By Fernando Gómez-Herrero
I recently participated in two events organised by the Ratiu Forum: The Rise of Pop Pessimism and Its Implications and Democracy in the Age of Putin that took place in Turda, Romania. As a speaker, I talked about Lars Von Trier’s great film trilogy Europa in the former and about the thorny topic of “populism” in the latter.
Von Trier’s cinema is challenging and remains maturely provocative decades later; that is, it forces you to face up to “obscene” or ill-omened news coming your way about what you call your own identity, self or being. There are no evasions to others (that is, he does not go to “others” to make claims of any unpleasant kind. Perhaps to externalise, elude, or “avoid” things, placing them in some phantasmatic “other.”). Such film production, already substantial, has “Europe” as its ground and horizon (or telos) and it is not a pretty picture. There will be no happy endings. “Pop culture” is – doubts anyone? – a valid space for thought, a fulcrum for the lever of sensibility to get a good purchase about myriad matters. Humanists instinctively know this and some social scientists follow suit. Ratiu Forum brought both tribes together and this is to the credit of the organisers. Truly, “cultural studies” has been one academic modality at least since the 1980s, displacing philology and more traditional modes of inquiry, now hegemonic, throwing “history” up in the air for instance, disrupting with “philosophy” (the term is always uncomfortable for conventional Anglo readers) and putting “culture” as the now ubiquitous, almost omnivorous sign apparently moving about the global town with few impediments. But these exist. The term of “civilisation” is less noticeable, but it may come back as soon as others insist on its power.
“Populism” is a political term that challenges all official conventions currently buffeted by messy events, not only Russia’s war in Ukraine. In my presentation I referenced four thinkers who may help us with the thinking of populism: the Spaniard José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) who wrote a best-seller about the “revolt of the masses” one century ago, the German-origin J.W. Muller residing in the Ivy Leagues of the U.S. who wrote a slim, portable volume, What is Populism?, less satisfying; the Americans Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt who wrote about the presumptive death of democracies, still not quite biting enough, and the Argentinian –long-term migrant scholar resident in Britain—Ernesto Laclau (1935-2014), probably the most noted theorist of “populism” who is often cynically excised from global conversations in some quarters. “Populism” is for Laclau a symbolic production of a cumulative chain of equivalences that places demands to a figure of authority or “world order,” and if unmet may bring big disruption. The emptiness of the sign marks the collective pressurising of these demands and the break-through will respond to a variety of factors and situations. Situations in the immediate present and future are always uncertain. (I prefer the intelligence of the “Hispanics” over the “Anglos,” at least in this foursome.) Yet, the main point is about the need for the critical analysis of the politics (or antagonism) between establishment (or officialdom) and a few social forces situated in different positions and responding to such constitutional centre of legitimacy in diverse ways and situations. The notion of “democracy” is now in 2022 not obvious. It surely cannot mean electoral politics every four years or so. And the frame of vision must now be truly global. That is, the West does not own it, does not know best. Hence, the West must hold dialogues with a variety of actors, inside and outside. But who is to decide? The notion of the West is, as I am writing these quick reflections, currently undergoing debilitations inside and outside governmental proclamations, think tanks and university classrooms, despite the recent comeback in the media due to the war in Ukraine. The “West” is, supposedly, “us” always already against the others or the distant ones or the bad ones (Russia, China, mostly, Iran, North Korea, Latin America is always in some undecided stage of limited acceptability, etc.). What is typically conveyed in these rhetorical manoeuvres is something like a serviceable geopolitical understanding of the civilisational category, surely excessive, that is not, I hasten to add, to be identified with, or subsumed under, the latest foreign-policy interests of this or that nation-state, however powerful. The discourse of the Leviathan (“philanthropic ogre” according to Octavio Paz) is no doubt powerful, but like Polyphemus has only one eye and does not see everything (ask Ulysses!). Is it not true that these civilisations and cultures, like creatures big and small, are now roaming the time-spaces of global capitalism, which is our meeting point? There are all sorts of mixtures and clashes too.
It was my first time in Romania, a part of the Eastern European world neglected by mainstream media in Britain, where I live, but also elsewhere. It is always good to include geographies and temporalities that are otherwise missing in action. Since no one holds monopoly of perpetual knowledge and divine virtue, it is good to travel to new environments outside predictable locations and engage in conversation with Romanians, Polish, Serbians, Americans, South-Africans, Norwegians, Spaniards, and British too. Once the discussion tables open up, and there were good opportunities for doing so at breakfast, lunch, dinner and post-dinner, a richer and more complex picture emerges having to do with the aesthetics of pessimism for example in film, but also the other arts (music, literature, music, video games were mentioned for younger generations firmly lodged in their ‘bubbles”). Zombie and horror films are great fun –even for self-declared pessimists—but American popular culture cannot possibly constitute the sole horizon of vision. I suggested that American popular culture –and Hollywood in it in particular –which we all consume with gusto— cannot be universalised. It must be situated, historicised and relativised, for example in relation to George Romero’s city of Pittsburgh. Romero, son of a Lithuanian mother and a Spanish father, born in the Bronx, New York, settled in the rough city of the Steelers and produced these b-movies: surely this counter-cultural sensibility goes against easy claims of any kind. America is point of departure but no destination. What if we assume the standpoint of the zombies against the runaway humans, not always nice people? What if we colour ourselves against the “white” mainstream? How is Pittsburgh (the city of the Polish-immigrant “Warholla” family that produced Andy Warhol!) in relation to L.A., New York, Philadelphia, you name them? There is a critique of consumerism and of systemic violence too in Romero, who never was part of the hegemonic film industry. So, hold on to your fears!
How does Europe signify vis-à-vis American geopolitics of knowledge production of the “liberal West”? Ortega y Gasset and Laclau are two examples. How does Europe signify in relation to the hegemony of American film industry and popular culture in general? Well, Von Trier is another example. There will be others. What do the different European enclaves want to say about geopolitics or creativity? What is the recent Romanian film industry saying about these matters? What can we learn from the Eastern-European experience of the last few decades, not to mention centuries if we go deep into history? I propose the contemplation of three levels of analysis: ‘high’ level of geopolitics, middlebrow level of the education sector or university life, and ‘pop culture’ or what I like calling ‘the street.’ These levels and layers are interconnected in visible and invisible ways. One example: the ban of Russian tennis players from playing in Wimbledon, the exclusion of Russian singers from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City (ask the one-time favourite of the manager Peter Gelb, Anna Netrebko!). What about the visibility of Eastern European, Latin American, African, Russian or Chinese nationals in the menu of cultural offerings in the different parts of the world where the Ratiu Forum participants live? What about the learning of the “foreign languages” in the Anglo Zone? We instantly see the impact of economic interests and methodological nationalism in our midst. The recent conferences in Turda should push us to open windows and doors to bigger landscapes of green and brown pasture. A quick perusal at the Pocket World in Figures by the Economist (2020) gives us the import-export percentages of Romania (EU28 is 75.8% for both: where will Romania turn accordingly?). But there is no falling, not me anyways, for rigid economic determinism or the faith in a methodological nationalism, although I can see how settings of recent nation-state status such as Romania (1918) might be hesitant to suspend nation when its achievement is, based on conversations held at Turda, probably not yet there for all to see. Who would want to nip the bud before the flower blooms?, some might ask and I would have no answer for that except that the nation –coupled with the state– is one strong political vehicle but one among others.
In the country where I live, Britain, the recurrent self-assignation is that of “soft power” in the context of the recent funeral for Queen Elizabeth II. We are now in the reign of Charles III. The two previous Charles lived adventurous lives. The first one lost his head literally to the parliamentarians. The second one over the good life and his many mistresses. Still, the institution of the Monarchy remains one of self-definition of Britain with plenty of pomp and ceremony for the world to see. Collective symbols around which social forces gather matter a great deal and changing them is easier said than done. Be it so, former diplomats (Peter Ricketts) and influential home-grown analysts (Gideon Rachmann) do not hide the tremendous damage done by the Brexit tensions in the last ten-odd years. Tensions remain internally and with the EU. Will NATO fix some fractures? Will Ukraine unite an otherwise disparate bundle of social-group and nation-state interests going in different directions? Will the Americans stick it out? Recent pieces in Foreign Affairs by Richard Haass – The Dangerous Decade – and Lawrence D. Friedman – Britain Adrift: The United Kingdom’s Search for a Post-Brexit Role – give us a picture of danger and uncertainty. Catch the sign “Europe” and “Romania” in these pieces: good luck! The uncertainty has to do with the self-questioning of U.S. pre-eminence, the relative Anglo-American privilege as to the “West knows best,” the alleged British monopoly of a certain “constitution” with no written document, and the generally exiguous frames inside which “West and the rest” are set up. What happens when we put the lingua franca in the midst of the many languages out there? Turda gave some good examples. The contrast is an interesting one for example with one or two of the romance languages as represented by two Catalans named Josep, one Socialist (PSOE), and one Conservative (PP), that is, Josep Borrell (EU’s foreign minister) and Josep Piqué (former foreign Secretary and current Editor of Política Exterior). Neither Catalan politician is pro-independence Catalanist: both are Europeanist, the former is leaning more Franco-German core, and the latter is more American in accordance with party affiliations which, like parallel lines, intersect in the horizon of major EU policy measures, typically U.S. supported, except for the recent Trump-Presidency upheaval. The convergence is now the opposition to Putin’s Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. News about the UN put the so-called “global South” at a certain distance between “west” and Russia and China. We will have to watch how things develop in what appears to be a long conflict, possibly defining ends and beginnings of new eras.
The official language is one of danger and been adrift with role-playing confusion at the core of the Transatlantic Alliance. Uncertainty is this interregnum of sovereigns or legitimacy / legality sources in suspension. If democracy is the language of political legitimacy, recurrent elections give out winners and losers and look at the U.S. situation at present! What about Liz Truss’s Brexit Britain? What is going to happen in Italy? What about the Eastern European neighbourhood? I sense distancing between the two sides of the Atlantic, despite proclamations of a renewed unity due to Russia’s war in Ukraine. The various nation-state enclaves carve their messages of collaboration but there are surely differences in form, content, tone, mood among the dignitaries who recently crowded Westminster Abbey for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and those who did not. Painting with thick brush strokes, I see a process of de-Europeanisation of the U.S., which I mentioned in my session in Turda, and possibly de-Americanisation of Europe, including Britain to a certain extent, also a new impetus (call it Brexit) for the ‘island nation’ to reinforce a fresh distancing from its closest continent (Europeans are “the other” in conventional English language in Britain, in the same way Europeans are also “the other” for Eurocentric Americans who may say a thing or two quickly about the “liberal West” and the “illiberal rest,” typically in formulaic Manichaeism, avoiding at all costs to look South: to some conventional Anglo imagination, “South” is the site of horrors told and untold).
I also sense an official insistence on the figure of the “migrant” as the negative point of political exteriority coming from outside its borders against which the nation-state declares its territorial integrity and its sovereignty (think of Spielberg’s Jaws and Ridley Scott’s Alien for cinematic renditions of these political fears and Von Trier’s account is diametrically different, internal, and in my opinion more mature and convincing). There is, I also notice, a quick retreat from universalisms and consequently a conservatism that shies away from vigorous intercourse, social, intellectual, cultural, etc. with others. If you live in the Anglo Zone (the U.S. or the U.K.), think of the last time you saw a good xenophilic framing of foreign political ideas improving the lot of the internal “constitution”? In the U.S., a tremendous transformation, called Latinisation, is taking place. It means the minority capture of majority self-images of what the U.S. is supposed to look like, sound like, signify, talk, taste, sign, dance, etc. “White” is losing its pre-eminence and zombies and horror images populate some films as well as alternative cultural products. Who’s afraid? Who is celebrating? The undersides of American popular culture have always been its most vibrant cultural dimension (think of jazz, blues, rock’n’roll, etc.). What happens in Europe when it looks at itself in the mirror of this global American popular culture is anybody’s guess and this is one question that lingers. Universities do not appear, I am afraid, to mount much of a challenge, given the privatisations and bureaucratic takeovers, except perhaps in small, marginal enclaves. The humanities are barely alive, the ‘languages’ in the Anglo Zone, like a sorry dead duck in the dirty water. The street remains unpredictable and disorienting: the Wizz magazine I picked up in the flight from Turda to Luton includes an article on “Kraków style… the streetwear mixed with high fashion, vintage with athletic, Goth with rainbow Crocs.” I read that “Pat” after a successful stint in Hong Kong has produced a “capsule collection” for luxury fashion house Shanghai Tang, which she is taking back to Kraków. I also read that Magdalena Kotarba-Niezgoda, founder of the “vegan footwear label Fairma” is a proud designer of her sales in Kraków to which she has returned after living and working across Europe. Low-cost Hungarian airline of questionable customer satisfaction, lingua franca, hodgepodge of styles, an internationalist type of youth merchandise, is this where we are?
What would the view from Romania be? They will have to tell me. In the meantime, I can advance these impressions: Roman-Empire legacy (I visited the impressive salt mines in Turda), barbarian invasions from the East, Middle-Age and Early Modern convulsions, I will not mention Dracula!, Ottoman Empire and Austro-Hungarian episodes (possibly Turda pinnacle if buildings are a sign?). The constitution of the nation-state in 1918. Fascism and collaboration with Nazi Germany in WWII (the plaques outside train stations speak of deportation of Jews to concentration camps). Afterwards, we are on the other side of the Iron Curtain, Communism and Nicolae Ceausescu’s strong repression ending in 1989, almost yesterday. And now? Our Romanian counterparts spoke of lingering corruption of a democratic regime in desperate need of EU funding (Turda is undergoing re-development in its city centre with such funds). The EU beckons. Will the neighbouring nations help out? The land of the Romans with its Romance language appears encircled by cold shoulders. Am I wrong? Is the Ukrainian border a source of nervousness? It signifies greater check-point controls and possible slowing of traffic of goods and peoples (I experienced delays in the Hungary border for passport controls). How easy is the travel through, into and out of Romania? (main export destinations are Germany, Italy, France and Hungary; main imports come from Germany, Italy, Hungary and Poland: it is EU space). Do Romanian migrants follow the same route as these goods? Or do they go elsewhere? The animosity against Putin’s Russia needs no prodding as the older animosity against the Soviet Union. Will there be any reconfigurations? I was told that French was the foreign language of choice until the 1980s. Does France remain a strong point of reference? Does Britain? What do the Balkans mean for Romania and vice versa? What about the Visegrád group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia)? Orthodox-Christian legacies bring Greece and Turkey closer, but I suspect the latter may be pushed away (I attended an impressive service at the Romanian Orthodox Church across from Ratiu Guesthouse one Sunday morning). Will Romania turn East easily if there is general tilt to Asia? But this is a bunch of first impressions.
The more, the merrier. I wish to close with a reference to the greatest Spanish film maker, Luis Buñuel (1900-1983), in particular to his great surrealist film Exterminating Angel (1962) made in his Mexican exile. Surrealism means that beneath logos there are emotional forces underpinning language uses. There is unconscious incoherence “underneath” the conscious, deliberate or willed expression of wants and needs, fears and desires. A bunch of privileged characters, women and men, are stuck in a mansion whilst keeping themselves entertained with food and drink, some songs and mundane things. There are attractions and repulsions, significant and insignificant encounters and funny vignettes and incomplete episodes. Darker insinuations of taboos and totems exist too (is that incest? Is this infidelity?). These guests stick it out for a while and the while keeps stretching. They start saying things they do not appear to mean and mean what they do not say. They should perhaps leave, but they never manage to do so. They overstay the visit. They sleep over. They have breakfast. They dine. They amuse themselves. They get bored. Funny stuff happens. Food falls off the table. Drinks spill. Food does not arrive. Drinks stop. They get thirsty and rowdy. They talk more and quarrel and reconcile and stop talking and talk more or keep silent. Lambs move in and about the dinner table all of a sudden: where do they come from? What is going on? Shenanigans happen galore. Who misses normality? There is even one death. Accident? There is romance, one or two, also indifference, cruelty, mendacity and a feeling of ruin. Are these pessimists or optimists? Why can’t they leave? Will they ever leave? The servers desert them, except for one. What is outside? What is the boundary beyond which they may not be themselves? No spoilers: I leave the door open. You are as good as me about guessing the film maker’s intentionality. So, let us make sure we come and go, travel and stay put for a while, read and write about foreign locations with or without troubles. Since “we” do not have all the answers, let us join the party and also what is happening in the ‘street’ with all its disorientations and surprises. Old certainties falling down, Ratiu Forum added a few more voices for the elucidation of this age of uncertainty.
Fernando Gómez-Herrero has taught in fields of Literature and Culture, Translation and Interpretation Studies at the Universities of Manchester and Birmingham in the U.K. He has obtained his PhD at Duke University. Most recently, he published ‘The Latest American Appropriation of Western Universalism: A Critique of G. John Ikenberry’s “Liberal International Order”.’