Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

February 23, 2007

The reinvention of relics of communism

Here’s a post about a bizarre relic of the GDR.  Can it really be true?  How can an entire population forget about a whole (albeit small and unpopulated) island?  Is it another example of the, frankly understandable, ‘sweep it under the carpet’ attitude of former communist states in eastern Europe? 

 East Germany Lives On – As A Tiny Carribean Island « strange maps 

The need to replace the symbolism of communism and reconstruct national identity as a feature of post-communist society is a theme taken up by Laura Mulvey in her excellent documentary Disgraced Monuments (1996).   While it certainly is understandable that societies, especially the ex-Soviet states, emerging from the communist era would want to move on and build new futures, there is an argument that the process of destroying statues of Lenin and Stalin, for example, was an act akin to the reconstruction of national histories formerly instigated by the communist state itself.  And yet Western Europeans, myself included, are fascinated by the legacy of communism (at least in its visual, material and iconographic forms), for which a whole tourist industry has developed to cater.  While it would be untrue to state that ‘ostalgia’ (as it is called in Germany) is only consumed by westerners, I’m intrigued by the tension between the impulse of the (fairly) newly democratic nations to abandon the past and look to the future, and the need for the rest of us to continually rake over the past, recycling and endlessly appropriating icons of communist ideology: the Che Guevara t-shirt, the CCCP sweatshirt to name but two examples.  This emasculating and denuding of symbolic power is similar, I think,- like I was discussing in my earlier post about Kim Jong-Il – to how we look upon communism today.  In the post-Berlin Wall era ‘communism’ means little more than ‘retro-chic’.  And by emasculating the power and the threat it once meant by assimilating it’s iconography into our popular culture we are reaffirming to ourselves the triumph of West over East.

This is an interesting theme taken up by James Hevia in an article of his I read earlier today (which I’ve left in the office, and can’t for the life of me remember what it’s called!).  He discusses the looting of the Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860 by British and French troops, the eventual destinations of these objects and the meanings contemporaneously ascribed to them once they reached the colonial centres of London and Paris.  He argues that the identification of several items as having belonged to the Emperor himself not only adds a cache to their provenance and value, but their positioning (virtual or physically) in relation to objects pertaining to the British monarch, came to symbolise the defeat of the Chinese nation.  In my summation, the use of communist iconography in fashionable contexts, is much the same.  Both trophies of war, both (subconsciously perhaps in the case of the latter) symbolising the defeat and humiliation of the contexts of their original loci of production.

Phew – all that philosophising has worn me out.  Had better have a cup of tea to recover.  Oh, and I need to find out about Creative Commons licenses and whatnot.  😉

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11 Comments »

  1. Wow! Your blog is really taking off!

    On the subject of material culture, museums and the GDR I recently read ‘Stasiland’ by Anna Funder. The author is inspired on her quest to find out more about the GDR by a visit to the Runde Ecke Museum in Leipzig. At the end of the book, a few years later, she returns to Leipzig to discover that a new museum has opened, the ‘Contemporary History Forum Leipzig.’ This is what she says (p.273):

    “I am the only visitor. The attendants are eager to make eye-contact and chat, bored as bats. Perhaps because of all the money poured into this, the things behind the spanking displays look old and crummy, like articles from a time that has been left behind. I slap down the stairs in my sandals. I am annoyed that the past can look so tawdry and safe, as if destined from the outset to end up behind glass, securely roped off and under press-button control. And I am annoyed at myself: what’s the problem? Isn’t a museum the place for things that are over?”

    Afterwards she returns to the Runde Ecke, the old Stasi HQ in Leipzig, run by a local committee and left much as it was found. This unsanitised, unromanticised site is much more evocative and much more poignant for the narrator. Oddly, what seems to be taking place here is the reverse of what you describe. Whilst the ‘Westerners’ do indeed want to put it all in a glass case, this is contrasted with the Easterners who want to maintain the ‘authentic’ site (and not in this instance forget all about it – although plenty in the book do). It’s also a reminder that in Germany the division betweenWest and East is often not clear-cut: what do you call a federally funded museum in East Germany, for example?

    Anyway, all very thought-provoking.

    Comment by marystevens — February 25, 2007 @ 12:59 pm

  2. Hi Mary. Thanks for your input. I haven’t come across the book you mention, will have to track that one down. It sounds really good. I’m coming at the whole European communism thing as an interested amateur really. And how it contextualises the contemporary situation in China vis-a-vis the Cultural Revolution. So, I’ve probably just sketched over a lot of the issues here – and like you say, the situation in Germany is less than clear cut. The legacy of communism and how people are dealing with it is much more complex, of course. Your comment about the need for authenticity is key. Places like the Stasi HQ provide that. They have a memorialising effect, whereas museums have a similar but slightly different function. For many they are the places where things go when they are dead, just like Funder says. But I would argue that actually objects in museums are still alive, and that’s the point. They’re still in cultural ‘circulation’. Memorialised sites like the Stasi HQ, or Chcekpoint Charlie or even somewhere like Orford Ness in Suffolk (which is slightly different, but it’s essentially a Cold War site), are – in contrast – fading. and crucially it allows people to contain the emotions and experiences connected to the past they relate to, while outside that space moving on and ‘forgetting’.

    But, I suppose what this is all says is that, in many ways, for people living in ex-communist nations, communism is fading, but still powerful. And it will be while it is within living memory. And this was just the point made at the recent Heritage of the Recent Past colloquium at the University of Leicester. A time-lag between something happening and it being ‘museumified’ is psychologically necessary: we need that sense of dislocation from an event in order to be able to consider it from an objective perspective, to reveal the ‘truth’, something which, culturally, we look towards museums to provide. And, I guess, for many people in contemporary ‘east’ Germany and other ex-communist countries, the years of communism are still very raw and affecting. A visit to a museum of communism would not be a pleasurable experience. Unless of course you are so young, or so removed from that legacy (i.e. those who have not lived under those circumstances) to be unable to empathise or assimilate the experiences that the artefacts on display embody. Hence my belief that many of these institutions have been developed as much to meet the requirements of tourists, as to ensure the preservation of these important records of life under the regime for the future.

    However, there are loads of conflicting impulses at play. I’m reminded of an article by Gediminas Lankauskas, ‘Sensuous (Re)Collections’, in which he describes how older people are attracted to the Grutas Sculpture Park in Lithuania (a privately-run ‘museum’ of statuary and monuments dating from the communist era set in parkland) by nostalgia for the Soviet-era inspired menu available at the cafe. Human beings have selective memories, which is why you got the pro-Russia supporters clashing with Yushchenko’s followers during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and why Cultural Revolution themed restaurants are opening in China. And that’s the ultimate (sometimes problematic) value of museums – however heard we try, they won’t let us forget.

    Comment by amyjaneb — February 25, 2007 @ 2:01 pm

  3. Oh, and of course the other function museums have, which is key to this argument, is to valorise (is that the right word?) objects. By placing something in a museum we are saying this is culturally and historically important, this is something we should treasure/preserve. And this makes relics of ‘dark’ history highly problematic.

    I’m going to have to write a proper post about this sometime. 😉 (And work at improving my spelling!)

    Comment by amyjaneb — February 25, 2007 @ 2:12 pm

  4. Maybe the simulacrum (the Soviet-era menu, the cultural revolution themed restaurant) acts as a kind of ‘screen memory’ (generally I don’t like the Freudian terminology, but I can’t think of another way to put this), substituting a favoured part for the whole? So nasty pickles and bad sausages, or whatever, are oddly what enables people to ‘forget’ on some level?

    I think the time lag point is very true. I recently read about the plans for Hitler’s bunker – should it be a museum, should it rased etc. – (maybe that was in ‘Stasiland’ too). Apparently the mayor of Berlin took the sound decision that the people of Berlin weren’t yet ready to decide and has kept it covered over, for now.

    Comment by Mary — February 25, 2007 @ 6:40 pm

  5. Ah! I’ve got a feel that that’s the conclusion Lankauskas comes to too. Will check it out… Thanks.

    Re, Hitler’s Bunker, it’s interesting that, while it’s still far too contentious and problematic a site to do something interpretive with, it has survived. Highlights the conflicting emotions associated with these kinds of places and the tension between a kind of ‘detached’, objective assessment (i.e. as a site of historical significance) and an emotional response. Does that make sense? Probably not – seriously woolly brain tonight. I know what I mean. 😉

    Comment by amyjaneb — February 26, 2007 @ 11:02 pm

  6. Note to self: Hevia article = ‘Loot’s Fate: The economy of plunder and the moral life of objects “From the Summer Palace of the Emperor of China.”

    Comment by amyjaneb — February 28, 2007 @ 5:08 pm

  7. […] things behind it.  I like the idea Mary came up with in her comment on my recent post about the reinvention of relics of communism that these seemingly trivial things are seized upon as a way of blocking out the more negative […]

    Pingback by Chinese Lessons « Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China — March 1, 2007 @ 8:11 pm

  8. […] That ties in very well with the paper I referred to the other day in my discussion with Mary about communist relics, which discusses the sensual recollection of socialism facilitated by the Grutas Sculptural Park […]

    Pingback by Is Communism Good for the Arts? « Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China — March 7, 2007 @ 10:09 pm

  9. Novels such as “Stasiland” are NOT historical doccumnets or scientific papers.
    After 15 years of leading the comission for investigation of the Stasi, German liberal politician and member of parliamnet Marianne Birthler says that ” The GDR was not a people of spies and traitors. Less than one percent of the population spied on and reported others.”
    Perhaps not only David Irving deserves a sentence for “deliberate and malicious falsification of history.” How about Anthony Bevor and Robert Conquest? And why is no-one listening to Soltsynetzscyn anymore?

    Comment by Henry — April 8, 2007 @ 5:49 pm

  10. Well no, they are not historical documents in the sense that they present a selection of personal experiences rather than a fact-based discussion(whatever ‘facts’ are, personally I subscribe to the notion that all ‘facts’ – so-called scientific or otherwise – are interpretations, which can be continually revised and reevaluated), but they can have an impact on the way in which historical events are interpreted and imagined, and that is what I am interested in and why they are valuable to my research. For example, a large proportion of western readers may have only ‘experienced’ the Chinese Cultural Revolution through Jung Chang’s ‘Wild Swans’. Even though it is not an official history of that momentous and terrible decade in Chinese history, it has had more impact and influence on popular imaginings than any dry, academic study one could mention. (To be honest, I’m very doubtful of the truthfulness of ‘official’ records too.)

    Comment by amyjaneb — April 9, 2007 @ 9:03 am

  11. […] copy of Anna Funder’s Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall, as recommended to me by Mary.  It was great – obviously it’s a personal account/reflection on post-1989 Berlin and the […]

    Pingback by I'm back and 'Stasiland': a review « Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China — April 13, 2007 @ 10:59 pm


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