Mainstream! Popular Culture in Central and Eastern Europe
This article is part of the TRAFO series Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’. Today, we put the spotlight on the conference “Mainstream! Popular Culture in Central and Eastern Europe”, the 5th conference of the Centre for the Study of Popular Culture, which will take place with the support of the National museum of Czech Republic, the Faculty of Arts of Charles University and the German Historical Institute Warsaw on October 29-31, 2020. We talked with one of the conveners, Ondřej Daniel, about the upcoming event. Please find more information on the conference here, the call for papers is still open till 15th May 2020 for panel proposals and till 10th June 2020 for paper proposals.
Your conference will focus on Central and Eastern Europe, but comparative studies and papers from other regions focusing on the mainstream in the (semi)peripheral global variations are positively encouraged: Why is it particularly interesting to discuss and analyze mainstream culture in a transregional perspective?
Even if it seems a rather easy one at the first look, there are several levels to your question. To start with a personal account: most of us, the conference organizers, are kids of 1990s. The period of the post-socialist change was something that formed us deeply and when comparing our experience with that of our colleagues from all these countries from Estonia to Albania, from Slovenia to Russia, we find many similarities. But there is a danger to this. Most local folks – and in the Czech Republic, we are particularly skilful in this regard -, tend to generalize their experience applying it to the region of Central and Eastern Europe in general. We cannot neglect the Czech experience, or at best the experience of the V4 countries (ex-Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland). But what is valid in the Czech Republic does not always have to be valid in Armenia or even in Slovakia. Most of us in the Centre for the Study of Popular Culture are cultural historians. As such, we propose to focus on a particular topic of mainstream culture that was at the same time local and diverse, but for more than one hundred years now also connected to a global one. This connection was real even in the times of state socialism, NS-Staat and all these different types of interwar authoritarian regimes Central and Eastern Europe managed so skilfully to produce. We also presume that such processes of interdependency between the local and the global as well as the ambivalence between enthusiastic adapting of the global mainstream culture and anxious preserving of what is perceived as local should be similar to other semi-peripheral regions. A comparison to other semi-peripheral macro regions, such as the Eastern Mediterranean, the Maghreb, Central Asia, or even Latin America or South-Eastern Asia could be particularly fruitful. It could enable us to focus on this topic in a wider perspective and at the same time try to understand the specifics of our own region.
The Call for Papers mentions that the conference plans to examine mainstream culture as a vital source of knowledge for unveiling social values, could you elaborate how and why this is especially pertinent when studying Central and Eastern Europe?
As conference organizers we tend to believe that mainstream culture is a pertinent source in relation to any region. But in some parts of Central and Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic included, cultural studies still have a certain bling of innovativeness. More importantly, since the post-2008 crisis we have observed people and politicians in many of these countries turning against the West. The crisis was widely considered as imported. Many of these countries were doing quite well, in particular the EU newcomers did, and all of a sudden, some politicians started saying that many of these countries would be doing much better on their own. This was particularly striking after some 20 years of almost complete and unanimous occidentophilia that also played on the nerves of many of us. Debates about refugees and solidarity in 2015 only catalysed this trend. Many of these rhetorical battles can be included under the umbrella of cultural wars. The cultural counterrevolution we currently witness becoming mainstream not only in our region successfully mobilizes fears of cultural diversity and gender issues. If I exaggerate a little bit, all these local critiques of Greta Thunberg being a young girl not knowing anything about life and the world have their matrix in a mainstream culture that is patriarchal, ageist and deeply chauvinistic. On the other hand, we are far from the elitist critique of mainstream culture and we are very curious to confront our feelings with the knowledge generated by our colleagues.
The premise of the conference is a rather interdisciplinary one: What audience do you address, what disciplines do you think will be represented at the conference, and what point of views will be brought to the table?
Since popular culture is a research field shared by many disciplines, we address a wide range of social sciences and humanities. One of the topics our organization aims to address is an interconnection between these different disciplines. There is a certain tendency of dividing cultural studies into different scholarly disciplines. The publications of musicologists for example remain invisible for scholars of other disciplines. Also, as historians, we have been struggling for a long time that research in popular culture is accepted in our own discipline. And this struggle is never finished. As for the points of view, we are really looking forward to being surprised by our colleagues.
Ondřej Daniel earned his PhD from the Institute of Global History of the Faculty of Arts at Charles University with specialization on postsocialism, nationalism, migration and popular culture. His dissertation was published as Rock or Turbofolk: The Imagination of Migrants from the Former Yugoslavia (2013). In 2016, he published studies summing up his research on topics of subcultures and violence related to the construction of Czech post-socialist mainstream culture as well as DIY subcultural practices. Currently he examines topics merging visual culture, class and xenophobia in post-socialist societies. He is a founding member of the Centre for Study of Popular Culture.
Citation: “Mainstream! Popular Culture in Central and Eastern Europe – An Interview with Ondřej Daniel”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 03.03.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/22565.