Tactics of Instability
or the Instrumentalisation of Situating

Gereon Rahnfeld

Gereon Rahnfeld studied law, cultural sciences and European studies in Hamburg, Prague, Leipzig and London. Having worked in the field of contemporary art and culture he became a board member and project manager at Liquid Democracy in 2016. There his main concern is how democratic structures could be improved by using digital tools.

While attending the inaugural event of the New Alphabet School at HKW in January 2019,
a few of my colleagues and I started to wonder about the increasing dominance of knowledge in our contemporary societies (a term often used for our post-industrial societies is, in fact, ‘knowledge society’) and especially about its manifestations.
While our first discussions circled around the deliberate spread of fake news fabricated with the help of troll farms in order to manipulate individuals and communities, we subsequently discovered another strategy that also focuses on the manipulation of people by instrumentalising knowledge. This strategy is closely connected to the name Vladislav Surkov (even though he is not its only operator).

Although Surkov has held different positions within the Russian administration, he has continuously been one of the most important advisers to Vladimir Putin since 1999.
Peter Pomerantsev described him as Putin’s ‘chief ideologue’ or ‘political technologist’
who turned Russia into a ‘managed democracy’ and reduced Russian politics to nothing
but postmodernist theatre.1 Pomerantsev explains the strategy Surkov deploys in order to succeed to do so in an article in ‘The Atlantic’: “It’s his political system in miniature: democratic rhetoric and undemocratic intent. … The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case
with 20th-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd.”2
To put it in another way: Surkov’s strategy is to cause confusion via spreading and supporting different kinds of realities and world views by using the means of TV, PR and advertising.3

The consequence of this strategy is expressed by Pomerantsev in form of a question:
“How can you believe in anything when everything around you is changing so fast?”4
In contrast to spreading fake news in order to make people believe something that is not true, Surkov’s strategy culminates in the confluence of different knowledges and truths in order to prevent people to belief in any of these. For Pomerantsev this is “a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable. [A] fusion of despotism and postmodernism,
in which no truth is certain.”5

It is this last sentence which made me think about the potential helpfulness of the concept
of ‘situated knowledge’ to understand this strategy. (And I have to admit, it is a rather superficial application of the concept which might not recognise its main achievements. Nonetheless, I will take a rough interpretation of the concept as a crutch in order to approach this strategy.)
‘Situated knowledge’ is a concept used in order to counter the claim of an unbreakable universal truth.6 It assumes that only in partial perspectives rests the possibility of sustained, rational, objective inquiries. “The only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere
in particular.” The concept of ‘situated knowledge’ thus advocates the “views from somewhere.”7
Against this background, it could be describes as a way to tackle grand-narratives in order to provide particular views with increased importance and thus influence.

To illustrate why I think the notion of situating is helpful with regard to the above-described strategy of confusion I will illustrate two cases that appeared during the ‘War in Donbass’ (Ukraine). The ‘War in Donbass’ started in 2014 as an armed conflict and included for example the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation between February and March 2014.8 In this conflict, Russia (most probably supervised by Surkov9) deployed tactics, which aimed at causing instability with regard to the narrative of what really happened in the conflict. These cases included the fight of Russian soldiers against Ukrainian soldiers –
to which Russia responded that the fighting soldiers were not Russians or at least not on duty (but on vacation).10 Another example was the deployment of Russian paratroopers who were apprehended on an official Russian mission and photos of them released – here Russia argued that they crossed the border by accident and were actually part of a military exercise near the border.11

When analysing these incidents, it is insightful to not do this from a position of relativism
but rather from a position of situating. Both incidents would then show that it was not so much the aim to deny the involvement of Russian soldiers at all, but rather to offer a different perception of the incidents which would exist alongside the perception that the Russian military was indeed involved: In the first case, it was argued that there were no soldiers on duty involved but soldiers on vacation (it was there free choice to fight in Ukraine).
In the second case, the involvement of Russian soldiers in Ukraine was an accident due to them crossing the border by mistake. These perception would exist alongside the view, that both incidents were part of a Russian military operation.12 Viewed from the standpoint of situating, the strategy’s aim looks like an attempt to pluralise the perceptions of the incidents and, as a consequence, to render the situation complex and absurd (as the argument of soldiers fighting ‘on holiday’ might show). No one knows anymore what has really happened.

It is important for me to highlight that I neither argue that this strategy is solely a Russian one (in his movies ‘Oh Dearism II’ (2014) and ‘HyperNormalisation’ (2016) Adam Curtis names further examples of this strategy, applied for instance by the USA and the UK),13 nor that the concept of ‘situating knowledge’ inherently leads to such a strategy.
My approach is rather to take a rough interpretation of ‘situated knowledge’ in order to try to understand the ‘tactics of instability’ and show that the latter might have been built on an instrumentalisation of approaches like ‘situating’.
In ‘Oh Dearism II’ Adam Curtis says that “the underlying aim … is not to win the war but to use the conflict to create a state of destabilised perception in order to manage and control.”14
If we assume that ‘situating’ follows the aim to pluralise perceptions and thus to counter
a prevailing universal truth which has become a tool of domination, it becomes clear that the ‘tactics of instability’ may pose a threat by instrumentalising concepts like ‘situating’ through the establishment of an authoritarianism build not on truth but on confusion and instability.

As the New Alphabet School will proceed for the next years, I, together with my colleagues, will try to map similar examples and manifestations of these ‘tactics of instability’ in different countries and contexts.
We will inquire into cases from Germany, India and the US of A for a start. Our aim is to situate these cases in their respective particular environments. By doing so, we hope
that we’ll be able to either identify patterns which are similar with regard to the different cases, or characteristics that are unique for one concrete constellation.
This will allow us to think about and/or experiment on possible answers to the tactics of instability. This approach should also clarify that ‘situating’ is not regarded as a concept
that only runs the risk of being instrumentalised but acknowledges its ability to respond
to this threat as well.