Political (N)ostalgies

Poor but Sexy Agata Pyzik Zero Books 2014

It has been almost thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. Today’s German capital was not only divided by the wall built in 1961. Most of the former Eastern Bloc countries are today part of the Transatlantic structure and are participating in the project of a United Europe.

The former East-West division line still plays, however, a role in the mental and political geography of the continent. Europe once again has a problem with its eastern part. After the Communist threat in the East, a new one has emerged in the shape of the populist right led by Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, hostile to the idea of European unity. Western experts increasingly express doubts as to whether admitting the former “socialist democracies” into the European Union was not “premature” to say the least; whether our region was actually “ready for democracy”.

The East Sent to School

Regardless of one’s attitude to Kaczyński and Orban, this kind of language comes across as deeply patronizing. In his book “Post-Communism: a Transition zone” the Bosnian philosopher living in Austria, Boris Buden, attempted to reconstruct the origins of this language. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, that is in the era of Solidarity, the Round Table and the Velvet Revolution, the West looked at our region quite differently. It also saw hope for itself in the emancipatory risings of the societies inhabiting it. The energy and enthusiasm evoked in Poles, Czechs and Hungarians by the democratic promises were to serve as a source of inspiration for the burnt-out “mature democracies” suffering from a lack of life-giving ideas and uncertain as to the reasons for their own existence.

The energy and enthusiasm evoked in Poles, Czechs and Hungarians by the democratic promises were to serve as a source of inspiration for the burnt-out “mature democracies”.

The 1990s slowly, but completely, changed this perspective. Now it was not the West which was to learn from the East, but the other way around. The post-communist states aspiring toward democracy, a free market and a United Europe were sent to school. The language with which they were described and with which they began to describe themselves mostly took the form of pedagogical tones. It is enough to leaf through Polish press from the 1990s to see how often they themselves used the phrase “growing up to democracy”.

The situation in the region, described by Buden, resembled the adventures of the protagonist of Billy Wilder’s comedy One, Two, Three (1961), Otto Piffle. Otto is a deeply committed Communist from East Berlin. The daughter of the president of Coca-Cola, Scarlett, falls in love with him during a visit to this part of the city. The girl wants to abandon the West and leave for Moscow with her beloved. This cannot be allowed, however, by the head of the Berlin branch of the corporation, C.R. MacNamara, to whom the president personally entrusted his daughter for the duration of her foreign trip. MacNamara launches an intrigue, as a result of which Otto and Scarlett have to flee to the West pursued by the East German secret police. The young couple is also inseparable, however, in the Western part of Berlin. MacNamara consequently invents a new identity for Otto, more suitable for the future son-in-law of Coca-Cola’s president. MacNamara not only persuades the boy to abandon Marxist ideas, but also invents an aristocratic pedigree for him.

Otto’s transformation is quick and easy in Wilder’s film. The transformation of our region after 1989 was slightly harder. The more intensely it tried to deny its Communist past and attempted to assume a new Western identity, the more it actually lagged behind the standards required by Western Europe.

The “postcolonial” discourse of the West

Agata Pyzik writes about Wilder’s lm in her book Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West. Just like Buden’s “Post-Communism”, this book attempts to express the Eastern post-communist experience in a language other than “catching up with the West”. Pyzik’s book is distinctly polemical, it targets three discourses employed to describe the Europe East of the Elbe.

The first is the “post-colonial” discourse of the West concerning the Eastern part of Europe (often internalized by its inhabitants), constantly cast in the role of a lazy, retarded pupil, a poor relation, a “savage” who needs to be “civilized”. Poor but Sexy was written in English and first published in 2014 in Great Britain. Pyzik addresses Western readers directly, exposing their ignorance and the assumptions with which they approach the “worse part of the continent”. She rebels against narrowing her experience into the stereotype of “a backward East”.

A new, populist right is on the rise. Its Polish variety combines radical anti-Communism and hostility to all which is leftist with an aversion to Western liberal universalism and its Polish spokespeople.

The second discourse she takes up is Polish liberalism of the 1990s. Pyzik identifies it with the editorial line of Gazeta Wyborcza from the heyday of this daily, when it was one of the most important centers producing narratives on our transformative experience. Pyzik accuses this discourse of imitativeness, shallow anti-Communism, an actual ignorance of the West to which it aspired, and finally of completely ignoring the interests and sensitivities of all the groups for which the collapse of the “really existing socialism” was not the beginning of freedom and well-being, but brought with it dramatic social and existential costs.

The third discourse, or rather the entire family of discourses Poor but Sexy is struggling with, is the one claiming that the downfall of Communism in the former “Eastern Bloc” ultimately demonstrates that there is no serious alternative to a combination of neoliberal capitalism and liberal democracy—merely eruptions of irrational populism and fundamentalism. In her argument with this thinking, Pyzik is strongly indebted to the British critic and cultural scholar Mark Fisher, the author of the concept of “capitalist realism”. This is how he referred to the type of imagination which according to him predominated in contemporary popular culture: unable to imagine, even in such genres as fantasy, a different future than a continuity of our present, fully defined and colonized by capitalism. In the culture of capitalist realism, every genuine rebellion against the ruling system is at best turned into a merchandise of cultural industries, an item for symbolic consumption disarmed of its truly subversive potential by irony and nostalgia.

Pyzik consistently attempts to globalize the experience of the Communist East and show it as a specific variety of the great adventure of twentieth century modernity, with all its ups and downs.

Following Fisher, Pyzik looks at post-war popular culture from both sides of the Iron Curtain, searching for an alternative to contemporary capitalist realism, for culturally and politically emancipatory moments of opening. Just like the British critic, the Polish author reads popular culture very seriously, treating it as a form of “vernacular modernism”, which needs to be interpreted with the use of the most theoretically sophisticated instruments. She therefore very fluently moves in her argument between very different registers: from an analysis of feminist motifs in Polish punk from the 1980s to Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession; from interpretations of socialist realist cinema to Polish popular press from Communist times.

Communism and modernity

Writing about Polish experience with Communism, Pyzik also attempts to go beyond two complementary metaphors organizing the memory of this period: “the world upside down” and “the freezer”. In the first metaphor, the period of Communism is a world put on its head, a denial of fundamental Western values and everyday common sense, which at best led to absurdities straight out of Bareja’s films and at worst to Stalinist crimes. The second metaphor presents Communism as a “freezer”, making it impossible for nations to undergo “genuine” modernization.

In “Post-Communism” Boris Buden encourages us to look at the Western welfare state and on Communist experiments in Eastern Europe as on different variants of the same form of socialization.

Pyzik consistently attempts to globalize the experience of the Communist East and show it as a specific variety of the great adventure of twentieth century modernity, with all its ups and downs. She demonstrates that the East and the West are mutually looking at each other and inspiring each other in searching for modern forms of life.

Socialist realism, the art most often described in the narrative of anti-Communism, can be seen as “a world upside down”. Pyzik sees in it the same quest for the ideal of the happy, healthy body in a clean, wealthy, egalitarian space which inspired Western popular culture in the first half of the twentieth century. Let’s look at the painting New Moscow by Yuri Pimenov. Painted in a slightly “Impressionistic” style, it presents a young, elegant woman seen from behind, sitting at the wheel of a road cruiser with an open roof. She is heading towards a high-rise building on the horizon. She is liberated from work, home, her role of the mother, she freely submerges herself in the fabric of the great city. Technology, the city and the machine, allow her to leave the past behind, taking her towards a fulfilled promise of modern emancipation.

Wasn’t a similar dream about the city, mobility and technology dreamt of by all popular culture at that time? Pimenov’s painting would not have been out of place on a poster for some Hollywood film from the 1930s. Writing about Stalinism, we often forget how eagerly it drew on American models. Magnitogorsk, an urban monument to Soviet heavy industry, was rebuilt under Stalin’s five-year plan along the lines of American centers of the metal industry, that is Pittsburgh and Gary in Indiana. Both spaces were organized by the same dream about such a form of modern life where technology would be capable of solving the most important social problems on its own.

Not just ruins?

The West is also looking at itself in the mirror of the East. In the arguably most interesting fragment of her book, Pyzik describes how the notions of gloomy cities beyond the Iron Curtain—headed by East Berlin—became a source of inspiration for a wave of post-punk musicians from the West such as David Bowie, Ultravox or Joy Division. In fact, the latter band was initially to be called Warsaw. In such cities as the former capital of East Germany, musicians and their audiences saw a metaphorical image of the breakdown of their world—the post-war welfare state. After thirty years of flourishing, it went into a deep crisis in the 1970s, only to be violently remodelled by politicians such as Margaret Thatcher.

In “Post-Communism” Boris Buden encourages us to look at the Western welfare state and on Communist experiments in Eastern Europe as on different variants of the same form of socialization, based on mass culture, social democratization, domination of the city over the countryside, and large industrial plants as centers not only of economic life, but also of everything that is social. The downfall of Communism in our region coincided with neoliberal transformations in the West: both processes can be perceived as symptoms of the decline of some of the most general twentieth century form of organization of social life, manifesting far-reaching similarities regardless of the political and economic system.

The second discourse she takes up is Polish liberalism of the 1990s. Pyzik identifies it with the editorial line of Gazeta Wyborcza from the heyday of this daily.

When making such comparisons, one should of course recall the entire authoritarian or sometimes totalitarian nature of this variant of modernity which ruled over our region. Pyzik is aware of this and often writes about the brutal violence in “socialist democracies”. At the same time, she goes further than Buden. She seeks out inspiration for contemporary emancipatory projects in the ruins of the Communist experiment, or at least for a language which would allow us to formulate them. In the situation where capitalist realism clamps down on the future, where we are unable to imagine it as anything other than a continuation of the present, the archives of the Communist experiment in the East—or more precisely, of its heretical, abandoned side alleys– become for Pyzik a treasury of scenarios for the future which are truly different from the present.

The East of Europe turns on its pages into a monolith, perceived mostly in terms of what happened in the Soviet Union and to a lesser extent in Poland and East Germany.

Following the English writer Francis Spufford, Pyzik looks with fascination at the period of Khrushchev’s thaw, when Soviet scientists, with government support, attempted to create a new system for managing the economy based on the rapidly developing science of cybernetics. This was intended to bring about “red abundance”, a socialist consumer society wealthier than the Western one, but free of exploitation and alienation. The outcome was expected: when Brezhnev took power, he said “no experiments”. Pyzik sees in such unfulfilled projects not only ruins, but also the specter of a future which has not arrived yet, but repeatedly haunts our present.

Untimely Reflections

Four years have passed since the English edition of Poor but Sexy, and unfortunately you feel it when reading the book. The liberal domination against which the book rebels so vehemently is today much weaker than it was then. A new, populist right is on the rise. Its Polish variety combines radical anti-Communism and hostility to all which is leftist with an aversion to Western liberal universalism and its Polish spokespeople. The aggression of Pyzik’s argument against the old dominator seems therefore excessive, belated and misdirected. Contrary to the clearly leftist position of the author, it merges with contemporary right-wing anti-liberal backlash.

In many places, the author’s polemics at best repeat the arguments which have often been articulated in a more thought-out form over the last few years. At worst, they succumb to numerous simplifications, transposing on Polish reality certain Anglo-Saxon concepts which are incompatible with it (for example, she calls the Christian Democratic Liberty Union a libertarian party).

It is true that the desire of the elites from the 1990s—which today often seems childish—to disown everything “Eastern” and “Communist”, and especially their recklessness about the social costs of transition, require a critical analysis. In order, however, to make such an analysis, one must be aware of the conditions in which Poland found itself in the early 1990s and the horizon within each the decision-makers from that time were forced to act. You cannot demand the ability to think in terms from 2014 from the protagonists of events from 1989. And Pyzik’s dissatisfaction with it can be perceived in many fragments of the book.

When reading Poor but Sexy, it is also difficult to resist the impression that this book often falls into traps which the author herself set. In the end, all the (pop)cultural phenomena from the East and the West analyzed– often very brilliantly—by the author turn the book into a kind of post-communist curiosity shop, a collection of items for nostalgic consumption.

Beyond Self-Orientalism

Most importantly, the book in a sense falls into the Orientalist trap it was meant to disarm. The East of Europe turns on its pages into a monolith, perceived mostly in terms of what happened in the Soviet Union and to a lesser extent in Poland and East Germany. The peculiar experience of (pop) culture and post-Communism, characteristic for the smaller nations of the region, is completely lost in this narrative—for example, Hungary and Czechoslovakia are absent in Poor but Sexy. Additionally, many analyses are written in such a way as if there had been no constant tension between the culture and the regimes of the Eastern Bloc countries, as if culture had not been one of the areas where society, deprived of the possibilities offered by normal political life, was seeking at least some autonomy for itself.

In effect, we also often have an impression of observing someone who is looking at the East of Europe from afar, from a distance which causes Moscow, Warsaw and Budapest to merge into one—rather than a narrative of someone who can break up this optical illusion by looking from close up. The shortcomings of Poor but Sexy in this area are very well seen when we compare the book with the fantastic exhibition Notes from the Underground—exploring the connections between musical counterculture and visual arts in the former Eastern Bloc—exhibited in the late 2016 and early 2017 in the Łódź Museum of Art.

Despite all these weaknesses, Poor but Sexy is an important work; especially today when the narrative of “catching up with the West” has been replaced by an even more intellectually sterile discourse of “getting up from our knees” and an ill-conceived pride in the periphery—present in Moscow, Budapest, and Warsaw. Looking at how this discourse transforms the region, we even more poignantly see the necessity to break away from the vicious circle of imitative modernization and neo-nationalisms. Agatha Pyzik displays an apt intuition when she points out that the key to this is rethinking our attitude to the Communist experiment and our situation against the East and the West, going beyond the naively anti-Communist self-Orientalist stereotype. Although the book does not always develop this intuition in a satisfactory fashion, it does point towards intellectual quests which could be very rewarding.

Jakub Majmurek

is a political pundit, film and art critic, based in Warsaw. He cooperates on a regular basis with media such as the largest Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Aspen Review and Kino. He is part of the editorial team of Krytyka Polityczna – a leftist think tank, publishing house and internet daily. Apart from commenting on contemporary Polish politics Mr. Majmurek writes about new social movements in Europe and the US, politics of popular culture, political dimensions of contemporary cinema and art.

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