We're not from there

3 August 2011
Only in en
Osteuropa finds Poland on the sidelines of Europe; Blätter says democracy mustn’t stop at the borders of the nation; Studija views Lithuanian art at the Venice Biennale, or not; Res Publica Nowa treads the pavements of Central Europe; dérive reclaims the night; Esprit discusses privacy, regulation and the Web; Multitudes considers commonality; Dialogi gets paranoid; and Passage occupies itself with occupation culture.

The current Presidency of the Council of the European Union might appear to be firmly anchored in Europe, yet Poland also gives the impression of being insecure and marginalized, writes sociologist Tomasz Zarycki in Osteuropa. “These images are contradictory yet neither is false: each merely shows different dimensions of the Europeanization of the country.”

The speed with which all traces of communism disappeared from the streets, the media and often from biographies was in large part due to Poland’s deep sense of belonging to Europe, of never having left it, indeed of having been abandoned, writes Zarycki. Today, there is wide support for Poland’s membership of the EU, however the reasons for it diverge sharply. While conservatives see Poland as the bulwark of Catholicism and suspect liberals of wanting to renounce Polish national identity, liberals consider conservative patriotism inconsistent with modernization and demand from their compatriots “European identity”.

“Both attitudes show that Poland still believes itself to be on the sidelines,” writes Zarycki. “Western Europe is seen as an external force that must be conformed to. One can either accept ideas coming from the West and try to adapt to them, or one can reject and ignore them, insofar as one cultivates one’s own position. In Polish political and intellectual debate, there are very few attempts to become involved in European discussions, to see ideas coming from the West not as finished concepts, but as points of view about which one needs to enter into dialogue. In this respect, Poland is only present in Europe to a limited extent. Even when the Poles try to be exemplary Europeans, it’s a more or less passive Europeanness, often merely its imitation.”

A new force in Europe: Under the government of Donald Tusk, Poland’s position in the European Union has improved, counters Kai-Olaf Lang. Through strong initiative, an ability to cooperate and a readiness to assume responsibility for a growing number of policy fields, Poland has developed an ability to act strategically and gained stature in Europe.

The full table of contents of Osteuropa 5-6/2011

In Blätter, Jürgen Habermas analyses the dynamic of disintegration and democratic atrophy in Europe and counters the claim that “the transnationalization of national sovereignty is impossible without the reduction of democratic legitimacy”.

Recognizing that “collective agency” is essential for states to assert their interests in globalized society, Habermas also strongly defends the preservation of national democratic structures (nation states, he writes, are not merely historically successful in having curbed the violence inherent in political rule, but are also “ongoing achievements”). The disenfranchisement of democratic citizens must not be the price paid for the transferral of national sovereignty to supranational instances, he stresses.

All that changes with territorial enlargement and numeric increase in the total number of participants is the complexity of the opinion-forming process. One can’t speak of a reduction of national sovereignty as long as quantitative changes in the social and spatial dimensions leave the process itself intact, i.e. that of deliberation and inclusion.

Given the likelihood that the costs of the financial crisis will be redistributed unequally throughout the eurozone, it would seem to be in line with the logic of the European constitution “that citizens wish to exercise democratic influence over what their governments negotiate above their heads or agree to in a legal grey zone,” comments Habermas. “That would require a deepening of the political union, or at any rate ‘stronger collaboration’ between the members of the monetary union. What we are observing instead is tactical manoeuvring by governments […] and a populist rejection by citizens of the European project as a whole.”

50 years Berlin Wall: With the construction of the Berlin Wall on 13 August 1961, the divide between East and West Germany reached its height. Vanessa Brandes looks at how young German writers of the time – including Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Peter Hacks, Christa Wolf and Heiner Müller, Walter Kempowski, Uwe Johnson and Günter Grass – saw the political divisions.

The full table of contents of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 8/2011

A self-proclaimed concept designer, Darius Miksys is sometimes called a practitioner of persuasion art, writes Virginija Januskeviciute in Studija. When putting together a proposal for what was intended to be a solo-exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale, he realized that the criteria for participating lent itself to the idea of a collection of Lithuanian art and delegated participation to several other artists, also all recipients of state grants.

The artists were asked to select one of their own artworks to be briefly displayed on request from visitors to the Lithuanian Pavilion. When not in demand, the works would be stored behind a white curtain – hence the project’s title “Behind the White Curtain”. The white curtain has sparked criticism: many find it offensive that the artworks might never appear on display, and the artist Redas Dirzys even suggested that everyone should destroy their work instead.

“While he often seems to struggle with his own ideas, Miksys has lately developed a penchant for realizing those of others,” writes Januskeviciute. “This time he alluded to the notions of understanding by doing and reverse engineering. It is completely possible to see the Venice project in this light, except that here he does not continue the work of an artist, but of an institution or a society and assigns himself the role of curator of an imaginary collection.”

Little women: Liin Siib represents Estonia at the Venice Biennale with her work “A Woman Takes Little Space”, inspired by the debate in Estonian media about gender inequality. “I was surprised to read that women should stay at home, should earn less, and in general are used to taking less space too. So I decided that now I will go looking for a woman who takes up little space and I did. I took my camera and went out to look for her. It was very purposeful.”

The full table of contents of Studija 3/2011

Res Publica Nowa joins up with partners Host, Magyar Lettre and Kritika & Kontext for an English language issue on “Central Europe as City”. “Central Europe’s cultural personality stems not from states but from cities,” writes editor Marek Seckar. “Few countries in the region fall entirely within the cultural sphere of Central Europe. But at the level of individual human settlements, Central Europe suddenly emerges in striking clarity.”

“If a city is text, then the Central European city is hypertext,” writes Levente Polyák, locating the character of the Central European city between nostalgia and commerce, the dilapidated and the gentrified: “Street names and even parts of cities have no choice but to bear the names of other parts of the region – think of the Krakovo district of Ljubljana or the Praga district of Warsaw. It is the Central European mix of languages, words, signs and melodies which crystallizes in urban space.” Commenting on Christian Kerez’s design for the new Warsaw Museum of Modern Art, Polyák writes: “The wildness invoked to balance the revived sterility of western cities melts into its natural habitat in bombed-out Warsaw. Central Europe produced the aesthetic of architectural brutalism in a spontaneous fashion, without having to be asked.”

City literature: Small towns are the heart of today’s Central Europe, writes editor Katarzyna Kazimierowska in her introduction, “the places where we all come from – the shameful foundations for our small-town identities.” Malgorzata Litwinowicz concurs: “You never go to the small town or return there of your own free will – you land there by accident or by force. You’re stuck there and that’s where you’ll finish. Most importantly, we’re not from there.”

Paradoxically, suggests Litwinowicz, the magic realist tradition in Polish literature derives precisely from the small town and the image of the shtetl as centre of the universe: “Recalling Jewish voices, people and stories is the only possibility for narrating the province. It’s the only story we have that can transgress those characterizations of small towns as disgusting and hopeless. […] They transform the groan of the weak man sentenced to provincial life into a fairytale, which, though not necessarily affirmative, orders and defines the frames of individual and collective memory.”

Also: Karolína Ryvolova on the “two cultures” of the Czech Roma – the official and the private. “Where the Roma are concerned,” she writes, “things are often not what they seem.”

The full table of contents of Res Publica Nowa 14 (2011)

“For the city, the night is more than just a part of the day,” writes editor Christoph Laimer in an issue of dérive entitled “Urban nightscapes: Reclaiming the night”. “It is a territory that in the nineteenth century city dwellers began to occupy against the growing resistance of the police and rulers.” The 24/7 city has since taken over and nightlife is becoming increasingly commercialized, writes Laimer:

Capitalism’s urge to expand, its searching out of every free square metre of land, its appraisal of the marketability of every cultural expression, has increasingly got a hold on nightlife. […] Noticeable parallels, in terms of economization, exist between clubs, bands and DJs on the one hand and sport on the other. Musicians and DJs are placed under contract like footballers or tennis players.

Reclaim the night! A squatters movement that occupied numerous empty premises as spaces for independent, alternative and non-commercial cultural events and social projects changed Geneva’s nightlife in the 1980s and 1990s, write Virginia Bjertnes and Marie-Avril Berthet. Major protests when they were closed down ten years ago had no influence at all on political decisions. In 2010, this was different. When two private, profit-oriented clubs were temporarily shut by the authorities, thousands of young clients took to the streets to protest:

We observed a rhetorical reversal: the authorities, who up till then had never defended night culture, started declaring themselves to be protectors of a club that was a commercial structure. This club engaged in practices (discourse, demonstrations, public spaces occupation) that are usually the preserve of alternative cultural actors. The alternatives benefited from this general situation, since it acted as a reminder that nightlife also has a cultural activist dimension. In general, political awareness of the importance of night culture was raised through the expression of these tensions.

The full table of contents of dérive 44 (2011)

“The Internet is not an additional forum for expression or a place apart; it is a complete transformation of our culture.” Introducing a dossier in Esprit entitled “The state and the Internet – uneasy bedfellows”, Marc-Olivier Padis counsels “prudence in observing what seems to us novel in the ways that information technology and communication are used”. Questions are raised about the rapid evolution, not only of access to the Net, but of the multifarious forms that such access takes and the ways that online information is gathered, traded and exploited.

Privacy: Dominique Piotet goes deeper into questions of privacy and the Web. He shows how difficult it is to avoid using social networking sites – “to exchange photos, to follow our friends or just to exist socially” – and examines the price we pay for doing so: “The information you provide is much more comprehensive than it may at first seem. If you have a mobile phone with geolocation then you actually have a sensor that can collect information about you: the places you frequent, the times you frequent them or even what the people with you in those places say about you; and all of this shared online.”

Regulation: Françoise Benhamou reviews the relationship between the state and the complex structures of the Internet, assessing the efficacy of attempts at regulation of what is “simultaneously a poison and its antidote”. The principal problem is that regulation of privacy infringements, pirating and hacking happens at the level of the state, whereas the Web is transnational. Self-regulation seems, at present at least, to be illusory. Alarmingly, Benhamou reports that the lawyers and economists of the Chicago School have argued that, “defending privacy is tantamount to depriving others of information that could be of use to all.”

Also: Prompted by the Strauss-Kahn case, Georges Vigarello surveys press reaction to three highly publicized cases of alleged sexual assault in 1959, 1978 and 2011, concluding that “Undeniably, over recent decades, the assertion of feminism has transformed the way in which we regard sexual violence. Equally undeniably, there are still forms of resistance that give undue weight to patriarchal tradition.”

The full table of contents of Esprit 7/2011

Multitudes asks how collective identity and action are to be apprehended in our day and age. This leads contributors to rethink the sphere of politics on two levels: How to broach collective action from a semiotic angle? And, how are collective entities formed and organized today?

Bruno Latour claims there is not and never has been such thing as a common world. Pluralism is everywhere and disagreements are fundamental. He does not believe our differences in opinion are superficial and that, deep down, we are all alike. “If we set aside what differentiates us, there is nothing to be held in common.” Politics, according to Latour, has simplified the task by claiming some people know what is common to everyone, and that all that needs to be done is to get rid of causes of disagreement and separation. Obviously this is impossible: politics is not a science and not governed by laws.

Performance art: Céline Robin contemplates how common emotional experience shared by artists and audience can result in an intimate feeling of community. She recalls a performance by artist Sophie Le Garroy, where members of the audience were invited to share the stage and join the fiction being enacted before them. At the start, the members of the audience had nothing concrete in common. Very quickly, the artists generated a common enthusiasm, and over the course of two hours the audience grew into a community:

“The closeness created by our dancing bodies, the smiles we exchanged, the sounds allowed us very quickly to access that which constitutes the truth of any human relationship: the feeling of coming together as one, of sharing an experience, at the same moment and at the same place.” The “as-if” of fiction provided privileged access to the “as-one”, a state to which, according to Robin, we are growing increasingly numb due to media overexposure.

The full table of contents of Multitudes 45 (2011)

In a bilingual issue of Dialogi on the topic of paranoia, editor Boris Vezjak writes that his original intention was to focus mainly on paranoia in politics: “I am glad that things turned out differently”.

The tone is set by Jerold Post, professor of psychiatry, political psychology, and international relations, who points out the need humans have for enemies. As a species, he claims, “we are ‘hard-wired’ to fear the enemy, to be hyper-alert to surrounding danger, to distrust”. But, he continues, “whom we fear and whom we love is socially determined”.

The crystallization of comfort with the familiar at the political level is nationalism; the crystallization of the fear of the stranger and the projection of hatred upon the other is the enemy. Significant others – parents, teachers, peers – sponsor suitable targets for externalization for the developing child. We end where they begin. Thus enemies are to be cherished, cultivated and preserved. They are fundamental to our self-definition, and if we lose our enemies, this can be very threatening.

This way Post explains how a paranoid Stalin killed between 20 and 40 million real and imagined enemies in the purges of the “great terror”, and in return created genuine enemies, confirming “the dark suspicions of the paranoid leader”.

In conclusion Post states that “the need for enemies is deeply embedded within human psychology. When hate-mongering leaders mobilize these feelings, it can produce mass movements of hatred and be the foundation for some of the most evil moments in human history. Understanding these critical forces is essential to countering such paranoid leaders and their movements.”

The full table of contents of Dialogi 3-4/2011

Denmark is still occupied with the occupation, note the editors of Passage, introducing an issue on literature and culture during and after the German rule between 1940 and 1945. Judging from the steady stream of books, documentaries, movies and websites, the Danes’ interest in this part of their history shows no signs of flagging.

In spite of censorship, restrictions and persecution, the arts and media enjoyed relative freedom compared to other nations under Nazi rule, writes Hans Hertel. The output, ranging from escapist distractions to more or less explicit calls for resistance, fulfilled an important function, counteracting both German propaganda and domestic cultural collaborationism. Hertel calls it a cultural “immune system”.

However, the most common approach was to speak, write, paint and sing “about something else” than the war and its atrocities, “as if nothing had happened”. Danish cultural life seems to have discovered the ugly reality only after the war. This lagging sense of reality, Hertel concludes, is the main reason why “the occupation might have triggered a lively cultural activity but hardly any truly great art. That is the cultural paradox in Sonderfall Dänemark.”

Camp, witness and Holocaust literature: Denmark is obsessed with the occupation; Europe, on the other hand, is obsessed with the Holocaust, writes Stefan Iversen in an instructive piece on Danish camp and witness literature. It has often been said that “there was no Holocaust in Denmark”. Most Jews managed to flee to Sweden before the German occupation and, in the end, “only” 52 Danish Jews died in prisons or camps.

It was only recently that Denmark joined the transnational memory culture that is such an integral part of the EU, officially commemorating the Holocaust. Paradoxically, this transnational commemoration, which serves important political aims, runs the risk of accelerating the ongoing eradication of the memory of Danish camp narratives, writes Iversen. Experiences of concentration camps and deportation do not have to be connected to the Holocaust. “The (basically) historically correct assertion that there was no Holocaust in Denmark lies dangerously close to the historically incorrect assertion that no Danes were deported. In fact, 6000 were deported and many of them have produced different kinds of cultural works.”

The full table of contents of Passage 65 (2011)

Published 3 August 2011

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


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