constructive" critique of contemporary democracy tirelessly draws up an inventory of the defects, failures, malpractices, dysfunctions, in short, of the "crisis" of this system, both in its institutional forms and from the point of view of its elites, its leaders. It stands at its bedside like a perplexed and impotent family doctor at the bedside of a great man of this world whose disappearance everyone trembles to imagine. It reproaches institutional democracy for not living up to its tasks and promises, for betraying its principles, for sliding down the slope of a perpetual and ever worsening crisis, the fatal outcome of which it cannot, however, foresee - the reason why that eclectic and opportunistic critic never ceases to urge liberal democracy to recover, to straighten up and to reconnect with its glorious first inspiration - its principles, its foundations, the breath of the Enlightenment...

This criticism internal to the field of contemporary democracy comes in the most varied versions and adopts a number of diverse postures. In its most radical forms, it can go so far as to maintain that in truth institutional democracy is only a disguised oligarchy, an oligarchy having captured and hijacked the electoral apparatus and the representative system. It will then be inclined to oppose this perverted democracy, in the very name of democracy, another version of democracy – authentically participatory, simplified, closer to the people, more egalitarian, more concerned with social justice, etc. A truly democratic democracy, as opposed to the semblance of democracy that contemporary market democracy would be, ever more authoritarian, police-driven, inclined to cultivate the exception and to govern in a permanent state of emergency...

We can clearly see, with its notoriously tautological feature ("a truly democratic democracy"), where the Achilles' heel of this democratic critique of democracy is located: it is the snake biting its own tail. It never tires of referring present democracy to its foundations, its principles, values and ideals, to accuse it of denying them, incapable as it is of crossing the donkey-bridge constituted by its naive belief in the particular quality of this regime, which would make of it a pure ideality as well as a historical entity, the unsurpassable horizon of any kind of political institution in the present as well as for an indefinite future. It is that the unthought that weighs like a lead weight on this devout and pusillanimous critique of contemporary democracy is that of the mortality of this system – of this form of domination; this form of modern superstition which is the belief in this absolute exception that would be the immortality of democratic civilization as a historical formation and meta-value lying beyond the reach of any condition of relativity (the very nature of historicity).

Starting from the simple and strong image of the Potemkin village, it would be a question of trying to get out of the ruts of this criticism locked up in its routines of thought. It is a matter of method here: a strong and lively image is often called upon to awaken thought asleep in the arms of habit, knocked out by conceptual soporifics. To do this, it is not enough to rely on an expression that has become sufficiently common to be no more than a pejorative syntagm intended to designate a game of illusion – one must start by revisiting the image, go back to its source to find its primary energy, the material to think about in order to relaunch it. It would be a question of reconnecting with the image-concept as it slumbers, buried under the debris of the cliché.

The Potemkin village is therefore, at the outset, the production of a pure illusion. Or rather it would be, since it is immediately a legend that borrows the clothes of an anecdote. It is a story that has circulated "from mouth to mouth", as Benjamin would say, since the end of the 18th century, it is a story in which elements of reality and a "beautiful" fiction, too beautiful to be true: anxious to hide the filth and misery of Russian villages from the eyes of Empress Catherine II visiting Crimea, the minister and adviser Grigory Potemkin would have had painted hangings installed all along the route of the sovereign representing pretty houses of peasants, neat and flowery, pleasant in every way[2]...

We can see how the legend shows the tip of its nose here: the story is less likely, because the famous autocrat would have had to be very distracted, in a hurry or short-sighted to let herself be deceived by such a gross deception... But we can also clearly see, from the outset, that what matters is not the veracity of the supposed anecdote, it is the quality or the effectiveness of the fable; not so much that the story is true as good; the invention lent to the loyal servant of the Red Empress, that is to say both superb and bloody, is that of a device with a double vocation: to hide a part of unpresentable reality (because, precisely, sinisterly real, the misery of the peasant world in this corner of southern Russia) and to represent a substitute reality, reinvented – a complete artifice intended to fulfil the wishes of the sovereign. It would be a matter of producing a decoy intended to coincide as closely as possible with the idyllic image that the autocrat is supposed to have of "her" deep Russia: peaceful and happy peasants going about their business in pretty and prosperous villages (serfdom will not, however, be abolished in Russia until more than half a century later...).

The Potemkinian device, whether entirely or partially imaginary, is therefore both a cache-misère and a fairy tale, the production of a pure artifice interposed between the eyes of a terrible incarnation of autocracy (Catherine He came to the throne by murdering her husband and she ruled her country with an iron fist) and a sordid reality – the eternal misery of the Russian muzhik. The Potemkin village is an enchanted village of a quality as rudimentary as those with which children marvel at popular fairs. Later, cinema will find the vein to make a properly industrial use of it: Potemkin, in this sense, passes the baton to Walt Disney and the illusionist process which bears his name makes a sign in the direction of those who flourish in today's Disneylands. The notable difference being that the former is not aimed at children but at a fearsome incarnation of a resistibly enlightened despotism; that it is not intended for entertainment but for the production of a political effect of the very first importance: the satisfaction of the sovereign discovering her humble happy subjects...

In both cases, it is indeed a question of arousing, manufacturing the illusion, but in opposite directions: what is at stake in the stratagem supposedly imagined by Potemkin is nothing less than the relationship which it establishes, in the government of the living, between the despot and her subjects: the disappearance of the latter from the field of visibility – as a condition of the sovereign's peace of mind and self-satisfaction. In the device of the enchanted village transfigured by Hollywood, we witness, by contrast, the triumph of government over mass culture and entertainment: the governed are included in the device, they become its actors and take pleasure in it.

In both cases, we identify, of course, an issue of childhood: in the space of Disneyland (with its many contemporary equivalents), the adults (the parents who accompany the children) are supposed to rediscover the joys of childhood. The device attributed to Potemkin, if one understands it in its literal sense, is so primitive that it really supposes that its inventor takes the Empress for a child – a dangerous game if ever there was one, autocrats being naturally suspicious and hating that those around them fool them by taking them for kids; moreover, everything we know of Catherine II inclines us to think that she was not the type to fall into that kind of trap. And it is here, of course, that one easily convinces oneself that "the Potemkin village" is, at the very least, an "arranged" story, embellished, therefore itself a decoy - in the absence of be entirely invented. This is the reason why the syntagm of the "Potemkin village" is commonly used today in an entirely derogatory sense, not without a nuance of derision: who will be naive enough or stupid enough to let themselves be deceived by this crude artifice?

The historical chronicle relates that this expression would have been promoted at the end of the 18th century by a Saxon diplomat, an enemy of Potemkin and jealous of his proximity (familiarity?) with the Empress. Wishing to discredit the minister in the eyes of the sovereign, he would have accused him of having built fake villages intended to deceive her during her visit to Crimea – a devious and opportunistic gesture of a courtier, in short. It is without doubt here that the "background" of the truth of the story can be glimpsed: Potemkin, anticipating the passage of the sovereign, would have had the villages located on the passage renovated, cleaned, flowered and embellished as far as possible of her procession – no trace of painted canvases, therefore, but an overall process of the most common and whose inspiration and extensions we would find in many other times and circumstances – including in our democratic societies. A process of which the authoritarian and totalitarian regimes of the 20th century have made a specialty, of course, but of which we know that we also find traces of it in colonial societies.[3]

Austrian photographer Gregor Sailer exhibited his photos of modern Potemkin villages in 2018, spotted at different latitudes – which clearly shows that this notion has become, over time, a quasi-concept. In his very distinctly anti-communist comic book, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (1930), Hergé transposes the figure of the village Potemkin into the USSR of the time (in the process of Stalinization) – in an industrial and urban version: when Tintin undertakes to go there to have a closer look at the side of the alleged miracle of the Promethean industrialization of Soviet Russia, what he discovers, behind the scenes , are workers striking with hammers on iron plates in order to simulate the din of machines running at full speed...

More generally, the suspicion expressed by André Gide in his famous Return from the USSR, is that the Soviet authorities would be inclined to present to famous Western visitors, sympathizers of the Bolshevik revolution and the fatherland of the Soviets (artists, scholars, politicians, traveling companions, etc.), Potemkin villages hand- picked and carefully arranged: not painted canvases, strictly speaking, but "model" factories and kolkhozes, shops overflowing with food, gleaming orphanages, proletarians and happy muzhiks, etc.[4]

The simple fact that the device does not fall into disuse and has a great capacity to vary and adapt to new situations, the simple fact that its name lives on through the discontinuities and windings of modern history, all this shows that this process, in spite of its elementary character and, to be honest, coarse, nevertheless persists in preserving a practical quality, a real efficiency. It is therefore important to try to discern what makes it unique.

The Potemkin village, if we stick to its literal version, is not simply the result of a cosmetic operation intended to "arrange" a given element of reality, to give it a better look or appearance. It is not a simple make-up, in the usual sense of the term – but perhaps it is no coincidence that the verb to make up has a double meaning: either a cosmetic operation intended to improve and to embellish, or to organize a fraud by passing off the disguised object for what it is not. The making up of a Potemkin village is, in its primary sense, the production of an illusion or a pure appearance intended to replace an unpresentable reality. The Potemkin village erases, makes disappear, steals, eludes as much as it shows. It interposes a veil devoid of any substance or consistency between the spectator of the world – the traveller, the passer-by, the witness – and a reality which, on the contrary, is un-presentable – in its very substance. It is an operation as much as a device or a process: its implementation is always a means to an end: to reassure, to deceive, to mislead... More than a copy, it is a substitute. Or rather, it is the copy of what the referent (the Russian village) should be and is not – and this is where things start to get complicated. Its installation sanctions the triumph of appearance, understood here as artifice and not appearance, over reality. It is supposed to ratify the omnipotence of the image or, in more contemporary terms, of the spectacle. As a simulacrum, the Potemkin device is an image that has emancipated itself from its status as a simple copy and, even more so, from a “pale” copy, according to the Platonic lesson.

Indeed, if we move from the device to the operation, we can clearly see that the image here is much more than a copy of the original improved, embellished, retouched: the characteristic of the village on painted canvas supposedly imagined by Potemkin is precisely to differ in everything from the real village (wretched and filthy) that the Minister wants to hide from the eyes of the Empress. The operation is here the performative production of an image or a spectacle intended to organize the disappearance of the referent. We are in full image agency, to speak like Philippe Descola.[5] The “agency” of the image borders here with a thaumaturgical power; the minister is, if the legend is taken at face value, a demiurge who, with a decisive gesture, substitutes an illusion for reality in such a skilful and convincing way that this illusion in turn becomes reality – in the eyes of the sovereign, it is, says the legend, real Russian villages that parade in front of her – but it is a legend and the “games” of true and false become dizzying here. The real Russian village, by becoming what Potemkin (or his equivalents) show you of it, ceases to be what it is in truth, its real (and miserable) substance is dissolved by the operation intended to produce an alternative reality, more advantageous. Here, therefore, the “Potemkinian” gesture is similar to that of a conjurer, there is really something magical about it, in that it experiences the infinite power of images or spectacle. It is probably not for nothing that what, by chain of associations, links us to Potemkin, which saves the name of this servant (among so many others, more or less forgotten, who put their variable talents to the service of the tsarist autocracy, over the centuries), it is cinema – Eisenstein's film which transfigures the mutiny of the sailors of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea into a revolutionary epic. It is the cinema that transmits the name of Potemkin to us, at least as much as the alleged subterfuge of the latter, and it is only fair: the famous fake village is an impeccably proto-cinematic device – in terms of grandiose sets or kitsch made up of painted canvases, fake mountains, chic deserts, fake jungles - this before the irruption of digital technology dismissed artifice - cinema knows a bit about it!

In this sense, we can see the Potemkin village as the ancestor of the cinematographic setting intended to create the illusion of a landscape that is truer than the real one. The device whose invention is attributed to Potemkin appears as the prelude or the harbinger of an era in which the relationship between the original and the copy, reality and its appearance, the question of representation or reproduction become terribly complicated. The question shifts abruptly: what certifies the origin or the authenticity of the real tends to reorient itself towards that of the production of the effects of truth. The Potemkin device anticipates the era in which the Platonic perspective of the copy understood as a degraded image of the original (the real object, the original) is erased in favour of the quality of the operations tending to make impalpable the difference between the authentic as original and the artifice as reproduction or copy. In the age of cinema, of the technical reproducibility of animated images, the operation consisting in operating the division between a pre-iconic originary reality and what, in one way or another, is invested by the flows of images becomes more and more difficult and contested: it is not only entertainment and leisure which are enveloped in images, it is social existence itself or, just as well, war, which, henceforth, are domains whose spectacular dimension is inseparable from the ordinary. In other words, the image as double is henceforth inseparable from the original, which, in the field of cinema, results in the fact that a vast continuum now extends between the field of documentary film (which is supposed to "document", present, shed light on facts or elements of reality) and the fiction film which is supposed to be supported by the powers of the imagination. The distinction (the opposition) between fiction and reality is shaken up by the advent of an era of narrative placed under the regime of the production of images emancipated from their essentially representative condition: they are henceforth endowed with their own power, their capacity to produce their own world, they live their own life and invest us insofar as they are a factory of the real, of a real placed under their regime (that of lack of differentiation, for the most part).

It is not only a breach that opens in the Platonic device (relentless in attesting to the distinction between the original and the copy), with the Potemkin village, it is a Pandora's box that opens. Attention shifts from the relationship between objects and what represents them to the relationship between a sender and a receiver. The presentation of truth tends to become an operation consisting in producing effects of reality, via the circulation of narratives and pictures. The immense continent of modern propaganda and its effects of fabricating an alternative reality loom behind the Potemkin village. The device is not content to dispense with the illusion, it transforms reality by modelling subjectivities and formatting discourses – carried to completion, the operation consists in substituting a second reality, useful, tailor-made, for a reality first, undesirable and, for this reason, doomed to be dissolved. The artefact is not inert, it is dynamic and productive, and it becomes a constituent element, an integral part of the real world: it actually tends to become the real world itself. In other words, the pretense now lodges at the heart of the real, which also means that the point of separation of imposture from authenticity becomes increasingly difficult to identify. This is indeed the reason why imposture imposes itself on the cinema (inasmuch as it is itself an apparatus turned towards the mass and serial production of alternative worlds) as an obsessive motif. The question of knowing who is who and who is faking, how the true in the sense of the authentic or the original and the false (in the sense that a painting is false) exchange their positions tends to become the question of the time.

[1] Télérama of 02/02/2022. - a French weekly paper, the perfect representative of what is left of the spirit of progressive, humanistic, mildly left-oriented political decency in the landscape of French media...

[2] Potemkin was not only Catherine II's minister, he was also her lover and a particularly close adviser; the battleship Potemkin, scene of the famous mutiny, in the context of the Russian revolution of 1905, and which Eisenstein's film celebrates, it is him...

[3] On this point, see the article “Village Potemkin” on Wikipedia.

[4] André Gide: Return from the USSR, 1936 , followed by Retouches to the Return from the USSR , 1937, NRF Gallimard.

[5] Philippe Descola: The forms of the visible, Seuil, 2021.