Post-Communist Translations

Synonyms, Homonyms and Palindromes

Suzana Milevska

Is the post-communist condition translatable into the language of post-colonialism, and does one really need such a translation in order to extrapolate the post-communist experience, even if it is theoretically viable; or, to put it in other words, is the post-colonial discourse becoming a hegemonic academic language for explaining the "becoming post-communist" situation?

Let me start this text with a linguistic joke about the possibility/impossibility of translation. The question is: why can't a Bulgarian man enjoy himself and come when given oral sex by a Macedonian woman? The answer is: because he doesn't recognize the existence of her language. I will not go into any kind of gender or psychoanalytic analysis of the joke, although all the elements for such an interpretation are so obviously present: the unconscious structured as language, the woman that does not exist (because her language, and therefore her unconscious does not exist), the hegemonic power of the law of the father, the desire of the other as our own desire, etc. What I actually want to emphasize here is the fact that when the joke is told in English it lacks its culmination: the crucial pun, in which the political conflict between the Bulgarian and Macedonian linguists and politicians with regard to the viability of any kind of linguistic differentiation between the two neighboring languages is intertwined with the sexual allusion, remains opaque to an English-speaking audience simply because the Slav word jazik (Bulg. and Mac. for language) in both languages is a homonym that stands for both "tongue" and "language". The irony of the fact that only Bulgarians and Macedonians can understand this linguistic - but also cultural and political - joke without any further explanation of the context ties in with the main aim of this text: to focus on one of the crucial problems discussed in the context of post-colonial theory - the concept of cultural translation - but only in order to emphasize the limitations of this concept when the post-communist condition is in question. The complex implication of the joke about the potent man whose sexual satisfaction is hindered by his strict political mission to deny the legitimacy of the language spoken by his object of desire (who thus is denied the status of a subject) has to do with its reminiscence of the orthodox communist belief that politics and political missions, as well as economic issues, come first. Culture and or any personal pleasures can be only a supplement. Within the framework of post-colonial theory, this order was reversed: here, cultural translation is meant to reveal the symptoms of political and economic conditions by deconstructing the codes of translational procedures and processes from one culture into another and thus emphasizing the importance of that supplement: in Derridean terms, the supplement does not come to fill the empty space of some manqué, but was there from the very start. While the post-colonial discourse is marked by a kind of critique of the concrete colonial and post-empire situation, many of the questions that were raised are condemned to remain unanswered, since its own initiators have denied the political impact of the project from the start. The problematic political ethic of the post-colonial discourse of "hybridity" has been targeted by Terry Eagleton as "a drastically impoverished kind of political ethic in contrast to affirmation of human solidarity and reciprocity".[1] It thus comes as no surprise that various of Bhabha's passages, such as "to that end we should remember that it is the ›inter‹ - the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between space - that carries the burden of the meaning of culture" [2], inevitably provoked severe criticism for not tackling the political burden, or for being "dangerously close to dismissing all searches for communitarian origins". [3] What once sounded like a clear political agenda of the cultural studies project, as with Stuart Hall and Franz Fannon, has gradually become diffused into a kind of neutral and joyful in-between-ness of hybrid identities and easily translatable tragedies and traumas of lower-class identities in the language of upper-class academics. [4] Any attempt to translate the specificity of the post-communist condition by applying post-colonial theory and its emphasis on the hidden cultural mechanisms of power inevitably faces the problems pinpointed by the criticism that has already been launched at the post-colonial discourse precisely because of its political ambiguity and privileging of culture. What I am trying to point out here is that, surprisingly, although the notions of hybridity, creolisation, translation, de-territorialisation, etc. have already been put under a magnifying glass, and although their shortcomings and inconsistencies have, more or less successfully, been tackled by these unflattering critics of the postcolonial project, many intellectuals from Eastern Europe and the Balkans have hastened to adopt the post-colonial vocabulary. This questioning of the relations between the cultural and political within the post-colonial theoretical context - bearing in mind one possible interpretation that the cultural has been favored and privileged over the political as a form of escapism from more relevant political tensions in contemporary liberal democracies - gives rise to a few other questions, thus emphasizing the complexity of the intertwined and mutually reciprocal narratives of post-colonial and post-communist discourse. Some of the most relevant directions to take here could be to address the issues connected with the intertwining of regional and universal values in culture, and the difference between cultural specificity and the notion of singularity. [5] Despite the common denominators shared by post-colonialism and post-communism, such as globalization, transition, nation-state, hegemonic power, bio power, etc., (it should not be forgotten how deeply post-colonial theory is indebted to Marxism), the danger of overlooking possible homonymic misunderstandings still remains. This is mainly because all the transformations that ensued after the collapse of the USSR and SFRY, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and more or less dramatic system changes in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania are being discussed merely in a political and economic context, while the transition from colonial to post-colonial has actually been "localized" within the cultural critique of narratives of colonialism, chiefly due to the dominance of post-colonial academics born under colonial conditions but educated in the West. This text, therefore, is not, and cannot be, related to any kind of call to apply the post-colonial language to the post-communist condition, mainly because this could lead to the post-colonial discourse's paradoxically becoming another political example of hegemonic and colonizing discourse. This said, the links between these two phenomena from different corners of the world cannot be denied. From the start, it is clear that these links are not homogenous or a one-way street. While the post-Marxist discourse connects the post-colonial and post-communist in a very complex net of relations that can hardly be temporalised and hierarchised, it is globalization that puts them in an uncomfortable, forced synonymic battle against it. Any listing of synonyms and places of intersection between the two conditions could be an all too ambitious task, since such an analysis should be embedded in the complex history of these vast periods. What I want to do is not to locate the moments of homonymic divergence either, since deconstructing this homonymy would need a more careful and extended argumentation than the length of this text allows. However, the symmetry or asymmetry between the post-colonial and post-communist conditions cannot be discussed without one's noticing the crucial problem that underlies both conditions in a similar but reverse order: the master-slave relationship. Actually, the master-slave dialectic is a kind of palindrome (in metaphoric, not linguistic terms) that stands in the middle between the post-colonial and post-communist conditions. It cannot be ever translated properly, even though it reads the same from each direction (as is the case with palindromes in every language: they are different and untranslatable). By saying this, I am not claiming that the Hegelian pair overshadows all other problems to be discussed. It is just the concept that clarifies the whole problem of possibility of "translation" of the post-communist condition into the wider "universal" language of post-colonialism. In order to clarify the untranslatability of the master-slave dialectics, as set out in Franz Fanon's and Homi K. Bhabha's takes on the issue, into the post-communist situation, we can focus on Slavoj Zizek's account of the Marxian notion of commodity fetishism, which he discusses via Lacan's work. He first defines commodity fetishism as being "a definite social relation between men that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things". [6] The value of a certain commodity assumes the quasi "natural" property of another commodity - money. Accordingly, the essential feature of commodity fetishism does not imply the famous replacement of man with things ("a relation between men assumes the form of a relation between things"); "rather, it consists in a certain misrecognition which concerns the relations between a structured network and one of its elements". [7] When it comes to identification with things, Zizek makes a paradoxical turn, stating that commodity fetishism appears in capitalist societies where there is exchange between free people, whereas commodity fetishism does not exist in societies where there is a relation of fetishism between people themselves - the pre-capitalist societies. According to Zizek, commodity fetishism is not developed there because these societies have a "natural" mode of production - things are not produced for the market. [8] In societies, however, where relations between people are not "relations of domination and servitude", where people see in their partners only other subjects that share the same interest and that interest them only if they possess something - a commodity that can satisfy their needs, the commodity fetishism -, the social relation between things serves as a cover for the real social relations between individuals, which can be treated as a "hysteria of conversion". [9] My take on this argument would be that the communist attempt to break with any kind of fetishist relations "of domination and servitude" between people on the one hand and toward commodities on the other brought about a kind of dissolution of the master-slave dichotomy, so that, when the communists failed to achieve this intended break, the whole dialectic affair had to undergo a reconstruction. I would argue that, throughout the transition from communism to post-communism, master-slave relations started to be re-established in a very chaotic and unpredictable way, one that was not based on uniquely racial, ethnic, or gender criteria. Whereas in the post-colonial situation the imperial "master"- and -"slave" dichotomic model that was at work during the period of colonial dominance could have a reverse development as a potentiality (which was nevertheless supplemented very quickly by a capitalist model of a similar kind), in the post-communist situation the master-slave dialectics had to undergo more profound revisions - and this phase is still taking place. The ex- "owners" of factories and means of production promised equality and brotherhood, which were never completely realised as political reality. We became prisoners of the strategic situation dictated by our own "desire to be agents of the developed society". [10] In many ways, there was much more to lose than in the colonial situation: the ideal of equality and solidarity, even though it remained in the realm of ideals, was replaced by the ideal of democracy, market economy and endless consumption, which is also more in the realm of ideals than in the realm of actuality. As Zygmunt Bauman states in his essay on the historical and political implications of the collapse of communism: "The world without an alternative needs self-criticism as a condition of survival and decency" [11]. In view of the fact that post-colonialism is not very successful in exercising self-criticism in its own context, it is difficult to imagine that it can offer potential strategies for self-criticism of the post-communist condition. However, one can learn from its mistakes. To return to the joke quoted at the start: it is important to note that the importance accorded to cultural translation in post-colonial theory as a kind of indicator of inner societal controversies is exaggerated. Such translation cannot prove or clarify anything unless the political background of the phenomena is tackled. Profound research into the political framework behind these phenomena is necessary before one can understand the reasons for a successful or unsuccessful interaction of cultures.

1 Terry Eagleton. "Postcolonialism and ›Postcolonialism‹" Interventions,1:1 (1998-1999), p.26. Quoted from Peter Hallward. Absolutely Postcolonial. Writing between the Singular and the Specific. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press. 2001, p.338, n. 34.

2 Homi K. Bhabha. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1998, p. 38.

3 Ella Shohat. Notes on the Post-Colonial. Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: A Reader. Ed. Padmini Mongia. London: Arnold, 1996, p. 330, Quoted from Peter Hallward. Absolutely Postcolonial. p.36, n. 94

4 Slavoj Zizek. The Spectre is still Roaming Around - an introduction to the 150th anniversary edition of Communist Manifesto. Zagreb, Croatia: Arkzin d.oo, 1998, p. 70.

5 In his Absolutely Postcolonial Peter Hallward offers a profound insight into the recent critical debates on the shortcomings of the post-colonial discourse from a post-Marxist position that is not simply a call for more specificity or contextualisation (according to him that is where the limits of other critiques lie) but a demand for re-evaluation of the distinction made in these texts between the specific and singular, emphasising the danger of being entrapped in the realm of specified.

6 Slavoj Zizek. "How did Marx Invent the System". in Mapping of Ideology, ed. by S. Zizek. London, New York: Verso, 1999, p. 308.

7 Ibid., p. 310.

8 Ibid., p. 310.

9 Ibid., p. 314

10 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason - Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge Massachusetts, London, England: Harvard University Press 1999, p. 357.

11. Zygmunt Bauman. "Living without Alternative". In Post-Marxism. A reader. Ed. by Stuart Sim. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998. p. 100.

This text was published in Springerin, 01/2004