Reviews Europe faces Europe. Voices from the East

Europe faces Europe: Narratives from its Eastern Half, Johan Fornäs (toim.). Bristol, UK/ Chicago, USA: Intellect, 2017, 252 pages.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 3:2017, p 85-86
Published on on November 9, 2017

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The major political and institutional form of Europe, the European Union, was built on the ruins of the Second World War as a Western European peace project. Over the course of the following decades, it gained a profile as a state-level form of cooperation within a setting of freedom, democracy and prosperity. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the political East did not solely mean the beginning of the ever-increasing integration and expansion of the EU we know today. From the viewpoint of the West’s attractiveness in Cold War Europe, at the beginning of the 1990s the EU had a rocky road ahead in redeeming the truism of its identity.

The discussion of the European idea, or rather of the lack of it, demonstrates that this idea faces constant yet unrealistic expectations. The liberation from the shackles of communism has not provided a politically solid frame for a European identity for years, to say nothing of the distant horrors of World War Two. The criticism of the Western European liberal model that emerged in the former Communist Bloc territory is vivid proof of this. While the European integration process concerns former communist Europe in particular, little attention has so far been given to how East European voices themselves relate to Europe as a dynamic project. This is the basic research setting of the volume Europe faces Europe: Narratives from its Eastern Half, edited by Johan Fornäs, which powerfully approaches Eastern European narratives of Europe and Europeanness within six diverse case studies preceded by Fornäs’ comprehensive introductory chapter. This previously neglected angle convincingly addresses the essential nexus between the European presence and history as well as the continent’s most probable future.

Instead of focusing on particular geopolitical mapping, the book centers on the peripherality of European voices. While no study dealing with European identities and ideas can formulate a single and monolithic Europeanness, Europe faces Europe aims to scrutinize the plurality of European identifications. Although the book’s emphasis on the plurality of voices represents nothing new as such, it is certainly relevant given the politically acute tension that prevails between Brussels-centered unifying ideals and Europe’s peripheral narratives.

Carl Cederberg approaches the famous appeal for a “new narrative for Europe” expressed in various forums in 2013—2014 by José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, in the light of writings of Hegel, Edmund Husserl and the lesser-known original Czech dissident philosopher Jan Patočka. Cederberg analyzes how Barroso’s bureaucratic-authoritative appeal reflects the paradox of Europeans who hold universality as their particularity, as identified by Hegel and Husserl. By contrast, within his original philosophical heresy, Patočka pinpointed essential divisions in Europe, not only between West and East, but also between Europe and the Islamic world, in a way that went far beyond the ideological status quo between capitalism and communism in 1975 when Patočka wrote the lines. According to Cederberg, it is Patočka’s interpretation of caring for Europe’s soul that is the most apposite regarding identities in Europe. It underlines the continuous struggle and renegotiation of the ideal of Europe.

In his chapter on the Cold War-era geopolitical narratives, Stefan Jonsson examines the two narrative approaches of the Soviet Union and the GDR concerning their views on Western European integration. The first of these approaches envisioned the common socialist future provided that the West’s workers overturn capitalism and develop a successful Soviet-type society. Another narrative was built on a more general view on the modernization of civilization, envisioning a common European prosperity based on Europe’s progressive history of capitalism and political emancipation. Some simplifying interpretations notwithstanding, the chapter provides compelling connections to the present disagreements and conflicts between the EU and Russia regarding the European ideal and the future.

Roman Horbyk’s chapter on representations of Europe in selected data from the Ukrainian, Russian and Polish media during the “Euromaidan” demonstrations in Kyiv provides a fascinating account of controversies that prevail between local identifications and upper-level identity ideals. It is grotesque that a motley group of people — some of them anything but pro-European liberals — died in the Maidan square carrying EU flags at time when the EU itself was struggling with political legitimacy and evoking the need for a new narrative for Europe. Likewise, Horbyk’s analysis shows how Polish media passionately supported Ukraine’s Euro-oriented popular rising while the country has profiled itself as the most vocal and influential critical member of the EU. Europe and Europeanness are constructed as an unattainable ideal from emphatically opposite standpoints — in particular, Russian mainstream vs. Ukrainian and Polish media.

Anne Kaun approaches the peripheral niche of the global Occupy protest movement by comparing media coverage of the Occupy Stockholm and Occupy Latvia movements in the respective countries. The comparison reveals interesting historical backgrounds and local factors in the frame of a transnational protest movement, yet the analysis as a whole remains too narrow. Katarina Wadstein MacLeod examines the resilience of peripheral identity in the curatorial strategies of four art projects dedicated to East European art. Her conclusion is that the European integration at identity level, “unity in diversity,” has not seen the light of day. East European art is still “East European” and peripheral.

The final chapter by Johan Fornäs is a long and comprehensive analysis of East European narratives of Europe in the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) in the framework of televised popular music. Fornäs scrutinizes East European songs and performers as well as representative frames of East European countries that have hosted the ESC since 1989. Fornäs’s detailed analysis is based on the documented intentions of politicians, performers, composers and broadcasters and the reception history of the songs and contests in evaluating how Europe is constructed in them. The author’s familiarity with the topic is breathtaking, and the chapter provides valuable insights into analyses of narratives combining textual, visual and audio data.

Fornäs’ final chapter crystallizes the major offering of the volume as a whole: the rich operationalization of cultural studies methodology in the highly topical subject, narratives on Europe and Europeanness from the viewpoint of its “target,” yet peripheral, position. In view of the excellent research agenda, versatile data, and convincing analyses, the volume would benefit from a slightly lighter and less theory-laden style that would make it more accessible. ≈



  • by Jussi Lassila

    Senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. His core areas of expertise are Russian domestic politics, in particular identity politics, nationalism, populism and political communication.

  • all contributors

Europe faces Europe: Narratives from its Eastern Half, Johan Fornäs (toim.). Bristol, UK/ Chicago, USA: Intellect, 2017, 252 pages.