Post-socialist Performance as Insurgent Pedagogy
The object of abolition then would have a resemblance to communism that would be, to return to Spivak, uncanny. The uncanny that disturbs the critical going on above it, the professional going on without it, the uncanny that one can sense in prophecy, the strangely known moment, the gathering content, of a cadence, and the uncanny that one can sense in cooperation, the secret once called solidarity. The uncanny feeling we are left with is that something else is there in the undercommons. It is the prophetic organisation that works for the red and black abolition!1
1 Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, “The University and the Undercommons,” in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), p. 42-43.
An insurgent post-socialist pedagogy begins with the most fundamental dual temporality of post-socialism as a “post.” While the peculiar temporality of the prefix “post-” has been heavily investigated as signifying both an end and a continuity, such as in the cases of post-modernity and post-colonialism, post-socialism appears to have been prematurely foreclosed within the public sphere. Socialism is seen as past, and is largely conflated with Eastern Europe and/or the Soviet Union. Whispers remain of socialism in the cases of Cuba, China, and North Korea, however, these invocations are quickly followed with a list of reasons why they are not examples of “real” socialism. Within this discursive frame, socialism is an anachronism, which should have died along with the Cold War. The examples of socialism that remain are written off as ruins of that war and we are invited to forget about them. Insurgent post-socialist pedagogy refuses this amnesia and insists upon the ongoing relevance of socialist experience and significance of socialist praxis for the present moment.
Foregrounding the persistent exchange of ideas between decolonisation and communist praxis, insurgent post-socialist pedagogy reimagines the world as post-socialist—a world which extends from Angola to Venezuela to Uzbekistan. Teaching the interrelationship of decolonisation and communist movements pushes back against the ways that both post-socialist discourse has had its anticolonial pasts erased and academic decolonisation discourses have been purged of their communist legacies. The post-Cold War reclassification of the world from three worlds into two has left communist-decolonial solidarity as collateral damage. This is distressing not only because rich theoretical contributions were generated at this intersection, but also because it makes revolution seem abstract.
It is extremely difficult to imagine a total transformation of society—whether that revolution be decolonial or communist—if one has no historical examples to draw upon. Tjaša Kancler has described post-socialist amnesia as a process of violence:
the ‘post’ of post-socialism, rather than celebrating the embracement of ‘democracy’ and free-market capitalism, speaks about further processes of colonisation which allow ‘former’ West to fulfill itself by deforming what is being suppressed: the materiality of our history, knowledge and memory. The reconfiguration of formerly socialist states through the deregulation of economy, the privatisation of public institutions, and its integration into the global market in an abstract way, erased the whole space, its anti-fascist, anti-colonial and feminist history, practices and theoretical reflections.2
2 Tjasa Kancler, “Speaking against the Void: Decolonial Transfeminist Relations and Its Radical Potential” (Post-colonial and Post-socialist Dialogues: Intersections, Opacities, Challenges in Feminist Theorising and Practice, Linköping University, Sweden, 2015).
Revolutionary momentum depends upon the remembering of histories of struggle. The task of an insurgent post-socialist pedagogy is to resuscitate those material histories, knowledges, practices, and memories of antifascism, anticolonialism, and feminism and to disturb the European Union’s narrative of post-socialist ‘transition’ as a neutral process.
Children playing football at Young Pioneer Camp in Ukraine, Gurzuf, Krim, 1986. Fortepan
Promisingly, the relationship between post-socialism and post-colonialism has become an increasingly popular area of inquiry for scholars of post-socialist Europe and the former USSR over the last two decades. Based on applications of Edward Said’s critique of orientalism and the critiques of the modernity/coloniality group, the most visible post-socialist approaches to post-colonialism emphasise the shared peripherality of the former Second World and the Global South. These critiques, however, largely seem to imagine themselves entering into an empty field. There remains sparse acknowledgement or citation of over one hundred years of local critics of forced dependency, including many whose analyses in the interwar period connect the material conditions of post-imperial Europe to Europe’s colonial mission abroad. Additionally, the approach to reading post-socialism through post-colonialism consistently fails to challenge the Eurocentric capture of the socialist project. Post-socialism too often serves as a euphemism for Eastern Europe, despite state socialism having characterised over half of the world’s governments at some point in history.
4 Some exceptional recent work is being done to fill these historical gaps on regional anti-imperialist and anti-colonial thought in the Balkans, including Piro Rexhepi and Ajkuna Tafa on Melika Salihbeg Bosnawi (2017), Nikolay Karkov (2021) on Ivan Hadjiyski, Ivana Bago’s resuscitation of “Yugoslav Fanonism” (2020), James Robertson’s analysis of the interwar Yugoslav left (2018), and Ovidiu Ţichindeleanu on Veronica Porumbacu (2020).
4 See Vijay Prashad’s Red Star Over the Third World (2017) and The Darker Nations (2007), Walter Rodney’s The Russian Revolution (2017), Piro Rexhepi’s “Unmapping Islam in Eastern Europe” (2017), Piro Rexhepi and Ajkuna Tafa’s “Socialismo e Islam – Reflexiones sobre el Centenario de la Revolución de Octubre” (2018), Rexhepi, Musleh and Mirza’s “Bandung Before and After: Islam, the Islamicate and the De/colonial” (2020), Rossen Djagalov’s From Internationalism to Post-colonialism (2020), Bojana Videkanić’s Nonaligned Modernism (2020), Łukasz Stanek’s Architecture in Global Socialism (2020), and the Socialism Goes Global research project.
My post-socialist pedagogy takes shape in response to these two main problems that I see in the way post-socialism has been disciplined. Inspired by recent scholarly attention paid to the Second and Third World internationalisms,4 I seek to reveal a new world to students by bringing these intersections to the fore. Practically speaking, I approach this task using a dual methodology. By pairing foundational and more recent texts addressing the concepts of communism, decolonisation, neoliberalism, and post-socialism by authors such as Karl Marx, Frantz Fanon, Maria Mies, and Manduhai Buyandelgeriyn with video and performance works by post-socialist artists from around the world, students have the opportunity to grapple with the erasure that they themselves are experts on. Students approach this area from the void itself, from the post-Cold War amnesia that has blanketed North American academia; thus the gaps in students’ knowledge become critical data for their own investigations of this history (which seems to be speaking to us from the future). Have students’ revolutionary dreams already played out? Where have they gone? The business of historical consciousness is in progress.
By challenging the Eurocentric capture of socialism and engaging with post-socialist artists’ critical rearticulation of the communist project, students begin to trouble their assumptions about communist politics, as related to and yet also distinct from people’s lived experiences with state socialism. We listen to Angolan artist Nástio Mosquito’s mock Soviet manifesto in African? I Guess (2013) while reading Frantz Fanon’s “On Violence.” We watch the School of Theory and Activism—Bishkek’s masterful visionary archive Queer in Space: Kollontai Commune Archive (2015) while reading Hongwei Bao’s exegesis of tongzhi as “queer/comrade” in post-socialist China. We read Robin Kelley’s work on the Alabama Communist Party as we view Dmitry Vilensky’s installation “Negation of Negation” (2003). Wary of the homogenising and flattening machinations of neoliberal scholarship, I offer the collisions of post-socialism as method as a sort of Benjaminian return to the present.
The unveiling of the secret of solidarity bursts forth when encountering the Kollontai Commune Archive. In this speculative documentary work by STAB (School of Theory and Activism—Bishkek), the artists weave together a group of salvaged materials from 1970s and 1980s Bishkek which demonstrate the radical visions of queer socialist subjects.5 Running counter to the narrative that the collapse of state socialism ‘liberated’ queer communities, socialist thought is centred in this queer speculative archive. The group’s members pick up various documents in this speculative archive that critique the late Soviet model of the heterosexual nuclear family. They do not make this critique by appealing to liberal feminism, but rather by drawing upon the work of Soviet feminist Alexandra Kollontai. Kollontai’s radical critique of the family as a site of exploitation is stretched here in order to critique gender normativity and heterosexuality as instruments of exploitation.
This mobilisation of the socialist past to imagine a queer communist future is echoed in Hongwei Bao’s work on queer/comrades in post-socialist China. In his article on the semantic transformation of the word tongzhi from ‘comrade’ to ‘queer,’ Bao writes that “While many researchers have correctly identified the role of neoliberal capitalism in constructing desiring subjects in contemporary China, they have often neglected or undermined the impact of China’s socialist past on today’s subject formation and politics. Queer identities and activism in contemporary China demonstrate that the socialist ‘comrade’ has become a foundation of, and even a catalyst for, the post-socialist gay subject.”6 It is precisely that neoliberal tendency that is interrogated in the classroom. Students must analyse the distinction between queer post-socialist futurism and the (often homonationalist) politics of queer visibility.7
5 School of Theory and Activism - Bishkek, Queer in Space: Kollontai Commune Archive, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlXIK_oqjBQ&ab_channel=ArtInitiatives.
6 Hongwei Bao, “Queer Comrades: Towards a Post-socialist Queer Politics,” Soundings 73 (2019): 37.
7 Piro Rexehpi, “From Orientalism to Homonationalism: Queer Politics, Islamophobia and Europeanisation in Kosovo,” Southeastern Europe 40 (2016): 32–53.
In asking students to engage with post-socialist artists and theorists of communism, decolonisation, and abolition, I am asking them to confront their universalist education and the lacunae in their knowledge of the world. The specific lacuna of post-socialism is best described by Neda Atanasoski: “if post-socialism is relegated to periodising a particular moment of regional transition that at once affirms the death of socialism and consigns it to an ideological formation inferior to Western modernity and universality, it particularises what is actually a global condition in which the West situates the universal claims of human rights, freedom, democracy, that underwrite its global violence.”8 By grappling with how little they know about what they do not know, students can begin to see the world from another angle. Specifically, they can begin to unsettle the deeply engrained conceptual framing of the Cold War. The U.S. academy has still not had its reckoning for its cooperation with COINTELPRO and participation in the Red Scare, leaving the American Cold War mythology largely undisturbed.
I have found teaching art to be one of the most effective ways to reach post-socialism’s points of contradiction. Provocatively broad in their claims, Bojana Kunst and Boris Groys theorise that the distinction between capitalist and socialist aesthetics can be understood as the opposition of a sceptical critique of representation versus a critical affirmation of the socialist project. While in the capitalist West, Kunst argues, the performance event is immediately suspicious of the authority of the artist, in the socialist East, there is faith that the performer’s political ideology translates into the immediate material reality. Kunst identifies this “authentic gesture” as the moment of alienation experienced by socialist artists’ Western audiences. Performances in actually-existing socialism speak to a world beyond the world of art, while in Western Europe and the Anglosphere, the political questions of the artwork most often centre around the work of art itself. This art-for-art’s sake ideology underpinning capitalist art production causes the Western spectator to consider the socialist artist as naïve, “banal...and already-seen.”9 To be post-modern is to be cynical of the possibility for art to produce politics.
Knowing that my students will themselves experience the “banality” of post-socialist art is actually very useful. The reaction of boredom or the presumption of kitsch provides affective data on the perceived relationship of politics to art. In the U.S., art often employs political aesthetics, but generally does not do political work beyond the politics of representation. This depoliticisation of art has less to do with artists themselves and much more to do with the imperial/state apparatus. To be bored by the premise that one has ideological faith in the capacity of the state to move towards a just world is an obvious example of an immobilising pessimism.
Geeta Kapur’s defence of the political utility of the term “avant-garde” provides a useful vocabulary with which to understand the work of post-socialist artists. For Kapur, taking up the avant-garde is not a nostalgic act, but a strategic refusal of neoliberalism’s reclamation of l’art-pour-l’artisme and a regrounding of difference. Specifically grounding the avant-garde in its imbrication in the global histories of socialism and anticolonialism, Kapur argues that the avant-garde provides a template for radical, situational politics, which are grounded in the specific needs and histories of a location while also being able to speak to interconnections across time and space: “While the history of the avant-garde gives us a template for radical disruptions, it is important to keep alive questions of material practice: It follows that situational politics—the very site for avant-garde initiatives—should be rescued from subsumption in the global imaginary. There is a need to focus on location (as an archaeologist would) and simultaneously shift paradigms (as a philosopher would): a concept like heterotopia speaks of ‘other spaces’—spaces with several places of difference, real and metaphoric otherness, and rerouted allusions to ‘utopias.’”10 Teaching about post-socialist possibility invokes the avant-garde. While the foreclosing of post-socialism as mere regionalism fails to understand the scale of the transformation of the 80s and 90s, there is something valuable in never being able to leave the regional behind. Difference is already foregrounded in a way that is intolerable to the universalist mythmaking of Euro-imperial hegemony. Students and I are tasked with navigating between local histories and theories of the totality for the sake of making connections to other places and other times. This is a process of producing history.
8 Neda Atanasoski, Humanitarian Violence (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), p. 26.
9 Bojana Kunst, “Politics of Affection and Uneasiness,” agora8 - art documents, accessed April 19, 2021, http://agora8.org/documents/BojanaKunst/.
10 Geeta Kapur, Saloni Mathur, and Rachel Weiss, “Exchange: Geeta Kapur, Saloni Mathur, and Rachel Weiss,” Art Journal Open (blog), 2018, http://artjournal.collegeart.org/?p=9918.
If one teaches about post-socialism in the university, the position that one is expected to take is that state socialism is a failed project and that its negatives outweigh its positives. One is expected, then, to treat post-socialism as a memento mori—an artifact of misguided altruism. We are expected to treat the mass performances of China and socialist Yugoslavia as evidence of totalitarianism’s brainwashed subjects. Socialist art and performance are considered kitsch if it does not question the fundamental authority or ideology of the socialist state. To be a communist in the present is to be a ghost. You should not exist. One can say they are anti-capitalist, but the word “communism” when spoken with belief can only be whispered in the presence of other believers lest one wants to be laughed out of the room or denounced as an apologist.
To believe, within the walls of the university, is unprofessional. To believe is to stand too close to the object of study, to let oneself be overcome by ideas, experiences, and other people. Scholars are told to teach about rituals, about ideologies, but not to practice them. As a learner and as a teacher, our subjectivities should be presumed blank so that we may engage our objects of study with critical distance and objectivity. Each object of study is situated as an object among objects, their relation to one another is abstracted, which ultimately enables their content to be extracted by the knower. To betray these rules results in one being seen as unserious, unprofessional, too sincere, too biased.
In their influential text, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten analyse the university as a domain of professionalisation. In service of professionalisation, the critical academic questions the university and the state while simultaneously recognising and re-institutionalising those institutions. Below the business of mastery, critique, and distance, however, lies the undercommons. The undercommons is the refuge for those defined as “too mystical, too full of belief.”11 The communist and the witch meet each other here, both too mystical, both too full of belief. This is the domain that the anthropologists warned about in their admonitions against “going native.” It is “unprofessional behaviour at its most obvious.”12 To challenge the assumption of the university as a site of mastery, critique, and distance is to admit that study can produce something other than workers.
11 Harney and Moten, Undercommons, p. 29.
12 Harney and Moten, Undercommons, p. 34.
Post-socialism is not a euphemism for Eastern Europe.
The tendentious connections between communism, abolition, decolonisation, and the un-professional underclass of the university (the undercommons) emboldens the insurgent post-socialist pedagogue.
Every struggle is linked, but these struggles are laden with incommensurabilities. As Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang state: “opportunities for solidarity lie in what is incommensurable rather than what is common.”13
We must critique without flattening. This requires taking seriously violence against marginalised communities that persisted during state socialism.
We must expose and unsettle the anti-communist prejudice that overwhelmingly undergirds post-socialist discourse and obstructs praxes of liberation.
The project of post-socialist pedagogy is the practice of speaking with two tongues: one institutional, one vernacular.
In a recent interview with Joy James on the popularisation of the prison abolition movement, Felicia Denaud asks James whether they should concede the ground of “abolition” to those who practice academic abolitionism or celebrity abolition, or whether they should denounce those impotent abolitionisms as “not abolitionism.” James responds saying that for herself, “I’m not gonna argue with you about words.”14 We will not argue about words, about whether a post-socialism is “true” or “false.” We find these distinctions to be self-evident.
Post-socialist pedagogy is a trojan horse. What appears as distance is actually too earnest. This earnestness is dangerous, an insurgent pedagogy inside the university and the museum.
The world that reveals itself in the unsettling of post-socialism is a world with a revolutionary past, present, and future.
13 Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonisation Is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonisation: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012): p. 28.
14 Devyn Springer, Felicia Denaud, and Joy James, “The Plurality of Abolitionism,” Groundings, accessed April 19, 2021, https://groundings.simplecast.com/episodes/joy-james.
Christina Novakov-Ritchey is a PhD Candidate in Culture and Performance at the University of California – Los Angeles, where her research focuses on peasants, communism, ecology, folklore, and aesthetics in the Yugoslav region. Her next research project is a monograph on global post-socialist video and performance art. She is the co-organiser of the (Post)Socialist Studies Group funded by the UC Humanities Research Institute and a core member of the Dialoguing Posts Network. She teaches on post-socialism, revolutionary art, feminism, critical folklore, and global colonialisms. @NovakovRitchey on Twitter
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