Utopia after Utopia

a Yale University research initiative

Humanities/Humanity: Utopia after Utopia

Utopia after Utopia: Politics and Aesthetics in Eastern Europe and in Russia since the 1980s


A faculty seminar in the Whitney Humanities Center’s Humanities/Humanity program:



A discernable boom in politically engaged, leftist art practices and critical theory is under way in post-socialist Russia and Eastern Europe. This boom defies all expectations, emerging after the depoliticizing “transition” to capitalism in the 1990s and the seemingly reactionary historical moment. Activists as well as art collectives; critics; poets; grassroots filmmakers; video, performance, and digital artists of all stripes are seeking alternative spaces for engaged aesthetic experimentation. In many cases, these aesthetic producers return to the emancipatory promises of earlier political and aesthetic experiments, reimagining them for the digital age.

Utopia after Utopia is a collaborative effort at establishing a deeper and more trans-national understanding of these emergent aesthetic and political movements. We look to the post-socialist world for models of how to move past historical disappointments and reimagine the possibilities for engaged art in the twenty-first century.

This series of workshops will reinforce dialogues already taking place among faculty from Yale departments of Slavic, Comparative Literature, History, WGSS, and Film Studies. By inviting a number of scholars from other universities in the United States and abroad to participate in this event, we also hope to strengthen ties between our faculty and other researchers who have begun to work on these movements. Utopia after Utopia will expand on conversations about the genealogies of contemporary Eastern European film sparked in December 2014 by 1981: European Cinema in the Age of Solidarity and Thatcherism, a conference co-organized by the European Studies Council and the Film Studies Program at Yale University. It will also build on the debates that we hope will emerge out of Political Violence and Militant Aesthetics after Socialism, a conference scheduled for April 2015, organized by Marijeta Bozovic and co-sponsored by the MacMillan Center, Whitney Humanities Center, and Beinecke Archive. Our external participants will include senior faculty from Harvard University, Princeton University, University of Chicago, University of Southern California, University of Warsaw, and University of Ljubljana. Taken together, humanities and social sciences departments represented at this event will include Anthropology, American Studies, Comparative Literature, English, Film Studies, Slavic, Gender Studies, and Cultural and Religious Studies.

The major aim of this event will be to increase our shared awareness of the many new forms of literature, film, and visual or performance art currently emerging throughout Eastern Europe. We will discuss the ongoing development of radical feminist aesthetics, from Pussy Riot to the Polish Manifa March. We will also study current forms of queer culture in this region, including the aesthetics of Eastern European pride marches as well as the recent emergence of ever more boldly and openly queer cinema (W Imie…, 2013, or Moscow Pride ‘06, 2006) and literature. Finally, we plan to engage with the recent wave of revisionist accounts of Eastern European history during the postwar period (Ida, 2014, or Thaw, 2014), troubling conservative notions of gender and national identity.

Utopia after Utopia will further study the genealogy of these recent movements, focusing on their development since 1968. We hope to better understand how these current forms of aesthetic innovation relate to earlier social uprisings—such as the 1968 student movement in Yugoslavia or the Polish Solidarity movement—and to the aesthetic practices associated with them. In this regard, we hope to learn from the abundance of recent critical and cultural theory by Eastern European and Russian authors, whose major figures include the internationally renowned Slavoj Zizek and Mladen Dolar, as well as Rastko Mocnik, Krzysztof Tomasik, Agnieszka Graff, Maria Janion, Kazimiera Szczuka, Dragan Kujundzic, Tomislav Longinovic, Dubravka Ugresic, Ilya Budraitskis, Aleksei Penzin, Artem Magun, Oxana Timofeevna, Keti Chukhrov, Anastasiya Osipova, and the collective Chto delat’?. These scholars are beginning to unearth an extensive canon of feminist, queer, and other critical aesthetic practices in Eastern Europe and in Russia since World War II. They also take the post-socialist world and its particular sociocultural developments as case studies for new forms of critical and cultural theory, treating Eastern Europe’s sociocultural asynchrony with the Western world as a creative and philosophical affordance.

This event will consist in a series of workshops and presentations by both Yale faculty and invited guest participants. The first day of the seminar will be devoted to present-day aesthetic developments in Eastern Europe and in Russia, while the second day will focus on critical reflections on the genealogies of these current developments. Day one will involve multimedia presentations as well as film screenings, with the express purpose of expanding our shared sense of the breadth and variety of these emergent movements. Events might include a conversation with the documentary filmmaker Maxim Pozdorovkin (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, 2013), a conversation and film screening with the Polish queer cultural historian Krzysztof Tomasik, readings of poetry by the founders of the St. Petersburg-based journal Translit, or screenings of performance art by Marina Abramovic, as well as a new wave of feminist artists from the spaces of the former Yugoslavia. On the second day of the seminar, we plan to engage, among others, with Maria Janion’s call for Slavic neo-paganism, with Agnieszka Graff’s writings on the asynchrony of Eastern European feminism and protest culture in relation to the Western world, and with the recently published Circling the Square: Maidan and Cultural Insurgency in Ukraine. In preparation for these discussions, we will come up with a shared list of more basic literary, visual, and historical sources that we will all read or watch in advance as background for examining these recent works.

We hope that one immediate benefit of this series of workshops will lie in an immediate mutual exposure to a broad selection of critically introduced literature, film, and performance art from Eastern Europe and from Russia. Many of these art works and critical sources, while well known in Europe, have not previously been translated into English, or brought into conversation with American trends in critical theory and cultural history. In turn, our discussion will integrate the better-known artists, filmmakers, and writers into the larger context of changes and innovations taking place in this region.

Further, we hope that Utopia after Utopia will reinforce critical and historical conversations that are already taking place between scholars in America, Russia, and Eastern Europe, both about the particularity of these recent Russian and Eastern European aesthetic practices, and about their transcultural potential to inspire new modes of critical and cultural inquiry. Questions we hope to ask include, but are not limited to, the following: How can Eastern European and Russian protest culture help us understand protest culture across Europe and in America? How do leftist aesthetics developed in post-socialist countries re-inflect concepts such as militant art, neo-avant-gardes, and minoritarian collectivies? We hope that these large- and small-scale debates will result in the creation of lasting channels of critical and cultural exchange, including a regular series of international conferences or the creation of a critical journal.

Finally, consolidating and enriching our understanding of these Russian and Eastern European aesthetic practices will help us study their relationship to art and literature emerging in other parts of the world, including China, Cuba, India, and many areas of the global South. Our most ambitious aim is to lay the groundwork for an interdisciplinary study of recent aesthetics and culture that spans the breadth of this rapidly changing, still hopeful post-socialist world.

We plan to hold this event at the Whitney Humanities Center, either in early November 2015 or in March 2016. In conjunction with this series of workshops, we are also in the process of applying for funding from the MacMillan Center for a series of public lectures or colloquia with some of the artists, critics, and filmmakers listed above.

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