Postcolonial Europe

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Book review: "Streets of Crocodiles: Photography, Media, and Postsocialist Landscapes in Poland".

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Katarzyna Marciniak and Kamil Turowski,
Streets of Crocodiles: Photography, Media, and Postsocialist Landscapes in Poland.
Bristol and Chicago: Intellect, 2010, 176 pp.

 

Streets of Crocodiles is a result of the fruitful collaboration between photographer Kamil Turowski and feminist media researcher Katarzyna Marciniak. This book has two goals: to visually document the scenery of the post-socialist urban landscape in Poland and to comment on the country's transition from the ‘old' to the ‘new' Europe. The project draws attention to the post-socialist condition in the country while engaging photography, media culture and scholarly essays. The phenomenon of post-socialism in Europe has predominantly been theorized within the framework of transformation and modernization. This book offers an alternative perspective that is, according to Marciniak, ‘beyond the politics of politeness and superficial appeasement' (p. 172).

The book consists of a foreword, preface, four essays and a total of 63 black and white and colour photographs. The book's title derives from the short story written in 1934 by Polish-Jewish artist and writer Bruno Schultz, known for his extraordinary language and imagination. In the foreword, the film critic J. Hoberman refers to the ‘disturbing elegance' and ‘surreal juxtapositions' of Turowski's photographs, which invoke the atmosphere of the fragmented, ghost-haunted and phantasmagoric industrial landscape of Schultz's prose.

In the preface, Kamil Turowski argues that the short story by Bruno Schultz serves as a metaphor for understanding the post-socialist, hybridized terrain emerging after the collapse of communism in Poland. The photographs in this volume come from a longlasting project initiated in the late 1980s and completed in 2009. The main goal of the project was to visually document the process of transition in Poland from the communist regime to democracy and EU membership.

The majority of the photographs concentrate on the industrial city of Łódź, a blue-collar centre with a rich history where at least four ethnic groups of Poles, Russians, Germans and Jews coexisted before the outbreak of the Second World War. Turowski argues that his intention is to visually document what lies underneath the facade of commercializa¬tion, Westernization and dominant, often tourist-oriented and limited representations of this New European region. By doing this, Turowski attempts to build a visual metalanguage inviting critical self-reflection and scrutiny while standing apart from ‘nostalgic longings for the Old World' (p. 18).

There are two groups of photographs in this book. One portrays the urban landscape through a more artistic lens. These are the images of sleepy and empty streets, gates, backyards, windows and balconies, of cracking walls and flaking plaster. They are juxtaposed with unbalanced compositions of sociological photography that actively documents a stratified landscape of quickly passing people, clashes of old and new, flashy street advertising and vulgar graffiti. We learn that the landscape of these ‘crocodilian streets' emerged as a result of the systemic transformation. The contrasts and clashes portrayed in the photographs serve as an illustration to the four essays written by Katarzyna Marciniak.

The first essay, entitled ‘New Europe: Eyes Wide Shut', employs the powerful metaphor from the Stanley Kubrick film to theorize the clash between enthusiastic proclamations of Europeanness on the one hand and indifference towards practices of economic and racial oppression on the other. Marciniak argues that the ‘euphoria of transnational progress' conceals the spaces of hate and visual assault directed at ethnic minorities (p. 100). Consequently, eyes remain widely shut to vulgar racist and anti-Semitic graffiti present on various walls, including the synagogue in Łódź.

The second essay, called ‘Postsocialist Hybrids', explores the question of dealing with the socialist past, in particular the contrast between new ‘Western' capitalism and the communist legacy. The author suggests that one way of dealing with these socialist ghosts is through the production of hybridized cultures that combine western global patterns with local specificity, such as the need to maintain a national identity. One of the examples is the ultra-Catholic radio and TV station Radio Maryja, which uses the newest media technologies and tools of the open market to become an ‘oasis of traditional Polishness' (p. 127). This process of self-definition as a nation automatically implies understanding those who remain outside of the national borders. Foreigners, migrants and ‘others' are the subject of ‘An Act Against the Wall', the third essay in the collection.

In this text, Marciniak argues that entry to the EU in 2004 put Poland in the privileged position of a host country. The author is interested in how Poles exercise this new responsibility. She draws upon educational materials, media representations and the art video installation by K. Wodiczko entitled ‘Guests' (2009) to suggest that ‘what underpins these pedagogical and aesthetic efforts is the urge to awaken a new social consciousness, one that fosters hospitality, tolerance and acceptance toward migrants' (p. 141). However, in spite of these numerous attempts to popularize attitudes of openness towards foreigners, the difference is usually portrayed as external in this ethnically, racially and religiously homogeneous nation. It is further suggested that the majority of Polish debates about nation and nationality are accompanied by ‘underpinning emotionality' (p. 157), to the extent that what binds people together is the messianic mission to save and own the nation. This attitude is also present in the narratives and media representations of recent Polish migrants to London. What we learn from one episode of the popular Polish TV series Londyńczycy (‘The Londoners') is that establishing oneself abroad in the West means potentially being successful in material terms but it also means the risk of losing ‘the Slavic soul' and ‘personal authenticity' (p. 157).

The final essay and afterword, entitled ‘Pedagogy of the Post', offers a reflective comment from the author. She speaks from the position of someone who left Poland yet still remembers growing up in socialist times. The fact that she originates from this European ‘second world' is one of the reasons foreign scholars asked her which theoretical framework can successfully explain the post-socialist condition. Although there is no simple answer to that question, Marciniak says that one of the aims of Streets of Crocodiles is to speak to the failure of postcolonial theory to capture the specificity of the ‘second space'. The ambition is to offer a critical perspective by using such ‘postcolonial' concepts as hybridity in order to engage in a conversation and to show ‘what local communities know intimately and experience daily but what is often protected by silence or denial' (p. 172).

Indeed, this book touches upon issues that are rarely discussed and theorized within the post-socialist context, which is one of its major strengths. Additionally, it provides us with the photographic documentation to visually define the everyday urban landscape in transition. In this way it challenges dominant media representations of diversity and the ‘euphoria of transnational progress' (p. 100) by juxtaposing them with the everyday context of the post-socialist urban landscape. Marciniak mentions the emotional reception of the Streets of Crocodiles photo-document in Poland. The common reaction has been mostly anger and rejection because it touches upon the most sensitive and hidden issues that people do not want either to acknowledge or to remember. However, for the audience not familiar with the Polish context it provides the opportunity for a walk behind the walls and facades of major representations to see what is going on in one of the largest regions of the new Europe.

Streets of Crocodiles strongly contributes to two of the major debates that attempt to theorize the changes in eastern and central Europe since the collapse of communism. First, the book challenges the general tendency to marginalize the experience of the non-Western world and particularly of the ‘second space' in discourses of globalization and universalism. Secondly, it offers a critical reflection on the dominant theories of modernization and transformation in the region. It shows that the post-socialist space is complex and ambiguous and that the popular ‘back to Europe' slogan is not necessarily synonymous with the embodiment of political stabilization, economic prosperity and the liberalization of culture. The book belongs to the continuously growing body of research, mainly within sociology, anthropology and geography, that examines documents and analyses how people and communities take account of systemic change. It adds to this scholarship by theorizing and documenting the everyday experiences of the post-socialist world.

The venue of experience in this case is predominantly the urban landscape of the street. Here modern clashes with old, colourful advertisements contrast with grey buildings and people indifferently pass walls sprayed with slogans of hatred and racism. The street is, as Donald McNeill suggests, an important venue in the European political, cultural and social landscape. He argues that the street is an actual site ‘open to experience, emotion, psychological states, a place of gratification or fear or guilt or happiness' (2004: 100). In this book, the street is also a site where globalization and market competition clash with signs of unemployment, disenchantment, ethnic hatred and marginalization. Since the urban context remains the major focus of the book, large rural areas of Poland remain out of the picture. Thus the overall image of the ‘post-socialist landscape' becomes rather limited. At the same time, it seems that generalization and objectivity were not the authors' main ambitions. In Streets of Crocodiles the post-socialist urban experience comes from the photos' ‘capacity both to present evidence and to evoke a magical or mythical quality that moves us beyond specific empirical truths' (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 20).

The book fulfils its aim in both documenting and theorizing the post-socialist transition. It will appeal to those interested in questions concerning the ‘new Europe', post-socialist media and photography. It adds to the research that problematizes post-socialism, sometimes even by asking whether we still need post-socialism as a term (Stenning and Hörschelmann, 2008). Streets of Crocodiles proves that we definitely do need to critically examine the post-socialist condition outside of dominant perspectives and representations in order to capture the complexity of a landscape that is full of clashes, ambivalences, challenges and contradictions. This volume encourages the further investigation of existing social walls, some fallen or eroded, and some still raised in people's minds.

 

 

References

McNeill D (2004) New Europe: Imagined Spaces. London: Arnold.

Stenning AC and Hörschelmann K (2008) History, geography and difference in the post-socialist world: Or, do we still need post-socialism? Antipode 40(2): 312-335.

Sturken M and Cartwright L (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture, 2nd edn. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

 

 

(Originally published in European Journal of Communication, 2011, Vol. 26 (4), reprint with permission)


 

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