The first thing you need to understand about Warsaw is that the city still has not recovered from its traumatic past. Almost every Pole I met during my visit, at one time or another, apologized to us about the state of their city. Warsaw was once one of the great cosmopolitan cities of Europe but it was devastated during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 — a two month period during which the Poles actively resisted German occupation with the result that by some estimates 85 percent of the city was destroyed and more than 250,000 civilian lives were taken. (These estimates come from Wikipedia). The German occupation was followed by decades of Soviet dominance during which the old buildings were replaced by newer buildings in the Stalinist tradition. Only in recent decades have the Poles regained control over their city and been able to exert their own influence on its architecture again. And as a result, the Poles are often deeply apologetic about a city that they variously described as “ugly” and “dirty” and “without cultural identity.” There are constant comparisons made to Krakow, which is described as an older, more sophisticated, more culturally rich city (though we never actually got out of Warsaw on this trip and found this city had its own charms and attractions.)
Some of the older sections of the city have been rebuilt — including some of the fortifications whose origins can be traced back to the early 14th century.
The Palace of Culture Meets Kultura 2.0
My primary talk on this trip was at a conference called Kultura 2.0 which was held inside the Palace of Culture — a gift from Joseph Stalin to the people of Poland — which remains perhaps the most controversial buildings in the city. At 30 stories, it is also still the tallest building in the city and can be seen from almost every corner of Warsaw. Some Poles believe the building should be destroyed, seeing it as a painful reminder of the Soviet occupation of their country. Others embrace the building for its architectural distinction and the vast cultural complex of theatres, auditoriums, and museums which it houses.
There was something paradoxical about hosting a conference themed around the transformative power of new media technologies (i.e. the digital revolution) inside a building so strongly associated with the centralizing power of the Communist State, an irony noted by a number of the speakers. (I could not resist comparing Nicholas Negroponte’s predictions in Being Digital that mass media as we know it would collapse under its own weight in the face of personalized media to the old Marxist rhetoric about “the withering of the State.” Neither prediction has or seems likely to come to pass anytime in my lifetime.) The conference organizers had brought together a very interesting mix of key players in the Polish context (more about this in a minute) as well as some leading thinkers about digital media from across Europe and the United States (me). I found the audience tremendously hungry for new ideas and perspectives.
There was some skepticism expressed in the questions about some of my utopian ideas about where all of this may be going (as well there should be). I had spoken at some length about Second Life as an illustration of participatory culture, the collaborationist relations of producers and consumers, and the bringing together of multiple levels of media production (a la Benkler’s Wealth of Networks) into one shared environment. Several people in the audience, however, were deeply concerned about the implications of a single company — even one as benign as Linden Labs — providing this kind of shared context for business, education, foundation, journalism, activists, sexual minorities, and artists to interact.
Wouldn’t the business impose some degree of censorship and regulation on what goes on within this new multiverse? This is a legitimate concern — though perhaps premature — yet it is not clear that a state sponsored version of Second Life would provide any greater protection for the creative and political rights of its citizens, a point which landed perhaps more heavily than I intended speaking in the center of a monument to Stalinism. But, it seems to sum up some of the tensions which Poland itself faces as it sheds its Communist past and embraces both democracy and capitalism (the old headquarters of the Communist Party has ironically enough been transformed into the stock exchange.)
Treasuring My Translation
For me, a highlight of the first day was getting to meet my translators — Malgorzata Bernatowicz and Miroslaw Filiciak — and holding in my hands the very first foreign translation of my work — Kultura Konwergencji:zderzenie starych i nowych mediow. The translators and publisher had worked incredibly hard to get the book ready for print and distribution in time for my visit to the country and participation at the conference. Indeed, their turnaround was significantly faster than the book received from its American publisher (not that I am complaining on that front).
There is something so curious about holding this text which is yours and yet not yours: I can recognize, even without reading Polish, the structure of the argument with occasional names popping off the page and thus providing me some landmarks for figuring out where we are in the text. There are surprisingly many cognates or near cognates between Polish and English (despite very different linguistic origins) which also help me to spot specific passages. And yet, it is odd to not be able to read your own book.
I also am not quite used to speaking through translation. The auditorium was equipped for multiple language real time translation and there were translators in a booth high above the stage who I could watch as I spoke trying to figure out how to turn my own mangled, fast-paced, and highly colloquial English into proper Polish. There were odd moments when those listening in English laughed and then a few seconds later there would be a somewhat more muted round of laughter from the Polish listeners. Most of the questions came in English, though some had to be translated from Polish: my sense was the translation must have been excellent because there were few real obstacles to communication at these moments of more direct interaction and the people asking questions seemed to have a good understanding of my core claims and arguments.
The Witcher: Transmedia Storytelling and Global Culture
A highlight of the morning’s festivities was a rare public appearance by popular fiction writer Andrzej Sapkowski to honor the 20th anniversary of the first publication of The Witcher, which has become a landmark work in the history of modern Polish popular culture. The Witcher is already a powerful example of transmedia storytelling, existing across films, television,magazine short stories, novels, comics, and games, and is also already an international phenomenon ( translated into Czech, Slovak, German, Russian, Lithuanian, French and Spanish). The first English translation of the material does not appear until 2007.
The Witcher, as I understand it from what I heard at the conference and what I have pieced together via a Wikipedia entry, are an elite group of highly trained monster killers. The series protagonist, Geralt, is one of the most skilled of the witchers and the series deals with his various battles against the forces of evil. The witchers are sterile mutants with supernatural abilities and have learned to suppress their feelings through their training. The series is deeply immersed in traditional Polish culture and Eastern European mythology but it also includes original contributions by the highly imaginative author.
The Witcher universe was first introduced in a series of short stories primarily published in Nowa Fantastyka. As Sapkowski explained during the public conversation, Polish publishers were, at that time, reprinting fantasy works from England, including the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, which were tremendously popular in Poland, but had been resistant to the idea of original fantasy fiction by Polish authors, convinced that it would not interest their readers. Sapowski’s work helped to break open the market for Polish produced fantasy and horror fiction. The short stories led to a series of five novels which are known casually as The Witcher series and officially as Blood of the Elves. These stories and novels were, in turn, adopted and expanded into a comic book series (1993-1995), a feature film (2001) and a 13 episode television serial (2002).
Sapowski was frank in the conversation about his dissatisfaction with the results of some of these adaptations, acknowledging that his decisions were shaped in part by commercial motives but suggesting that he needed to trust collaborators who knew these other media better than he did.
The series, however, is about to receive a major face-lift with the world wide release next year of a Witcher computer game, produced by a Polish company, CD Projekt RED. (There was already a live action role playing game based on the series released in 2001). The English translations of the stories are intended to coincide with the release of the game and several people at the conference commented on what it would mean that the game was the vehicle for introducing the 20-year-old stories to the English speaking world. And in Poland, a new comic book series was being prepared to build upon the revival of interest in The Witcher which the games release is likely to generate.
I had heard nothing about the game before the conference but a quick Google search on my return shows a large number of screenshots circulating in the English language media, an official homepage which offers English translations of its content, and some signs of growing fan interest in the franchise (including amateur translated versions of the television series circulating informally in the United States, at least according to Wikipedia). Their hope is that the game may open the way for other Polish popular media to gain broader circulation in Western Europe and the United States.
Critics who have seen the game so far describe it as beautifully executed with a strong sense of atmosphere. The Witcher game seems well situated to combine familiar genre elements with a fair amount of local color. Michal Madej from the company producing the game noted a number of distinctly Polish elements — from the traditional garb and weapons associated with the Polish highlanders to the use of the old Slavic alphabet in ruins and puzzles, ruins of old Teutonic architecture and ships, and the use of demons drawn from the national mythology. As he explained, “it’s own culture, our myths we are showing through this game.” Many in the west already associate Eastern Europe with a strong tradition of horror narratives and this would seem to be the right genre to use to attract interest elsewhere in the world. We might add The Witcher to the growing list of projects we’ve discussed in this blog which seek to assert national culture through computer and video games.
Listening to Sapkowski, a surprisingly modest and down to earth fellow given his high visibility within his national context, gave me some glimpse into fan culture in Poland. As in the United States, most of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers got their start doing amateur writing — i.e. fan fiction — before seeking their first professional publications. Sapkowski, accordingly, welcomes fan participation within his world, describing fan fiction as a demonstration that his work has value and as a sign that it still generates interest in the marketplace. He says that he cracks down only on the commercial appropriation of his work and actively encourages fan expansions. Indeed, though I can’t decipher much on his official homepage, it is clear that there’s a space devoted to fan fiction about The Witcher, an acknowledgement that is not generally matched by western writers in the genre. In typically modest fashion, he moved from suggesting how proud he was to see his work generate this kind of grassroots response to the earthy comment that fan fiction was like “mushrooms” and “you know what mushrooms grow on.” He expressed hope that as the Witcher franchise expands even further into the English speaking world, his fans will play important roles in offering informed criticism which will educate the new readers about its mythology and history.
We Want Capitan Zbik Back!
The morning sessions on The Witcher as a transmedia franchise culminated in a panel discussion of the state of Polish popular culture and its chances to enter the international marketplace. Though there were many specific references here which went untranslated, the core of the discussion dealt with some of the challenges of displacing the kinds of popular culture which were produced under Communism with the kinds being driven by the marketplace in the new Poland. Sapowski noted, for example, the paradox that the science fiction works of Stanislaw Lem were produced under the Socialist State and read with great interests by a public who saw them as veiled critiques of communism; these same stories have been neglected and even actively disdained in a capitalist economy. Lem (Solaris) still has some fans among the panelists but most of the younger participants had little interest in his works.
Many of the panelists expressed deep nostalgia for the classic cartoon and action-adventure series of their youth, produced under communism and therefore prohibited distribution today. The Ministry of Culture expressed concern that contemporary youth should not be exposed to the propaganda elements of these series but the panelists felt that most Poles would read past these and were simply interested in encounters with familiar characters and beloved stories which were still a vital part of their cultural memory. When you think about how central everything from Breakfast Cereal logos to old toys have been to Baby Boomers in other parts of the world, one can understand the emotional implications of this erasure of the natural popular culture legacy. The panelists were arguing that the state should license the re-release of this old content and then take the money to fund media literacy efforts.
I asked my translator, Miroslaw Filiciak, who moderated this session, to share with me some more perspectives on this issue:
Our government looks reluctantly on the communism times’ popculture, still very
popular in Poland, although perceived totally funnily by the new generation, which can’t
remember the times before the fall of communism. It’s ironic, because we have a lot of
advertisements and new media products, i.e. comic books remakes, based on communist
brands, but some originals stay closed at the archive of Polish Television. The
situation is nonsense, because young people are not taking the vision of history in this
films as seriously as politicians do.
Another problem in our discussion was the question about government funding for
culture. In Poland – which is as you know probably the most pro American country in
Europe – many people believe the state’s culture protection is the relic of the past and
we should not waste our taxes for such an uncertain investment as culture. I.e.
Sapkowski said that he (contrary to Lem) didn’t need any support for his success. But
younger panelists – as Wojciech Orlinski and Mariusz Czubaj, the publicists of Polish
opinion-making press – gave examples of other European countries – especially France –
where culture is not only the element of the national pride, but also great business.
Thanks to Miroslaw Filiciak,Polskie Wydawnictwo Audiowizualne, Edwin Bendyk, and everyone else who facilitated my visit and aided in getting the translated edition of my book in front of the Polish people.