Issue 2/2016 - Parallax Views

Opening Up History

Marta Dziewańska in conversation with Boris Buden

MD: Invited to speak about the canon, I cannot start but from the perspective of my own practice and the ways in which the canon has been formulated and how it has been practiced at my home institution which is the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. There’s no doubt that all canons are embedded in certain time and space: they reflect times and with more or less success try to grasp and define their stakes and meanings.
By making 1989 the heart of the program and the core of the collection, we deliberately concentrated on something dynamic. Rather than stabilizing or commemorating the momentum – precisely located in time and thus real, we concentrate on the dynamic idea of transgression – applicable to political, social as well as individual perspectives – which allows us to search and propose both new visions of the future and new interpretations of the past. I am saying that [in order] to set the scope of how I understand the issue of „the canon“”– as a dynamic relation towards time which is always formulated from a certain – more or less clear – perspective. This is exactly why, thinking about the canon and the shifting paradigms after '89 and in the 2000s, which is the topic of this conversation, we cannot ignore the present political shifts. The current situation in Poland – which obviously sets my perspective – is a symptom of some broader tendency and I think it shouldn’t be ignored when we want to speak seriously about a post-89 European canon.
With all that in mind, I have lately got back to the essay you, Boris, wrote few years ago called Nothing to complete, something to start.1 In it, you say that the democratic revolution was believed to have ended the epoch of totalitarianism and that event of 1989 was supposed to mark the new beginning. However – and here you signal your doubt – there was nothing really new in the goals that were set out to be achieved: democracy, human rights, free market and public open space, etc. All of them were already there, in Western Europe. Therefore, you say, the 1989 revolution seemed to be „culturally localized“ – it was clearly „easternized“. It’s appealing to speak in this context about what Habermans called the „catching-up“ revolution or about a certain belatedness of a historical development of the East. You yourself often use the image of infantile innocence of the East calling for the patronage of the West.

It’s all very thought-provoking. However, I am not sure if that description is not too schematic [...] If we complicate the image a little bit – which is also a way in which I am trying to grasp the change which is happening today in Poland, but also in Hungary, France or Denmark – we suddenly see that this dichotomist, logical and chronological model is not really operative. A quick glimpse back shows that in 1989 when Poland was only discovering democracy, the so-called Western countries since the beginning of the 80s were confronted with globalism and its problems. The same goes for the capitalism: Poland started to treat it as a religion in the very moment where the rest of the world started to question neoliberalism. These examples can be multiplied and every country has its specificities. What I am trying to say by this is that the Western example was already fragile and as such rather than the point of arrival, it was a point of departure.
Therefore the question about the accounts of the current contempt for democratic norms in some of Europe’s newest but also ‚old’ democracies seem to be concerning the European project as a whole. And this is exactly the place where I think the issue of the canon – its construction, receptivity and rules – should be actively addressed. Not in terms of exported/imported ideas or models more or less successfully adapted to the post communist realities. Not even in terms of exported/imported stories – neglected before and retrieved for the now universalized canon. I think to deal with what is happening around [us now], we really need to stop to boldly divide [the] world (and thus our imagination) into mutually exclusive, clear-cut categories. The questions of the past never repeat in the same way, they mutate in time in more or less unexpected ways.

BB: I would like to refocus our attention to the present, which is the present of the crisis, not only a crisis of the East, but a general crisis, a crisis we all share. The problem is how to articulate the awareness of this crisis, because we cannot simply speak from the position of universal knowledge. Over the last 20 years I have been in the position of what Gayatri Spivak calls the „native informant,“ the figure that feeds the knowledge on the East, makes it possible, yet doesn’t exist for this knowledge, the ‚foreclosed condition of its possibility’ as Spivak would say. But the notion of „native“ also refers to those who have no history. At stake is rather a classical difference between the civilized and the natives. So the question is whether we native informants from the East have a history to tell or the only history we have is always told by someone else. In fact, Slovenian philosopher Rastko Močnik wrote that the concept of the East has an ideological function in terms that it implies historical oblivion.2 This is closely connected to how Habermas defined the events of 1989 as a catching-up revolution, as Marta already mentioned. It implies that the East is historically belated. This is why it has to catch up with the West. The problem is, however, that this makes the history of the East completely irrelevant because it is the history of this belatedness, a history that was nothing but an obstacle for a normal development. It is a history that, as Močnik says, should be better forgotten. Moreover, the notion of the East, according to Močnik, deprives both sides not only of their respective histories but also of a common history. Anytime you speak from the position of the East, you cannot, not only epistemologically, address a common history. To put it briefly: this normative identity block called „East“ is not only a time space that is defined by its historical belatedness; it is also defined by its historical oblivion, moreover, it generates an overall historical oblivion. „The East“ is, therefore, a concept of the post-history also in Fukuyama’s terms. I think that Fukuyama’s thesis – and we know that the idea of post-history was originally elaborated by Alexandre Kojève more than 50 years before – should be taken seriously. We no longer live in history, we no longer have one, and we are no longer able to tell our history either. It was Pierre Nora who argued that what used to be history before has been replaced by memory. This, and not a history, is what a native informant provides today. And this is why we can no longer ask professional historians to tell us what really happened in the former, socialist Yugoslavia, in the Soviet Union or the so-called former East. They have lost the monopoly on historical truth they had enjoyed before, so everybody can take part in the creation of our past, not only professional historians but artists and curators as well. Now the past is a political stake like never before. During the political campaign for the parliamentary election the right wing nationalist party was attacking its opponents, a local version of a belated Blairist social-democrats, as Bolsheviks, as though we are in the early 1920s. Of course this is a completely ahistorical notion, which has no reference to the political reality today, except that it addresses and reproduces certain memories. The same applies to the notion of totalitarianism. In his article The Function of the Signifier ‚Totalitarianism’ in the Constitution of the „East Art“ Field Slovenian theorist Miklavž Komelj showed how the concept of totalitarianism retroactively unifies the space of the post-communist East as the space of a common experience of totalitarianism.3 Needless to say, it erases all the complexity, contradictions within the experience of what is today called historical communism from 1917 to 1989 and from Beijing and Vladivostok to Prague and Belgrade. It also erases all the difference within this space, like the one between the East-block type of command economy and Yugoslav self-management. As a result, we have forgotten for instance that Yugoslav communists perceived the Soviet system as a form of state monopoly capitalism. Unfortunately the resolution of the European parliament in 2008, which proclaims the experience of totalitarianism, i.e. of Communism, Nazism and Fascism as a shared European legacy only deepens the historical oblivion. It also makes us blind to openly neo-fascist transformations in Eastern Europe today, I mean particularly the situation in Hungary, Poland and also Croatia today. There is a new political vertical from the Adriatic to the Baltic grounded in an ideological hybrid of the western pro-life movement, classical middle European clerical fascism, and a revival of the classical German – that of Ernst Nolte – historical revisionism. And it is extremely hostile to both, classical political liberalism and the migrants coming to Europe today. Today the European liberal center is either falling apart or is too weak to oppose this new political power. Take the example of Croatia where almost the whole cultural elite opposes the new minister of culture who is an open historical revisionist, coming from a party, which was founded by Ante Pavelić, the Ustaša leader and whose only political mission in culture is to clean it from everything that is liberal, left, even bourgeois democratic, which is all for him simply Communism. As I said before, he is a historical revisionist who understands 1945 as a defeat and sees himself and his political stakes as victorious now after the fall of Communism. This is even more dangerous today when Europe is crumbling under the so-called migrant crisis. It is not by chance that it was precisely a magazine for refugees in Ljubljana in the early 1990s, most of whom escaped Croatian and Bosnian war at that time, that reminded us – disappointed by the unwillingness of Europe to take more refugees from the Balkans – that this Europe was once already united under the fascist rule. During the Second World War almost all European nations formed Quisling regimes that backed Mussolini and Hitler, even sending their troops to fight the Red Army in the East. This was a time when Croatian legionaries were fighting in Stalingrad, of course not for a great Croatia, but in the name of European civilization against Communism, which was understood as a form of Asiatic barbarism. The fact is that only in the European south was there a militarily significant resistance to fascism, in Yugoslavia, Greece and to some extent in Italy. The rest of Europe was liberated from its outside. This is why historical revisionism in combination with a dehistoricized concept of totalitarianism is so dangerous today. An Italian historian, Domenico Losurdo, showed that historical revisionism, which presents Nazi-fascism as an overreaction to the original evil of Bolshevism, in short, argues that Auschwitz is but an overreaction in the attempt to prevent the Gulag, so he showed that the targets of historical revisionism are not so much Bolshevism and Lenin but the French Revolution and even the Enlightenment itself.4 Some American historians even spoke of an „arid terror“ of the Encyclopédie accusing the philosophers of enlightenment for totalitarianism. This is not so far from what French historian François Furet wrote in the 1970s in his seminal „Penser la Révolution française“, namely that the French Revolution is only one event among many important events in the history of the French nation and in 1978 declared the French Revolution finally over. In fact this is not so far from what I experienced in Croatia already 1990 in the last days of Communism. The new movement of, as it looked like at that time, liberal democratic citizens mobilized its forces to return to the main square the statue of Ban Jelačić which was removed after WWII and to give back to the square its original name of Ban Jelačić
square. Under the Communist rule it was also renamed the Square of the Republic. And nobody asked at that time what is wrong with the „Square of the Republic“ and why the statue of Jelačić
was removed. In 1848 he fought the Revolution in Vienna and in Hungary as a faithful servant of the Habsburg Monarchy, in short he fought the democratic movement in Europe to save reactionary absolutism. In the name of democracy we all accepted this symbolical change and the idea that the old is somehow always better than the new, even if it was a symbol of a historical reaction that fought what is supposed to be the most precious historical legacy of Europe today, its liberal democratic revolutions. It was no wonder later during the war in Croatia when the Croatian army, its pioneer units, started to destroy systematically the most precious works of Yugoslav abstract modernist art, some of the greatest abstract monuments in the world. The public accepted it tacitly as just another, although quite weird, sign of liberal democracy.

MD: Listening to what you say I suddenly thought of Untimely Meditations where Nietzsche speaks about the ways in which we deal with, but also use history. If you remember that, he enumerates three approaches to history: the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical. When describing them, he is equally suspicious of each. Criticizing all three of them? How come? He says there that the monumental history is a sort of a mindless cult of the past, an antiquarian approach – that seems to be a stupid drudgery of philologists, uninspiredly searching for a continuity of tradition. We would suppose that the third – the critical approach would be approved by Nietzsche, but not at all. The critical stance, as he says, often turns into an uncritical focusing on the present, taken to be the seat of the ultimate truth – which for him is equally poisonous. For Nietzsche history ceases to be useful when it is ‚harmful to life’. But what does „life“ mean since we’ve just said that it is definitely not a simple synonym of the ‚present’? It seems that ‚life’ stands for ‚activity’ for him: looking at things in their dynamics while also taking into account the dynamics of the one who addresses them. Therefore, all looking at the past would be a way of tampering with time: a glance backwards sets into motion not merely the past but also the present moment. The Nietzschean way of generalized ‚setting in motion’ can be inspirational when we search not only for the new descriptions of both the past and the now, but also of new ideas for the future.

BB: It is good to talk about Nietzsche’s On the Use and Abuse of History for Life. This is a crucial text because it reminds us of something, which is needed again today, a critical and skeptical attitude towards an omnipresent obsession with the past, which is also one of the main features of contemporary art today. I am talking about the past and the forms of producing and reproducing it, be it a collective or cultural memory or the so-called cultural heritage. This is not what we called history before. I also think of what Fredric Jameson meant when he opened his The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act with the famous words: „always historicize!“ The question is, however, how to do it now in the age of post-history? That history that according to Fukuyama ended in the 1990s was not a history of human kind from its beginnings until nowadays. Rather it was precisely what Reinhart Koselleck called history as subject, or history as collective singular, which was only 200 years old. This was radically different from what history had been before the French Revolution: a circle of experience that was endlessly recurring. This was a history one could learn from, a „magistra vitae,“ because the life of one generation was not significantly different from the life of the previous generations, so was the experience of fathers useful for their sons and daughters. This radically changed with the French Revolution. History became the subject, the space of a new experience, so that Frederick the Great could say that the fate of the sons is to repeat the stupidities of their fathers. This history that was able to create the new is what supposedly ended in 1989/90. What has left is the past and various cultural forms of its production. The problem is, however, how to navigate in this post-historical time? As we have learned from Jameson, the logic of late capitalism is in fact a cultural logic. So the past today is not simply a dimension of time. We recognize today the past as past only through a cultural difference. Nothing proves it better than our obsession with so-called cultural heritage. There is a beautiful title of David Lowenthal’s book on cultural heritage: The past is a foreign country. These are the first words of L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between from 1953. In other words, we are able to recognize the past as a dimension of time only insofar as it is articulated through a cultural difference, a difference created by various cultural practices. And this is what we should be critically aware of. At stake is a skepticism towards this cultural obsession with the past, a skepticism that is in fact a traditional leftist stance. At stake is not only Nietzsche, but also Walter Benjamin. We should remember his famous text on Eduard Fuchs as collector and historian, which ends with a critique of the so-called cultural history. Benjamin says something like: „Cultural history accumulates cultural treasure on the back of humanity yet it never provides the strength to shake off this burden and take [control of ] the treasure it gives mankind, the power to shake these treasures off and take them into its own hands.“ This is what the so-called East is today, a pile of aesthetic values or simply a container of a particular cultural heritage, in short an identity. So the East has a culture, it has a culturally generated identity, yet it has no history whatsoever, so nobody knows what to do with this cultural heritage except to offer it to the western gaze as an object of its esthetic enjoyment or as a topic of its art-history writing. This is why I think that we should remember this old Marxist notion of history as the history of class struggle. At stake is not an old/new understanding of history but rather making of it. It makes no sense to wait for a new clever generation of left-wing intellectuals that would forge new concepts for understanding the history and the world in which we live today. This time, this new language will be decided in the struggle itself, not necessarily from the position of what is today called theory. Fredric Jameson recently wrote that what we call theory today is a form of conceptual installations. So the very structure of theory production can be understood in terms of an artistic practice. There is definitely this need for a new language of theory, but I don’t think artists will create it. Instead of becoming the creators of such a new language we should identify ourselves with this position of translators, but not those who will translate the homogeneous language of a real political praxis, that is, its struggles and class conflicts into the language of reflection, but do what translators truly do – liberating another foreign language from the very heart of the language we believe is our mother tongue.

MD: I agree. But this is exactly why I mentioned Nietzsche: for him the history is not any sort of artifact. It’s not there ready for us and waiting simply to be reconstructed. On the contrary: the history needs to be constantly constructed: retrieved - yes, but then interpreted, translated and confronted with what is. Also, it’s always said from a certain position, but this is rather obvious. And you are right: this is pure Benjamin, even if he complicates it all much further. There’s however something extremely vital in his „obsession with the past“ in my sense. What he seems to be doing is to activate time. His dealing with the past, suddenly, exactly like the Nietzschean ‚setting in motion’, has nothing to do with a mere turning in a particular direction so as to look from an immobile ‚here and now’ to an equally static and stable ‚over there’. On the contrary: the gesture of turning towards contains an element of turning away, thus a fundamental shift, suspending one’s prior stance. There is no question of any annulment or abandonment of position but rather a moment of disorientation, which entails the possibility of a surprising over there and a different here and now. However, if I understand it well: the focus is definitely on the present.
And I do agree that rather than creators of the new language we should be its translators. But again: the translator’s task is to activate the text. And indeed, it seems to me that only in this double perspective – the space in between the two (the original and the translation, the canon and its margin, the center and the periphery and their ceaseless and dynamic interplay) in that shared space – it is possible to propose new descriptions. Well, it sounds like a „message of hope“, but I guess I am simply trying to introduce the possibility of the language that will potentially help us to understand, describe and deal with the current crisis [...]

BB: I think there is generally a reason for hope. Look at what is happening these days in Warsaw. It is a true political drama. We don’t know in which direction this will go. At stake is the contingency of history, its openness towards the future. This is what Warsaw is a location of today. It is no longer the location of historical belatedness, of a lack of democratic culture as in the gaze of the West, which says: „If there would have been more democratic culture in Poland, like in the western countries, this anti-democratic nationalist mobilization would have never happened.“ In fact there is a general belief that the West is in control of its past and that its highly developed memory cultures, its monuments, its museums of history, its „lieux de memoire,“ where generations visiting Buchenwald and Auschwitz learned to differentiate between good an evil is the best guarantee that the horrors of the past will never happen again. But I think that the real hope lies rather in not falling again into this trap of belatedness and in the refusal to think of Fascism as just another feature of the East’s belated identity. The hope is in the refusal to conceive of the West is an embodiment of a sublated [aufgehobener] totalitarianism, of democracy and normality that does not need history because it is always already on time, moreover, because it is but the very measure of time. But again, what is at stake, is the critical awareness of historical contingency; and we are already aware of it because we are scared. This is a fear with function; it helps us to survive. So the threat of a fascism that comes from the future, not from the past, a threat that is so clearly felt these days in Warsaw, Zagreb or Budapest reminds us of what has been forgotten – the historical contingency, the fact that the outcome is still open. This is also what has been forgotten when it comes to the communist past. Take the example of former Yugoslavia, which is now seen as having been a sort of ideological and political hybrid in-between the West and the East, a vision that only confirms both as essentially separate and clearly differentiated entities. For me the case of Yugoslavia is not about an identitarian in-between-ness but rather about historical contingency. When it split from the Soviet block in 1948 the Yugoslav Communist party had no idea of what to do. The only thing they knew for sure was that they could no longer follow the Soviet model. So, in a state of panic they started to read utopian socialists, anarchists, to study the history of Paris Commune coming to conclusion that the Soviet system is, I quote: „[...] a form of the state monopoly capitalism that is even worse than the western one“. And it was out of the same historical panic that they invented the self-management and soon joined the movement of non-aligned countries. They acted out of historical contingency, not out of a knowledge of history. They were like illiterate people who suddenly found themselves on the stage of a historical drama with an audience expecting them to act. And they acted, not to occupy some hybrid space between Communist East and capitalist West, but to find their own way to the future. To become aware again of this historical contingency today is for me an answer to Fredric Jameson’s claim „always historicize!“



1 Marta Dziewańska, Ekaterina Degot, Iliya Budraĭtskis (eds.), Post-Post-Soviet? Art, Politics & Society in Russia at the Turn of the Decade. Warsaw 2013, Museum of Modern Art, pp. 183–193.
2 Cf. Rastko Močnik, Will the East’s past be the West’s future? Le passé de l’est sera-t-il l’avenir de l’ouest? In: Frontières invisibles: Lille 3000. Oostkamp 2009, Stichting kunstboek pp. 170–173.
3 Cf. Miklavž Komelj in his lecture “The Function of the Signifier ‘Totalitarianism’ in the Constitution of the ‘East Art’ Field”, given at the Workers’-Punks’ University (Ljubljana) on May 15, 2008 (manuscript).
4 Cf. Domenico Losurdo, War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century. London/New York 2015, Verso, p. 5.