From edition

Review: Past for the Eyes: East European Representations of Communism in Cinema and Museums after 1989.

Oksana Sarkisova and Péter Apor (Eds.)

Budapest, New York: CEU Press, 2008.

In 2009, it will be the 20th anniversary of ‘the fall of the wall’, which triggered the transformation of the sociopolitical systems of the former Soviet bloc and which was – in Claus Offe´s words – ‘an unprecedented, special case of rapid social change’ (Offe, 1999; quoted by Jakubowicz, 2001: 60). Not surprisingly, the jubilee has revived the debates on the course of the transformation in these Central and Eastern European (CEE) societies. As to the communication processes concerned, the debate has – since the beginning of the 90s – focused almost exclusively on the structural characteristics of the CEE media systems (Dobek-Ostrowska & Glowacki, 2008). It is notable that media cultures – unlike the lavishly covered media systems – have hardly ever been analyzed as a fully-fledged dimension of the transformation processes. This is regrettable because when we ask questions about the processes of social and political change, cultural processes (including the new transactions between uncensored media articulations and associated multiple realities constructed by audiences) should not be dismissed. Support for this line of thinking can be found in the concept of cultural citizenship, which highlights the ways communities are cultivated through reading practices (Hermes, 2005: 10). The process of cementing the polis by public meaning transactions, often attached to widely used popular (social and cultural) texts, has to be included. The transformation of the authoritarian past is not complete, if it resists the inclusion of ‘soft’ elements like meaning production and collective/public memory maintenance. For this reason, books on the CEE transformations that deal with media and popular cultures should be welcomed. Past for the Eyes: East European Representations of Communism in Cinema and Museums after 1989, a reader with chapters written by scholars connected to the CEU Budapest/New York, belongs to this extraordinary breed. The importance of the role of meaning generation procedures in the transformation process is emphasized, for instance by Zsolt K. Horváth in his chapter. He writes: ‘… the image of the socialist past has been re-shaped as a result of various social, political and cultural developments. It will be argued that this process should be understood as a predominantly symbolic struggle for the ability to define the meaning of the history of the socialist period’ (249-250)[1].

The book is devoted to the visual representations of the socialist/communist past and the forms they took in Hungary, Poland, Russia, Bulgaria, the Baltic States, the Czech Republic, the former Yugoslavia and Romania[2]. The interconnected processes of visualization of the past, and the collective memory sedimentation are the main focus in all three parts – Documents of Communism: Lost and Found (3-113), Subjects of Nostalgia: Selling the Past (115-243) and Objects of Memory: Museums, Monuments, Memorials (245-400). A comprehensible introduction has been written by Oksana Sarkisova and Péter Apor. The book thus brings together perspectives of linked but still distinctive ways of enquiry: visual studies, cultural studies, area studies, museum studies and contemporary history with its passion for ethnography and oral evidence.

The book starts with the part on the access to the archives of the secret communist police forces, containing ‘explosive’ personal files. Various forms of accessing top secret archives can be seen as ways to cross the border between states of visibility and invisibility. The challenges of bringing something formerly invisible into the open are manifold and include the moral philosophy perspective on one hand (3-56) and the technical limitations of historical investigation to produce completeness and accuracy on the other hand (57-79). The second section provides thorough insights into the proliferation of nostalgic representations of the socialist past in the CEE region after 1989. Being especially interested in the thematic structure and codes of nostalgia, the chapters explore cinema and television production in (Post-)Yugoslavia (117-141), Russia (143-180), Poland (181-214) and the Czech Republic (215-243). The last part uses the most orthodox approach which is inspired by cultural materialism as articulated by Raymond Williams. It reviews how (the memory of) the socialist past translates into a selection of objects for newly established museums (Williams, 2005: 243). Expositions which were created after the collapse of the socialist regimes, which recapitulated both political events and the everyday imagery of the socialist period, are the focal points. We can conclude that the patchwork of chapters represents a more than acceptable combination of two culturalist approaches: textual analysis (especially in the Nostalgia part) and cultural materialism (in the Documents and Museums parts).

One of the common threads which stitch the chapters together and turn the collection into a quite homogenous regional report on an updated ‘structure of feeling’, are the authors’ horizons referring to the experience of being post-socialist in a postmodern condition. The book helps to sense that there is something peculiar about reconsidering, revisiting and even rejecting a politically evil regime from the perspective that does not allow for any clear discrimination between what is ultimately good and evil. Simultaneity seems to be an important strategy for both researchers and filmmakers as objects of their enquiry. In many cases chapters recall visual texts which deplore the socialist regime while they simultaneously remain aware of the limits of any orthodoxy. This attitude of alertness and reflexivity is far removed from any ‘so-we-will-be-free-now’ optimism, and the collapse of this particular ideology is combined with the awareness that ‘ideology is not a historically specific bad thing’, as John Corner put it elsewhere (Corner, 2001: 527). In addition, the limits of the genres and formal rules are also reflected upon, for instance in Nevena Dakovic´s characterization of Kusturica´s famous Underground: ‘The metafictional perspective is created through a self-referential, narcissistic discourse about film history, popular culture and the making of fiction’ (124). References to ironical representations of socialism, especially its economical prosperity – Kasper Poblocki sees it as an ‘economical farce’ and a ‘political tragedy’ (205) – are also to be noticed. Petra Dominkova points to the Czech comedy The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday (1992) (225), and the Russian documentary Monologue: Private Chronicles is seen by Oksana Sarkisova as ‘at once keeping an ironic distance from the narrative and deeply internalizing it’ (167). More examples of how understanding post-socialism and the postmodern condition interlock, can be found in passages that prize everyday mundane memory as a key element and favor it to ‘hard’ historical records of major events. For instance Sarkisova, who describes Russian cinema developments, calls this the ‘…growing prominence of everyday life with the primary goal of survival among the most absurd and oppressive circumstances’ (168). The post-socialist period thus clearly appears to be an overdetermined social formation, shaped by a simultaneous reconciliation of both the socialist regime collapse and the crisis of modernity.[3] Allusions to the tight interwovenness of post-socialism and postmodernism – which are not rare in the book – confirm that contemporary CEE societies can never be fully understood unless both parts of this articulation are taken into account.

The notion of collective memory is another line running through the entire book. Memory studies are clearly an important part of the CEU matrix of the analysis of the socialist past. The collective spirit of the reader draws heavily on Pierre Nora´s concept of sites of memory (lieux de mémoire) (Nora, 1984: xvii-xiii), as indicated on several occasions (119, 249). Together with this French historian, the authors of Past for the Eyes accept collective memory as the prime producer of relevant interpretations of the past, the one that writes positivist history off, as it has turned into a rigid academic discipline. The authors explicitly discriminate between ‘history’ and ‘past’, favoring the second conception, as is even manifested in the title of the book. The idea of a single history is handled as an anachronism – from the perspective of both writers and their subjects of analysis, histories are numerous and diverse. Some of the reviewed films and television shows claim so themselves, by working with amateurish documentary footage. The Hungarian filmmaker and video/media-artist Peter Forgács is a prime example of mapping the 20th century by collecting and editing film fragments from private family albums. His collage Kadar´s Kiss (part of a larger project called Private Hungary) is recollected in the chapter by Balász Varga. In sum, New Historicism provides the essays with their paradigmatic roots. The interest in collective memory processes consequently leads to questions about its sources and to enquiries about specifics sites of this type of memory in visual culture.

Some might argue though that collective memory is presented as a rather taken-for-granted ‘thing’ that simply exists. The concept could be embedded more in memory studies, articulating its differences with other types of memories, e.g. national memory. This distinction would also be helpful because some of the CEE countries have recently founded national memory institutions: The Institute of National Memory (Czech Republic), The Institute of National Remembrance (Poland) and The Nation’s Memory Institute (Slovakia). Furthermore, it is not entirely clear in the reader if collective memory is a source of visual representation or if visual representations serve as food for collective memory. It could be suggested (unsurprisingly) that these elements interact and that there is a relationship of mutual structuration (in Giddens´ sense). Such an idea of collective memory as constant interaction with no fixed beginning or ending is proposed by Wulf Kansteiner. According to him, collective memory is the interaction among ‘intellectual and cultural traditions that frame all our representations of the past, the memory makers that selectively adopt and manipulate these traditions and the memory consumers who use, ignore, or transform such artifacts according to their interests’ (Kansteiner, 2002: 180). Kansteiner´s reflections on collective memory are highly valuable as he bridges history and media reception studies. In fact, he captures collective memory by building an analogy with public opinion. From this perspective, collective memory acquires the contours of a site open to opposing hegemonic vectors, a space that can be intermittently seized by dominant interpretations, but also by resistive popular excorporations.[4] Kansteiner´s emphasis on memory makers as well as on memory consumers, illuminates the moment that is missing in Past for the Eyes, i.e. the audience or users of visual representations of the past.

Except for the above-discussed recurring motifs which appear in the majority of the contributions in the reader, there are also remarkable observations that are unique to individual chapters. István Rév´s opening article in the Documents section deals with the Hungarian version of soul searching incarnated by the world famous film director István Szabó (accused of betrayal in the period after 1956). Rév is not afraid to use the frame of shame, guilt and moral philosophy (though not accepting it fully himself) (6). Revisiting the heroic settings of those days invites a comparison with contemporary post-heroic versions of guilt. Stories of collaboration (far from being black and white) offer the contrast: whereas heroic guilt followed from a lack (of courage, strength, commitment, …), post-heroic guilt follows from excessive consumption (viewing guilt, eating guilt, …). Whereas heroic guilt was organized into clear categories (did collaborate, did not collaborate), the post-heroic guilt, rooted in excess instead of lack, is a matter of degree.

The Nostalgia section addresses one of the most notable sociological and cultural processes in post-socialist countries. The editors correctly suggest that ‘its application to the socialist past has received insufficient attention’ (xvii). Though the chapters of this section concentrate almost solely on nostalgia encoded in analyzed visual texts and audience passion for ‘socialist kitsch’ are mostly left to speculation, Past for the Eyes still associates nostalgia with innovative observations. One of the most challenging insights is the economical theory of post-socialist nostalgia developed by Kacper Poblocki.[5] He suggests that successful representations of socialist imagery reduce the socialist past to photogenic artifacts and props for commercial reasons, which means that they treat material fragments of socialism as fetish objects. (The fetishist ‘propsization’ of the collective remembrance of socialism is also mentioned by Oksana Sarkisova in her chapter on Russian cinema. She recalls the movie Soviet period Park where the props are in fact the actors, e.g. an imitation of Kremlin at a Turkish resort (177)).

More evidence about reification and commodity fetishism can be found in the Museum part. The exhaustive contribution of Izabella Main (a comprehensible and intelligent record of Polish forms of exhibiting socialism as an historical era) points to the cult Proletaryat Café in Poznan. The description of the café’s interior unintentionally provides an excellent example of fetishism in reference to the past. ‘The walls and the counter are red; there are red flags and posters from the epoch encouraging people to fight class enemies. Drinks are served in old glasses which were actually mustard containers. The menu lists many kinds of alcohol, Polish and foreign, but also a special beer labeled ‘Proletaryat’ (376). In the Czech Republic, the function of the entire Poznan café’s decoration was taken up by the picture of a single plastic coffee spoon.[6] Depicted on the film poster for Cozy Dens, it became an icon of socialist everyday life. Petra Dominkova also recalls it in her chapter (221).

To return to the issue of the post-socialist/postmodern structure of feeling, Dominkova noticed an interesting feature: ‘When reading about contemporary cinema we rarely find films classified simply as “comedies” – the word is usually accompanied by adjectives like “musical”, “nostalgic”, “period”, “bitter”, “Bitter-sweet” or given the prefix “tragic-“. … It sometimes feels as if the Czechs invented a few sub-genres in order to make the majority of films fit somehow into the broad genre of “comedy”.’ We could also come up with the interpretation that Czech filmmakers are reluctant to claim affiliation to the classical, traditional, original genre and try to develop their own sub-genres on the basis of ‘estrangement’ or ‘defamiliarization’. The relationship of genre to sub-genre innovations is one of model to its copy. The diminutive act of differing post-socialist Czech comedies from the classical comedian pattern in fact mirrors the whole process of social and political transformation in post-soviet societies.[7] The process of transformation intrinsically assumes questions about ‘what are we transformed into?’ and ‘what example do we follow on the road of transformation?’. Transformation thus becomes the purely imitative act of relating oneself to the previously applied modes and models. Post-socialist societies mimic the already proven (capitalist/liberal/market) model. In consequence, the social mentality reacts with self-defensive reflexivity. This is a kind of ‘we know we cannot be authentic in what we do, so we will be authentic in how we ridicule it’. Irony, parody, nostalgia, the grotesque, cynicism and distancing oneself are all doubly-articulated markers of the post-socialist/postmodern ‘episteme’ and – as vividly illustrated in Past for the Eyes – can be found in many cultural texts produced in this time and space.

Notes

[1] References to the reviewed book contain only the page number(s).

[2] A note on the denomination of ‘the regime’ is needed here. The title of the book refers to the period of ‘socialism’. On the other occasions, the same period and political system is called ‘communism’. Editors explain why they decided to apply this rather benevolent attitude: ‘There remains a plurality of the terms in use in the region – “Communism”, “Socialism”, “State-Socialism”, and “really existing Socialism” among others – which has provoked both reflection and criticism. …our decision was to preserve the diversity of terminology used by the authors and the subjects of their analysis … to further exemplify the heterogeneity of the region’. This also implies refraining from the use of the term totalitarianism, a position suggested by Slavoj Žižek. Because of its reference to fascism, Žižek takes the term as an archetypical (and false) argument articulating any left critique of liberal democracy as a dangerous risk of retreating into fascism (Žižek, 2007: 5).

[3] Although the socialist political and economical system was nothing but a perverse version of modernity, and could not be seen in opposition to it, as explained by the Czech-Italian philosopher Vaclav Belohradsky (1991). Belohradsky was building on Havel, according to which the relationship of communism and modern western society is one of a ‘convex mirror’ (Havel, 1994). (Havel´s philosophical essay was originally written in the symbolic year 1984 for his Doctor Honoris Causa Award from the University of Toulouse-LeMirail. It was read aloud by Tom Stoppard on behalf of the author who could not participate personally.)

[4] From this perspective, Wittlinger is only partially right, when she proposes an analogy between collective memory and ideology (Wittlinger, 2007: 44).

[5] Though Poblocki presents also a disputable political economy of the socialist popular culture revival in the 90s. He ascribes support for nostalgic television programming to the political climate created by the Polish post-communist party that won the elections in 1995. However, the case of the Czech Republic with its changing governments of social democrats and liberal conservatives, and its still persisting demand for television shows, serial narratives and pop-music icons produced before 1989, calls Poblocki´s argument into question.

[6] The plastic coffee-spoon became a symbol of DDR merchandise and the widespread chemical industry. Plastic coffee spoons were exported from the DDR to all country-members of the economic union of the Soviet bloc (RVHP) and were turned into a symbolic object.

[7] As far as ‘differing’ also necessarily means ‘deferring’ in Derrida´s sense, the poststructuralist interpretation of the act would classify it as a never-ending endeavor. This intuition might also be an important part of the post-socialist structure of feeling.

References

Dobek-Ostrowska, B., Glowacki, M. (Eds.) (2008) Comparing media systems in Central Europe. Between commercialization and politicization. Wroclaw: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wroclawskiego.

Belohradsky, V. (1991) Prirozený svet jako politický problem. (Lebenswelt as a political issue.) Praha: Ceskoslovenský spisovatel.

Corner, J. (2001) ‘Ideology: a note on conceptual salvage’, Media, Culture, Society, 23(3): 525-533.

Havel, V. (1994) Spisy: Eseje a jiné texty z let 1970-1989. (Collected Papers: Essays and other texts 1970-1989). Vol. 4. Praha: Torst.

Hermes, J. (2005) Re-reading popular culture. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Jakubowicz, K. (2001) ‘Social and Media Change in Central and Eastern Europe’, Javnost (The Public), 8(4): 59-80.

Kansteiner, W. (2002) ‘Finding Meaning in Memory: A methodological Critique of Collective Memory Studies’, History and Theory, 41(2): 179-197.

Nora, P. (Ed.) (1984) ‘Entre mémoire et histoire. La problematique des lieux’, in: Les Lieux de mémoire. Paris: Gallimard, pp. xvii – xiii

Offe, C. (1999) Drogi transformacji. Doswiadzenia wschodnioeuropejskie i wschodnioniemieckie. Warsaw-Krakow: Wydawnictwo naukowe PWN.

Williams, R. (2005) Culture and Materialism. Selected Essays. London: Verso.

Wittlinger, R. (2007) ‘British-German Relations and Collective Memory’, German Politics and Society, 25(3):  42-69.

Žižek, S. (2007) Mluvil tu nekdo o totalitarismu? (Did Somebody say Totalitarianism?). Praha: Tranzit.

Bio

Irena Reifova, PhD, is a lecturer and researcher at Charles University in Prague, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Media Studies. She teaches courses on critical media theories, cultural studies and media audiences. Her major scholarly interests are in popular television culture; she especially focuses on Czechoslovak and Czech serial television fiction. She is a co-author of a student book on quantitative content analysis, editor of the Dictionary of Media Communication, and translates media studies works from English. She is a member of the editorial board of the Czech and Slovak journal Media Studies and she is a lecturer at the ECREA Media and Communication Doctoral Summer School.

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