Postmodernism in Poland, the Polish postmodernism

That strange concept

It is not long since the term ‘postmodernism’ appeared: sometime in the late 80s. Although the term itself was
known in Poland before, it was used solely to describe the works of such American writers as John Barth,
Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, Ronald Sukenick, Harry Mathiews.
Polish readers were well familiar with all of them due mainly to the efforts of the Literatura na
literary monthly. Moreover, it appears these authors enjoyed quite a popularity in our
country. As Robert Coover admitted in an interview, he was astonished by the size his and his colleagues’
books’ editions reached in Poland or in Hungary at that time. With the average of 20.000 copies, the numbers
far exceeded the American ones, where the postmodern writers could only count on the academic elite as its
Since the splendid success of the Spanish-American prose in Poland in the early 70s, the postmodernism seems
to be the most noticeable concept among the cultural phenomena appropriated for the Polish reading public by
the translators. However, it did not occur to anyone at that time to extend the meaning of the term over other
national literatures, not to mention the Polish one. Briefly, postmodernism was considered a purely American
phenomenon. Moreover, since the attention was paid predominantly to its formal experimental aspect, it was
easy to conclude that, however interesting the American prose experiments were, this kind of emphasis had
been popular in Europe (and in Poland) much earlier.
It was only in the late 80s that the expansiveness of the term was to be noticed, with its use by not only the
literary scholars but also by the critics involved with other arts as well as other representatives of humanities
in the broad sense of the word. The term was used in the context of the new trends in philosophy, artistic
movements, the theory of science. Its influence could be noticed in sociology, anthropology, pedagogy,
management theory.
Philosophers associated with postmodernism have undertaken a criticism of the metaphysical tradition. In
place of the key concepts of the modern thought (e.g. wholeness, identity, contradiction, the source beginning)
the new categories of dispersion, difference, repetition and variety have been introduced. Instead of searching
for the similar or the common, emphasis has been put on the other and the strange as defined by our culture.
Post-modern artists have rejected the manifesto of the 20th-century avant-guard. They have questioned the
idea of the autonomy of the art, the precedence of the artist ( as the rule-maker), the structural unity of the
work of art, the cult of the new and the original, the belief in the close parallel between the artist’s actions and
the society’s life practice. Consequently, the means of expression typical of the avant-guard have been brought
back in correspondence with various historical styles and artistic movements. As early as the 70s it was clear
that there were no grounds to see the development of the contemporary art as a process consisting in the
logical succession of trends and concepts with the chronologically earlier one giving way to the follower,
offering a competing theory of the artist, the creative process and the work of art. “At present” wrote the
French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard

we do not trust any visions and concepts (les grands recits-
‘the great narratives’) which so far have justified the artist’s , philosopher’s , thinker’s or politician’s conduct.
Les grands recits that once kept together the whole culture or its particular strands are now being replaced by a
host of ‘small narratives’, created on the spot to be applied in a specific situation. Contemporary culture grants
each individual the right to his or her ‘proper story’. The modern age values, such as liberty, equality,
brotherhood, are being exchanged for another, post-modernist trio: ease, diversity, tolerance. While the
modern intellectual aspired to the role of the law-giver, the creator and the defender of a given code, his
contemporary counterpart assumes the role of a ‘translator’, who functions as an intermediary between various
concepts and ideologies, teaching the difficult art of living among the many equally valid cultural

That does not mean, however, that postmodernism breaks off with the past. The most important
post-modernist thinkers are at the same time excellent analysts of the modernist period exploring its sources
and characteristics. If postmodernism in fact is a reaction to, it need not necessarily be the negation of the
modernism. It revises the current opinion of the period, enriches its picture with the strands so far considered
of secondary importance. It constitutes, in a way, the modernism’s critical super-consciousness. On the one
hand, it stresses that “thinking in terms of similarity and identity is nothing else but putting an equation mark,
the levelling of the ground, a decreed brotherhood, a compulsory equalising” (Bogdan Banasiak) On the other
hand, it realises that the culture of the West cannot reject the language of metaphysics, that is its own
language. It is this very realisation that gave rise to Jacques Derrida’s project of philosophical deconstruction
(deconstruction and not destruction; ‘Deconstruction’ here means ‘taking to pieces’, a critical analysis,
rethinking and rewriting of the language of the philosophical tradition.)

Gone through the censorship, or the problems with

When, in the late 80s, just before the political and social breakthrough, the echo of the world-wide debate
over the post-modernism reached Poland, there was a terrible confusion. Just what are they talking about, out
there in the West? Postmodernism? The combination of two impossible things: the French philosophy and the
American literature… A breakthrough in culture? In art? New philosophical trends?
There were several reasons for the reluctance the postmodern issues encountered in Poland. One of them was
the astounding number of publications devoted to the subject. Indeed, it was easy to get lost in the nuances of
Derrida’s, Gille’s , Deleuze’s, Rorty’s or Lyotard’s thought, up till then virtually unheard of in Poland, and not
all speaking with one voice. What is more, there could be felt a suspicion that out there, in the free world, the
concepts, values and attitudes so essential for our independent culture of the 80s were being questioned.
Consequently, the majority of the Polish opinion-making circlesresponded with silence. In this context, the
efforts of some scholars to present this issue to our public seem all the more valuable. The first of them was
Stefan Morawski. As an aesthetician and art historian, an avant-guard proponent, he was highly sceptical about
the postmodern artists’ achievement, nor could he find any justification for their easthetic eclecticism. He
conclusion was that a postmodern work of art no longer prompts the audience to critical thinking as its only
aim is to serve as a hedonistic object to be enjoyed.
Surely, this was not a fair assessment of the postmodern art, but it was accompanied by an exact description of
its philosophy and artistic practice. The issues first tackled by Morawski were later taken up by other scholars:
cultural studies researchers, eastheticians, art and philosophy historians. Special attention should by paid to the
works produced by the authors associated with the Warsaw Cultural Institute. Despite the numerous points of
difference among the various scholars’ opinions or even some extremist viewpoints, the critical material
amassed at that time presented the achievements of the leading postmodern artists to the Polish reader before
their works were translated into Polish.
Obviously, the critical works were aimed at a narrow circle of specialists. As it was, however, the term made
its way to the numerous papers, ranging from the dailies to the more ambitious women’s magazines. As
described by journalists and non-professional critics postmodernism became a conglomeration of slogans and
stereotypes. A conclusion was very soon drawn that there was nothing else to discover about the
postmodernism, that we knew everything. In fact, our knowledge of the subject usually came down to a few
cliches used again and again: ‘the literature of exhaustion’, ‘the death of man’, ‘ the end of the great narratives’,
‘the end of history’. These were quoted excessively and with no care taken to do justice to the works they were
originally taken from. There is an unbridgeable gap between the subtle analyses of the postmodern literature,
the learned commentaries to the postmodern thought and the journalist’s literary criticism produced for the
papers. Indeed, it is easy to deride the caricatured version of someone’s thought which claims that the
post-modern writers create but parodies of the real literature as in their opinion it is impossible to come up
with anything new nowadays or that there is a man called Derrida, who says that there are no people as texts
are the only thing that exists. While Morawski was put out by the fact that the postmodern writers forgot the
modernist heritage, many other critics blamed the post-modernism for something else. According to them
postmodernism was but one more instance of the useless experimenting, a very serious charge in Poland,
where such artistic ventures were approached with a deep-rooted mistrust. True, some beginner writers did use
postmodernism as a handy alibi for a reckless toying with literature and this caricatured version was soon
labelled the norm. The Polish postmodernism is seen not only by the common review-writers but also by
many acclaimed critics as being all about boring formal charades, pointless parodies and pastiche of various
forms, a veritable literary dumping site. True, nobody denies the artistic merit of John Barth’s or Italo Calvin’s
prose. But it is also true that there is a widespread belief that if a Polish writer’s works bear any resemblance
to their works, all that he or she can offer are but awkward imitations. We prefer our writers to deal with the
matters of love, life and death, like they did in the old days, instead of bothering with the 30-year old
novelties form the big world. Obviously, the postmodern writers do not avoid such subjects (one of the most
popular subjects of their works is the death), but the problem is that they refuse to do it in the old way. Listen
to this: “the patron saint of the European experience of time is the author of God’s State, Saint
Augustine. Here, time has always been the name of the meaning. But from behind the seemingly irresponsible,
folk-like postmodern authors’ writings, one can see emerge his other, much more menacing face. It is Saturn,
Chronos the Devourer.” (Tadeusz Komendant). And listen to this one: “Simulacrum (copy devoid of the
original, a concept created by Jean Baudrilliard, a media and postmodern culture scholar) that the
photographic image can become makes it clear that we no longer are, that at no moment, no matter how
extatic, are we endowed with the existence.” (Anna Jamroziakowa). It is especially in this light that one should
see the postmodern juggling with quotations, the debris stored in the archives of culture. As can be seen,
‘games and pastimes’ in fact make it possible for the postmodern thinkers to grapple with the most difficult
and serious issues.
Another aspect of postmodernism that the critics found disquieting were their rhetoric and their critical
ambitions, perceived as negating the very foundations of the national and European identity. According to
many conservative and Catholic journalists, postmodernism is in fact inseparable from liberalism, whereas the
post-modern philosophy renders the category of truth relative at the same time undermining the meaning of
the moral concepts. Characteristically, the critics were seldom interested in the complex relation between the
modernism and post-modernism. Charges brought against postmodernism closely remind of those quoted to
prevent the public from pernicious influence of the decadent art and philosophy a hundred years ago. For its
opponents, postmodernism is usually but a new, fashionable and elegant name for the Western civilisation
with its old sins: consumerism, permissiveness and moral relativism.

Is there a Polish postmodernism?

No wonder that among the writers there are very few to notice any more interesting aspects of the
phenomenon. By far the most common is the attitude best exemplified by a recent review of Goran Bregovic’s
concerts in Poland published in Gazeta Wyborcza, a Polish daily. His music is described as a
mixture of various styles, although in no way related to postmodernism. “Because”, the author goes on ‘what
really matters here are the cultural roots’.
The artistic value of Bregovic’s music is arguable. Frankly speaking, I agree with those who claim there is too
much common kitsch in it even as for pop music. In any case, the journalist’s response is a very typical one. If
one’s aim is to recommend an artist to the public, one should start with dissociating that artist’s name from
postmodernism. This word simply has wrong connotations!
The review mentioned above brings me to another issue, that is: Is postmodernism at all possible in Poland or
any other East-European country? Wkodzimierz Bolecki, a literary historian and critic, was presumably the
first to conclude that civilisation gap separating the West and our country as well as the specificity of the
national tradition make it impossible for any clearly-marked post-modern elements to appear in our part of the
world. He sees the phenomenon of postmodernism as inextricably interwoven with the technological and
social changes that have taken place in the West and as such not to be found at home. Polish postmodernism
will remain something inauthentic, something from beyond the range of the national culture, an imported
product until we achieve the civilisation standard of the developed countries. Up till that point, postmodernism
in Poland will inevitably confirm Karol Irzykowski’s old claim that the literary breakthroughs in Poland all
are of a secondary, plagiarised character.
It is worth reminding, then, that Polish society has lived through the experience of modernity. Obviously, it
was different form its Western counterpart. It did not consist in the parliamentary democracy, free market,
liberalism, the German-style welfare state or the Hollywood-like pop art. The Polish modernity was more
about single party dictatorship, social engineering or the socialist mass culture. It was also about the persistent
efforts to keep up the links with the western culture, the novel tendencies in Polish literature and art after the
year 1956, the coming to terms with the national cultural heritage. Finally, it was also about the belief,
commonly shared by most artists, that a true art combines a concern for the artistic independence with the
struggle for the freedom of speech.
The Polish modernity being different from its Western counterpart, we stand to gain a lot from the
post-modern inspirations. We can use them to help us reconsider and describe our own modernity. And this is
a pressing task as we have so little knowledge on that subject. I am writing about inspiration rather than
imitation as the Western writers opinion’s on what modernity was cannot be automatically applied to the
Polish reality.

The three varieties

It should be emphasised strongly that today’s postmodernism cannot be perceived as a homogenous artistic and
philosophical trend. All the ideological crusades aimed at postmodernism are misguided in the sense that
postmodernism as such is not an ideology. It is only the specific artistic and intellectual concepts formulated
by artists in response to the phenomena they observe that acquire an ideological bias. Derrida’s, Rorty’s,
Lyotard’s, Baudrillard’s opinions can and should be questioned , but one cannot claim that doing this implies
questioning the postmodernism. The latter is multifarious and assumes different forms depending on the local
circumstances and customs.
It is not true that postmodernism leaves no room for the conservative and Christian thought or for the
value-based reflections. The same goes for art.
According to a Dutch literary scholar, Douwe Fokkeme ‘no other artistic and philosophical concept have won
such a general acceptance in so many cultural domains and have spread so fast as the postmodernism did.’ But
it does not involve its unification. For here we have a culture that defends the other and the local, a culture
that lays bare the claims of any fundamentalist thought. Like a computer network it combines the global range
with a diffusion and equal rights of its many participants.
Indeed, it would not be difficult to point to the manifestations of postmodernism in Poland that lack any direct
counterparts in the West. For a few years now the literary circles have acknowledged and appreciated the idea
of new regionalism, the return to ‘the small motherlands’ as instrumental in the reconstruction of the local and
individual identity. Promoted in such magazines as Borussia, Krasnogruda, Kresy, this concept has nothing to do with the idea of particularism. The local or the private is
shown as communicating with the universal, the everyday reality corresponds with the symbolic order, even
with the rites and myths of various cultures. The popularity of that concept has been furthered by the success
of the writers considered to be its representatives: Stefan Chwin and other writers from Gdansk, Olga
Tokarczuk, Magdalena Tulli. The concept of “the small motherlands” is usually presented as the best remedy
for the postmodern disinheritance and it does draw a lot from important concepts in the Polish literary
heritage (e.g. the Christian personalism, the literature of the Polish eastern borders). Still, contrasting ‘the
small motherlands’ concept with postmodernism seems somewhat too rash. What about the receptive climate
created for this kind of writing by the postmodern reluctance to think in terms of the wholeness and history?
Indeed, the concept of ‘the small motherlands’ may be taken to constitute a part of postmodernism itself.
Surely, this way of thinking differs from the attempt to search for inspiration in the French philosophy of
difference or Richard Rorty’s neopragnmatism, but the two spring from similar motivations.
Presumably, the proponent of ‘the small motherlands’ concept would never agree with a deconstructionist.
However, that does not mean a dispute with postmodernism but a discussion within the same cultural
formation. For this reason the concept of the new regionalism seems currently to be the most influential
variety of postmodernism in Poland.
Similarly, its second Polish variety might appear a far cry from postmodernism. The circles displaying a
devotion to the national tradition as well as the Catholic and conservative thought have traditionally been seen
as postmodernism’s most fervent opponents. In fact, matters are not so clear. Ales Erjavek, a Slovenian
scholar, claims that what is typical of the Eastern-European postmodernism shows in those actions that
perversely draw on the futurist and dadaist heritage at the same time rejecting the avant-guard belief in the
transformation of the world (they represent the artistic ariere-guard rather than the avant-guard). As opposed
to the Western artists, they put an emphasis on the political message, identifying usually with the right. They
tend to make a provocative use of iconography and the national symbols as well as the radical political
movements to force the public to rethink the past. According to Erjavec a model example is furnished by a
Slovenian band Leibach together with associated artists, happeners, theatre creators. The scholar also
mentions similar phenomena in Russia, Slovak Republic and Hungary. The Polish reader cannot help thinking
here about Fronda, the zin-art movement, and, of course, about bruLion. Both about the
golden anarcho-conservative rebellion age bruLion and about the present day bruLion where
Robert Tekieli ostentatiously shows his Catholic fervour. Despite the abundant regrets over the change in the
ideological bias of the magazine expressed by numerous critics, in fact no real change has taken place. Quite
the opposite, the then and the now bruLion (following the publicised Tekieli’s conversion) remains the same
magazine: one that questions the fundamental political bias of the postmodern age, that is, the leftist and
liberal tradition.
Characteristically, what enjoys the least popularity in Poland, are the phenomena that openly draw on the
world postmodernism’s achievements. No one can say that our literary studies have been conquered by
deconstruction, that the poetry and prose have been much influenced by the spirit of the Western postmodern
classics, that Derrida has become and authority for the Polish philosophers or even that his works are read as
widely as best-seller Tischner’s books. Obviously, there can be found in our country clearly-marked
manifestations of western-style postmodernism (the third variety), but they have difficulty making their way
to the public. Some may like to see this as yet another example illustrating the old truth that a success in the
cultural domain can only come as a result of an original reworking of the ‘imported’ impulses. But others may
draw another conclusion: The situation of the Polish culture in the 90s is a result of a mistaken judgement,
repeated again and again. The more popular varities of postmodernism in Poland do not owe their publicity to
the fact of being recognised as an original version of postmodernism. On the contrary, they are commonly
considered to be a response to the nihilist challenge of Western origin. Hence, the artistic circles that openly
admit their interest in so suspect a phenomenon do not enjoy much sympathy on the side of the public.
Nevertheless, an ‘overt’ postmodernism can be just as interesting and complex as its varieties it is contrasted
with. Rational to the extreme, willingly drawing on the artistic neoavant-guard and structuralist heritage, the
‘overt’ postmodernism in Poland is best suited to keep up the contact with the novel initiatives and concepts
dating from several years back. And this makes it different from the other varieties of the Polish
postmodernism. Even though so willing to borrow from behind the river Oder line, the ‘overt’ postmodernism
in Poland functions under conditions different from those to be observed in the West. In the West,
postmodernism is perceived as symptomatic of the radical movement aiming at the reassessment of modernity.
In Poland, on the other hand, the same aspirations necessarily mean both a reassessment and a renewal, the
return to the obscure and forgotten ways of our own modernism. What makes the situation of the Polish
culture so very specific is the fact that reassessing modernity involves, to quote an example of literature,
revising the lessons once thought by Gombrowicz, R�zewicz, Buczkowski, Karpowicz or Parnicki.
In any case, postmodernism is inevitable, no matter which particular variety we might choose to favour. We
are bound to come to terms with this concept if we want to perceive Polish culture of the 90s through the
differences but also relations between the competing versions. However paradoxical it may sound, today, in
the year 1999, the breakthrough in Polish culture, by common consent considered to be the year 1989, still
remains a task to be done. In this sense, the year 1989 still lies ahead of us.

Published 16 December 1999
Original in Polish
Translated by Marlena Ryl

Contributed by Fa-art © Krzysztof Unilowski eurozine


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