'Here Comes the Rest.' A Sociological Perspective on Postcolonial Rethinking of the 'Second World'

Magdalena Kania 15 Мая 2009

In January 2008 the netmagazine Eurozine reprinted from the French Esprit an interview with Achille Mbembe entitled 'What is postcolonial thinking[1]?' A French historian and theorist, Mbembe suggests that postcolonial thought originates in multiple sources, such as the anti-imperialist tradition, subaltern and globalization studies. Therefore, it is often perceived as original, since from its inception it developed in specific transnational and heterogeneous contexts. He argues that complexity a distinctive feature of postcolonial thought: it is difficult to contain within specific, one-theory frames. Because of its fragmentary nature, it has contributed widely to 'alternative ways of thinking and reading of our [Western - MK] modernity' [electronic source].
The author discusses the critique of European humanism and the concept of reason, which is rooted in the Enlightenment and which not only implies inherent violence, but also power understood as 'force incapable of transformation' [ibid.]. The set of ideas that he refers to as postcolonial thinking examines power not necessarily as physical but rather as epistemic, by explaining how its discourses operate on various levels. One of its important contributions offered by postcolonial thought is to offer an alternative, critical view of such categories as identity and subject. For example, it questions understanding of them as stable and essential. Instead, suggests dispersity and 'in-betweenness' that imply the immediate presence of the Other and difference as important points of reference. Postcolonial thinking is also about a deep belief in humanity and solidarity, a faith that hold out the possibility of social change. Mbembe argues that it is inherently a globalized way of thinking, not merely because colonialism implied global experience as such, but also because globalization assumes movement, displacement and dislocation. What Mbembe suggests is that the label 'postcolonial theory' or 'postcolonial studies' encompasses ideas that come from a variety of sources. Therefore, in his opinion, it is an exaggeration to call it a 'theory' or a system. Instead, postcolonial thinking offers a heterogeneous set of ideas that can be an alternative to other, more established forms of reflection about Western modernity.
Some years ago, a debate was initiated over the issue of whether 'postcolonial theory' can be applied to territories other than those that have been traditionally considered as colonized [Thompson, 2006, Janion, 2006]. It was suggested that the region of Eastern and Central Europe, also known as the Second World, constitutes a legitimate arena that can and needs to be studied from this perspective. Among key arguments were that of power -- dependency on the Soviet Empire --and the presence of a resentment among the post-communist countries that resembles the situation of former colonies. Recently, there have even been suggestions that it is time to change the paradigm -- from thinking in terms of transformation to reflection inspired by postcolonial studies [Graff 2008, 63].
In this paper I argue that the postcolonial perspective attracts the attention of scholars from former Soviet-bloc countries and can be a legitimate alternative to the dominant transformation paradigm. Instead of foregrounding postcolonial theory, I claim that thinking in postcolonial terms offers an interesting and alternative outlook to at least three main areas of reflection. These include in particular sociologically interesting aspects such as: challenging the Cold War binary division between East and West in Europe, explaining the persistence of national resentment and the so-called post-communist mentality, and, related to this, questions about the presence of the Other as a symbolic marker of national boundaries. In explaining my argument I choose to focus on Poland, where these debates have recently been particularly vibrant.

Transformation and the idea of Westernization

Scholars who support the idea that the region of Eastern and Central Europe can and should be analysed from the postcolonial perspective argue that until recently it was either absent from Western discourses in general [Thompson 2006] or considered as a Russian or German sphere of interest [Korek 2007,6]. Others suggest that the well-established transformation paradigm needs to be replaced with a new viewpoint that postcolonial perspective has to offer. For example, Agnieszka Graff argues that the popularized vision of transformation explained that Poland along with Czech Republic and Hungary has always been part of the West [63]. Thus, the main goal of the years after the collapse of communism was to catch up with the West in terms of civilizational development. In the Polish context these ideas were popularized by the sociologist Piotr Sztompka [2004] who claimed that the pro-Western attitude in Poland existed already during Communist times[2], was embraced after 1989 and became one of the facilitators of transformation.
Some recognized the processes of Westernization or re-Westernization as 'the most important systemic aspect of the transition process' [Lauristin 1997, 31]. Although transition is one among other theoretical accounts[3] of social change in post-communist context, what they share is an understanding of the West as a set of ideas of political democracy, individual liberty, cultural freedom and standards of civilizational development. This account helps to explain why many Eastern and Central European societies aspire to achieve certain standards in order to join the so-called First, or Western, World. Therefore, the cultural difference between East and West has often been measured in terms of the historical time, forty years of Communism that has separated these two regions in Europe.[4]
Such a clear distinction between the underdeveloped 'East' and civilized 'West' contributed to a strenghtening of the binary division and an essentialization of these two categories, mostly in geographical terms, as inherently different and opposite. Moreover, in post-socialist societies it facilitated reproduction of the discourse of a 'mythologized, homogenized and superior West,' as the Promised Land, where everyone appears to be successful [Galasinski and Galasinska 2007, 47].

The West and the Rest: Eastern Europe[5] as the Other

The notion of the West as more than a question of territory recalls what the British scholar Stuart Hall said about the West being 'as much an idea as a fact of geography' [1992, 276]. This means that as a historical and ideological construct, the adjective 'Western' is often used to describe a society formed by such processes as development, urbanization, democratization, industrialization and secularization, while what is opposed to these would fall under the general idea of the East.
It is argued that the idea of the West emerged as a product of the Enlightenment [Ambjörnsson 1994] as a specifically European idea and system of representation, a type of knowledge constructed within a position of power when Europeans begun to 'discover' and further colonize various parts of the world. However, in order to define a social formation as Western, one needed to be able to describe its opposite; therefore both the West and 'the Rest' became mutually related and interdependent. Similarly, as identity is a relational concept, where the self-description is often contrasted with other identities, the West and the Rest became inscribed within the set of binary oppositions, or, simply put, became two sides of the same coin [Hall 1992, 278]. In supporting his argument that the West is rather an idea than merely a geographical fact, Hall gives a short example from Eastern Europe and argues that it 'doesn't (doesn't yet? never did?) belong properly to 'the West'' [1992, 276] and therefore suggests that not all of Europe 'is in the West' [ibid.]. Perhaps due to the fact that these ideas were published in 1992, nearly three years after the collapse of the Communist regime, Hall does not develop this argument further, for instance by giving specific reasons for the 'othering' of Eastern Europe.
Some scholars claim that the otherness of Eastern Europe stems from the fact that Christianity and civilization are considered as having originated in Western Europe and having later spread to the 'barbaric' and pagan Eastern parts of the continent. The clear distinction between East and West in Europe was established in the Middle Ages, disseminated during the Enlightenment and further strengthened during the Cold War period [Korek 2007, 15]. From the historical perspective this is more problematic, since, as others argue [see Said 1978; Ambjörnsson 1994] it was rather the process of construction of the European identity and the idea of Europe as a whole in contrast to the Orient that took shape during the Enlightenment and contributed to the dissemination of the 'East/West' discourse. Therefore, it is legitimate to say that more probably the Cold War era was the time when the inner division of Europe became sharper than ever in history and when Eastern Europe became 'the internal other'. Nevertheless, the 'West and the Rest' discourse remained in academic writing as a way of referring to the power relation between Europe and other colonized regions of the globe, and was seen in terms of the division between the so-called First and Third Worlds. Therefore, it could be argued that Eastern Europe, also known as the Second World, was excluded from academic discourses and, as Clare Cavanagh claims, only until recently was considered as 'one region of the world that remains a blank spot on the map of modern theory' [Cavanagh 2004, 92].

Postcolonial rethinking of Europe

In an article entitled 'Postcolonial Poland,' Clare Cavanagh makes the point that 'discussions of imperialism and culture must surely take into account that intellectuals of the second world view their present in postcolonial terms' [2004, 84]. She discusses several of the rather unacknowledged contributions to postcoloniality from the literary perspectives of Joseph Conrad, Czeslaw Milosz and Ryszard Kapuscinski. Cavanagh argues that their writings not only show 'distinctively Polish but unmistakably postcolonial sensitivity,' but also that their work portrays the particular experience of 'what it meant to be at the wrong side of colonialism' [ibid. 88, 91]. In principle her argument is that not only the Second World needs to be studied and acknowledged in postcolonial writing, but also that it has a lot to offer in terms of understanding the complex position of the oppressed. It is an interesting argument that calls for acknowledgement of the long neglected Second World. At the same time, Cavanagh does not explain the dynamic between these two (or more?) worlds and how the West should acknowledge these 'Eastern' writers without falling back into colonial relations. Therefore, the very distinction between these seemingly two separate worlds falls into the trap of reproducing the 'West and the Rest' discourse. Thus, Cavanagh's statement faces a problem: how to study Eastern Europe in the West?
This topic is of particular interest to Alice Stenning who claims that a renewed framework is needed to study Europe. The process of 're-thinking Europe' implies relational exploration of its construction within and beyond the continent itself [2005, 381]. She also suggests that European studies should resonate with a postcolonial critique and should stress that Europe is not merely associated with the West. The relational approach refers to geographies that are beyond the binary Cold War division. Consequently, Stenning's perspective aims at calling attention 'to the presence of the East in the West and the West in the East,' which implies 'studies that recognize transition in the East as the process that also reshapes the West' [382]. This idea of relational epistemology suggests mutuality, co-presence and co-influence, and has a potential to break away from geographies of binary division. This is also an example of postcolonial thinking at work -- one that needs to be developed further. I believe that one of fruitful suggestion concerning how to capture and explore the question of the new European identity from the perspective of the post-Communist countries is the concept of post-socialist hybridity.
Introduced by Katarzyna Marciniak [2009], post-socialist hybridity refers to the sphere of in-betweeness, the 'third space' that emerges in mostly urban post-socialist contexts. It questions the separateness of the First and the Second Worlds as much as the clear division between West and East. It is a helpful tool to theorize the relationship between the 'lingering ghosts of socialism against the official ethos of the 'upgraded' new European identity' [Marciniak 2009,175]. An example of such hybridity in Poland is 'Radio Maryja', an ultraconservative and nationalistic Catholic radio station that 'skillfully utilizes the new technologies and tools of the open market to revive the socialist cult of leadership and mobilize paternalistic ideology [...] to convey hegemonic teachings about the meaning of family, gender roles, sanctioned heteronormativity and proper marital procreation' [183]. Another example given by the author is the online-based agency that organizes Communist-oriented tours in Krakow. It is specifically directed towards Western customers who are supposed to experience the authenticity of Communist times, combined with comfort and entertainment. Although these qualities appear as mutually exclusive to everyone who ever lived under the Communist regime, it is yet another example of a hybridity that combines practices of globalization and Westernization together with a socialist past that cannot be quickly erased. These two examples also show the dynamics of a transitioning identity and demonstrate relational aspects of the larger process of rethinking Europe where categories of postcolonial thinking are employed. Another aspect of post-Communist reality is the presence of national resentment and a persisting sense of inferiority towards the West. It is yet one more case where postcolonial thinking has interesting insights to offer.

Rethinking 'The Rest': National resentment, inferiority and mythology

According to the transformation paradigm, post-Communist reconstruction was driven by the popular aspiration of 'rejoining the West.' However, the tempo of social change was pronounced to be different in various domains of social life. This was captured by Ralf Dahrendorf [1990] in the metaphor of 'three clocks' running at different speeds. He argued that the political system changes much faster than the economic domain and far more rapidly comparing to the sphere of culture and society. According to this assumption, all these domains will eventually go through processes of transformation and modernization, yet they will take considerably different amount of time.
My point here is not to claim that this paradigm failed to clarify the dynamics of transformation, but it is legitimate to argue that it did not explain in a satisfying way several aspects of it. Moreover, it took for granted the idea that Eastern Europe, the symbolic 'Rest,' would sooner or later be modernized and Westernized. This rather optimist attitude towards transformation is reflected in statements by scholars such as the Polish sociologist Piotr Sztompka [2004], who believes that the post-Communist ambivalence and trauma will be 'exerted by the universal and inevitable process of generational turnover' [Sztompka 2004,193]. I suggest that questioning the assumption about necessary and predestined Westernization and pointing out problems related to it can provide an alternative view of the post-Communist condition. Postcolonial thinking provides theoretical apparatus that can explain a situation where, in spite of the processes of Westernization, there remain national resentments, complexes of inferiority and self-victimization.
For example Magdalena Nowicka [2007] gives a short overview of the state of postcolonial studies in Poland. She affirms that the sense of victimhood and suffering that persists in the Polish collective heritage is a phenomenon common to many previously oppressed states. Additionally, relative underdevelopment, social pessimism, lack of trust combined with the constant reproduction of national myths and beliefs in Western cultural hegemony contribute to the sense of inferiority among Poles. She also claims that the chances for a postcolonial perspective to become popular in Poland are meagre. This is due to its critical approach, one that demands a questioning of many naturalized categories, such as nation, religion, family, memory and relations between them. Similarly Maria Janion, leading Polish feminist philosopher in book 'Amazing Slavdom' [2006] argues that although still rather new -postcolonial perspective can and should be employed to study experiences of Eastern Europe and Poland in particular.

Rediscovery of the Slavic heritage

By focusing on the Polish context, Janion suggests that this approach provides an explanatory apparatus for understand postcolonial resentments that can contribute to the improvement of relations and mutual attitudes between Russia and Poland [2006, 323]. Janion mentions three main 'postcolonial symptoms' that, according to her, Poland shares with Ireland. These are: the destructive power of foreign domination, illusions and disappointments related to nationalism, and problematic relation between national identity and religion [ibid.]. The latter one is especially troublesome when it comes to processes of democratization, and building civil society and the 'new European identity.' Janion's discussion is rooted within the contemporary context of symbolic transformation, where the need to redefine, re-imagine and discuss Polish national identity is one of the key themes in public debates. The author claims that the particular complexity and ambiguity of Polish national identity derives from the fact that Poland is situated, partly geographically, but above all in the symbolic sense, 'on the East from the West and West from the East.' This, somewhat puzzling position has resulted, until today, in a particular attitude of pride and a sense of superiority and a desire to 'orientalize' 'the East', namely Russia, Ukraine or Belarus, while maintaining an inferior attitude towards the rational and developed 'West'.
The main contribution of Janion's book is to show that the postcolonial perspective offers the possibility of writing an alternative story within the humanities. Such a new story can present the narrative of Polish culture in a way that can challenge already well-grounded Polish narratives and myths such as the one of 'the Catholic Pole' (Polak-Katolik), which essentializes the relation between nationality and religion, or the 'Mother-Pole' (Matka-Polka), which glorifies motherhood as a form of serving the nation. The persistence of national resentment in a form of self-victimization and national messianism, the dominant discourse of Polish past, is also questioned. Janion argues that one of the ways to find a place in the new Europe is to find a site for Slavism and Slavic myths that were once rejected in favor of Western Christianity. Tracking down the traces of Slavism in contemporary Polish political discourses can help to understand how difficult it is to break free from the complex of old Europe. The idea of employing postcolonial thinking is also important in order to show that it is actually possible to think about the place of Poland in Europe in another way. It implies going beyond the old 'West/East' divisions and the transformation paradigm. Such thinking first explains the origins of the sense of inferiority towards the West and stresses the importance of the Slavic non-Christian heritage. Moreover it calls into question the assumption -- perhaps the most difficult to change -- concerning 'the East' as the 'the Rest' as underdeveloped, primitive, or worse. Janion belongs to a group of scholars who openly claim the benefits that come from studying Eastern Europe and Poland specifically from a postcolonial perspective. However, critical reflection about Polish stereotypes and complexes has a longer tradition.

Criticizing national illusions

The critical attitude towards the Polish Romantic ethos of martyrdom was already embraced in the early 1980s by Jan Józef Lipski. In his essay from 1982 entitled 'Dwie Ojczyzny-Dwa Patriotyzmy' (Two Fatherlands --Two Patriotisms) he argued that the Polish Romantic narrative, which for years had fed national megalomania, can and should be juxtaposed with a pragmatic tradition that takes a critical stance to Polish national myths [Lipski 1982; in Pakier 2007,149]. He suggested introducing the idea of 'critical patriotism,' which could possibly challenge the one-sided vision of Polish history. The idea is to show that a larger picture of past events is needed, one that includes also shameful moments and dark pages in Polish history. Therefore, he argued that patriotism is not only about love and respect for one's country but also involves responsibility and self-criticism and respect for the 'other'. He warned to be particularly cautious against offensive forms of patriotism and 'patriotic camouflage' that only reproduces national megalomania and xenophobia, and contribute to the spread of potentially dangerous nationalist ideology.[6] More recently, a similar line of thinking has been expressed by scholars like the anthropologist Ludwik Stomma and the historian Janusz Tazbir.
Stomma [2006] in the book 'Polskie złudzenia narodowe' (Polish national illusions) claims that 'Poland is a normal country when it comes to both bright and dark sides of its past' and that 'there are neither special reasons to be ashamed, nor to feel particularly proud' [2006, 5]. Stomma, like Lipski, attempts to provoke criticism of 'national truths' and invites active questioning of the dominant Polish narratives that construct the Polish nation as a unique community with a special historical mission. This strong persistence of narratives and national mythologies in Polish history has been dubbed by Tazbir 'the Polish national neurosis' [2007, 85]. He characterizes it as a particular focus on defeats, references to lost battles, massacres and lost independence in Polish historiography. At the same time he expresses the hope that this tendency will soon be replaced by more attention to aspects of Polish history that were for years neglected, such as the history of culture, Polish customs and everyday life. In fact, the idea of shifting the interest from the dominant discourse of national martyrdom towards more a pragmatic approach is Tazbir's suggestion. He would like to see offered a larger and more objective picture of Polish history. Only in that way, he claims, the 'national neurosis' can be treated.
These examples show that although some scholars do not directly refer to the body of ideas associated with postcolonial theory, they do in fact implicitly employ postcolonial thinking. In the Polish context this implies talking a critical stance towards dominant national narratives, national mythology and attempts to explain the persisting sense of inferiority. These are also questions that have been rather neglected by scholars representing the transformation paradigm, mostly due to their focus on processes of Westernization and modernization. It is difficult to evaluate at this point whether postcolonial theory will become a legitimate alternative to other social theories of modernity in Eastern and Central Europe, yet it is possible to claim that postcolonial critical thinking is becoming more and popular, as the Polish example shows. Finally, there is one more issue that was raised by Lipski, namely that the questions of nation and national identity need to address the problem of the 'Other'.

The symbolic Other and boundaries of the nation

Reflections about the nation occupy an important place in postcolonial theory. In particular they reference the poststructuralist approaches suggesting that the nation emerged as a result of modern Western political thought -- thought that conveyed the idea of unity in the form of a symbolic force [Bhabha 1990, 5]. This idea also implied the notion of otherness, and thus practices of inclusion and exclusion were inscribed within the discourse of nationalism. This poststructuralist perspective is generally critical towards notions of the nation and national culture as empirical social categories or holistic cultural entities. Instead, it theorizes the nation as an ambivalent, hybrid space in constant process of becoming, where boundaries are not fixed but rather hybrid and transgressive [Bhabha 1994, 139-170]. These ideas were largely inspired by the writings of Benedict Anderson [1983], who provided the constructionist view of national imagined community.
According to Anderson, differences between nations lie in the various ways in which they are imagined. This assumption implies that nations are not imaginary, but rather discursive constructions in which meaning is provided through a set of representations. Similarly, Stuart Hall [1997] claims that 'national identities are not things we are born with, but are formed and transformed within and in relation to representation. We only know what it is to be 'English' because of the way 'Englishness' has come to be represented as a set of meanings by English national culture [1997, 612]. Therefore it is legitimate to claim that the nation is a system of cultural representation, a symbolic community which operates with power to generate a sense of shared identity and allegiance [ibid.]. In order to maintain its unity, the nation is reproduced within symbolic boundaries, which imply processes of inclusion and exclusion. This is also a part of the narrative of the nation, which is continuously being told in national histories, media, literature and pop culture. The nation's unity is also maintained through other discursive strategies such as the emphasis on myths of national origins and invented traditions which assure the community's continuity in time.
The post-communist transformation was for many Central and East European countries a moment of change in terms the national community. The regaining of independence has reopened the discursive field of the nation for new contested meanings and interpretations. The question 'who are we?' became a marker of identities in transition. Agnieszka Graff [2008] argues that the crisis of collective identity in Poland has created a situation where collective fear related to sudden and unexpected changes is being bounced back onto various 'others,' such as sexual minorities and women. It creates a situation in which national belonging is defined along the extreme lines of gender and sexuality. This recalls the idea of imagined community, which pronounces the nation as a heterosexual -male project and as Anderson suggested, a 'horizontal comradeship' and 'brotherhood'. Tamar Mayer [2000] in 'Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Sexing the Nation' points out that 'because the nation was produced as a heterosexual male construct, its 'ego' is intimately connected to patriarchal hierarchies and norms' [2000, 6]. Moreover, since the nation is often presented as female body, it is subjected to control of its boundaries through various practices of inclusion and exclusion. Mayer argues that the nation is defined by the elites who bear the power to define its boundaries and interests. They also construct a specific code of the 'proper behavior' of members, one that defines normative expectations and constitutes national boundaries [ibid.13]. Consequently, in relation to gender and sexuality, the national project remains a hetero-male one.
In relation to the Polish case, public discussions about abortion law and sexual minority's rights take the form of debates about the right to define national identity [Graff 2008, 25]. What makes this case even more peculiar is the fact that 'otherness' can take a symbolic, ethicized form, as is shown by Zubrzycki [2006], who claims that in post-communist Poland the figure of 'the symbolic Jew' has been created. Because there are not many Jews left in Poland, as compared to the inter- and postwar period, 'the symbolic Jew' represents 'otherness' as such and is projected on various minorities, such as homosexuals. These examples show that postcolonial thinking offers an insightful and complex understanding of the processes of national production and reproduction. Moreover, by questioning the nation's assumed unity, it problematizes the notion of the imagined community's boundaries. These liminal spaces are often contested arenas where discourses of gender and sexuality cross with national ones.

What postcolonial thinking does or can do?

Some critical voices state that it is difficult to apply postcolonial theory to the so-called 'Second World' mostly due to the fact that one is not dealing in this case with classical colonies, the question of race is not the problem as it is in the Third World and that the Soviet Union was actually an ally of various anti-colonial struggles [see: Korek 2007, 8]. However, it is also argued that the postcolonial perspective is becoming increasingly popular among Central and Eastern European scholars. Some are more skeptical, maintaining that the critical approach of the perspective might be a possible obstacle in popularizing it [Nowicka 2007]. Others are more enthusiastic, suggesting the benefits of the change of paradigm from focusing on transformation to postcolonial condition [Graff 2008, 63].
In this article I have argued that postcolonial thinking offers an interesting and insightful account on various levels of reflection about modernities in the Second World. From the sociological point of view, the critical perspective inherent in postcolonial thinking demands a questioning of many naturalized categories, such as 'East/West' or 'us/ them' within the national community. It requires reflection on otherness, hybridity and engages with the past, collective memory and identity that constitute contested spaces.
As the Polish example shows, thinking in postcolonial terms explains the persistence of national complexes and resentments that are haunting the society after the collapse of Communism. It also offers an appealing reflection on nationalism, mostly in its analysis of the discourse of exclusion. Because of its courage in challenging and questioning, postcolonial thinking provides new insights into well-established arenas of thought. It not only invites an alternative reading of our common modernity [Mbembe 2008] but because it is a transnational, heterogeneous and multidisciplinary approach, it also provides a globalized and contemporary way of thinking that helps to understand and look beyond various borders in space and, above all, in mind.


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[1] Full version of the article available at: http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2008-01-09-mbembe-en.html, 2009-05-11

[2] It is important to note here that Western culture penetrated Eastern Europe also during the Communist period, often through emigration, personal contacts, tourism, media, music, etc. For example, on the popularity of 'The Beatles' in some Eastern European countries, see Misheva (2007).

[3] Sztompka distinguishes between four main theoretical accounts which deal with complex social changes in post-Communist societies; these are: transition, transformation, modernization and traumatic sequence (see: Sztompka, 2006b, 3-4).

[4] For a critique of this type of reasoning see: Korek 2007, 8

[5] By 'Eastern Europe' I refer to both Central and Eastern Europe

[6] It needs to be stressed here that Lipski's writings belong to a longer tradition of critical thinking about Polish Romantic Messianism and national patriotic mythology which dates back to the interwar period and continued in émigré circles after 1945. In particular this tradition was adopted by 'Kultura', a leading Polish émigré literary-political monthly published in Paris from 1947-2000 and edited by Jerzy Giedroyc.