Sunday 19 January 2014

Tweeting Communism (for Sam Hardy)

Brevity is not my strong point, I have to admit. So explaining something in 140 characters on Twitter is not really my thing. Sam Hardy tweeted a 'call for papers': "Impact of the Fall of Communism on European Heritage" at #EAA2014. The link goes to a page by American University in Rome Archaeology and Classics professors Valerie Higgins and Maja Gori. I had a look, and was not impressed, so tweeted back: 
Too broad a generalization and a pretty insulting topic I'd say.
Sam tweeted me to ask what I meant. I admit to being defeated by the 140 characters limit on my explanation. So here's an expansion of my cryptic reply. Our Comnism passed away 1/4 cent. ago, but are f8ted to B contully and unjustly labelled by outsiders only "ex-comnist".
What I meant by that was the following. Put it under the "heritage" of the title of this blog.

In this proposed topic, there seems to be a regrettable lapse into stereotypes. The "fall of Communism" in Europe was not one homogeneous process, neither were the processes that followed or their final effects. The trajectory of change in Poland (thankfully) was quite divergent - and the effects diametrically different to - what happened (indeed, is still happening) in Bulgaria, and both differ from what has been and is happening in Ukraine and Belarus. I do not think that there is anything which relates what has been happening to the "heritage" in those countries, which would be independent on those various trajectories and social settings and that is even before one starts looking at former DDR where something else happened in the early 1990s (their picture is the Berlin Wall). As an example of the sort of things that should also be taken into account, I recall I heard a very interesting paper delivered about ten years ago when a young Russian scholar showed that there were some interesting correlations in the organization and operation of heritage management over the previous decade or so in central-eastern European countries with Catholic and Orthodox heritages.    

I really do not see the point of trying to cover all the complexities in a series of twenty minute papers in a single session. That will only produce either a confused and fragmentary picture or one so dumbed-down as to be without meaning.  I think we have enough of those.

It is insulting to simply lump a whole load of very diverse countries (diverse before and after 1989/1990) into one big bag: "post-Communist countries". Furthermore from my own point of view, and I lived right through it, Communism (as such) was a weak force in Poland with mainly symbolic meaning even in the late 1980s, and was not the only thing defining Poland, Polishness and what was happening on the streets and elsewhere. It was just one facet of a complex social system. So how much does being "post communist" affect life a quarter of a century on? Personally, in 2014 I doubt that it really does. I do not think its the most important thing for us now. Entry into the EU is what I would see as affecting the heritage (built, cultural and natural) here much more - not always in a positive way. As far as heritage protection goes, the effects are not so much a result of "not being under the communists", there have been several very clear phases of development in several countries (Poland included) since then, and they have nothing to do with "non-communism" but are certainly connected with economic development and the desire to "balance" the needs of the heritage and making money. Sometimes that balance is non-existent, but I see that this is by no means a problem affecting heritage management only in post-communist European states. 

I and my colleagues were writing about all the post communist changes in central and eastern Europe in the mid to late nineties, much of it in English. We went abroad and presented it at conference (earlier EAAs for example), the first attempts (mine included) were rather naive and - yes perhaps a little stereotypical - but as we distanced ourselves from it, views became more nuanced. I wonder what there is more to say about it. The younger generation of archaeologists is not really picking it up, it's a foreign world to those who did not experience it. Many of the older generation - the ones still left alive - would prefer not to return to that past. In any case they had their say when we were addressing the issues (I got into a lot of trouble over an article I wrote about the effects of marxism in Polish archaeology). As far as I am concerned, it really is yesterday's topic, we've moved on from that. It is disappointing to see a EAA session apparently asking 1990s questions in 2014. 

Vignette: In the shadow of the old Palace of Culture.


Anonymous said...

If your expectation of the session turns out to be the reality, it will be disappointing, but I'm not sure we have to expect so little. They could include a paper on the construction of identity amongst Polish factory workers on the Isle of Man.

I don't see why it's wrong to organise a session around Communism, rather than states or communities or types of material culture. And it makes it easier to get a session of interesting papers, rather than a session of any and all proposed papers.

I know that the "fall of Communism" is part of the theme, but I don't think that means they see it as a homogeneous process. A session on capitalism wouldn't assume that it was a singular phenomenon.

The (resistance to) gentrification of areas on and around the Berlin Wall (and its dismantling); ultranationalists' toppling of Lenin statues in the midst of Maidan protests in Ukraine... They're interesting issues, concerning the treatment of communist heritage in ongoing events.

Paul Barford said...

"construction of identity amongst Polish factory workers on the Isle of Man" ...

... and the connection there with the "fall of Communism" would be what, precisely?

That is exactly the kind of labelling I was talking about. I'd say in that case, the expansion of the EU is the main context of any "identity building" of that group.

Was the Lenin sculpture toppled because of "Communism", or more because the protest is about Russia? They obviously are not the same thing.

What you suggest involves the same distorting stereotypes as I was writing about, harking back to a long-vanished world, and ignoring more immediate factors.

Anonymous said...

In terms of the factory workers, I was rather thinking *if Communism was relevant* (and off the top of my head).

Obviously Communism and Russia are not the same thing, and the sculpture was not toppled because of Communism. The (possibility of) reconceptualisation of symbols of Communism as symbols of Russia (or the potential for that, depending on the mix of politics of those involved) is relevant and interesting. For example, as far as I know, they didn't destroy other (more) identifiably Russian targets.

It's not my session and I'm only trying to say that it might not be a travesty. I don't understand the need to assume the worst. The session covers "how the heritage of the communist period is received" and "the role of heritage in the forging of new identities at a local, national, and trans-national level", which would include everything without any prejudgement.

Paul Barford said...

I was referring to the initiators' chosen topic theme as (IMO): "Too broad a generalization and a pretty insulting topic" and explaining why I feel that to be the case.

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