A punk prayer at the altar of Louis Althusser

That we have such a thing as free speech is an illusion, and I don’t say that to be provocative. The ‘light bulb moment’ for me – when falsities, myths and obstructed truths were illuminated – was the first time I read Louis Althusser’s ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)’. Althusser’s explication of how the not immediately visible plurality of the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs – that is, the family, systems of education, religion, media, etc.) re-enforce and uphold the Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs – that is, the police force, the law, the military, etc.) demonstrates how the public political agenda permeates the private domain and interpolates the individual. For the most part, this structure is seamless. When at least fifty percent of the oppressive forces at play are invisible, it isn’t difficult for capitalism to go about business as usual. Of course, power being the relational beast that it is, resistance and transgression seem always only a hop, skip and a riot away.

Pussy Riot – the feminist punk rock agitprop group that formed in Russia to protest for equality and against the unholy alliance of church and state under the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and president Vladimir Putin – are a stunning example of what happens when the underdog starts barking. While Pussy Riot isn’t the only group in the world to protest against authority and be arrested, they did garner an unusual amount of international attention from our saltiest ISA: the media. The international spotlight, including very vocal support from the likes of Peaches and Madonna, led to a documentary.

Mike Lerner’s Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer includes brief comments from the three women arrested and jailed for their actions (Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich), a discussion with some of their family members; footage of counter-protests on behalf of the church; and courtroom footage of their trial. The documentary is a great entry point for anyone unfamiliar with the response to their performance of ‘a punk prayer’ in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on February 21 2012. For individuals who have kept a keen eye on the coverage over the past year and a half, including two excellent pieces previously published by Overland – Jacinda Woodhead’s ‘Prison is Russia in miniature’ and Everett True’s ‘Me and Pussy Riot’ – it will only really add fuel to the already raging fire.

I assume that most people watching this documentary (I don’t believe it’s seen a cinema screen in Russia) will empathise with Pussy Riot, and so it seems to me that Lerner misses a golden opportunity to address the true elephant in the courtroom: where to draw the line between tolerance and free speech? In the Kafkaesque trial, the women are given a brief window from which to speak – quite literally, as they are detained in a Perspex chamber at the rear of the courtroom. The opportunity, however, is as performative as their protest; as they read from their written speeches, it is clear they are artful orators but they are never in dialogue with anyone else in the courthouse.

Perhaps it is because of their skills as performance artists that the film suffers from an indulgence in rhetoric. Lerner begins and ends with a fairly obfuscating analysis of the situation: performance art as misunderstood in a highly religious context. The film opens with a line of text from Bertolt Brecht: ‘Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.’ It continues by highlighting the women’s defence that metaphor and art are peaceful methods of protest and seems to conclude with the shrugged shoulders of its apathetic mouthpieces: ‘Punk has never really existed in Russia, neither has performance art. Nobody understands it. The west is more tolerant of it.’

While there may well be truth in this, ultimately the film becomes just another cultural ISA.

The angle is dangerously conservative, given the stakes. Essentially it promotes an agenda suggesting ideas that aren’t currently tolerated or understood by the RSAs shouldn’t be expressed – or that if they are, punishment ought to be expected. The reply from anti-Pussy Riot protesters of the Russian Orthodox Church goes as far as calling the women demons. Yet any word against the church is considered blasphemy. Why must one group tolerate absolutely the beliefs of another if it comes at the cost of their so-called free speech?

That one of the women, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was freed on appeal because of a fascinating technicality that pinned the ‘crime’ on damage rather than intent is also glossed over rather than engaged with by Lerner. If indeed their act was criminal because it desecrated or vandalised something belonging to someone else (not tangible property but the victims’ rights to observe the rules of their religion) then surely a discussion of the limits of tolerance and the idea of free speech should have been paramount?

Where’s the line? Apparently it’s at the altar – which, in Moscow, is where ISAs and RSAs not only meet but govern.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Tara Judah is a freelance film writer and radio critic, programming and content assistant at Melbourne’s Astor Theatre and a committee member of the Melbourne Cinémathèque. Tara's writing can be found at tarajudah.com and she tweets as @midnightmovies.

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  1. I always love a reference to Althusser, though here he’s really just riffing on Gramsci. I must say, in Russia I’d say the RSA’s are pretty terrifying.

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