Ocean Lemoniady

Tito, Hamlet, and the Plattenbauten: Eastern European Hauntology and Slavofuturism

Eastern Europe as a haunted house – die Gespenste der Zukunft gehen um alle seine Länder. And probably one of the most haunted places of this region – or am I biased because of my previous research? – is the Southeastern Europe. Southeastern European Hauntology There is a plenty of material from a broadly understood [...]

18 II 2020

Brutalist prefabricated residential skyscraper - Krakow, Al. Kijowska

Eastern Europe as a haunted house – die Gespenste der Zukunft gehen um alle seine Länder. And probably one of the most haunted places of this region – or am I biased because of my previous research? – is the Southeastern Europe.

Southeastern European Hauntology

There is a plenty of material from a broadly understood popular culture that provide evidence. Let us just investigate some random examples.

In 1993 Želimir Žilnik, a director renowned for his subversively revolutionary left critiques of state socialist and capitalist society in the spirit of 1968, shot a film Tito po drugi put među Srbima (‘Tito for the Second Time among the Serbs’). The idea behind this kind-of-mockumentary is very simple: the long-time president of real-socialist Yugoslavia and an antifascist hero returns to Belgrade in the midst of the Slobodan Milošević’s nationalist wars to get informed whether it was better to live by then or under his rule. Given the fact that Tito had died in 1980, this come-back is obviously spooky. The fact that the street public is surprisingly unsurprised and makes use of the return of the anti-fascist marshal as an opportunity to crticise the current state-of-affairs in the country, as well as to express their nostalgia does not strip the whole situation of its Unheimlichkeit. On the contrary, it is this critique of the material shortcomings of the nationalist systemand yearning for the more socially fair society of the past, which starts to share some of the aura of the immortal marshal.

It would be a smart Žilnik’s metaphor employed to mock the 1990s politics – if such representations of the supernatural real-socialism weren’t way more common. Even for cinematography the joke was too good not to be repeated. And as with all too frequently repeated jokes, the second time does not appear even as farce. Nonetheless, the 1999 Croatian film Maršal (‘Marshall’) by Vinko Brešan, also features Tito. This time the same hero starts to haunt a Dalmatian island, this fact being used both by ruthless-rural right-wing, capitalist entrepreneurs and nostalgic communist lunatics and orphans of the by-gone era. Eventually, the ghost turns out to be a mental patient from a local clinic, but both sides of the conflict go on with playing their parts. This symmetry of two evils, depicted from a perspective of an apparent neutrality, can be finally resolved by a pair consisting of a local policeman and a school teacher, united in a rather dull and predictive love story. Despite disputable artistic quality of the film, it is more than symptomatic that even this apparently neutral, liberal view needs a supernatural perspective on the real-socialist past!

At some point of the capitalist transition in the ex-Yugoslavian countries – probably very early – the idea of a spooky presence of Tito and real-socialist Yugoslavia ceased to be merely an artistic concept. It has turned into an important part of the local social imaginary. It is now 2007 and a Macedonian-Serbian pop-folk singer Tijana Dapčević succeeds to conquer the regional hit charts (at least for some time) with her song Sve je isto, samo njega nema (‘Everything is same, just he isn’t here’). The musician produces a nostalgic image, where at least during a party time everything is as it used to be under real-socialist Yuoslavia – with one exception. This significant difference is due to of His absence. The name of this entity is never named, however it is obvious that it has to be Tito. Of course, this can be also interpreted as a cult of a Great Father figure with all of its problematic aspects. However, supernaturality of such representation is undisputable.

Some more examples can be named, just to be sure that it is not some arbitrary collection of cherry-picked phenomena, that we have to do with a serious consistent trait of the Southeastern European imaginary. Therefore another convincing example can be provided by a Bosnian reggae band Dubioza Kolektiv, enormously popular in all of the Yugoslavian successor states among the young people, mostly of rather alternative left-wing and anti-capitalist convictions (which, in fact, is very often a comletely vague, ill-defined notion, both in Southeastern Europe and elsewhere). In 2007 Dubioza Kolektiv has recorded a song Brijuni, which tells a story about a summit of then-contemporary regional leaders from Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia at the former Tito’s residence on the Adriatic island that gave the title to the song. At some point of the meeting a spectre of the Yugoslavian leader appears and criticises all of the modern politicians for nationalism and predatory capitalism in his usual paternal manner.

The manoeuvre was so good that the band decided to repeat it in a 2010 song Valter. It contains a rather vulgar warning directed to the regional elites against a possible come-back of a punisher. The avenger would be either the people-underdogs, or Tito – in the line with the concept presented e.g. in a cult 1972 war film Walter Defends Sarajevo (Valter brani Sarajevo) and popular propaganda slogans Tito is the people, the people are Tito.

This spooky imaginary is so indispensable that it is eagerly used even (or in some contexts – especially) by the nationalist and anti-communist far-right. On the streets of Dalmatian city Split one can sometimes find graffitis sayinAlojzije svetac, Tito vampir (‘Alojzije [Stepinac – a controversial Croatian Catholic bishop from the times of the World War II, convicted to death by the real-socialist court for collaboration with the fascists], Tito – vampire’). While they reactionarily point out an alleged necessity of Catholic exorcising of communism1, they simultaneously demonstrate a haunting nature of the real-socialist project.

Most of the aforementioned examples could be possibly subscribed under a label of nostalgia. And one can think of a rather problematic reason for this nostalgic excess, namely, relics of the former Tito personality cult. Such a cult wouldn’t have too many emancipatory traits, as it bears numerous similarities to the previous authoritarian cults of the Great Fathers, as Olivera Milosavljević demonstrated convicingly2.

There is, however, something uncanny that renders complete subsumption of these examples under a banner of the Great Father cult impossible. At play there is something different from a god-like religious worship of a patriarch and it is exactly this weird surplus element that haunts us until today.

One could possibly argue that it is just one more of the postmodern morbiditiesthis time a backlash to a primordial, archaic culture of patriarchal farmers. One can do it, but what if the opposite is true? What if it is the future that haunts? What if it is the unfulfilled promise of the communist project which geht um den Balkan – and the rest of Eastern Europe?3

But even in the sheerest nostalgia, the consciousness of the project for a good living is very tangibly present. It is not a mere yearning for old, good times, when everybody was young and knew their place. Even in the most naive memories, it is the revolutionary material aspect of the communist project that becomes prominent, although under a more mundane guise of a guaranteed job or flat. This is more of a project, a promise, and a vision – rather than a constantly evoked trauma or an unprocessed dire past.

This tangible, material dimension to it may prove that in fact it is not only a spectre of Tito that haunts the Balkans. In the memories of real-socialist Yugoslavia the word život ‘life’ reoccurs surprisingly often, to the point that it may evoke Derridian concept of learning to live – by no coincidence coined in The Spectres of Marx4. These memories of good life, which maybe even had not exactly come to be, can be, thus, perceived as a reminder about the Marxian project. Derrida states at some point that there will be “no future without Marx, without the memory and the inheritance of Marx”5. One can, thus, argue that in all those supernatural activities ghosts of the FUTURE are at work.

Cosmofuturism and residential utopias

These haunting futures are not exclusive for the ex-Yugoslavian area. There is a considerable deal of uncanniness in whole Eastern Europe. We shall not consider here hauntologies of the 1990s, possible alternative promises of the ill-fated capitalist transitions6. Instead, it will be argued that there is a strong supernatural component in our contemporary confrontation with other phenomena, slightly more distant in the time.

To begin with, let’s scrutinise cosmic optimism of the late 1950s and 1960s. Among the best examples there is a 1957 Soviet novel The Andromeda Nebula7. Plot lines of the book mostly concern space discovery in distant galaxies. What is the most interesting in this novel, however, it is its depiction of the social formation that enabled such a progress. “With inevitable persistence the new[, communist] way of life had spread over the entire Earth and the many races and nations were united into a single friendly and wise family.”8 Such was the future designed by the 1950s sci-fi authors. The contemporary Cold War, Fordist societies were perceived as something doomed to perish in order to make way for a better, more fair social formation, and, while their description can sound to us somehow prophetic, this cosmic era optimism may leave a supernaturally inspiring impression:

“The wars and disorganized economy of the Era of Disunity had led to the plundering of the planet. In those days forests were felled, supplies of coal and oil that had accumulated in the course of millions of years were burned up, the atmosphere was polluted by carbon monoxide and other filth that belched out of improperly constructed factories, beautiful and harmless animals were annihilated, and this went on until the world at last arrived at the communist structure of society, the only system that could ensure man’s continued existence.”9

This sort of faith was shared by broader spectra, rather than phantasms of some underground science fiction authors, it was a part of a popular social imaginary. One of the early Polish rock’n’roll hit songs was a 1963 piece Wala twist by Karin Stanel In a then-contemporary rock manner she praises a feminist endeavour of Valentina Tereshkova into the Space – Valya deserves a twist dance. On the other hand, a masculine hero, Yuriy Gagarin, is honoured in an old-fashioned, boring way – only with flowers. The fact that a expression of gratefulness proper for the youth and future is reserved for Tereshkova is in the same time a manifesto of future socialist gender-equality, a promise that never was fulfilled completely and continues to haunt us with its up-to-date message.

We may be sceptical about this kind of naive belief in progress: is it not an uncritical technicism that brought us the current miserable state-of-affairs? It will not be discussed in any more detail, a simple suggestion of distinction between progressivism and a utopian moment must suffice. And this very utopian element was epitomised in Eastern European urban planning by a Polish architect Oskar Hansen. In line with the best modernist tradition, he has redefined not only an idea of an apartment, but also of the urban. An essentially concentric and chaotic early modern, capitalist city should be, according to him, supplanted by a Linear Continuous System. This idea, conceived in the half of the 1960s, proposed cities in a form of linear belts crossing whole countries from south to north, with apartment blocks located from both sides of the rapid rail system. Workplaces should be another parallel lines, close to the residential areas, etc. This space-efficience wasn’t, however, an art for the art’s sake. Instead, it was the nature in stake, already then being under an increasing pressure from an uncontrolled urban development. Among the most successful attempt to reconcile high modernism with nature was the Warsaw apartment block estate Sady Żoliborskie, designed in 1958-1962 by Halina Skibniewska. Corbusian residential architecture was inscribed into existing greenery, respecting the long time one needs to grow a tree. While we struggle increasingly with speculative overcrowding and gentrification of urban space, with supplanting abundant greenery with scanty lawns, by then it was possible to think of the whole neighbourhoods, whole countries and whole world as a future apartment block estate sunk in nature.

But even after the space race was over, there was a plenty of 1970s utopian visions, accompanying the, eventually unsuccessful, attempts to make real-socialism more respondent to the popular consumer expectations. It was in the 1970s when the nuclear power became wide-spread in the Eastern Block countries. While quitting fossil fuels in Poland – the most coal-dependent country of the European Union after Germany – now seems hard, if not impossible, by then it seemed just a question of time. Countries at least nominally questioning capitalist ownership order were home for more than half of the human population, many of them being small, semi-peripheric economies. The latter fact didn’t prevent them from ambitions of becoming the leading powers – idea of Edward Gierek’s Poland being the 8th economy in the world can’t be dismissed as pure propaganda.

It was also in the 1970s when Corbusian mass produced machines for living in became reality. While the reality wasn’t satisfying for the aesthetes, the prefabricated buildings provided shelters for hundreds of millions inhabitants of Eastern Block. Well-planned neighbourhoods are still attractive in comparison with a speculative capitalist chaos. But the best designs are not only attractive. Take high-modernist Millenium Estate (Osiedle Tysiąclecia) in Katowice, Poland – designed by H. Buszko and A. Franta and contructed in 1961-1983 – or many of the brutalist Blokovi of Novi Beograd, Serbia – they drastically contrast with the degraded post-transitional landscape of once industrial Silesia or the ex-Yugoslavian capital. It seems as if they were by no means anachronic. Instead, they are rather to be perceived as relics, but coming from the future.

Eastern Europe is a haunted house. The question is what haunts us. Were this region a usual residuum of by-gone anachronisms, as it is often thought both in a foreign colonial and in a local self-colonialising gaze, all the named examples would be just things of the ordinary past, which one can be nostalgic about, but there would be nothing constructive to it. However, even if the whole previous discussion was close to a random enumeration, the examples mentioned may offer enough evidence to believe that we are regularly invaded by the future.

For it is the future, it is not usual, conservative nostalgia. The relics of the past come to us like a Hamlet’s father spectre, with a mission: for smart planning, housing that isn’t Debt-run, reconciliation of the technology and the nature, space optimism, and, last but not least, good living. They are, however, relics of the future past, for “the time is out of joint” here. The project of learning how to live is yet to be completed, and every ritual that brings us effectively closer to its completion should be welcome.

Slavofuturism

Travelling through the once industrial Upper Silesian agglomeration in Southern Poland is, above all, dealing with pornography. At least, in how such a journey usually proceeds, a gaze of an observer is satisfied by ruin porn: derelict tenement houses, broken shop windows, faded ads from the 1980s and 1990s, jobless people waiting for their luck, which will probably never come, in front of the red-brick apartment blocks, housing former miner families. But, at some point, a tram arrives at the border between the cities Katowice and Chorzów.

Either from smog mist or from snow, a majestic silhouettes of white, almost sterile residential skyscrapers emerges. After all the pornographic images of human and urban decay in this waste land10, covered with mist and snow, they may evoke Lovecraftian Cyclopean Cities, mysterious ruins of an ancient civilisation far more advanced than ours, prophesying a possible violent end to the world as we know it. Inhuman are they not, however. Or: non-human. Or: it is not R’lyeh11.

They are not ancient at all. They come from alternative futures, meanwhile made impossible. Futurisms of Eastern Europe, Slavofuturisms12, if you wish, come from ruins. It is, obviously, in the eye of beholder, whether it will be unromanticised nor nostalgic. Potentialities contained by these remains, thus, can be liberated only if they will be perceived through the prism of experience previously gained in critques, free from conservative nostalgia or activist illusions.

As Armen Avanessian and Mahan Moalemi noted, the most contemporary ethnofuturisms originated in Baltic Finno-Ugric countries, although they have a longer past and can be indeed seen as heretical remakes. One of them stemmed from a student milieu of the Tartu University – as a reaction to the authoritarian spirit of the decomposing late Soviet Union and its preference for Russian over minority languages, the proponents of Estonian ethnofuturism were speaking, for instance, of “network” as a real homeland of the Ugric peoples. Such a movement would be a simultaneously oriented towards the future and towards renewing of the national identity. There were also, however, some other formulation of this notion. For instance, certain strains of Estonian alt-right would go in an even more dangerous direction, understanding ethnofuturism as a “collective term for post-segregation, (hyper-)racism, meritocratic cosmofuturism, transnational paleoconservatism and ethnopraeterism”. This all can be interpreted as a reaction toward the global political circumstances, a crisis of financial market and of a nation state, which make place not only for reactionary ethnofuturisms, but also for progressive ones. The central inspiring ethnofuturist idea would be to draw from non-Western modernity and to put in question spatial and temporal framing of the Western narratives on progress13.

Obviously, Eastern Europe used to be, due to contingent, historical reasons, a cradle of ethnonationalisms. Yes, there is a considerable load of the xenophobia in Eastern Europe, inscribed even in futurist projects. True, you probably cannot find more barbed-wire borders anywhere, but here. Yes, the Eastern Europeans witnessed (and partook in) an anti-refugee hysteria without precedents. And this could possibly constitute some sort of dystopian futurism. The notion of Slavofuturism is however, radically different and denotes roughly a constructive inspiration by the outcomes of the historically unique experiments of deep social transformation without capitalism. In this respect the main idea of Slavofuturism is somehow shared with ethnofuturisms. The differences are, however, vast – Slavofuturism is pretty indifferent ethnically14, simultaneously being (de)territorialised as world-systems can be.

Haunting Present: Socialist Modernism and Belarusian Neo-New Wave

What can be a better proof that the notion of hauntological Slavofuturism is necessary than the fact that it continues to spook us until today? The uncanny effects of socialist modernist architecture are not only a thought experiment proposed in this text. Weird fascination with monumental projects solving fundamental problems of a today’s decadent housing market has already become a serious internet phenomenon. One of its most visible expressions is an endeavour of documenting various modernist architectonic realisations throughout the Eastern Block, undertaken by a group of Romanian architects called BACU (Birou pentru Artă și Cercetare Urbană). Since at least 2015, their Instagram page SocialistModernism has attracted hundreds of thousands observers, while the albums they publish constitute a necessary part of the offer in every single European contemporary art museum.

It cannot be a coincidence that a recent hype new wave band from Minsk, Belarus Molchat Doma is strongly fascinated by socialist modernist architecture, depicting slightly dystopian brutalist buildings on their album covers. And it only contributes to the futurist flavour that their popularity is to be owed – apart from unquestionable musical qualities, evoking the era of the 1980s and the upcoming transition – to the YouTube algorithms they have been discovered by in 2018. A somehow similar atmosphere is created by another project that can be discovered thanks to the algorithmic mechanisms: a label Proletarijat that since 2016 with the use of minimal techno idiom tries to make present some sort of Yugoslavian real-socialist techno-optimism and free spirit, in the same time ambiguously questioning its repetitive Fordist component.

This futurist free spirit can be also an important part to a fascination with Yugoslavian monuments of the anti-fascist Partisan movement, well visible in the 2018 D. Niebyl project Spomenik Database. This time it is abstract art, universal, free of ethnic tensions and historical load, which comes back from the future to remind us of the undiscovered possibilities of Slavofuturism.

Its essential feature would be an abstract belief in a project of a good living, which can be constructed despite the capitalistic, territorialising impulses, reinforcing an old centre-peripheries division. As such, Slavofuturism would have something in common with a paradoxically utopian futurism in the spirit of Polish and Soviet futurists. Their crazy shimmy dance on the decaying corpse of the post-feudal society has to be repeated on the rotting corpse of the post-real-socialist/capitalist infrastructure.


1It seems that the very notion of a vampire has a conservative overtone. Myths about killing a vampire can be understood as an expression of collectivist reaction of traditional societies against aberrant individuals (Bandić D. (1990) Carstvo zemaljsko i carstvo nebesko: ogledi o narodnoj religiji. Beograd: Biblioteka XX vek.

2Milosavljević O. (2006) Otac – genije – ljubimac: Kult vladara – najtrajniji obrazac vaspitavanja dece, in: L. Perović (ed.), Žene i deca. 4. Srbija u modernizacijskim procesima XIX i XX veka. Beograd: Helsinški odbor za ljudska prava u Srbiji. http://www.helsinki.org.rs/serbian/doc/sveske23.pdf (access: 18 Feb 2016).

3„Nostalgia as such is also utopian, alternative, and subversive against the existing order. It could give a contradictory impression, as one indeed longs for the old times, something already experienced. Nonetheless, the very simple fact that utopia anticipates a world more fair than this one and looks for it can be a mean and initiative force for emancipation. Therefore I understand nostalgia not only as a reaction, but also as an action, not only as healing the old wounds, but also as creating ruptures in the currently dominant, not only as a negation of the reality, but also as a construction of a new reality, not only as an empty wish, but also as an impulse for its realisation” (p. 165) writes Mitja Velikonja in his study on the phenomenon of nostalgia for Josip Broz Tito (2010, Titostalgija. Trans. by B. Dimitrijević. Beograd: Biblioteka XX vek).

4Derrida J. (1993/1994) The Spectres of Marx. Trans. by P. Kamuf. New York: Routledge.

5Ibid., p. 14.

6These hautological moments in Poland were carefully documented by Olga Drenda (2016, Duchologia polska. Rzeczy i ludzie w latach transformacji. Kraków: Karakter).

7This strain of thought had its predecessors in the Russian culture. Cf. the Vera Pavlovna’s 4th dream of crystal architecture and Fourierist society in the Nikolai Chernyshevskiy’s novel What is to Be Done? (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1886. pp. 385-387) or the ideas of the Russian cosmists, recently discussed by Boris Groys (2018, Russian Cosmism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).

8Yefremov I. (1957/1959) Andromeda. A Space-age Tale. Trans. by G. Hanna.

9Ibid.

10Concept of a waste land as an area permanently stagnant due to capitalist transition is touchingly demonstrated in the 2018 Magdalena Okraska’s reportage Ziemia jałowa: opowieść o Zagłębiu (Warszawa: Trzecia Strona).

11Cthulhu myths were used by accelerationists (roughly) to convey the idea of uncontrolable powerful forces, set in motion by capitalism and potent enough to bring about accelerationist singularity (cf. e.g. Nick Land, 2011, Origins of the Cthulhu Club, in: idem., Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007, Falmouth: Urbanomics). A reponse to it can be seen in the Donna Harraway’s notion of Chthulhucene, where monstrous forces are replaced by equally uncontrollable cthonic element – the difference is, however, in the fact that it is not necessarily hostile and it rather stands for all non-human actors humanity should make kin with (2016, Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulhucene. Durham: Duke University Press).

12The Pauschalbegriff Slavofuturism obviously ignores other non-Slavic ethnicities and subsumes them somehow under an ethnic term. Nevertheless, it should be understood only as the most convenient label for the Eastern European attempt to overcome centre-peripheries division.

13Avanessian A., Moalemi M. (2018) Ethnofuturismus 1989 / 2017. Terminologische Nachbemerkungen / Die Wiedergeburt eines Non-Neologismus, in: idem, Ethnofuturismen. Trans. by R. Voullié. Merve: Leipzig, pp. 7-39.

14This ethnic indifference of Slavofuturism may be seen in a désintéressement in ineffective, utopian (in the sense used by Marx in the Manifesto of the Communist Party) critique of nation, typical to German anti-Deutsch or Polish oicophobic positions, as being negative shadows cast by ethnonationalism. Instead, one may explore a utopian (in the constructive sense) future internationalism.

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