Reviews Dissertation review. Making culture governable
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 58-59, Vol II:3-4
Published on balticworlds.com on februari 18, 2010
Life behind the Iron Curtain is known mostly through stories of individual suffering and macro pictures of politics and economy. Management practices in the centralized systems are rarely the focus of research. Egle Rindzeviciute’s dissertation helps fill this gap, while confirming an observation made by Hungarian-Swedish economic historian György Péteri: the curtain was made not of iron but of nylon — impenetrable but transparent. Similar processes occurred on both sides of the curtain, a result not of “convergence”, but of local translations of translocal trends.
Rindzeviciute chose a fascinating subject: central management of the cultural sector in Lithuania after World War II. A pilot study, inspired by her personal experience as an art historian and curator in post-1989 Lithuania, moved her onto the path of historical investigation, and on the traces of a “cultural policy” that was allegedly a cornerstone of management practices in the field of culture. Her investigation went back in time until it reached the event that was to become the beginning of the story: the 1948 publication of Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener, a U.S. scientist of Russian-Jewish origin.
What possible importance could a book published in the U.S. have had for Lithuanian cultural policies? The chain of associations is complicated. The first connection is that between Lithuania and the Soviet Union. As this connection tightened (a euphemism for annexation), Lithuanian cultural policy came to adhere more and more closely to the Soviet model. The second, more surprising, connection is between the Soviet model and cybernetics. As a capitalist product, cybernetics was banned in the Soviet Union immediately after its creation. After Stalin’s death in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev’s official repudiation of Stalinism at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956, however, cybernetics was rehabilitated. Indeed, it was promoted to the status of being the science of control, much as the creators of cybernetics themselves, and especially the Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1950), had claimed it to be. In 1961, Wiener’s article “Science
and Society” was published in the most influential Soviet journal, Voprosy Filosofii. It was accompanied by an appropriate Marxist commentary, but it was there.
To give a rough summary of the idea behind cybernetics: If one is to gain control of anything — from machines to spheres of collective life — one needs to design a control system that imitates those already designed by nature in plants and animals. “Cultural policy” is then one part of such a control system, the part that covers the domain of culture — the system’s “brain”, so to speak.
Applying Foucauldian “archeology”, Rindzeviciute attempted a reconstruction of the cultural policies in the years 1960—1990 from traces discernible in various inscribed discourses from the period and in interviews with living witnesses. She begins with a three-part sketch of the wider historical background. First comes an account of independent Lithuania’s brief history (1918—1940) and cultural policies, insofar as it had any such policies. This is followed by a description of the war years, which ends with Lithuania’s annexation by the Soviet Union. The second part is a history of cultural policies in the Soviet Union; the third is a historical account of how cybernetics was translated first into a Soviet and second into a Lithuanian context. These parts of the dissertation in themselves constitute a significant contribution to knowledge, as they bring to light little-known developments.
How can a general theory of control be applied to the domain of culture? By translating culture into a part of the economy, and more specifically, by defining it as part of the service sector. The projection of a materialist ideology onto cybernetics made it possible first to interpret “culture” as a response to certain “needs of the people”; second, to calculate both the needs and the costs of satisfying them; and third, to program these values into a planning and control system (rather than leaving them open to such dangerous phenomena as “supply” and “demand”).
What follows is an analysis of cultural policies in Lithuania as reflected in the public (not merely official) discourse over three decades. First, 1960—1970, when the “scientific–technical revolution” was gathering impetus in the entire Soviet Union; then 1970—1980, when this “revolution” ruled and, paradoxically, revealed its weaknesses; and, finally, 1980—1990, when doubts about “calculable culture” grew in strength.
In conclusion, Rindzeviciute stated that
cybernetics and systems theory “made culture governable” in the Lithuanian SSR by providing the conceptual tools to envision the cultural sector as complex and relational (connected to the economic as well as to the natural environment). Rooted in Einstein’s relativity theory, the system-cybernetic approach made it possible to formalize the development of culture, which was otherwise perceived as intrinsically uncertain. In the age of cybernetic control, one could govern culture by means of predictive calculations: predictions of the cultural sector’s future development could be made, based on statistical information about its past behavior. (p. 248)
Rindzeviciute dissertation offers far more food for thought than would a mere history of a selected time-period of a small European country. It tells the story of cybernetics’ rise and fall as a tool for controlling culture. This story has not yet come to an end, however. It continues, although some of the protagonists have changed. While the “calculability of culture” was repudiated and almost ridiculed in Lithuania, the idea seems to have survived very well elsewhere. Also, the sacred divisions between “nature” and “culture” and between “culture”, “economy”, and “politics”, which the Soviet ideologues tried to abolish (justly, in my opinion), live on and thrive. Furthermore, the assumption that everything is calculable (Power, 1997) has returned in full force under the label “transparency through accountability” — currently a scourge of the universities. Perhaps the dream of a universal control system is global and eternal, and the only thing that varies is the means by which it is to be achieved?
- Ludwig von Bertalanffy, “An Outline of General System Theory”, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 1
- György Péteri, “Nylon Curtain: Transnational and Transsystemic Tendencies in the Cultural Life of State-socialist Russia and East-Central Europe”, Slavonica, Vol. 10:2
- Michael Power, The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification. Oxford, UK 1997
- Norbert Wiener, God and Golem, Inc. Cambridge, Mass. 1963