Postsocialist Realism

We live in a world of many kinds of realism, some magical, some socialist, some capitalist, and some that are yet to be named. These generic realisms have their provinces of origin: magical realism in Latin American fiction in the past two decades; socialist realism in the Soviet Union of the 1930s; and capitalist realism, a term coined by Michael Schudson (1984), in the visual and verbal rhetoric of contemporary American advertising.[1]

I’ve recently been going over some old field notes regarding the culture of postsocialism in the Czech Republic. I came across an interesting reflection regarding commercialism and advertising.

Communist party billboard in Brno, 2006

A billboard advertising “attainable living” (if you voted for the Communist Party) in 2006, but someone has added “in a panelák,” which suggests not that much changed. The beautiful young things, however, are certainly part of the commercialist realist section of an ad agency’s stock photo collection, are they not?

“Capitalist realism,” I thought to myself, “That’s an interesting concept. Funny.” Then I kept reading. Then I left my apartment and saw a billboard with a tanned, scantily clad couple on a tropical beach; underneath it was an ad from a bank for car loans—“Think you can’t afford a new car? Every second driver has loaned money from us. No credit checks.”—; further down the street, a gigantic advertisement for Alfa Romeo luxury racecars covered the side of a building; under it was a small ad for a tanning salon; next door was an appliance store selling washing machines and refrigerators of an Austrian manufacture—“get a free 24-pack of beer when you buy a large refrigerator; payment plans available.” Every day I see glossy annual reports and billboards from banks and investment companies with fit, happy, people enjoying themselves and their bottomless bank accounts; there are happy ladies on posters at the pharmacy declaring the great things about the wonders of hair dyes and weight loss medications. And suddenly I had a new way to articulate some of the things that I wish hadn’t come along with the fall of communism and the advent of capitalism. I can see the attractions of this commercial realism, yet I can’t help wondering about how much of a difference exists between the square and spiky modern steel and glass apartment blocks and the paneláks (the Communists’ answer to the housing shortage).

Are these new office blocks so much better? Are they any less than sleeker and more comfortable versions of the old “rabbit hutch” model? Isn’t it just old wine in new bottles? What’s different but an illusion of “freedom” more visible outside the glass walls of the apartment? Most people are just as beholden to and entrapped in the quest for a comfortable life as the next person. This “comfortable life” is the Czech euphemism for adequate wealth to lead life as good as possible with the least amount of work, which is what a lot of people in a lot of places want. (Of course, there are a lot of people in a lot of places who fight tooth and nail for it, as well, because they don’t want the “adequate” amount but just more, more, more.)

The new office blocks are physical anchors for the strands of culture that, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote, we ourselves have spun. The whole of all those strong little binding strands that give us an illusion of security that constrict as much as support our actions. These strands may look different in the twentieth century (glossier, more youthful, more consumerist, and certainly more corporate), but I can’t stop wondering whether their substance of those strands has really changed.

This was probably written around the time I posted about Brno’s new office park a while ago. Of note, the entire office park that I was writing about is slated to be completed in 2012 (i.e., right about now).

1Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 53 (emphasis mine).

Picturing the Gaze of “Heritage”

I’ve recently been exploring the relationship of “heritage” and information technology. There are a lot of possibilities for computers and databases to help maintain, preserve, and document community heritage, but there are so many ways that it can happen. Here’s one example.

Last October, I downloaded a beautiful new iPhone/iPad app: Fotopedia Heritage. It features some rather stunning photographs of UNESCO’s world heritage sites. The app is available as a free download for iOS devices and includes information on UNESCO world heritage sites. The pull for users are the “25,000 amazing pictures” assembled by “thousands of photographers” and “hundreds of curators.” The developer touts the app as a “coffee-table book reinvented,” which suggests that users are encouraged to gaze upon and appreciate static images and authoritative information. The application pulls “official information” from UNESCO’s web portal and links data from Wikipedia about each heritage site. The app’s engaging feature, however, are the sharp, arresting photographs contributed by photographers, which can be rated by users. The app also features an interactive mapping feature to navigate through the sites geographically as well as social tagging and sharing possibilities (including Facebook and Twitter). This sort of application encourages interest and curiosity in “world heritage,” and it purports to draw upon a crowdsourced body of information and expertise. At the same time, it also develops a static user gaze and passive appreciation of heritage without direct engagement at a community or local level.

There are a few more nagging questions about the app. While it is undoubtedly visually appealing, to whom does the commercial side appeal? According to one reviewer on Apple’s App Store, the app is little more than a front for professional photographers to revitalize sales of old photos. If so, I can’t say that I’m entirely opposed, but the question of what revenues the app generates and to whom they flow remains. If the app is, as claimed, officially sponsored by UNESCO, does it generate any funds for the maintenance or preservation of heritage sites? Is the purpose of the app to generate interest? Is it possible to learn about similar sites that are not designated as world heritage, of which there are many?