Petia Kabakchieva

Objects and Habituses: Comments on “The Inventory Book of Socialism”

Objects and Habituses: Comments on “The Inventory Book of Socialism”
title: Objects and Habituses: Comments on “The Inventory Book of Socialism”
year: 2006
place: Sofia
publisher: Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia
ISBN/ISSN: 0861-1718
language: english
author(s): Petia Kabakchieva
source: Visual Seminar. Resident Fellows Program 3: The Cliché – Memories, Images, Expectations, 2006, Sofia: Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia, ISBN: 0861-1718

1. On “communism” and “socialism”... 

The understanding of communism continues to vacillate between black-and-white memories, the stories of grandparents, ideological clichés and the now emerging scientific speculation.

The ideological cliché of communism – depending on the ideological position of the giver of the definition – is either a monstrous totalitarian regime, which suppressed all freedoms, or an unsuccessful rehearsal for an ideal society “in which the free development of everybody will be a condition for the free development of all”.

The daily conscience is divided between the black-and-white picture of the memories of the all-pervasive one-Party control and the warmth and privacy of the home retreat; between the trumpet blast of official marches and the ironic guitar melody of the “unofficial” bards; between the fear of repression and the nostalgia for the merry-making and self-oblivion of youth; between the bitter-sweet taste of the longing for oranges on the New Year’s Eve and the mourning for the guaranteed wage. Understandably, this is valid for the elderly generation and those in their midlife whereas the young men and women are most likely to remember, predominantly, their child-day mischief.

On the contrary, there are no problems for theoretical reflection as any theoretical reconstruction of “this society” is self-sufficient. If we examine only the books by Bulgarian authors about it (this society) and the transition, it appears to be susceptible to different explanation approaches: from classics like Max Weber and Ferdinand Tönnies (the books of Roumen Dimitrov – communism as traditional paternalism), through Hannah Arendt (Roumen Daskalov – communism as totalitarianism), the modernization paradigm (Georgi Dimitrov – communism as a form of accelerated modernization), theories of the elites (Petia Kabakchieva – communism as an elitist project), the political aesthetics of communism (communism as a hypermodernist avant-garde project – Boris Groys/Vladislav Todorov), the anthropology of the gift – Marcel Mauss/Ivaylo Ditchev, the political and social capitals of Pierre Bourdieu in a variant of networks (Institute of Social and Critical Studies), etc. Concepts like “communism”, “socialism”, “real socialism”, “Soviet type state”, “communal economy”, “state capitalism”, “totalitarianism” either as such or as “Stalinist totalitarianism”, “society of the networks” coexist innocently and even synonymously, though they imply different models of explanation. The persistence with which “this society” termed itself “socialism” and the label “communism” that was attached to it from outside did not provoke any theoretical dispute despite the furor of Edward Said’s books about the western invention of “Orientalism” and of Maria Todorova about “Balkanization” being an external creation.

This is the appropriate place to say why I personally use the concept “communism” and not “socialism”. I refer to Emile Durkheim’s (1858 – 1917) neutrality in the sense of ignorant of the existing either “socialism”, or “communism” or “totalitarianism”. In “Socialism and Saint-Simon” Durkheim says that the utopian socialists Saint-Simon and Robert Owen were thinking of a developed industrial society and the idea to further develop it and ensure the just distribution of its wealth whereas the communists Gracchus Babeuf, Philippe Buonarotti and Louis-Auguste Blanqui were thinking of strict equality in a commune modeled on the agrarian commune. In that context the concept “communism” could be said to correlate with an agrarian society rather than with a developed industrial society. From that perspective the rapid industrialization in agrarian countries like Soviet Russia, Bulgaria, Romania and to a lesser extent Poland and Hungary, leads to “communism”. (In Czechoslovakia the communist rule was totally unnecessary for the country’s industrial development). Starting from Babeuf, through Karl Marx to Lenin, what distinguished “communism” from “socialism” was the violently enforced change – by a revolution, with an emphasis on the forcible exercise of political power and not on the improvement of modern economic relations.

As I agree with that, I can therefore state that communism is a violently established social system the purpose of which was to bring about rapid industrialization under the full domination of the Party=State which abolished all private property, respectively, the market, and proclaimed equality a paramount religion and thus championed the redistribution of the wealth as a public good and not individual freedom. However, as communism industrialized, to a certain extent, the agrarian societies where it was forced, it could rather “set in motion” its own transition to socialism, if I continue to stick to Durkheim’s differentiation. In other words, unlike the official communist party doctrine which claimed that existing socialism would lead to its highest phase, communism, I think the scholarly position must be the opposite – the question is whether existing communism evolves into socialism or just the contrary, destroyed this opportunity presetting the limits of a certain type of industrial development.

This is a very rough definition which does not go into the depth of the rejection or argumentation of the question whether and why we think of communism in terms of political power, or the avant-garde project, the gift, the capitals, the networks, etc. with which I played above. The paradigmatic understanding of communism is a matter of a separate study? This study will have to answer one more question: if classical social sciences – as fundamental methods and concepts – are a product of the West European modern society, can we borrow paradigms and concepts that originated in a different social context and acquired a certain meaning which gained currency and refer to relations that evolved historically, and use these paradigms and concepts, without any problem to designate and explain processes that were taking place in “that society” – “communism” or “socialism”. However, if the subject has its own specifics, which is the theoretical prism through which to view it? Won’t the staring at its uniqueness produce a closed idiosyncratic “indigenous paradigm”?

Therefore I think that we, social researchers in the post communist countries, face a major challenge similar to the one that the postcolonial studies had to grapple with. How can we think of “that society” both in its uniqueness and as part of universal tendencies? How can we understand the life “then”, beyond the ideological clichés, ideally typical constructions and our own memories? When did the orthodox communist model start to slowly change and give rise to forms that combine different things that were thought to be incompatible? What is the nature of changes? When did the limit appear beyond which communism shifted to its “post” status?

Usually the classical historiography takes one political event which triggers fundamental changes – a revolution, a coup d'état, the outbreak or end of a war – and thus laid the beginning of a new period in history. The reasoning behind this approach is that the beginning of a new period is marked by a radical conflict with the old system. The October Revolution marked the beginning of communism. Which is the revolution that laid to the beginning of post communism? The simple answer is that post communism started with the “velvety revolutions”, but it leaves aside the question about the extent to which they were politically prepared by the old regime. And even the more important question: could there be other deeper-going and therefore more essential “revolutions” that made possible the said revolutions? Was there a revolution in the economy when the hidden market flows began to be gradually legitimized? Was there a revolution in consumption where the blue jeans had as essential an impact as that of the velvety revolution? Was there a revolution in culture where the audiences of The Beatles, Vissotsky, rock’n roll, heavy metal were as large as the crowds of street protesters in the autumn of 1989? Could it be the emancipation of daily life, the craving for consumption that wrecked the ideological utopia; could it be the daily elementary human longings and actions seeking and preferring certain objects that corroded the political power; could it be the fullness of the home privacy that squeezed the meaning out of the coarsely fitted together public space? Roland Barthes argues that leftwing myth is meagre – few messages with few visual forms; while the bourgeois (rightwing) myth is abounding in views, objects and caprices. Will the complication of the objective environment minimize the impact of the leftwing myth? Yet can we really speak about preoccupation with consumption, the origin of a consumerist society version or does the emancipation of the daily life show the emancipation of the normal man who chooses to take care of himself and of his relatives, to enjoy and look at what he creates around and at home, tired with the abstract “common good” and the persistent rude ideological and political patronage?

2. Objects and habituses under “socialism”

Socialism seen through objects – this is what “The Inventory Book of Socialism” of Yana Genova and Georgi Gospodinov offers while it urges to find answers to the above questions. The book recreates the daily habituses of the different generations of people from the 1950s onwards, arrested in the objects that were an inseparable part of their lives in their different periods.

The method is terrific for, as we know, while the objects are a sediment form of social relationships, that form impartially keeps up their historically typical set of usages. It is important to unlock the triggers of their effect and impact and to recreate the habituses behind them. In other words, to image them as an institutionalization of the historically specific sociality in the bodies and perception of the people who use them. The objects are a literal sign of the historical time: a box of cigarettes “IX Congress of the BCP” indicated the ambition of the Mother Party (i.e. the Communist Party) to be present in your mind whenever you lit a cigarette (shall we recall the old bourgeois city song appealing to light a cigarette whenever we cry – cigarettes have a completely different symbolic meaning in both cases); and the Rubik Cube which is a challenge to make out the functions and meanings that are hidden in it. Thus the collection of objects that Yana Genova and Georgi Gospodinov present in different sections shows the “spirit of the time” and the emedded in these everyday objects power relations and daily usages. The authors show objects that are universal of the modern time and prove that communism/socialism are part of the modernity; however, they also display objects that were characteristic solely of communism: the red scarf, the “commandments” plated on the walls of buildings (unfortunately, there is no picture of the Mausoleum, and the Mausoleum itself is no longer there as a vivid symbol of the autocratic mummified and deified rule under communism); further, they show objects that are unique and with a function that is incomprehensible for non-contemporaries, expressive of the “Bulgarian aspect” of communism – for example, a “pepper grill”, a “jar sealer”, “jar tongs” and even an “I-don’t-know-what-this-object-is”. If we try to follow the chronology of objects from one and same order – for instance the “cigarettes” or the “grocery” section (unfortunately the authors have piled the objects as in a curiosity shop and did not want to or could not achieve museum chronology) – we will see clearly the signs of change in that society, the transition from the absolute ideological diktat to the importance of consumption through the transition of the object-slogan to the object-commodity.

“The Inventory Book” shows the ideological taming of the allegedly new people in their daily activities: by their socialization in the family and school; by the organization of the way of life – the at-home space; by the consumption of household appliances, food and clothing; by spending the leisure hours; and at the same time shows the gradual corruption of ideology which surrenders to the pressure of the appearing consumer goods.

3. Communism seen in childhood. Childhood and power

The canvas shoes, the red pioneer scarf, the Chavdarche rebel-style hat, the greeting cards that were a must on 8 March revive memories of childhood and in the wake of the sentimental touch those of us who lived under communism remember the then school socialization which will appear increasingly absurd to the pupils today and tomorrow if someone is around to tell them the story.

This is the story of school socialization behind the inventory: The beginning is similar to what we do today: happy children and mothers with bunches of flowers go to the schoolyard where there are other happy children and mothers who carry bunches of flowers. This is the opening of the school year. However, there are at least two differences: the nowadays diversity of design and color of the clothes is in contrast to the two-color severity of the black pinafores with white collars and the white blouses and navy blue skirts later; the comrade teacher in the past is addressed today as Mrs. X and we all had to be good comrades – the visualization and articulation of the dominating idea of equality. And remember the first instinctive feeling of pseudo equality: how could the comrade teacher be equal with the little comrades... On 3 March the good little comrades became good members of the Chavdarche Organization and put on rebel-style hats and blue scarves. There was a picture book containing the Chavdarche rules – that’s a missing object in “The Inventory Book”... “The Chavdarche boy or girl is a perfect child indeed: they play, they sing, they learn, they read.” The Chavdarche members are socialized primarily in the spirit of the national values: they are proud to be Bulgarians; Chavdar Voivoda is their example; Botev is their faithful friend. I wonder why the scarves were blue and not green. What had ousted the green Balkan Range; it couldn’t have been the blue Danube; it must have been the “high blue mountains”... I wonder whether at the beginning of the transition the “blue idea” could be said to speak of some unconscious nostalgia for the blue scarf as an antipode to the red scarf... In addition to the motherland, the mother was a value (“The Inventory Book” does not say whether the mother was, like Botev’s Veneta, the most beloved but for the Motherland) so on 8 March each member of the Chavdarche Organization was writing a greeting card to his or her mother, despite of the spelling mistakes.

As I look at “The Inventory Book”, I realize that the political procommunist socialization occurred at a later stage: in the third grade at school when we received
our red pioneer scarves. The Chavdarche band gave way to the pioneer detachment, which had its president and ruling body. The proud standard, Botev, was followed by the first mentor Dimitrov (quoted verse). I try to remember their portraits on the classroom walls. I remember the portrait of Botev, I remember the portrait of Levski; however, I don’t remember the portrait of Dimitrov. Also, I have a recollection that just before joining the Komsomol, I stared at the walls with the portraits of the members of the Politburo of the Bulgarian Communist Party’s Central Committee and tried to memorize the names and faces in case I was asked during the interview for membership to recite the names of the Politburo members and so perhaps the portraits were a teaching aid... A hard exam was your pass to the Komsomol as the presumption was that not everyone was eligible. To be expelled from the Dimitrov Young Communist League (DYCL) was tantamount to a disaster: expulsion from school was definitely the less harmful alternative...

I wonder whether anyone was aware that within this socialization process, the ideologeme of socialist patriotism was evolving into proletarian internationalism. In the beginning was patriotism, which gradually acquired a red socialist tinge before it was finally transformed into internationalism, which, I am not certain, might or might not have been proletarian but was definitely communist. The Komsomol members, apart from the Bulgarian Politburo members and the Secretary General had to be familiar with the figure of the CPSU Secretary General – who made sure that there was peace and socialism; and also they had to read the decisions and documents of Komsomol and Communist Party congresses.

At the same time this type of socialization appears as a pure illustration of the disciplinary nature of modern society as a whole. Children are categorized and their achievements are strictly monitored – see the character reference of Yana from the first grade who “is a laudable pupil and commands the respect of her classmates”. Wherever you turn, you see commandments plated on the walls with special reverence for hygiene, cleanliness and order – all of them classical modern values: “San(itation) Camp(aigner)s, work hard for high sanitation standards at school”, “Be always clean and neat”, “The maintenance of order and cleanliness is the duty of each citizen”, “Beware pin-pricking”. The commandments were the all-seeing eye. But also they were a mirror of the communist idea of man as an infantile creature, which had to be instructed all the time and taken care of by a Party=the Mother, a Leader=the Father and an all-powerful State. If the creature was disobedient, it had to be punished. The commandments clearly spelled out the paternalistic model of traditional society: children are treated as adults only that the size is smaller – read again the character reference of the 7-year old Yana; the adults were seen as silly children who had to receive guidance continually in order to become sensible: “Beware pin-pricking”. This paternalistic model was intended to inculcate modern values, discipline and sense. However, as it indoctrinated them in this specific paternalistic way, it did not allow the individuals to be self-sovereign. Moreover, the communist people, apart from being infantile and incapable of providing for themselves, were instrumental in the achievement of loftier goals – look at the picture that appeals to children to contribute to the separate collection of scrap – how relevant even today – and thus help the materialization of the party slogan “Quality and Efficiency, Efficiency and Quality”. Thus the commandments and the character reference of the little Yana reveal the specifics of the communist society as a paternalist type of modernization in which the key value of modernity – self-sovereignty and worth of the individual – is lost. The habitus of infantilism that seeks to lean on strength is very resilient and recurring: it is manifest in the continual demands that the Government should provide for anything – our children’s textbooks, our healthcare, our employment; also it is manifest in the chase for a guardian who knows what he’s doing and will guard us; and this is manifest in the special type of individualism that states the individual interest but does not recognize the individual responsibility.

Looking at “The Banner of Peace” rubric one might wonder whether the model has not moved towards a greater focus on the personality by the cult of the encyclopedic knowledge and genius of Leonardo da Vinci. Read the slogan of 1982 “Unity, Creativity, Beauty”; children meet composers, writers, athletes; the bells of peace ring; children create... Indeed the impression is that the slogan “Workers of the world, unite” has given way to “Children of the world, come together” and this is a sign that the model becomes open to the world. It appears to be so. However, I don’t think the quintessence of power has changed substantially. Power continues to be paternalistic and the focus on children seems to prove that: the children must learn from the competent and able intelligent and talented writers, composers and others in order to become one day writers and composers themselves... The supreme institution of knowledge, which must be transferred remains, with the Vanguard that leads forward...

Of course, there is a change but it concerns the emancipation of daily life and not the power. That will be left for the end. Now I want to consider another object, which very vividly visualizes the specifics of communism this time through the special type of rural-urban economic relations.

4. Communism seen through the pepper grill. Of socialist townsfolk and peasants

Till the 1960s some 80 per cent of the Bulgarians lived in villages. Communism drastically changed the urban/rural population ratio and produced many rural-style towns and urban-style villages. To translate it in the language of sociology: communism radically industrialized the agrarian society. It is an enormous change, which generated peculiar hybrid forms of domestication of the urban industrial milieu, which was atypical for most people and produced objects that people find strange today.

The stove cream is one of my favorite objects from “The Inventory Book”. The cream is black and is intended for black stoves. What could be the trade name of such a cream? Guess and guess again. I thought of “The Happy Chimneysweep”, “Black Peter”, “Genuine Black”, “Schwarz”... However, the cream was sold under the trade name “Stork”. Honestly, I would never guess it could have been given this name. Then I thought and looked at the label, which features a stork on a chimney and the shadow of the stock resembles the shape of a stove. There is a five-pointed star at the base. This last thing demonstrates in a touching way how rustic that society was. Despite the five-pointed star, despite the large amounts of stove cream that were produced, the idea of a white and neat cottage with storks around was deeply impressed on the minds. The habituses of rustic life are tough and won’t readily surrender to the five-pointed star.

I see in this a sign of the unconscious resistance of the former being and an expression of the feeling that a change may be radical and the utopia it wants to build may be as radical, yet the shadows of the past stay quietly like a stork on a chimney.

This may be the explanation for the resilience of hybrid forms of ownership in the economy like the producer cooperatives (TPKs) and the consumer cooperatives (NarCoops) (see “The Traces Remain”) as the fierce battle between the old (private) ownership and the new (state) ownership left an in-between and a historically played in field which is neither/nor and thus can be legitimate – the cooperative whose origin is to be traced back to the early 20th century. Look around and here and there you will see the tough and still existing NarCoops and TPKs that were not dismantled but left with the presumption they would die a natural death, or else were revitalized and thus made immortal...

Mention was already made of objects that today’s young people find strange – the pepper grill, jar sealer or tongs to take jars out of the cauldron with boiling water. What do they imply? We may suggest a series of interpretations. If we think of them in terms of the “Economy of Jars” they are a symbol of the existing rural-urban connection and of the family relations that did not succumb to the communist atomizing pressures. Or we can interprete this as an example of the “Economy of Shortages” (Janos Kornai) – while the soc[ialist] economy with its heavy industries disregards the food whims of ordinary people, it generates chronic shortages in one product or another. The supplies hoarded for the winter enabled the people to cope with the shortages. Another example: our generation has an agonizing memory of the taste of what the canneries turned out. Could it be an opposition to the large-scale production in state-owned enterprises with home-prepared food like the unique taste of granny’s chutney against the insipid preserved fruit and vegetables? Moreover, did the pepper grill make the former peasants sardined into the city prefab blocks of flats remember the ease and smell of the cottage yard?

This specific Bulgarian smell of grilled peppers takes us to the terrace or the yard. In other words, it takes us to the question of the daily ways of life under communism.

5. The change: from “Udarnik” to “Filter Cigarettes Ropotamo”

Look at the rubric “Cigarettes”. In the beginning was the “Udarnik – sert” (Shock-Worker – strong), “Zlatna Arda” (Golden Arda) produced by the Stalin Factory, “Rodopi”, “Sluntse” (Sunshine), “50 Years Soviet Power”, “BCP 9th Congress – special cigarettes”, “Tyutyunoproizvoditel”(Tobacco-Grower) “Shipka”, ”Femina” with a very chic bourgeois vignette, “Filter Cigarettes Ropotamo”, “Kom”. The trade names of the cigarettes show the mixture of communist ideology and stubborn patriotism of the local factories and the slow transition from the behavior- and value-inspiring object-slogan to the seducing object-market commodity that goes beyond the Slav speaking world. The names of the cigarettes and of the cigarette factories indicate the intrinsic amalgam of socialist relations and the transition from a society preoccupied with production to a society with respect for consumption. They indicate the transition from the shock-worker exhausted with the excessively hard work to the pampered bunny, i.e. the office secretary or the western vacationer.

Also it is a chronological transition and a parallel world. It is a world of daily difficulties and longings, the home, child mischief, entertainment, kitchen smells and by and by expanding leisure places.

Apart from the already discussed official socialization model, there was the subject of physical education in dusty gyms – hence the need to have canvas shoes (see “Canvas Shoes”) – they were noiseless and light and believed to raise less dust. There were bicycles, the school canteen with salami, the wafers that appeared later, the pastry shop with plaisirs whose contrast to the Republika biscuits was not incidental. Biscuits that directly invited pleasure and romantic diversion like “Naslada” (Delight”) and “Zlatna Essen” (Golden Autumn) appeared quite later. If we listen to music from the library of phonograph records of socialism, we will hear the gradual emancipation of the romantic daily existence in the pop songs about the moon, the sea and love; then, when the white silence silenced all ideologemes the eyes were fixed on the river and the frosted poplar trees... Emil Dimitrov’s songs broke the monolith communist ideology and the idea of incarceration while seducing now Julia, now the Belle Gigi, Eleanor, Mariana and other non-Bulgarian lassies.

The ways of life were set free and by and by defeated the ideology: the cigarettes ceased to have ideological implications and were just cigarettes; the child’s bicycle became a colorful toy that has nothing to do with communist symbolism.

Even today people call to mind the tastes, feasts, promenades and rows beyond the ideological suggestions and you realize that these are tougher than the congress directives and the meetings of pioneer children’s, Komsomol and Party organizations. The remake of the then foods and the reminiscence of imagery are not nostalgia for the soc[ialism] in its ideological form or nostalgia for the congresses and clichés; these express longing for foods, faces, “bits and pieces”, trifles, individual intimate experiences and knick-knacks which the official communist ideology scornfully ignored and sought to eliminate by imposing the diktat of the public, general and heroic on the private, individual and personal. Thus the everyday reality defeated the communist ideology and showed that man is always more than the public roles and the public images forced on him; man is a living being whose personal biography interweaves, in addition to these roles, the attendant individual experiences related to food, clothes, the dust in the gym, the smoking in the parks, etc. It may be true that the blue jeans revolution, including jeans with the Rila logo, overthrew communism in a far more “velvety” way and long before the velvety revolutions.

6. When does the transition end?

Many of us who were socialized under communism remember the habituses that were discussed along with the joys and sorrows of existence; we continue to have the infantile fear of change and of the need to take responsibility; we continue to urge the Government for support. The transition will end or post communism will evolve into something else when these objects of the inventory are put in the museum and our habituses and our children’s habituses conquer the timid infantilism.

Published in Articles
Read 371 times
Last modified on Feb 10, 2021
Vector. ICA-Sofia: Motives, Analyses, Critique is a project by the Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia.
The project is realised with the financial support of the National Fund Culture, Critique Programme