Zizek on the Soviet “empire of signs”

I’ve been reading Slavoj Zizek‘s In Defense of Lost Causes and he has some interesting thoughts on revolutionary terror (Ch. 4, “Revolutionary Terror from Robespierre to Mao”) and Stalinism (ch. 5 ‘Stalinism Revisited, or, How Stalin Saved the Humanity of Man”).  I thought I’d share this one passage I found interesting,

The public prosecutor in the show trial against the “United Trotskyite-Zinovievite Center” published a list of those that this “Center” was planning to assassinate (Stalin, Kriov, Zhdanov . . .); this list became “a bizarre honor since inclusion signified proximity to Stalin.” Although Molotov was on good personal terms with Stalin, he was shocked to discover that he was not on the list: what could this sign mean?  Just a warning from Stalin, or an indication that soon it would be his turn to be arrested?  Here indeed, the secrets of the Egyptians were secrets also for the Egyptians themselves.  It was the Stalinist Soviet Union which was the true “empire of signs.”

A story told by Soviet linguist Eric Han-Pira provides a perfect example of the total semantic saturation of this “empire of signs,” the semantic saturation which, precisely, relies on the emptying of direct denotative meaning. For many years, when the Soviet media announced the funeral ceremonies of a member of high Nomenklatura, used a cliché formulation: “buried on Red Square by the Kremlin wall.” In the 1960s, however, because of the lack of space, most of the newly deceased dignitaries were cremated and urns with their ashes were placed in niches inside the wall itself – yet the same old cliché was used in press statements. This incongruity compelled fifteen members of the Russian Language Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences to write a letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, suggesting that the phrase be modified to fit the current reality: “The urn with ashes was placed in the Kremlin wall.” Several weeks later, a representative of the Central Committee phoned the Institute, informing them that the Central Committee had discussed their suggestion and decided to keep the old formulation; he gave no reasons for this decision. According to the rules that regulate the Soviet “empire of signs,” the CC was right: the change would not be perceived as simply registering the fact that dignitaries are now cremated and their ashes placed in the wall itself; any deviation from the standard formula would be interpreted as a sign, triggering a frenzied interpretive activity. So, since there was no message to be delivered, why change things? One may oppose to this conclusion the possibility of a simple “rational” solution: why not change the formulation and add an explanation that it means nothing, that it just registers a new reality? Such a “rational” approach totally misses the logic of the Soviet “empire of signs”: since, in it, everything has some meaning, even and especially a denial of meaning, such a denial would trigger an even more frantic interpretive activity – it would be read not only as a meaningful sign within a given, well established, semiotic space, but as a much stronger meta-semantic indication that the very basic rules of this semiotic space are changing, thus causing total perplexity, panic even!