Illustration Karin Sunvisson

Conference reports Cultural studies travel. To (and from) East Central Europe

On June 15–17, 2011, the Advanced Cultural Studies Institute of Sweden (ACSIS) organized its biennial conference, this year dedicated to “Current Issues in European Cultural Studies”. This report highlights some of the issues that were discussed at the panel session “East European Cultural Studies: The ‘New’ Europe”, chaired by Professor Irina Sandomirskaya of CBEES.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 3 2011, p 18-19
Published on on October 3, 2011

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On June 15–17, 2011, the Advanced Cultural Studies Institute of Sweden (ACSIS) organized its biennial conference, this year dedicated to “Current Issues in European Cultural Studies”. Together with the Department for Studies of Social Change and Culture (Tema Q), ACSIS forms a vibrant research and educational milieu for urban, youth, and ethnic subcultures, as well as gender and cultural policy studies, at Linköping University. Spotlight panels discussed the recent development of cultural studies in five geographical areas: Central, Eastern, Northern and Southern Europe, and the UK. This report highlights some of the issues that were discussed at the panel session “East European Cultural Studies: The ‘New’ Europe”, chaired by Professor Irina Sandomirskaya of CBEES.

The development of cultural studies as an academic discipline was embedded in the process of the democratization of higher education and cultural research. Groundbreaking studies by Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams presented the cultural practices of the British working class as legitimate objects of academic inquiry, and fought against treatment of these cultural practices as inferior and unworthy of the proud name “culture”. The “lowly” fields in question included television programs, romantic novels, and pop music. The emancipating and democratizing agenda of cultural studies was later extended to embrace other marginalized categories: gender, non-Western cultures in the West, immigrant communities, and youth subcultures.

The democratization of Soviet bloc countries in the 1980s and 1990s saw the introduction of cultural studies as a liberal Western mode of knowledge production. Scientific research under state socialism was notoriously conservative and compartmentalized in clearly delineated disciplines, which rarely interacted with one another. Furthermore, social sciences had a notorious lack of empirical research: empirical data was ideologically dangerous. In addition, the cultural field was strictly hierarchical. State socialist cultural policy was built on the principle of the “democratization of culture” by distributing high culture, previously accessible only to the elite and upper-middle classes, to the working class. Consequently, the notion of “culture” was identified with “high culture” — opera, drama, literature, orchestral music (it has to be added that folk and amateur cultural practices were also perceived as legitimate, though less valuable than the professional arts).

The spotlight panel session questioned several aspects of this picture. First, critical cultural research was not completely absent under authoritarianism. Second, after 1989, the introduction of cultural studies into post-state-socialist academia was not always emancipating because of the hegemonic character of Western science. Further, as Sandomirskaya argued, the concepts and methods of cultural studies were quickly adopted by the growing ranks of public relations experts. Finally, it is by no means certain that cultural studies was ever exclusively “Western European”.

Johan Öberg, research secretary at the Arts Faculty, University of Gothenburg, tackled the issue of the absence of democratic approaches to studying culture in Soviet Russia. According to Öberg, there was some space to question the established cultural hierarchies, even under the authoritarian regime, something that is revealed in the work of Moscow conceptual artists. Curiously, although Soviet academic disciplines could not afford to risk engaging in empirical studies of contemporary culture, several innovative conceptual artists created parallel academic or pseudo-academic universes (Collective Action, Medical Hermeneutics), tapping into the highly legitimate rationalist rhetoric of science and constructing powerful interpretations of the Soviet canon.

The democratization of Eastern Europe saw the introduction of neoliberal principles into the economy and higher education that in many ways worked towards maintaining the marginal status of local actors and, to put it crudely, subjected them to the hegemony of Western standards. Allaine Cerwonka, chair of gender studies at the Central European University in Budapest, discussed the development of gender studies in East Central Europe as a neoliberal project that resulted in marginalization. Although many gender studies departments emerged in Eastern European countries thanks to generous funding from the American philanthropist George Soros, the new Eastern European gender scholars were disenfranchised from the global academic community in some ways: the influence of publications in local languages was limited and local case studies were regarded as insufficient to make generalized claims. Western cultural studies, a politically motivated project of knowledge production that is meant to give voice to subalterns and emancipate them, seems to reinforce the hegemony of Western science by reducing Eastern European voices to “only” empirical data.

On the other hand, the contribution of scholars from Eastern European countries to “Western” cultural research is often underestimated. The history of structuralism and post-structuralism, particularly semiotics and actor-network theory (ANT), is an especially apt example. I myself noted in the seminar that linguistic structuralism, traditionally regarded as “the negative other” by cultural studies, supplied Soviet cultural researchers with analytical tools that enabled them to legitimately bypass Marxist-Leninist doctrines. Particularly interesting is the case of French semiotics developed by Algirdas Julius Greimas (1917—1992), who was born to Lithuanian parents in Tula, Russia, and educated in Kaunas and Grenoble in the 1930s. His father was deported and perished in the Gulag, but Greimas escaped from occupied Lithuania to France in 1944. Starting in 1965, Greimas was the director of studies of general semantics at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. Greimas’s seminars inspired Bruno Latour to apply the Greimasian theory of actants to study the socio-material organization of science. In the words of Latour, the ANT perspective treated the semiotic organon as ontology.

Although the Greimas Centre for Semiotics and Literary Studies was established in Vilnius in 1991, academia in Lithuania has so far failed to recognize ANT as a potential part of Lithuania’s intellectual heritage. Since the 1970s, Lithuanian semioticians have continued to restrict the use of Greimas’s theory and methods to explorations of mythology and literature. Elsewhere, however, ANT has come to be seen as an influential approach that transformed much of sociological and cultural research. ≈