themes / Masses of Culture

The Wall has fallen on all of us

Dubravka Ugresic

The real center of cultural power is America, or rather Anglo-American culture, whose cultural domination marked the twentieth century. We are still looking to that center with equal fascination today.

“The Wall has fallen. It has fallen on everyone, on all of us.”
(Anonymous commentator)

Upton Sinclair, author of the novel “Oil!” Sinclair would have stayed half-forgotten as a classic of American literature had there not been a film adaptation of the novel called “There Will Be Blood”, which blew the dust off of Sinclair’s name for a moment. Having seen the movie, I thought back to the shelf of books in my mother’s apartment and the book cover of the first Yugoslav edition of “Oil!”, entitled “Petrolej”. There were pencil drawings all over the inside: these, my mother said, were my first childish scribbling. It was a post-war time, just after World War II, a time of poverty, and the covers of books doubled as drawing pads. Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil”! Maxim Gorky’s “The Mother”, and Theodore Dreiser’s “American Tragedy” were some of the first titles in the home library of my young parents.

I don’t remember whether I ever actually read “Oil”! Probably not, but if I did, back when I was a student – earnestly dedicated to comparative literature – I wouldn’t have dared say so out loud. At that time, defense of the “autonomy of the literary text” (of any work of art) was something nearly sacred to every student of comparative literature, and I certainly perceived myself as battling on the front lines.

In my student days “literary autonomy” was closely tied to literary taste. In simple terms, we felt that good writers did not embark on politics – or write about life in overly real terms. Real life was left to bad writers and those who flirted with politics. The fashion of the day was the “literariness” of literature.

Yugoslav writers were never seriously infected with the virus of socialist realism, which does not mean, of course, that there weren’t those who made compromises. But resistance to the tendency to ideologize and politicize in literature, despite the occasional line penned to glorify Tito, lasted unusually long after the enemy, socialist realism, was dead and buried. There were many good writers, thanks to this, who wrote fine books; there were bad writers, on the other hand, who were labeled “good” because they “didn’t get caught up in politics”, just as many good writers were deemed bad because they had no bone to pick with the regime, or at least didn’t do so publicly; and there were bad writers who were deemed good only because they had taken a public stand against the regime. The fine Croatian writer, Miroslav Krle┼ża, long since dead and buried, bears a stigma to this day for his friendship with Tito.

Today, of course, I know that the connection between literature and ideology has been around since the beginnings of literacy. The Bible is not only a grandiose literary work, but also a grandiose ideological work. The history of the bond between literature and ideology is long, complex and dramatic.

Writers have lost their lives because of the written word.

The history of relations between emperors and poets, kings and court fools, those who commission literature and those who comply with the commisions is too gory, episodes of book burning and censorship too frequent, the number of writers’ lives given for the freedom of speech, for an idea, or even just for a dream --- is too vast to allow us to take this fatal liaison lightly. The notion of literary autonomy served too often as an alibi for it to enjoy full validity: when they thought they had something to gain by it, there were writers who stepped into politics; others took on politics even when doing so led to symbolic or real suicide. Some, when they looked to save their skins, sought the shield of literary autonomy, while others paid for their literary autonomy with their skins.

The tension between the two opposing poles – the political engagement of a writer and a writer’s autonomy – was particularly dramatic in the literatures of the former Eastern Europe, and even today, surprising as this may seem, it has still not lost its hold, although the context has changed in terms of the politics, ideas and culture. Eastern European literary environments were much more rigid than Western European ones. In the Eastern European literary zones, careers were destroyed because of the written word, or conversely the writer was elevated to government president, minister or ambassador. This is no different today, though it may seem to be different: state institutions continue to play the part of literary patron, albeit a bad and stingy patron, but there is barely any independent territory left.

The writer in small post-communist states is still treated as the “voice of his people” or as a “traitor”. Why?

For the simple reason that communism in transitional countries has been replaced by nationalism, and both systems have their eyes on writers. The literary marketplace is too small for the writer to maintain his belief that he is independent.

There were many East European writers, who were not fortunate enough to survive the shift from socialism to nationalism, to re-position themselves nationally, thereby insuring themselves a place on the bookshelves of the national literature. Some tried, and survived a year or so longer, slipping through the eye of the needle. Many of the losers, along with their collected works and mountains of scribbled pages, however, sank into the dust of oblivion. Young writers, and with them the young literary critics and scholars, showed no compassion, they must have figured this wasn’t their story. Today is, after all, another time, life is proceeding at a rapid clip, literature is a time-investment which for most of us does not provide anything more than aching joints and bankruptcy, but it is a lottery which brings the lucky winner the jack pot. The young rush out to buy lottery tickets and don’t ask too many questions.

How is it, for instance, that writers who were dissidents in their communist states are so quick to accept posts in ministries, embassies or elsewhere in the new democracies?

How is it that today, in one way or another, everyone continues to live on government handouts? How is it that those who once pressed so fiercely for autonomy in literature are now demanding that their state institutions finance culture (hence literature), thereby implicitly agreeing that they won’t bite the hand that feeds them? All in all, culture in small countries was never viable on the market, nor could it have been. That is why writers of small countries, whether they like it or not, are condemned to act as representatives for their country, whether the state be Croatia, Serbia, Estonia, or Latvia, either that or they are labeled “traitors” and live in abroad. One often goes hand in hand with the other. Even international literary stars, which have long since left their home literatures behind and have changed the language they write in as they went, are not immune to the righteous fury of the homeland. The recent incident with Milan Kundera only confirms that the Czech republic is a small country, and that the model for the traumatic back-and-forth between literature and ideology is unchanged.

The question arises: is it possible to step out of the hellish circle, where the autonomy of a literary text might be another name for politicization, and politicization might be another name for autonomy? How does the relationship to a text change when the context changes?

Exile is a change of context in the literal sense. Exile implies the personal experience of every exiled writer, which would be difficult to subsume under the terms that are stubbornly endorsed by literary critics from the two worlds: the writer’s home base and the hosting environment. The terms – émigré, immigrant, exile, nomad, minority, ethnic – are discriminatory, but also affirmative. With these terms the home base expels the writer, while the same terms are used by the host environment to thrust the writer into an ethnic niche, meanwhile affirming his or her existence. The home base makes assumptions of monoculturalism, xenophobia and exclusivity, while the host environment make assumptions of multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism and inclusivity, but both are essentially working with the dusty labels of ethnicity and the politics of otherness.

Even if I were to write a text about the desolation of frozen landscapes at the North Pole, I would still generally be labeled a Croatian writer, or a Croatian writer in exile writing about the desolation of the frozen landscapes at the North Pole.

Reviewers would promptly populate the frozen wasteland of my text with concepts such as exile, Croatia, ex-Yugoslavia, post-communism, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Slavic world, Balkan feminism or perhaps Balkan eco-feminism, while journalists would ask me whether I had had the opportunity while up in the frozen wasteland to run into the Yugoslav Diaspora, and how I perceived the situation in Kosovo from the frozen point of view. If an English writer writes his or her version of a visit to the North Pole, Englishness will not likely serve as the framework within which his or her text is read.

This attitude of the host environment to writer-newcomers springs from a subconscious colonial attitude, just when the larger literary world is doing its best to reject this; from a market which relishes any form of the profitable exotic; and from always vital relations between the periphery and the center. The concepts of periphery and center are, however, elastic; I am sure that Serbs feel closer to the center than do the Bulgarians, and the Bulgarians feel closer to the center than do the Turks. Feelings, however, are one thing and real relations of power are something else.

The real center of cultural power is America, or rather Anglo-American culture, whose cultural domination marked the twentieth century. We are still looking to that center with equal fascination today.

Anglo-American culture is the dominant field of reference, while, at the same time, it is the most powerful, if not the most just, mediator of cultural values. In other words, if Chinese writers are not translated into English, it is unlikely that any Serbian or Croatian reader, with the exception of the occasional lone Sinologist, will ever hear of them.

The relationship to a literary text changes, of course, with the change of language. There are many examples of writers who embraced the language of their host-country, yet by doing so they did not manage to protect their texts from misreading. There are an even larger number of writers who, writing in the language of the host country, seek a special “cultural” (which basically means ethnic or religious) status for them because only this status will make them visible. All in all, an opposition asserts itself here: this time the opposition between the autonomy of the literary text and its critical reception and market evaluation (the market not being without its political aspirations) in the new context of the internationalization of literary texts and transnational literature.

This is still the realm of literature, as we know it with its tradition, canons, apparatus, and institutions, with its system of values.

This is a realm where literature (the same holds true of other cultural texts) is read and evaluated within gender and post-colonial coordinates too; within still existing bits and pieces of theoretical schools and approaches; within cultural geo-politics and its coordinates, such as Eastern European and Western European zones, or within the global cultural market dominated by American or Anglo-American language and culture. Here we still know, or at least we know approximately, what it is we are talking about when we speak of literature or culture.

As it leaps from the national to the international, literature enters its third, unavoidable context: a new epoch of digital revolution and globalization. In that context literature (and other cultural texts), or rather its assumptions, dissolve, vanish, or transmute into something else. True, the bookstores are full of books, the chains are reminiscent of supermarkets, there are more translations of books than ever before, more literary awards than ever, there are writers being lauded like pop stars, there are, for instance, rich networks of EU cultural institutions, managers, mediators and cultural bureaucracy, there are numerous cultural projects and events – all of which suggests that things have never been better for culture.

However, the switch from Gutenberg to the Digital era caused a tectonic shift, and the impacts are much more serious and complicated than they seem, or than we are able to see, predict and articulate.

The whole cultural system, with its codes, meanings, and language, disappeared or transmuted into something else. Cultural values and their hierarchy have been destroyed, differentiations and differences between popular and mass culture, and consequently high culture, do not exist today. Intellectuals and experts as arbiters have been pushed to the margins. Authors of works of art are disappearing together with the notion of authorship. A commonly known and often-quoted fact is that the most consulted source of reference has become Wikipedia, an Internet encyclopedia made and controlled by anonymous kids. There is a whole parallel culture on the Internet with millions and millions of consumers, people who are not passive but ready to create, interact, to change, compile, to produce and exchange and, thanks to technology, they do so. Their main reference source is the huge industry of popular culture. And here is the paradox: thanks to sophisticated high tech devices we can observe the rapid process of regression and barbarization of culture. This is why the new consumer is not able to read and understand classical works of art any more (what the majority of us still consider culture), even if he would like to understand it. That is why we, on the other hand, are not able to communicate with the anonymous artistic production presented mostly on the Internet, on TV, but also in the written word, in books. The fact that celebrated David Hockney uses his iPhone to draw sketches does not slow the process, it rather speeds it up.

So, what do we talk about when we talk culture? Are we equipped to answer that question? Add to this that we live in a new, self-centered epoch in which there is a premium on being heard rather than listening, being seen rather than watching, and on being read rather than reading.

This new status of an author can be best explained by the image of a person who suffers at the same time from both autism and exhibitionism.

All in all, we are living in the ruins of the old cultural system. The crash of the system produced a terrible noise, and we are constantly exposed to it. We can no longer distinguish any more what it is we are hearing, and even if we hear something, we do not dare say and define it. Our language belongs to the old system. There is a vast army of facilitators of that noise, cultural critics, professors, educators, teachers, a cultural bureaucracy and many others, but nobody knows yet what the gist is of the noise.

The hardest job after the fall of the Wall is not done yet, and this is the competent and relevant evaluation of what has been gained in the process and what has been lost. For this job we need scholars and thinkers who refuse to think within widely accepted stereotypes, political, ideological, cultural, and otherwise. This is a job that should be done by all the sides, because “The Wall has fallen on everyone, on all of us”, as a an anonymous commentator noticed a long time ago, with a tinge of melancholy in his voice.

The article is published by courtesy of the Author, the ECC Council member. It has been sent to us by Dubravka Ugresic as a kind of comment on the Congress’ themes.