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Blind spot of the new critical theory
Dedicated to János Harmatta
Alexander Kiossev's infamous theory of self-colonization1 was published ten years after the collapse of the Eastern Block. The essay provides a fair description of the metaphor in use, as: "[...] self-colonizing cultures import alien values and models of civilisation by themselves and that they lovingly colonize their own authenticity through these foreign models," and clearly defines the regions to which the theory could be applied.
"From the point of view of the modern globalisation of the world, there are cultures which are not central enough, not timely and big enough in comparison to the 'Great Nations'. At the same time they are insufficiently distant, and insufficiently backward, in contrast to the African tribes, for example. That 's why, in their own troubled embryo, somewhere in the periphery of Civilisation, they arise in the space of a generative doubt: We are Europeans, although perhaps not to a real extent"2
In outlining a region which doesn't fit properly in the framework of today's postcolonial discourse, being neither colonizer, nor colonized in the strict meaning of the words, but navigating somewhere in between, he points to the very heart of the main cultural dilemma of Eastern-Europe, more accurately, of the Post- socialist countries. One cannot resist the feeling that it is hardly accidental, that the frustration raised from being trapped into two extreme categories, popped up in the Eastern part of the region, which nowadays most commonly named Eastern-Central Europe, since the so-called Central part is very busy defining itself as being essentially part of Europe, or at least closer to it. No doubt, this old-new identity construction of the latter is fueled by the euphoria of integration into the European Union. This latter part of the seemingly homogeneous region in the time of Soviet dominance - at least as it was seen as such form the outside - started to separate itself from the others (the "real" Easterners and from the Balkans) parallel to the negotiation for integration, preferring the name Central Europe and stabilizing itself by establishing supportive institutional systems.3 The phenomenon, according to Larry Wolff, operates "as a political project in the way it always had: as a moral appeal and reproach addressed to Western Europe."4 There is even an urge from the "bravest" to get rid of the mildly differentiating prefix "central" in favor of just being "European," a notion encouraged by the simple act of integration. On one hand, it provides the illusion of becoming an equal member of the community overnight, which would resolve the old dilemma of belonging immediately, which goes, of course, hand-in-hand with helpful collective amnesia. On the other hand, there is a strong fear of the price that has been paid: losing our own identity, cultural specificity, and cultural heritage. With the most current opposition of laudation and lamentation over integration, the good old dilemmas - universal versus national, global versus local, centrum versus periphery - are back again in a new form, to which we can add the most up-to date nomenclature: standardization versus culture with local specificities.
Concerning art and art history, the phrase "liberal lie of modernism", which was coined by Griselda Pollock regarding the women's (as opposed to men's) equal contribution to art in the name of universal values5, could be easily transferred to the art of periphery (as opposed to the center) of Western art, namely to Eastern Europe. The modernist discourse provided a framework in which an artwork from the periphery could have been floating in the same sea of art as an artwork from the center, if it was able to mask (i. e. transcend) properly its gender and nation relatedness. This was a game of balancing, like dancing on thin ice. From the critical position of "art history after modernism," the European agent of the new art history writing, Hans Belting, gives voice retrospectively to this imbalanced power relation. "For the greater part of the twentieth century, East and West had no shared art history ... We usually ignore the degree to which we have imposed a Western view on the East by recognizing only Western traditions and by writing art history such as to exclude Eastern Europe".6 Despite the guilt-driven self-critical analyses, the chapter has a happy ending, or rather, a dream-vision - fitting to the moment of the enlargement of the concept of Europe - of the art history of the future, which would be written "from two points of view or, so to speak, with 'two voices' hopefully in harmony."7 Keith Moxey, an American agent of the new art history, very much aware of the post-colonial condition and of the criteria of the new critical theory, being self-critical and self-reflected, proposes the following for operating within the new cultural conditions.
"What might the implications of what I have called a poststucturalist poetics of history have for the conduct of art history in Eastern Europe. What relevance would it have for the project of giving significance to the past in this part of the world. .... it is up to you to try to think this through for yourselves. There is no doubt in my mind, for example, that the history of Eastern European art has suffered from the shadow of the master narrative of the West. ... The point is not necessarily to attempt to set the record straight by adding or inserting local events into the framework of the western narrative, for there is no way in which one set of events can be conceived of as equivalent to the others".8
In the optimistic midst of a new kind of liberal utopia, one is still haunted by the suspicions and doubts as to whether unmasking the myth of modernism and uncovering the hierarchical structure of it would actually result in a compensated, revised art history eliminating the old contradiction of the center and the periphery, for which one has to only rely on the new critical discourse. To put it differently, to what extend does the basically anglo-saxon poststructuralist theoryenable the articulation of the experiences of former peripheries? Even though the new theory claims the need to "bring more diversity to the discussion," a "kind of cacophony of voices" rejecting hierarchies, the theory itself is a product of deconstructing the mainstream and canon of Western art and theory. Even its case-studies refer to the context of the center, in which the "torturous and tortured art history" of Eastern Europe (using Hans Belting's expression), has not been included. Thus, the new theory is not a perfect fit for the deconstruction of this marginalized part of modernist discourse. The paradigm of modernism organized around pure notions of style, sterile categories, and the production of innovation and originality could not accommodate all the local expressions, variations, "reworkings," "belated phenomena," mixed categories, and overlapping phenomenon which lie beyond the known, well-trodden paths.
It is not easy to avoid the pitfall of the controversy implicit both in modernism's universalistic claim and even in its criticism. From a critical position, Hans Belting is against adapting Western values. Yet he states, that "The attraction of Western culture in the East, where for a long time it was inaccessible, proves irresistible, as long as people are not enough acquainted with it to realize how poorly it fulfills their overblown expectations."9 His attitude is twofold: being skeptical with the "western wonder" from a critical position and, at the same time, being paternal to the East from a deep-seeded control position. One just wonders, what is than the real reference against which the region's art is to be measured, while it still could be treated as "Compared with the West, art in Eastern Europe in retrospect mostly appears retarded in the general development and at another stage of development which means that it was performing a different social role, two conditions that result from its historical lack of contact with Western modernism10" - which echoing the neglecting standing point of western modernism.
One from outside of traditional Western boundaries could absolutely salute the subtle analyses of different paths taken by Eastern and Western modernisms: "The interrupted success of modernism in countries like Russia, whose avant-garde once had also stirred up the West, gave rise to the erroneous idea that modernism had taken place only in the West, as if it had not repeatedly been suppressed in Eastern Europe (and as if its development had not greatly differed from one Eastern European country to another). In this part of the world, modernism, soon had become an unofficial culture and, as an underground movement, was therefore denied public access".11 His elaboration of the different path taken by the East continues with very important statements, which strike right into the heart of the recent situation: "Where [in the East] it did not join the permanent crisis of modernism, art - the author of this present essay would add to that theory - remained in a state of innocence, as it were, especially since it could easily justify itself by its resistance to official state art ... official and subversive, there was still conviction in the power of art, something that had vanished long before in the West ... Progressive art, which was cut off from any public impact, in the meanwhile has become as official as state art once was...." The author of this essay further elaborates on this phenomenon in her lecture "Who is afraid of a new paradigm12" delivered in 2001.
However, coming from the region, I can not share the opinion, which almost seems as wishful thinking, that "the loss of modernism was traumatic for countries for which it had served as the door to European culture13", simply because I don't see the loss of modernism in region. In contrary, it is almost as valid as it was with the enforced bastions in the institutional system.14 Regarding the criticism of the canon and the new critical theory - at least in the Hungarian case - we are definitely not at the end of the age of innocence, as our art history is far from being after modernism. While the shift - detected precisely by Belting - made by Eastern modernism is crucial to my view as well, I would counter, that the consequences of this "oddly reversed position", using Anna Szemere's phrase, are still haunting us as one of the obstacles of joining into international discourse.15
An unavoidable theory of "self-colonization," emerging from the framework of post-colonial theory, was born in the region, and soon became quite popular as a catchphrase, especially among those few for whom the new theory was not alien.16 Anikó Imre attributes this theory with symptoms of postcolonial nationalism, which claims itself to be "good nationalism."17 I myself wouldn't simplify the phenomenon to be a mere new appearance of nationalism, claiming that the position and implication of it is much trickier. No question about it that the theory is home-made and - using a metaphor of its own - is a self-exposure, which was not forced from the outside. However I would propose that the pitfall it falls into is dug within the very structure of the new critical theory. I would use a psychoanalytical framework, with respect to Kiossev, who sees the origins of the symptoms of self colonization in a trauma. "This is the precondition for a quite peculiar identity and a quite peculiar modernization. They arise through the constitutive trauma that: We are not Others (seeing in the Others the representatives of the Universal), and this trauma is also connected with the awareness that they have appeared too late and that their life is a reservoir of the shortcomings of civilization".18
I would rather additionally clarify, that those who were allowed to write history have treated the culture of the region in this way. However we can't take for granted the view that the historians give us. The result is a double mechanism, and the oft repeated vision has been internalized by the population of that culture. And, of course, the process is followed by of lowering self-esteem and the development of a cultural inferiority complex. In the shadow of this psychological construction, looms a hidden suspicion that believes that the whole mechanism is generated for the sake of the controllers. Consequently, the trauma, in my view, emerges from this uncertain and opaque position of "in betwenness," - which named by Stephan Tötösy "inbetween peripherality,"19 - from the constant shift of being included or excluded, or, at least, from the mental sensation of this pendulum, and definitely not from a clear-cut position of the colonized. And, as it is, all kinds of trauma make one pay twice for the suffering, wherein post traumatic disorder, at its worst, is the second turn. I don't want to go so far in our case, but wish to direct our attention to some side effects of the trauma.
In post-colonial studies and even in every day psychology it is a basic tenet that people who experience colonization or violence suffer from what is known as "mental colonization." When an ideology or behavior is used to oppress or weaken an ethnic or national group or a family member the behavior is internalized by the victims of that ideology or behavior, and is accepted as valid. This transfer of the aggression towards others could be even turned backwards, becoming a tool of further self-torturing. Victimology and rape-studies demonstrate through different statistical polls, that one can encounter the "blame the victim" attitude even if the victim is male, let alone if the victim is a woman.20 As a further consequence of the trauma, this attitude shakes the very trusting foundations of the subject, including trust in the self and trust in the others. The shadow of suspiciousness transcends all relations afterwards.
In the early phase of the, so called, wild capitalism after the political changes in Hungary, there was a great willingness to attribute blame to the losers of the financial and positional restructuring of the scene. Much of this blame came from those who were able successfully fish in troubled water and became nouveau rich and powerful overnight, and wanted to possess eagerly even moral superiority. The effective psychological tool of "blame the victim" served well for covering moral dilemmas and guilty feelings. If the system blames the victim, there is no need for further questioning or analyses. And this is not even the end. Self-blaming strategy as a coping process for sexual assault victims in the aftermath of rapes is well known for psychology.21 In my view, precisely this process is imitating itself in the theory of self-colonization. The victim of trauma cannot shake the limits of self-blame and goes so far as to accept responsibility for the situation. Colonialism, or any kind of control position, consciously or not, depends structurally and politically on the assertion of clear differences between the controller and the controlled.
The theory of self-colonialism serves exactly this differentiation on a silver platter, and could be the best-fit fantasy of dominant theory-makers of today. Or, put otherwise, falls into the pitfall of the new critical theory. This strategy offers a policy of burying one's head into the sand, and cuts off any possibility for entering into the discourse and subverting it. Rallying the metaphor of trauma, self-colonization theory actually doubles the trauma by essentialising and fixing the binary opposition, closing the door at the more nuanced critique and analyses. At the same time, it reinforces the old stereotypes of the region, cultures being self-destructive and masochistic getting pleasure from pain and sufferings.22 I am proposing that this essencialising dual system should be altered along with eliminating old stereotypes. I am very concerned to get beyond the victim/agent dichotomy.
I do not want to speak against the new critical theory, since I am aware of the end of theoretical innocence and the framework of modernism leaves very limited mobility for mapping the terrain given for the "in-betwennerrs" or for those, on the margins of a dominant category. However, we should realize, that to these days, new critical theory, let alone the discursive practice23, remains most comfortable where the postcolonial power dynamic between the center and the periphery most closely resembles the former power dynamic even though it declares the elimination of such opposition, offering instead many local centers. According to this in-between position, not so much mapping dependency is at stake, but rather mapping ignorance, so to speak, and the anxiety of getting into the blind spot of the new discourse and the remnant of imbalanced power relations. There is an urgent need to make this spot visible, since it will be further obscured by the physical act and psychological illusion of integration. There is another postcolonial relationship that should be noticed and studied: the connection between nations of former periphery, whose solidarity is greatly corrupted by the selective system of European Union which provides them the privileges of getting into, or denying access to it. The psychological price paid by the new insiders, is the loss of any solidarity and sensation of common experiences with those of who remained outside.
A special thanks goes to my dear friend, Barbara Dean for her assistance in editing the English version.
First published: Trans_European Picnic: The Art and Media of Accession.
Futura publikacije, Novi Sad, 2004; pp. 42-44.
Published under Creative Commons licence
1 Alexander Kiossev (1999). Notes on Self-colonising Cultures. In B. Pejic, D. Elliott (ed.) Art and Culture in post-Communist Europe. Stockholm: Moderna Museet. pp. 114-118.
2 Ibid. p. 114.
3 See Central European University (CEU), Budapest; magazines like CENTROPA published in New York; Central European Cultural Institute, Budapest and its periodical European Traveller published in Budapest; Praesens. Central European Contemporary Art Review, published in Budapest etc.
4 Larry Wolff (1994). Inventing Eastern Europe: The map of civilization in the mind of the enlightment. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. p. 156.
5 Griselda Pollock (1996). Inscription in the Feminine. In M. C. de Zegher (ed.) Inside the visible: an elliptical traverse of twentieth century in, of, and from the feminine. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
6 Hans Belting (2003). Art History after Modernism. Chicago: Chicago Press. p. 54.
7 Ibid. p.61.
8 Keith Moxey's lecture "Art history today: problems and possibilities" was delivered at Central European University, Summer University Course, Budapest, "History and Theory of Art after the cultural turn" (course director: Margaret Dikovitsky) Budapest, 2001.
9 Belting op. cit. p.56.
10 Ibid. p. 57-58.
11 Ibid. p.54
12 The concept first developed: Edit András (1999) "Exclusion and Inclusion in the Art World". In: MoneyNations Magazine. The Correspondent. Zürich: Shedhalle. pp. 51-52. Further development: Edit András (2003), Who is afraid of a new paradigm? The old practice of art criticism of the East versus the new critical theory of the West. Vienna: Selene, pp. 96-105.
13 Belting op. cit. p. 54
14 Ágnes Berecz (2003), "The Hungarian patient: Comments on the Contemporary Hungarian Art of the 90s". Artmargins online, www.artmargins.com
15 Anna Szemere (2001), "Western influence and the discursive construction of postmodernity in the cultural debates of postsocialist Eastern Europe". Paper presented at the 27th meeting of Sicoal theory, politics, and arts. Golden Gate University, San Francisco
16 Sándor Hornyik (2003), "Art historian on the Post-Comecom market". Praesens No. 1. pp.24-29; Katalin Timár (2002), "Is your Pop our Pop? The history of art as a self-colonizing tool". Artmargins online; Iara Boubnova (2000), "From defects to effects. self-colonization as an alternative concept to national isolationism". European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies. http://www.eipcp.net/diskurs/d01/text/ib01.htlm
17 Anikó Imre (2001), "Gender, Literature, and Film in Contemporary East Central European Culture". Ch. 3. CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture:P A WWWeb Journal http://www.clcwebjournal.lib.purdue.edu
18 Kiossev op. cit. p. 114.
19 Imre op.cit. Ch. 3.
20 Patrick C. L. Heaven, john Connors, Annelie Pretorius (1998), "Victim characteristics and attribution of rape blame in Australia and South Africa". The Journal of Social Psychology 138. pp. 131-3
21 Gulotta, G. and de Cataldo Neuberger, L. (1983) A systematic and attributional approach to victimology. Victimology, 8, pp. 5-16.
See: Rancour-Laferriere, Daniel (1995), The slave soul of Russia :
23 György Csepeli, Antal Örkény, and Kim Lane Scheppele (1996) "The Colonization of East European Social Science," Social Science 63.2. pp. 487-510; see also: András op. cit.
18. May 2004.