Academic journal article Kritika

The Occident Within-Or the Drive for Exceptionalism and Modernity

Academic journal article Kritika

The Occident Within-Or the Drive for Exceptionalism and Modernity

Article excerpt

If we are to understand what (state) socialism was about, grasping the images, perceptions, and mentalities upon which this social order rested is crucial. (1) A possible approach to such entities leads through the study of mental mapping. Symbolic geographies reveal how human agents, in particular historical and cultural contexts, define themselves by locating themselves spatially as well as temporally, drawing the boundaries of social spaces where they are within, and relating themselves and their spaces to others and to what lies, in their discursively constructed spatial-temporal order, without, behind, and ahead. What makes these socially and historically situated processes really important is their intimate relationship to the formation of identities and, indeed, to identity politics (including the regular attempts in all kinds of political regimes at the deliberate management of identities through the projection of images about themselves and others). State socialism, the social order established by the communist regimes in Russia and in East Central Europe during the first half of the last century, is no exception in this regard.

Barbara Walker's perceptive essay on the relationship between Soviet dissidents and Western journalists reporting from the USSR stands out from this set in that it alone focuses on the micro-dynamics of East-West encounters and interaction. Emphasizing the role of Soviet isolation in general and the constant stress to which the regime exposed dissidents, Walker shows clearly the role of the insider-outsider distinction played in this interaction as well as the high demands against the Western journalist if s/he wanted to establish a workable rapport with dissidents (and the high expectations of involvement and shared values one had to face if accepted and identified as an insider). Rewarded with an excellent analysis of the culture of dissidence and the dynamics of group formation along the boundary between insiders and outsiders, the reader is eager to see future reports from Walker's research discussing in greater detail issues pertinent to the questions what it meant for the dissidents to be Soviet, how they related to the socialist social order, and how all this affected their relations to Westerners (and Western journalists).

All the other essays confront the issues of systemic identity in discussing various social fields' history under state socialism in terms of the symbolic geographies they yielded. Without wishing to turn the wheel of historiography back to the times when a great deal of theorizing about the Soviet type of political, social, and cultural order emphasized the "ideocratic" nature of these regimes, the "despotic implications of Marxism," these new studies on identity formation and identity politics demonstrate unequivocally the supreme role of the Marxist-Leninist view upon the social universe of the modern and late modern era in prevalent discourses of identity throughout the career of the state-socialist project. While we strongly believe that the discourses of socialist society need to be taken seriously, this claim is not about the "primacy of ideology" imposed from above. It is about a common structuring feature or shared tendency of discursive practices (the practices of imagining) observable in various walks of life in state-socialist societies. There is no direct path from this claim to suggestions trying to assert anything like an ontological priority of "ideology," even less of discourses, over all other practices in these (or other) societies. A discussion of the ways in which discursive and other practices combine to co-produce and reproduce a social order is beyond the scope of the studies included in this issue. The findings presented here offer valuable observations concerning the dynamics of discursive processes of identity formation along the Cold War East-West divide.

Marxist-Leninist theory of social development tells a relatively simplistic story about a sequence of social formations. …

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