Landna(h)me Georgien – Interview with Zaal Andronikashvili
Zaal Andronikashvili is a literary scholar and a research associate at the Leibniz Center for Literary and Cultural Research (ZfL) Berlin, where he is working on the project Literature in Georgia. Between Small Literature and World Literature. We have a chat with Zaal about his recent publication, Landna(h)me Georgien: Studien zur kulturellen Semantik (Naming and Claiming Georgia: Studies on Cultural Semantics), which he edited together with Emzar Jgerenaia and Franziska Thun-Hohenstein. The interview was conducted by Ewa Dabrowska.
How did you come up with the idea for the book “Landnahme Georgien”?
In 2006, the Leibniz Center for Literary and Cultural Research (ZfL) launched a project entitled “Topography of the Plural Cultures of Europe, Regarding the ‘Shift of Europe to the East’”. A sub-project of this project was “Georgia as a Border Region and Cultural Palimpsest”. The idea of the overall project was to narrate Europe from its borders, thus questioning the Eurocentric, or rather, the Western European, narratives of Europe. My sub-project dealt with Georgia’s ambivalent position between East and West. This question of geographical, cultural, political, social, and economic belonging to larger entities like Europe and Asia, First, Second, or Third World, Global North and Global South, has played and will continue to play an important role in domestic and foreign policy for the countries of the former Eastern Bloc and the former USSR. In addition to their political relevance, the political, economic, and cultural histories of these countries play an important role in debates on Orientalism, as well as in postcolonial and decolonial theories, and theories of nation-building.
Our guiding questions were: Where are these countries – with Georgia among them – located? How can we tell the story of their extremely traumatic and emotionally-charged recent history, which previously could only be explained within a very narrow ideological framework? In which theoretical framework do we place it? Which methodological instruments do we use for the purpose? From this perspective, Georgia has been one of the least-studied case studies. Research on Georgia is not systematically conducted anywhere outside of the country. At the Leibniz Center for Literary and Cultural Research, however, Georgia has been a research topic for 13 years. Georgia is also being studied in Frankfurt and Jena, but there is a clear lack of systematic connection and institutionalization.
Georgia is not a white spot that could easily be colored in by closing empirical gaps in knowledge, but, as a case study, it has potential for theorisation, be it by testing current theories or by contributing to a theory that helps to reflect on the experiences and location of Eastern Europe and the former USSR.
One of the aims of our book, which emerged from the cooperation project between the ZfL and the Ilia State University in Tbilisi, financed by the Volkswagen Foundation, was to put different perspectives into relation: for example, it was not intended to oppose a hegemonic perspective by taking a subaltern perspective, but to show the multidimensionality of the struggles for hegemony and the shifts in power relations and discourses of power. In our case, these were, on one hand, more visible in the literary discourses – the hegemonic struggles were fought in the medium of literature – on the other hand, we also read the political discourses like literature, i.e. we examined their sujets and narratives. The ambiguous title “Landna(h)me” holds a double meaning. Land-nahme (meaning conquest, colonisation, claiming) stood for the struggles for political and, above all, cultural, hegemony over Georgia and indeed (partly) over the Caucasus. Land-name (naming), stood for the cultural dimension. The names of countries or geographical areas, such as the Caucasus or the Black Sea, have a mythogenic poetic quality; they generate myths, sujets and narratives that are highly affectively charged. This affective dimension is usually lost in political, social or economic analyses. It is however very important.
The question of spatial location appears only to be straightforwardly answered. If we take the simplest localizations that are assumed in general knowledge and examine them more closely, we realize, firstly, that they are highly political and, secondly, that they are far from being self-evident. The border between Europe and Asia as we know it today was drawn in the course of Russia’s transformation into an empire in the early 18th century.
Location is not just a cultural construct, but also an instrument of imperial power politics. Despite its heterogeneity of over 100 spoken languages, 4 different language groups, and several religions, the Caucasus – to which Georgia is attributed – exists as as single region only because it became an administrative unit of the Russian empire in the 19th and 20th centuries. We also noted that, although geographical units appear to us to be very stable in terms of physical geography, they are very movable in terms of cultural semantics.
The mountains of the Caucasus, originally a periphery, shifted to a central position during the course of the 19th century. In Russia, for example, in the mystical renderings of Russian romantic poet, Alexandr Bestuzhev-Marlinsky, the Caucasus is styled as the birthplace of the Russian empire. The semantics of the Caucasus continues to shift: If, in the 20th century, the Caucasus remained the central spatial reference for Abkhazia, for Georgia, the centre of gravity shifted from the Caucasus to the Black Sea. For Russia, the Caucasus is divided into its own and foreign parts: the Northern and Southern Caucasus, with the Southern Caucasus transformed into a nostalgic space.
Our book aims to contribute to both theoretical and political questions.
It has become clear to us that Georgia’s culture and history could hardly be told from one perspective. There were too many voices in the room, apparently telling the same story in different ways, which was sometimes contradictory. After the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Eastern Bloc, the political transition has led to numerous conflicts, especially in the Caucasus. In 2008, there was a war between Russia and Georgia. Shortly after this war, Russia single-handedly recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgian secessionist autonomies, as independent states. From the Georgian perspective, these are territories occupied by Russia. The international community recognizes the territorial integrity of Georgia. If we take the Abkhazia conflict as an example, it has lived through hot and cold phases since the end of the 1980s and escalated in the civil war of 1992-1993. The conflicts in the Southern Caucasus did not, however, begin with the collapse of the USSR, but reach far back into the past. For example, the political conflict between Georgians and Abkhazians in 1920s was carried out in the Soviet period (1921-1989) as a polemic among historians about different readings of ethnogenesis and medieval history. This “Historikerstreit” was repoliticized and was carried out during the civil war of 1992-1993.
With our book “Landna(h)me Georgien. Studien zur kulturellen Semantik” (Naming and Claiming Georgia: Studies on Cultural Semantics) we wanted to explore the deep cultural dimensions of these conflicts and contribute to a greater understanding of these extremely complicated situations.
We have assumed that the conflicts in the Southern Caucasus originated from the expansion of the Russian Empire in the Caucasus at the end of the 18th century, the subsequent nation-building process in the Russian Empire and the struggle for political and cultural hegemony in the Southern Caucasus. We also assumed that these conflicts were not only political and that their cultural dimension had a particular significance.
The methodological problem was how to tell a story when different, sometimes contradictory, versions of it had been in circulation.
Up until now, the story of the conflicts in the Southern Caucasus has been told from one (usually one’s own) perspective. Russian historian Viktor Schnirelman has called these contradictory narratives “wars of memory” (vojny pamjati). In his book, however, different perspectives were not put in relation to each other, but were rather placed next to each other. We did not want to lapse into a mono-perspective narrative, nor did we want to take sides or to reconstruct a “war of narratives”. We were aware that the polyphony of voices in the Caucasus could not be reconstructed within the framework of a three-year project. We therefore focused on three perspectives: the Russian imperial perspective, the Georgian national perspective, and the Abkhazian minority perspective (the perspective of a minority nation without its own sovereign state), and took them together as an example. In our reconstruction, we found that individual discursive positions, historical narratives, sujets, figures of space, formulas of pathos do not exist in isolation, but refer to each other: Georgian positions respond to Russian semanticizations of space, Abkhazian positions refer to Russian and Georgian ones, and vice versa.
What used to look like three monologues was in fact a complicated dialogue, or rather, a trialogue. When, for example, the Russian romanticist Alexandr Bestuzhev-Marlinsky imagines and describes the peoples of the Caucasus as autochthones, he wants to place them on a historical timeline. They stand for origin and lack of history, are associated more with nature than with culture, and are contrasted with the Russian Empire being on the side of history and progress. Georgian national discourse takes up the idea of autochthony, but reinterprets it. There, autochthony becomes a pathos formula for the eminently affective reference to one’s own territory. This results in a homeland-centered philosophy of space that has dominated in Georgia for 150 years. If, for example, the imperial philosophy of space follows a logic of tendentially endless expansion, then according to the autochthonous philosophy of space – to put it very simply – happiness exists only in the homeland, and emigration is a metaphor for death. This idea underlies many literary sujets up until the late Soviet period and is only questioned after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The autochthonous discourse played a role in Soviet national politics (in the idea of “korenizatsija”) and in Soviet science (in the highly politically-charged questions of ethnogenesis), and then later in the Abkhazia conflict. There, the idea of autochthons is used by both Georgians and Abkhazians as an argument for nationalist politics and is used to legitimize the ethnic cleansing of Georgians.
To describe this complicated polylogue, we have developed a method called cultural semantics. The fundamental difference between cultural semantics and other models of cultural memory derives from the fact that cultural semantics does not deal with meaning as a “connective structure” (Assmann) in a culture or society, nor is it concerned with cultural memory as a mechanism for the preservation of identity or a group, nor with “realms of memory” (lieux de mémoire), as Pierre Nora understands it.
Instead, cultural semantics focuses on meanings as they emerge in the interface between multiple societies and cultures, as a result of negotiations, polemical exchanges, and mutual relationships. Whereas other approaches are primarily interested in groups and cultures that create specific meanings and pass them on to others, cultural semantics studies meanings foremost as they inhere in places, things, and objects, and how, over time, they get sedimented there to the point that it is no longer possible to definitively expunge them from these places, things, and objects. By taking these elements, rather than groups and cultures, as the point of departure, a different set of relationships becomes apparent within the field of meaning: namely, a palimpsest of multi-vocal and multi-perspectival configurations.
When one speaks of the cultural semantics of places and spaces, the multiplicity of interactions between meanings are more important than just the interpretive prerogatives of a single group. Cultural meaning cannot simply be conflated with the ability to locate and demark a place geographically. By studying cultural semantics, one must take for granted the impossibility of ever answering the question of “cultural localization” and thus must be open to a plurality of answers. These answers are not isolated from one another, but rather they relate to each other in different ways, sometimes affirmatively, sometimes polemically, sometimes providing fuel for other answers, sometimes prompting revisions of them. The answer to the question of what the cultural semantics of places – e.g. Georgia, the Black Sea, the Caucasus – is, is determined by how various answers relate to one another, not by merely looking at the sum of all answers or their “history”, but by examining them as being in dialogue with each other – and it is for this very reason that the answer is not unequivocal but rather itself a palimpsest.
What is the structure of your new book and what did the writing process look like?
Our book has three authors. Roughly speaking, I was responsible for the Georgian perspective, Emzar Jgerenaia for the Abkhazian, and Franziska Thun-Hohenstein for the Russian perspective (even if the “national” division only roughly corresponded to the actual writing process). However, due to the methodological structure of the book, we have decided not to mark the authorship of individual parts (this is only mentioned in the preface).
Our three perspectives are not performed in an isolated way, but rather, are montaged and integrated so that we can tell our story as a trialogue of perspectives.
We move in chronological order between the beginning of Russian expansion south of the Caucasus at the end of the 18th century and the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is how we describe the “Russian Age” in the southern Caucasus and Georgia. There are four chapters in the book in addition to the theoretical introduction written by me. The first chapter, “The Invention of the Caucasus”, tells us how the Russian and, later, the Georgian and Abkhazian, Caucasus myths and Caucasian romanticism were born, how the Caucasus, as a geopolitical and cultural unit that did not previously exist, was created by the Russian administration, and how the Georgian nation was created in the Russian empire and geographically imagined as the successor of the Georgian kingdom. In the second chapter, “Re-interpretations of the Caucasus”, we talk about the scientific Caucasus discourse, which later became functionalized for political purposes, about the emergence of the Abkhazian nation in the modern sense, about the debates on political and cultural belonging in Abkhazia, about political and state concepts in the Caucasus around 1900, and about the Soviet re-interpretation of the 19th century Caucasus myth. The third chapter is devoted to the other spatial discourse: that of the Black Sea and its cultural semantics. It looks at the rediscovery of antiquity and its reinterpretation in the Soviet context and different semantics of the sea as a space of freedom, integration and death. Finally, the fourth chapter, “Outlook”, looks at cultural reactions shortly before and after the collapse of the USSR, the resulting cultural and spatial demarcations, as well as Georgia’s geopolitical and geocultural turn from the Caucasus to the Black Sea.
What is specific about the history and cultural narratives of Abkhazia?
The Abkhazian example is interesting in several aspects. For one thing, it is an example of how the linguistically different but culturally, if not identical, then extremely similar, population with a centuries-old peaceful coexistence (although not free from political feudal conflicts) is radically alienated by the drawing of confessional and, later, national borders. On the other hand, this example is significant because it shows us very clearly how two opposing and mutually exclusive concepts of the nation can arise in the same geographical space and later generate conflicts.
We are in a laboratory where we can see how the shift from the confessional to the national paradigm works; how this shift fundamentally changes the understanding of spacial orientation, values and hierarchies; how the concepts of the nation are elaborated and which parts of heritage they refer to; how the concept of ethnicity was non-existent before emerges in the late 19th century and how it later becomes decisive for Soviet national policy; how, in the Soviet Union, the unsolved political conflicts, which swell under the cloak of international friendship, are carried out in scientific discourses to break out with new power after the collapse of the Soviet Union; and how ethnic nationalisms, which emerged out of the Soviet national policy with its idea of territorialized ethnolinguistic entities, had conceived nations.
I give two examples here: the difference between ideas about what a nation is and the afterlife of Soviet power structures.
1. Sakartvelo, as Georgia is referred to in Georgian, is a medieval name that reflects the dynastic union of the West Georgian kingdom of Abkhazia, the East Georgian kingdom of Kartli and the South Georgian kingdom of Tao under the rule of the (Georgian) Bagratids in the 10th century. Even though at the time of the dynastic union, Abkhazia was politically and militarily much stronger than the kingdom of Kartli, and despite Abkhazia’s first place in the title of the king (the title of medieval Georgian kings – who were refered not as kings of the land(s) but as kings of people(s) – was “King of Abkhazians, Kartvels etc.” ), the Georgian language (kartuli) prevailed as the common language of the union.
Georgian (kartuli) had already been a written language since the 5th century and a common church language even beyond the kingdom of Kartli.
However, this educational and church language was not the common language for the entire population of the kingdom, which was very heterogeneous in West Georgia. Apart from Georgian (kartuli), four other languages were spoken there, which were not written down until the 19th or 20th centuries: Megrelian, Swanian and Laz (linguistically related to Georgian), and Abkhazian (a language not related to Georgian, but rather to Adygean and Circassian). This is important to know in order to understand the fundamental difference between the Abkhazian and the Georgian understanding of the nation.
Georgian national discourse developed between 1830 and 1870 as a consequence of the abolition of the Georgian monarchy. However, the nation replaced the monarch not as a result of revolution, as in France, but as a result of the Russian conquest. The nation was therefore seen as the heir to the monarchical state. However, the latter was not ethnically organized, even though it was denominationally Christian. In Ilia Chavchavadze’s (1837-1907) version, the nation was neither a linguistic, nor ethnic, nor a religious, but a historical community. The nation lived from its historical past, which was to be renewed in the present. Therefore, the nation was inclusive of different peoples, languages and religions.
Abkhazian national discourse developed around 1900 out of two competing ideas of the nation. The Abkhazian nobility, which was strongly linked to the Georgian nobility and the predominantly Christian population of Samurzakano province (todays Gali district), opted towards the Georgian understanding of the nation. The other Abkhazians, predominantly Muslim, however, felt a stronger affinity to the Circassians, to whom they were linguistically and confessionally related.
For them, the linguistic and ethnical kinship with Circassians was a more important political factor than the historical connection with Georgia. They, therefore, saw themselves more as part of northern Caucasian political units (there was a short-lived entity after the collapse of the Russian Empire and later also after the collapse of the Soviet Union) than as a part of Georgia. Of these two possible orientations in Abkhazia, the ethno-linguistic one has prevailed. After the Bolshevik occupation of Georgia, the Abkhazian nobility lost its position. The Abkhazian Bolsheviks tended to champion the ethno-linguistic version of the nation, which was more compatible with the Soviet, also ethno-linguistic, view of the nation that goes back to Stalin. In this conception of the nation, the connection with Georgia played no role. Today we must understand that the two, Georgian and Abkhazian, versions of the nation are mutually exclusive. If we do not understand these profound differences, we will not be able to find a political solution to the conflict.
2. On 31 July 1989, an interview with Nobel Prize winner and famous Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov was published in the leading Soviet magazine, Ogonek. In this interview, which was to cause a scandal, Sakharov spoke about the necessary reorganization of the Soviet Union in order to learn a lesson from the insights of the USSR’s imperial past:
All Soviet and autonomous republics of the Soviet Union were to be given maximum sovereignty within their (administrative) borders in order to later develop towards or away from each other in a free way. Until then, they were to be held together only by the superior structures of the confederation.
According to Sakharov, maximum sovereignty is required to overcome the imperial past, which consists in a “forcible union”:
“We must begin, I repeat, with the complete dismantling of the imperial structure. This is the only way to resolve the national question in the small empires which are, by their very nature, the Union republics. For example, Georgia, which includes Abkhazia, South Ossetia and other national entities. If you start in Georgia and do not do the same in the Russian Soviet Socialist Federal Soviet Republic, you will get into big trouble.”
The last sentence from this interview implying all Soviet republics was quickly forgotten. The public, both in Russia and Georgia, interpreted it to mean that only Georgia was a small empire. In Georgia, the positions taken by Sakharov in this interview still provoke indignation.
Sakharov himself probably did not realize that he was repeating the thesis of the politician whom he probably least wanted to quote, namely the Bolshevik expert on nationality policy, Iosif Stalin, who understood nations mostly as ethnical or ethno-linguistical, but sometimes also as confessional territorialized units. Sakharov also apparently ignored the power relations between Russia (which also claimed to be the successor to the USSR in terms of power politics) and the other Soviet republics. But Sakharov was right on at least one point: the hierarchical territorial power structure in the USSR had become an instrument (among other things) of national and nationalist power struggles that could very quickly turn into oppression.
In the Georgian-Abkhazian case, this was particularly true of the period between 1936 and 1953, when Lavrenti Beria, a Georgian from Abkhazia, who had been the long-time First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Republic and the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, as well as the organizer of the Great Terror in Georgia in the 1930s and People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs as of 1938 (later Minister of the Interior) of the USSR, pursued an aggressive Georgianization policy in Abkhazia. Although this policy was fundamentally revised after Stalin’s death in favour of ethnic Abkhazians in multinational Abkhazia, the deep trauma could not be healed. Sakharov saw a way out of this power structure in the revaluation of the autonomous republics and territories and their equality with the Union republics. Both Georgia and Russia have chosen a different military path in the conflict over the self-determination of their autonomous republics. In the two bloody wars in Chechnya, Russia managed to prevail militarily, unlike Georgia in Russia-backed Abkhazia. As a result of this conflict, more than 200,000 ethnic Georgians were expelled from Abkhazia.
To what degree are debates on post-colonialism and contact zones from literary and cultural studies helpful to frame the Georgian case?
Georgia was part of the Russian Empire for over 100 years and part of the Soviet Union for 70 years. How can we describe this situation? Was the imperial rule of Russia comparable, for example, to the rule of the British Empire? Can we describe Russian imperialism as colonial rule? Can the Soviet Union be described as an empire? These questions can only be answered if we can describe our empirical material with precision. Existing theories help to understand these questions, but they must also be corrected on the basis of new case studies. There were certainly Eastern European reactions to Edward Said’s Orientalism, for example, Larry Wolff and Maria Todorova have addressed the question of Orientalism, showing that Western Europe claims cultural hegemony over Eastern Europe, but in a different way to the case of “the Orient”: Eastern Europe is not seen as “different” but rather as “same” albeit inferior.
Georgia shared with the Balkans and with Eastern Europe the characteristic of being simultaneously excluded from (Western) European discourse (because of its supposed inferiority in terms of civilization) and at the same time being a part of it (because of Christianity, which did not allow for an imagination as “other”, but also due to the ancient and biblical topography, which was declared the cultural heritage of Western Europe). With it, Georgia became the object of the (Western) European border discourse rather than (to take up Todorova’s judgement) the object of Orientalist discourse, which is similar but at the same time not identical to it. Said, as well as Todorova and Wolff, were concerned with Western European discourses, but the “local” voices were missing.
For us it was important to show the interplay between different discourses and sujets and to play off the imperial perspective against national and minority perspectives and vice versa. But there were more differences than similarities. For example, when the Georgian kingdoms became part of Russia, the Georgian nobility were granted the same rights as the Russian nobility. Russian officials had more power on the spot than the entire Georgian nobility, but, legally, they were on an equal footing and were able to make successful careers in the Russian empire. This was not exactly the case for many other forms of imperialism and colonialism. For example, Russia did not succeed in breeding a colonial elite in Georgia.
The young Georgians who went to Russia on Russian scholarships to study became the founding fathers of the modern nation and opposed Russia with a successful struggle for cultural hegemony. Although, politically, Georgia had absolutely no chance against Russia, the Georgian intellectuals of the 1860 generation succeeded in winning the battle for cultural hegemony. Such factors must be taken into account and also play a role in the modification of theories emerging from postcolonial studies. Besides the differences, there are also similarities, for example, in the findings of Indian Subaltern Studies, which rightly point to the (over)evaluation of the role of capitalism in the Indian example. This is also true for Georgia.
Another theoretical input came from the concept of the contact zone, which was coined in 1992 by the US literary scholar Mary Louise Pratt. Her concept of the contact zone largely coincides with the concept of the colonial frontier, but the contact zone also allows for the “spatial and temporal co-presence of the formerly geographically and historically separate subjects whose paths have now crossed”. Pratt described the contact zone as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly assymetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today”. The contact zone was about language as “autoethnography, transculturation, critique, collaboration, bilingualism, mediation, parody, denunciation, imaginary dialogue, vernacular expression” and thus about a pole of colonial encounter. On the other side was genocidal violence: the heart of darkness and the place of speechlessness, which Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak described in her famous essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” The US literary scholar Harsha Ram made the concept of the contact zone fruitful using the Georgian-Russian example. We also take up the concept of the contact zone, but modify it methodically.
If we consider Georgia as a border region in our book, this should not be understood in an essentialist way. The talk of Georgia as a border region (leaving aside the ancient location of Colchis on the border of the known world) has appeared again and again since the 18th century, first as a foreign attribution (for example among Western European travellers) and later as a topos of Russian imperial romanticism in the Caucasus. Around 1920, during Georgia’s brief independence as well as shortly thereafter, Georgia’s role as a border region was taken up by Georgian writers, who attempted to ascribe to Georgia a mediating role between the (supposedly) geographically- and culturally-separate worlds of the Orient and Occident. This border location was seen as a connection: Georgia had its origin in Asia, but culturally belonged to both worlds and could therefore become their synthesis.
Finally, if one looks at the EU policy of the Eastern Partnership, Georgia, an associate member of the EU (for the time being) without the prospect of accession, is attributed as a European border area in which the figure of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion still lives on today.
If Georgia is not part of the Global South, as you claim, how can we name the larger cultural, political and economic space to which it belongs?
I make a fundamentally different claim. Among other things, our book ended with the realization that the question of location cannot be answered: it is part of an open-end debate. This debate has domestic and foreign policy implications; it is conducted primarily politically and is to a much lesser extent a subject of academical debate. To say that Georgia belongs either to the Global North or to the Global South is a political declaration, not an analytical conclusion.
Let us try to approach this question from an analytical perspective. The Global South is a concept that has emerged after the end of the bloc system. After WWII, the world was divided into three parts, the First, Second and Third World. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Second World apparently disappeared and we were left with globalization with its winners and losers, the Global North and the Global South. Where can we locate the former Second World in this division? The transformation processes of the 1990s were supposed to transfer the Second World – through painful reforms and so-called shock therapy – into the First World. The former Eastern Bloc was supposed to build democratic states with the rule of law and a liberal (perhaps even social) market economy. Even 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this has by no means happened in all the former Soviet countries. In some, there have even been bitter setbacks and relapses. Now, the questions are point to whether the premises of the political decisions of the 1990s were indeed correct. Where are we (or where do we want to be)? Are we winners or losers of the historical process? If we want to be winners, should we imitate the models of the First World in order to achieve their standard of living? Is the First World a desirable goal? Or, should there be other goals, such as the fair distribution of wealth throughout the world? If this is our goal, how do we achieve it? Do we need to ally ourselves with the other “losers” of globalization in order to enforce our ideas about a just world, be this enforcement peaceful or through struggle?
Although some approaches have been made, these questions are still yet to be answered. In the former Second World, it was originally assumed that we were the winners of the historical process. We had moved from political unfreedom into political freedom. This view is changing: political freedom is being taken back in many places, without former social guarantees. So how can we describe or explain these processes? Postcolonial theory was born – in very simplified terms – out of the relationship between the First World and the Third World and described, among other things, the afterlife of asymmetrical (imperial and colonial) power relations.
The relationship between the First and Second World and its collapse and transformation is described almost exclusively with borrowed theories. This means that the theories that originated in a different context and come from different empirical material and conceptual apparatus are transferred to the former Second World. However, their transferability to the former Second World has very quickly reached its limits. Today, we have hardly any theories that can adequately capture the relationship between the First and Second World and its collapse and transformation.
Now, in the last 10 years, another theory has been attempting to capture the conditions of the former Second World: Decolonial Theory. The problem has not disappeared, this theory also comes from a different context and its transferability also approaches its limits and creates irritations. This theory goes back to the Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano. Quijano considered globalization as “the culmination of a process that began with the constitution of America and colonial/modern Eurocentered capitalism as a new global power”. This new power model was based on “the social classification of the world’s population around the idea of race, a mental construction that expresses the basic experience of colonial domination and pervades the more important dimension of global power, including its specific rationality: Eurocentrism”. Consequently, “the model of power that is globally hegemonic today presupposes an element of “coloniality”. Quijano’s brilliant analysis, however, was based on an examination of South American material. In an impressive way, Quijano has shown the afterlife of colonial power structures and their inextricable link to capital in today’s South American nation states. In fact, these nation-building processes failed because they were “achieved not by means of the fundamental democratization of social and political relations, but by the exclusion of a significant part of the population, one that since the sixteenth century had been radically classified and marginalized from citizenship and democracy”. He concluded that these states “could not be considered nations unless it could be admitted that the small minority of colonizers in control were genuinely nationally representative of the entire colonized population”.
Quijano’s theory was taken up by the Argentinian literary scholar Walter Mignolo and the US scholar of culture Catherine E. Walsh , especially in their findings that “Global capitalism” is “colonial/modern and Eurocentered” and “modernity was colonial from its point of departure”. In their book on Decoloniality, they aimed to describe the historical development of the colonial matrix of power. For them, decoloniality is not only a theory but also a practice to “undo, disobey and delink” from this matrix. They claim that, “if another world is possible”, it cannot be built with the conceptual tools inherited from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It cannot be built with the master’s tools, as Audre Lorde reminded us a number of years back, “for the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. Because “revolutions and independence struggles in the colonies transformed outward coloniality (European direct control over the colonies) into internal colonialism (local elites managing the building of colonial nation-states acording to the script of the European idea of modernity), Mignolo and Walsh redefined decoloniality as “the task […] after decolonization […] focused on epistemology and knowledge rather then the state”. I cannot discuss this theory at large here, but its more general fashion compared to Quijano’s case study was somehow lacking the power of the latter’s concrete analysis.
Based on Mignolo and Walsh, decolonial theory was applied also to the former Eastern Block countries. This transfer of theory, which might indeed be productive, remains also questionable. Can we compare South America with its unbroken “tradition” of colonial capitalism with the former USSR, which lived for more than 70 years under a different political and economic regime alternative to capitalism and whose collapse made globalization possible? If one wants to look exclusively from an economic perspective, can we justify the assumption that the integration of these economies into the global economy has taken place or that these economies function according to the same rules as in Thailand or the USA? Should we perhaps not regard the collapse of the USSR as a radical break, but rather look at the continuities, for example with the Soviet shadow economy?
The transferability of theories from the First or Third World to the Second World is rather born of a conceptual gap in situating the former Second World in the new world order. The oxymoronic concept of the “subaltern empire”, which is occasionally used in the decolonial theory, refers to the Russian Empire (or the Ottoman and Chinese Empires) and denotes their supposedly inferior (epistemic) position vis-à-vis the Western European powers. Now, if you look at former colonies of “subaltern empires” which suffered (and sometimes still continue) to suffer from imperial politics and oppression, you (as I argue) realize the limits of “usability” of such concepts. If you use concepts like “subaltern empire”, the perspective of ‘subalterns of the subalterns’ remains still wiped out or at least blurred.
In his analysis, Quijano concluded that the Eurocentric perspective was useless, even harmful, for thinking about the South American experience and pleaded for the new theory that would be appropriate to this concrete South American experience. I think we need to follow the spirit of Quijano’s analysis and develop our theory by studying, describing and theorising our history and our experiences beyond a Eurocentric perspective. This work is still to be done and I hope that our book has made a small contribution to it.
Zaal Andronikashvili, Emzar Jgerenaia, Franziska Thun-Hohenstein (eds.) Landna(h)me Georgien: Studien zur kulturellen Semantik. Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2018.
Zaal Andronikashvili is a literary scholar and a research associate at the Leibniz Center for Literary and Cultural Research (ZfL) Berlin, where he is working with the project Literature in Georgia. Between Small Literature and World Literature. He is also an Assistant Professor at Ilia-State-University, Tbilisi. Zaal studied History, Archeology and German Philology in Tbilisi and Saarbrücken and completed his PhD at the Göttingen-University (2005) on Generation of Drama Text. Towards the Theory of Plot (Berlin, 2008).
Citation: Landna(h)me Georgien – Interview with Zaal Andronikashvili, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 25.03.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/23563.