Time Out of Joint – An Interview with Bohdan Tokarskyi and Alexander Wöll
From the 15th to the 17th of September 2022, the second EUTIM Annual Conference, “Time Out of Joint: Literary (Re)Visions of Time in Eastern and Central Europe”, will take place at Potsdam University and will be accessible via Zoom (find the conference poster and program here). We spoke to the events conveners, Bohdan Tokarskyi and Alexander Wöll, to learn more about the conference and how it connects to current political and cultural developments.
Bohdan Tokarskyi: Indeed, literature forms the focus of the second year of the EUTIM project, and we are thrilled to have the chance to explore groundbreaking, experimental, and often paradoxical works of Eastern and Central European literatures, especially those stemming from the late twentieth century and recent years.
We will look at a variety of sources that include modern Crimean Tatar writing, Polish avant-garde and post-war literature, dissident lyrical work, Czech and Ukrainian contemporary novels, recent Belarusian poetry, and up-to-the-minute poems arising out of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine.
We will closely examine the specific temporalities and conceptualisations of history reflected and presented in these works. While the humanities have recently seen a general ‘temporal turn’ (from François Hartog’s study of ‘regimes of historicity’ to Aleida Assmann’s analysis of the ‘modern time regime’ or research on queer temporalities), there has not yet been a focused study of temporal regimes and their literary representations in Eastern and Central European literatures from the past several decades. And yet these are literatures that articulate some of the most critical moments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and that do so through new aesthetic strategies and innovative forms (or sometimes even through the absence of form), capturing multilayered images and structures of time and often calling into question existent theories. Furthermore, we will take a comparative approach, looking not only at national identities, but also at pregnant connections between the literatures at hand, transnational/regional commonalities, as well as the problematic East-West dichotomy.
Next to its notable aesthetic and intellectual value, the exploration of these literatures has crucial and very real historic(al) significance. The events of the most recent and even ongoing history, such as the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas, which has now turned into Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine, the mass protests and subsequent brutal repressions in Belarus, and the neo-totalitarian turn in Russia, serve as painful reminders that ‘the end of history’ is not sight. In the same vein, Fredric Jameson’s proposition that “everything has reached the same hour on the great clock of development or rationalization” (enunciated in his 1991 book, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism) has not turned out to be true either. Instead, it is precisely the different ideas about the future and progress, as well as the past and its meaning, that have become a major reason for these epoch-making events.
What are the particular topics and questions that you would like to address?
Alexander Wöll: We very much focus on non-imperial literatures and cultures, especially on the situation in Ukraine, Belarus, the Czech Republic, and Poland. Importantly, we will host a Belarusian cultural event, in which writers from Belarus with worldwide acclaim will participate. The event will take place at the Einstein Forum in Potsdam and will be open to the public and other institutions.
Our speakers will reflect on questions of time not only in the context of contemporary Central and Eastern European literatures. For instance, Raoul Eshelman will discuss his approach, called ‘performatism’, which seeks to overcome time settings of postmodernism. Our participants, specialists in their academic fields, will take a look at contemporary poetry, novels, and theatre plays from the point of view of how the European reception of time and memory has transformed within the last decades.
We have a transnational and comparative focus on literature in order to analyse similarities and differences between Western and post-post-Soviet cultures (which, incidentally, is the way I would describe Ukraine today, as the category of just ‘post-Soviet’ does not adequately characterise Ukraine’s experience). Our goal is to better understand our different mental traditions and the main motivations of our daily actions, as well as their philosophical backgrounds.
I personally will focus on two seminal books by Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal and Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. In his writing, we find the mechanisms of how, for instance, aggressive time narratives can be part of genocide, or how people can be declared enemies and thereby no longer ‘human’. If perpetrators want to extinguish ‘Ukrainian times’, they don’t want to allow conjectures, debates, and investigations by academics. No certainties of interpretation will be reached through killing people along with destroying all the evidence ‒ rather, the final goal is to create a ‘regime of eternity’ (Timothy Snyder) without any alternative cultural or political times.
Who are the speakers you have invited to contribute to the conference?
Bohdan Tokarskyi: We are privileged to have an outstanding lineup of speakers with unique theoretical knowledge and expertise in Belarusian, Crimean Tatar, Czech, Polish, and Ukrainian literatures – from the USA, Germany, the UK, as well as from the respective countries themselves.
A major motivation for our conference has been the fact that these literatures have been woefully understudied. For a long time, they were captive to the inertia of imperial thinking that still occupies a surprisingly dominant place in both academia and politics. Through “Time Out of Joint” we want to contribute to remedying this inadequate reception. During the preparation of the conference, we were acutely aware of the urgent need for decolonisation, and a crucial part of this necessary effort is taking these literatures earnestly and doing so on their own terms.
Dr. Rory Finnin, from the University of Cambridge, will give the keynote talk, reflecting on temporalities in view of the legacies of (post)colonialism, focusing on Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian literatures and literary visions of Bağcasaray (Bakhchisarai)’s “Fountain of Tears”, a Crimean cultural site of great significance. We are especially pleased to have Dr. Finnin speak to these questions after the recent publication of his pioneering book Blood of Others: Stalin’s Crimean Atrocity and the Poetics of Solidarity.
Dr. Finnin will set the scene for our discussion of temporal imaginations and asymmetries in the late twentieth century and the most recent Eastern and Central European works. Chronologically, we will have two major blocks: the second half of the past century, as well as recent and contemporary literature ‒ from Ukrainian Soviet dissident poetry, anti-Stalinist Polish film, and provocative explorations of national identities and historical clichés in the works of Witold Gombrowicz and Ziemowit Szczerek, to the most recent Belarusian, Czech, and Ukrainian novels and poetic works. (Full information about our speakers and their talks are in our programme). Our conference will also feature important theoretical contributions, which will help conceptualise salient points of contact between the diverse currents of the conference, in particular the talk by Dr. Raoul Eshelman (from the Ludwig Maximilians University, Munich) on his original concept of performatist (post-postmodern) narrative time.
Last but by no means least, we are delighted to hold a separate Belarusian literature event as part of the conference, which will present an exceptional opportunity to hear from some of the leading voices of contemporary Belarusian literature like Alhierd Bacharevič, Julia Cimafiejeva, and Artur Klinaŭ.
Since the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Central and Eastern Europe has been a region in upheaval with an uncertain future. I imagine that the current political events will play a role in the discussions as well. Keeping this background in mind, what does it mean to discuss time narratives at a time like this?
Alexander Wöll: Certainly, Ukrainian literature will be a major focus for us. My colleague Bohdan Tokarskyi, a post-doctoral fellow in the EUTIM project and a co-organiser of the conference, finished his PhD at the University of Cambridge, specialising in Ukrainian Studies. Rory Finnin, also from Cambridge, and Vitaly Chernetsky, from the University of Kansas, are two of the leading Ukrainian Studies scholars; they will participate with talks on Crimean Tatar literature (in conjunction with Ukrainian literature) and on the works of the prominent contemporary Ukrainian writer Sofia Andrukhovych, respectively.
The war in Ukraine already started in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea by the Russian regime, which was led by the Soviet mental coordinates of time narratives. Over the last 30 years, the post-1991 Ukrainian generation adapted Western European time narratives and values, and in combination with a long Ukrainian cultural tradition, new hybrid forms appeared. These new time narratives are not compatible with the ‘official’ Russian ones any more. Even during Soviet times, there was a lot of discontent against the order and its narratives, most evident in dissidents’ activities.
For sure, this war is, first of all, a war for natural resources and money required by the Russian mafia government. But aside from these material motivations, today the culture and literature of Ukraine and Russia are far away from each other. There is no doubt that Ukraine has a very rich multicultural and dynamic literature. Moreover, we should not forget that the Russian war also started in Belarus: its dictator could never have knocked down the mass protest without the help of Russian secret services and special troops. Meanwhile, there are a number of parallels between Belarusian and Ukrainian literature.
In the years around 1989, civil society in Poland and the Czech Republic were able to revive their older democratic traditions (dating to before the Soviet Union’s violent influence on them). The separation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia happened without a military war. In this context, we want to reflect on how to strengthen public consciousness about these different memory traditions and time narratives.
Bohdan Tokarskyi: I would also encourage us to try to understand the real scale of Russia’s war against Ukraine. It is not a mere local conflict confined to this region. The humanity-shattering crimes that the Russian soldiers have committed in Bucha, Mariupol, and so many other places across Ukraine, the mass migration and the global food crisis, as well as Russia’s ongoing nuclear blackmailing are all among the many events and processes that have made it crystal clear: this war is not just about Central and Eastern Europe. This is the biggest war in Europe since the Second World War, and this ongoing tragedy has affected countries within Europe and far beyond it, which now all share an uncertain future.
And yet the origins and stakes of this war can only be fully understood if we thoroughly study the history of Central and Eastern Europe, and, of course, its literatures, which capture, articulate, explain, and shape this history. This is especially true given how exceptionally interconnected history and literature have been in the region. Furthermore, like I mentioned earlier, time and history narratives have played a colossal role in the current war. Fundamentally, this war represents a clash of values, including ideas and ideals of what the future means and how progress is imagined, but also – how the past is (mis)understood and (mis)interpreted. It is quite astounding how much history (most notably through the narratives of the Second World War and the Cold War) this war is reactivating: both Soviet history but also general European history. It is a war between barbaric archaism and forward-looking human growth.
So, in a sense, there has hardly been a more important time to study time, and time narratives as a crucial part of it – that is, the way time is conceived, expressed, and conceptualised. The literatures of Central and Eastern Europe provide especially valuable and important, if sorely understudied, material in this regard, which we really look forward to exploring in our conference.
Bohdan Tokarskyi is a literary scholar specialising in Ukrainian Studies. He holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge and is currently a EUTIM Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Potsdam.
Alexander Wöll is Chair for Culture and Literature of Central and Eastern Europe at the University of Potsdam and a Principal Investigator in the research project “Europäische Zeiten/European Times – A Transregional Approach to the Societies of Central and Eastern Europe” (EUTIM).
Citation: Time Out of Joint – An Interview with Bohdan Tokarskyi and Alexander Wöll, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.09.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/40529