"Don't be Such a Fetish-East!": Against the notion of "a new post-socialist culture"

Nebojsa Jovanovic

Does "Diadochic Culture" as the topic of this issue of springerin really introduce a genuine perspective in the never-ending correspondence between the Euro-West and the Euro-East in the field of contemporary art, or even more generally (and more pretentiously) speaking, in their cultural spheres? The short announcement about the spring issue of springerin that also functioned as an invitation to the magazine's contributors to write on this topic outlines several curious notions that make the concept of "a new diadochic culture" highly problematic.

Diadochic Culture? - In the now independent parts of the former power blocs, a new cultural self-awareness has crystallized, largely unnoticed by the art industry, which is too busy rushing from one art fair to another. This is particularly the case in geographical spheres that were long under the influence of the former Soviet Union. Here, a new kind of cultural sensibility has developed that can no longer be adequately described within the categories of the post-colonial. The first issue of 2004 brings together images and voices from a post-communist, neo-diadochic culture.

I shall take issue with a few points in the text. Firstly, it contains several peculiar inaccuracies. Why "the former power blocs"? The plural can only mean that we are dealing with both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, but the rest of the text reads as if we are talking exclusively about the former Eastern power bloc. Furthermore, which "now independent parts" are we talking about? If we are talking about states, then we have to recall that, even during the bipolar Cold-War divide, the constituent parts of the power blocs were already independent nation-states - it will suffice to look at the structure of NATO today to confirm this rather obvious fact. On the other hand, we have the ambiguous concept of "geographical spheres that were long under the influence of the former Soviet Union" (why this redundant "former"? As the USSR no longer exists, it would be enough to say simply "the Soviet Union"); are we focusing only on the former Soviet republics? - if not, then it must be clarified what sort of influence we have in mind. Of course, gaining state independence is hardly the paradigmatic post-socialist experience: are the experiences of Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, or - to take quite the opposite case, which also shows that independence is not necessarily an inevitable outcome of the shattering of the ex-socialist regimes - the GDR less representative than, for instance, those of the Czech Republic and Slovakia? For, if political independence is a sine qua non of "a new kind of cultural sensibility ", then the Polish or the Hungarian experience would be placed out of the field of an allegedly new "diadochic" post-socialist culture. Nevertheless, if we are supposed to talk exclusively about the newly independent states, it is evident that, for example, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia do not share the same experience as Croatia, Slovenia or Bosnia-Herzegovina, just as the USSR and Czechoslovakia did not splinter in the same way. The microcosm of the post-Yugoslav states is a cogent example: although parts of the same socialist state, the post-socialist paths taken by Croatia and Kosovo, for instance, have been irreducibly different just as the experience of Slovenia has been hardly similar to that of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In a nutshell, the rich and diverse variety of political experiences after the fall of socialism in the European East quashes the possibility of introducing any far-fetched idea of one unified post-socialist experience. Given the myriad of different and often mutually contradictory political and economic phenomena in the Euro-East, it is impossible to expect the emergence of "a new cultural self-awareness" or "a post-communist (sic!), neo-diadochic culture". The very invention of this alleged new cultural mode says little, if anything, about the post-socialist realities of Europe; above all, it shows that the Euro-West is still quite prone to devising new conceptualizations of the Euro-East. It seems that the story of a new cultural sensibility is likely to replace the previous predominant narrative describing the relationship between the Euro-East and the Euro-West: namely, the narrative of transition. According to this conceptualization, which reached its apogee in the quasi-scientific discourse of transitology and consolidology, the Euro-East has to undergo the process of transition, receiving the pre-packaged shot of Western democracy and capitalist ideology. Needless to say, the main problem with transitology lies precisely in the dogmatic notion that liberal democracy and capitalism are the only cure for post-socialist maladies. The usual complaint aimed at transitology can thus be formulated as follows: is not transitology a re-working of the old prejudice of the supremacy of the West over the East/Orient/Third World etc.; or, in psychoanalytical terms, a mere phantasmal framework introducing a gap between itself and the Other - a gap which can never be traversed? The Other is supposed to begin a movement to reach the West, but perfect harmony can never be attained- some asymptotic distance will always remain. A more radical reading should point out that the distance from the East matters only as a phantasmal cover-up for the distances, barriers and delays that characterize the West itself, thus revealing the West not as coherent and deprived of all antagonisms, but as a heterogeneous and inconsistent system.

The concept of a new post-socialist culture should be understood within the same phantasmal framework, but with a new twist to the content of the fantasy: in this new fantasy, the Euro-East has been transformed from the object that is to be cultivated and gentrified by the Western democratic order into the Lacanian "subject supposed to know" (or, referring to the notion of "a new sensibility" - the "object supposed to feel"). While the phantasmal framework of transitology tried to maintain the illusion of the West about itself as the solid ground for the East to step onto after its troubled journey of post-socialist transition, the new fantasy of a post-socialist cultural sensibility introduces a dose of insipid self-criticism: the Euro-West, i.e. its art world, has become completely ignorant and self-indulgent, decadent and occupied with lavish art spectacles - "too busy rushing from one art fair to another" - obviously deriving narcissistic enjoyment from such mild self-criticism. The Euro-East, on the other side, holds the keys to the secret knowledge embodied in some volatile new sensibility that can be used as the panacea for the Euro-Western art-aches. Naturally, new artistic practices and initiatives, novel approaches and inventive treatments can be traced and found in the Euro-East - but are they not to be found elsewhere as the features of art itself, and not as an exclusive possession of the art of the Euro-East? Nevertheless, here this new cultural sensibility is presented as the main quality of the Euro-East, owing to the fetishistic structure of this fantasy: "I know very well (that it's just an ordinary shoe), but nevertheless (I believe it is somehow more than that - it is the key to erotic gratification, it is the real object of my libidinal investment)." Or, in our concrete case, we all know very well that the art world in the Euro-East is in a much less enviable state than the Western art world; that the post-socialist experiences have been anything but beneficial to the art in the post-socialist countries. Therefore, we know very well that the state of things in the cultural fields in the Euro-East may not be better, if in fact it is not worse, than in the Euro-West, but, nonetheless, what I can glean in all this paucity is nothing short of a new genuine cultural sensibility. This phantasmal belief tries to fill the void that lies not in the picture that the Euro-West has built about the Euro-East, but the picture that some of the more refined Euro-Western artistic nonpareils have about themselves. There is an uncanny feeling that there is something rotten in the existing art practices and theories in the West; but articulating the cause of this anxiety would require much more than a mere statement about Westerners are running from one glitzy art fair to another - it would require radical reflection on the part of the Euro-West itself, a thorough re-examination of the political, economic and, above all, ideological background of its current position. The most crucial part of this re-examination would be answering the following question: can Euro-Western artists and theoreticians conceive Western artistic plurality in any other way than the "art industry" or the "art market"? In other words, can art today exist outside of the realm of capital? My premise is that the answer to this question is "no", and that this is why Euro-Western art has to be analyzed and criticized, not as belonging to some celestial world of pure culture or art, but as an integral element of the dirty, earthly campaigns of the capitalist economy. Thus, if the Euro-West is still deluded about there being forms of new cultural sensibility in the Euro-East, it is because the Euro-West is utterly misguided by a na´ve belief that the Euro-East is unspoiled by capital and commodification, an almost Rousseauean notion of a sensitive post-socialist savage uncastrated by capital, a model from which the Euro-West itself could learn how to avoid the kismet ushered in by the market of self-absorbed art fairs. The Euro-West can hardly learn anything radical from the Euro-East in the sphere of culture these days that could not be found amongst other existing sensibilities and initiatives in the Western art scene. It is our modest proposal, however, that it is high time the West learned something about itself from its own misconceptions. It is a bit idle to expect any of the current inter-changing phantasmal notions of the East to be 'the right one', the Hegelian detour through the error after which the subject of knowledge (for instance, a benevolent art theoretician from some Western metropolis) will eventually grasp the truth of its own position. A Lacanian lesson about fantasy says that fantasy is there not to be interpreted but traversed: traversing the fantasy of a new post-socialist cultural sensibility will have to take the form of the artistic Euro-West facing its own internal antagonisms, the majority of which are propelled by the fact that the logic of Western "art industry" is nothing but the logic of capital. And there is no new "diadochic" or any other "-chic", fanciful spectre that can rescue us from that.

This text was published in Springerin, 01/ 2004