Participatory Poland (Part One): Participatory Poland — An Introduction

This past May, I received an email from Agata Zarzycka, Assistant Professor of Literature at the Department of English Studies, Wrocław University:

“We are writing to you on behalf of a team of academics and doctoral students from the Department of English Studies, University of Wrocław, Poland, inspired by your words from the foreword to the Polish edition of The Convergence Culture, where you wrote about your specifically American focus and range of experience, but also about the impossibility of ignoring the mutual exchange between medialized cultural movements across the world. You also mentioned your potential interest in supporting a dialog between participants and commentators of American and Polish popular culture, which has encouraged us to ask for your opinion about the general concept and the possible collaboration potential of the combined didactic and research-oriented project aimed the cultivation of ”new media literacies” among high school students – an enterprise that, to the best of our knowledge, no one has yet ventured to launch in the academic context. “

I was well aware that there was growing interest in my work there: the very first translation of my work, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, was into Polish and I shared this account of a visit my wife and I made to this country several years ago in this blog: Part One, Part Two, and more recently, I featured a report by Polish researchers on the intellectual property struggles in their country. There are dramatic cultural changes taking place in Poland, which has also been a key pillar in the Creative Commons movement.

As our correspondence continued, and as they shared with me the curriculum they were developing, I was impressed by the thoughtfulness with which they were seeking to translate some of my ideas about participatory culture and new media literacies for the Polish academic setting, but I challenged them to think even more deeply about what the concept of participatory culture might mean in contemporary, Post-Communist Poland, and about what kinds of lived experiences Polish students might be having with these practices.  After all, part of the goal is to have students bring their own expertise and passions into the educational setting. In response, they launched a remarkable project, which brought together key scholars and aca-fan from Poland, to write a series of overview essays describing different participatory practices in their country. I was blown away by this response, and even more so, by the depth and richness of what they produced. I am very honored to be in the position to share these reports with readers around the world via this blog.

I hope you will learn as much from the Participatory Poland series as I have, and I hope that it will inspire scholars in other countries to consider producing similar accounts of what participatory culture might mean in their national contexts. I would love to see proposals from elsewhere which might fill similar gaps in our understanding of traditional and contemporary cultural practices.

This first piece, broken down into two installments, provides the context through which to understand this series, an account of the dramatic cultural and political changes which have impacted Poland over the past few decades.

PARTICIPATORY POLAND: AN INTRODUCTION

 

Agata Zarzycka and Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak

Department of English Studies

University of Wroclaw

Poland

 

 

THE SCOPE AND GOALS OF THE REPORT

This essay introduces the “Participatory Poland” report: a series of essays in which Polish aca-fen analyze several branches of Polish participatory culture and try to locate their specificity by considering the historical context in which it has so far developed. While we are aware that the factors involved in this phenomenon are numerous and complex enough to become a material for at least one book, which makes our Introduction selective and imperfect by definition, we have attempted to characterize the background for the discussions to follow in the subsequent blog entries and show their shared relevance as facets of the contemporary “participatory Poland”.

Undoubtedly, a groundbreaking feature of the Internet-boosted participatory culture is its globalized character, resulting in what Henry Jenkins calls “pop cosmopolitanism” (Fans 155-156) and providing common cultural and civic “languages” connecting people from all over the world. Because of that, however, we find it even more interesting to see how the “local color” of fan-based practices can be shaped by the heritage of national, historical and political factors that are seemingly detached from the fandom community, whose traditions, in their most influential form, have originated in the English-speaking, and specifically American, cultural sphere.

In Poland, the emergence of fandom as we know it was belated by several decades. Nevertheless, the cultural and social potential for participatory entertainment proved powerful enough to quickly bring about a whole spectrum of movements that continue to evolve. The preliminary edition of the report is composed of close-ups on just a few samples from various parts of that spectrum: speculative fiction as the core inspiration for the contemporary participatory culture; historical reconstruction as a movement closely connected to the local context; role-playing games as a form of entertainment which, once adopted by Polish practitioners, have proved flexible and responsive to various, more or less nationality-dependent activities; comics as possibly the most directly subversive and politically involved phenomenon; manga as an example of a genuinely foreign factor that has become a noticeably nationalized element of the participatory landscape in Poland; and finally bra-fitting, which, while inspired by prosumerism rather than fandom activity, constitutes one of uniquely successful Polish grassroots movements. While participatory culture is most often associated with digital media or fandom centered around cult pop cultural works, its crucial aspects as defined by Jenkins et al. in Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (2009), underline also other aspects of participation – the collectivity of the experience, the appreciation of the input of others, the experience of belonging to a community supporting the activity, and the development of a grassroots organization based on more experienced participants introducing and guiding newbies etc. (Jenkins e. a. 7). Thus, although not all movements discussed in the report can be traced back to fan activity inspired by some originally offered official material, they share those features of participatory culture that make it a prominent phenomenon in the sphere of contemporary civic activism.

 

POLITICAL AND HISTORICAL CONTEXT

 

The boom of most movements explored in this report could be observed either in the 1990s – the first post-communist decade in Poland – or in the young capitalism of the first decade of the 21st century. In the U.S., the time between the 1960s and the end of 1980s, though far from peaceful in terms of social and political issues, brought a natural growth and formation of core fandom phenomena which together with the digital media revolution were to bring participatory culture to the level of a new cultural paradigm that we experience now: J. R. R. Tolkien’s writings spiraled up to the status of cult texts, reinforcing on their way the development of role-playing games; movies and TV shows such as Star Wars and Star Trek triggered large-scale fan communities; and the comic-book underground flourished. In Poland, the growth of popular culture in the same period, though enjoying some highlights, especially in the 1970s, was marked and limited by political and cultural isolation from the rest of the world, oppression, poverty, political infiltration and resistance, propaganda, censorship and fear. Obviously, this is not to say that American fandom developed in a socio-political void. It was the post-McCarthyist reaction that implicitly led to the cultural revolution of the 1960s, fuelled by the hippie movement and accompanied, among others, by a boom of American interest in Tolkien. Fandom-related phenomena and cultural practices have on a regular basis been scrutinized for their supposed moral harmfulness and psychological threats, as exemplified in the 1950s by the famous Senate activities inspired by Fredrick Wertham with regard to comic books in the 50s, the Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons activity in the 80s, or the post-Columbine media panic leading to Henry Jenkins’ 1999 intervention in defense of Goth and gaming cultures in Congress in 1999. In 2010, a politically loaded TED performance of Lawrence Lessig, who considers the copyright issues in the Internet remix culture from the perspective of Right – Left conflicts, underlined the political dimension of contemporary fandom-related practices on the structural level (http://www.ted.com/talks/lessig_nyed.html).

Still, regardless of the unquestionably dynamic bonds of American participatory culture with broader social and political contexts, one of the factors that make the growth of similar movements in Poland significantly different is the position and functions of grassroots and otherwise informal collective activity in general. Two stereotypical images of community actions as shaped throughout the socialist period might be compared, however remotely, to the American distinction between grassroots and astroturfing. On the one hand, the so called “czyn społeczny” (subbotnik) practice in frames of which communist authorities forced people to carry out unpaid work for the “common good,” as well as the general pressure on the society to manifest fake enthusiasm for the imposed ideology, negatively affected the concept of collective activity and laced most such initiatives with a political undertone unwanted by the participants. On the other hand, it is exactly through the more or less spontaneous grassroots resistance movements as reflected by the very name of “Solidarity” that the most serious and effective campaign against the regime was waged until its successful conclusion in 1989. In the social reality so heavily conditioned by one or another aspect of the nationwide political conflict, it was difficult to set up any kind of shared activity that would not have to, at some point, position itself somewhere in its spectrum. That is why the discussion of the development of Polish participatory culture necessitates historical contextualization.

The 1945 intervention of the Soviet army in Poland resulted in the establishment of the communist government, which in turn meant that the country soon became a socialist state following the Soviet model. Poland, or rather the People’s Republic of Poland, as it was officially known from 1952 to 1989, remained under that influence until 1989 but open social opposition to the communist rule existed throughout the period, assuming a variety of forms and guises, including initiatives inspired by popular culture. In the late 1940s and early 1950s Poland had its share of Stalinist rule, such as strong censorship, ideological manipulation and persecution of the Roman Catholic Church. A short interval of “thaw” came after Stalin’s death in 1953 and resulted in bloodily quenched worker protests in 1956. In October that year Władysław Gomułka became first secretary of the PZPR (the Polish United Workers’ Party), proclaiming that Poland was to follow the Polish way to socialism, defined by the specificities of the country’s traditions. Nevertheless, the years 1956-1980 were marked by a progressing economic crisis and the growing dissent on the part of the Church, workers and the intelligentsia.

Of particular importance in that period was the Warsaw Pact of 1968 (a mutual defense treaty between communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War), students’ protests against the lack of intellectual and cultural freedom in March 1968, and widespread strikes in shipyards and factories on the Baltic coast in 1970. In 1970 Gomułka was replaced by Edward Gierek, whose idea to assuage social discontent was to introduce moderate liberalization and boost the economy by massive borrowing from the West. The latter resulted in another crisis, the increase in food prices and social unrest. Simultaneously, the Helsinki Accords in 1975, the growing influence of the Catholic Church under the leadership of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, and the papacy of Cardinal Karol Wojtyła (1978) as well as his visit to Poland in 1979, culminated in the formation of Solidarity, the free national trade union. Solidarity’s growing membership and its unrelenting opposition to the regime on the one hand and the pressure of the Soviet Union on the Polish government to deal with the turbulent situation on the other led to the declaration of Martial Law in December 1981 by general Wojciech Jaruzelski.

Everyday life became difficult. The borders were closed and travelling in the country was drastically limited. Moreover, curfew was introduced between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Also numerous Solidarity activists were imprisoned without court sentence, and Solidarity itself was officially dissolved. Nevertheless, the communist regime was weakening. In 1989 the Polish Round Table was formed as a forum for discussions between the government, Solidarity and other opposition groups. The first democratic elections took place in summer 1989, sweeping communism away, and the Catholic intellectual Tadeusz Mazowiecki became prime minister. The post-communist era in the history of Poland began.

Unfortunately, despite the triumphant victory of democracy and capitalism over communism, for many Poles the transition from the predemocratic Poland to a liberal economic system, democracy, as well as the integration into the European Union, has proved difficult and disillusioning. As Leszek Koczanowicz puts it,

[c]ommunism in Poland as well as in other European countries led to the total absorption of the public sphere by the state apparatus. Communist ideology adapted almost the whole field of traditional thinking, reformulating it in collective terms. In the fight against “bourgeois” ideology, stress was put on the deficiencies of the concept of individualism as a useful tool for understanding and organizing social reality. Instead, communist ideology proposed a collective solution which was embodied in the idea of the Communist Party. (43)

Therefore it is no wonder that the mentality of Homo sovieticus – a type of a human being who is enslaved by the system but who is also glad to have his or her basic needs satisfied by it (Tischner 125) – cannot be smoothly replaced by a radically new national identity stemming not only from the sense of responsibility for oneself but also from a conscious exercise of one’s civic and personal freedom in a plural society. Simultaneously, as Elżbieta Matynia points out, Polish social and cultural life remains to be shaped by the romantic salvational paradigm of Poland as torn by foreign powers (153-154). For Matynia, its most significant elements are “the general preoccupation with history” and “the recounting of a heroic past”; the idea of a persecuted nation, typically linked with the Catholic religion; and “in the absence of a satisfying reality, a life within symbols and allegories, a community of the spirit, nurtured by family memories of the resistance experience and shared by each generation” (154).

Bartłomiej Radziejewski identifies a unifying and potentially more empowering root of Polish traditional rebelliousness in the “Sarmatian spirit” echoing the nobles’ democracy of the 15th and 16th century, which affirmed individual independence and the distrust of government (n.p.). Throughout the 1990s, however, a radically different, but equally influential element of Polish post-totalitarian mentality has developed in the form of “communist nostalgia” (Koczanowicz 8), which stems from people’s sense of uncertainty in the new political situation. As Koczanowicz comments, Poles “who got used to living in circumstances defined by communist bureaucracy came to feel lost in the new situation of market economy” (8). Moreover, as he continues, for many the previous system was ideal just because it was predictable and secure, as well as enabling people to assume a clear moral stance (8): “Freedom became for most of them [people] too much of a burden” (52).

One of the most recent phenomena shaping contemporary Polish identity is post-post-communism, which could be defined as a sense of anxiety about “losing identity in the face of globalization, immigration, and the power of international institutions” (Koczanowicz 149). Hence, as Koczanowicz argues, Poles desire the restoration of traditional values on the ideological level and the strengthening of the role of state perceived “as a system of organizations” (149).

As can be concluded, Poland in the first decades of the 21st century is to a large extent driven by the longing for the past. As Koczanowicz explains, “[t]he social time of the Polish society (the ontology of expectations) is predominantly colonized by the attitude toward the traditional national and religious values. People imagine that traditional values should serve as a point of reference in the changing social reality for the long time” (150-151). The significance of such philosophy and past-oriented sentiments may be expected to decrease in the relatively younger generations of today’s 30- or 20-year-olds, not to mention teenagers. Still, the unease connected with the lack of a coherent and optimistic alternative, combined with the general challenges of existence in the late capitalist reality, are reasons why the imprint of the socialist period remains relevant.

In terms of Polish participatory culture development, the experience of socialism not only induced the fundamental fandom initiatives with a subversive undertone, but also inspired some politics-focused initiatives. A spectacular example of the political employment of participatory techniques is Orange Alternative movement.

 (MORE TO COME)

 

Dr. Agata Zarzycka is Assistant Professor of Literature at the Department of English Studies, Wrocław University. She has authored a monograph on role-playing games, Socialized Fiction: Role-Playing Games as a Multidimensional Space of Interaction between Literary Theory and Practice (2009). Her other publications deal with role-playing games, fantasy literature and participatory culture. Her current research project is devoted to Gothic influences on popular culture. She is also interested in remix, game studies, fandom and subcultures, as well as broadly understood speculative fiction.

Dr. Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak is Assistant Professor of Literature and Director of the Center for Young People’s Literature and Culture at the Department of English Studies, Wroclaw University, Poland. She has published a monograph on Salman Rushdie, Rushdie in Wonderland: “Fairytaleness” in Salman Rushdie’s Fiction (Peter Lang 2004). She has also published articles on Salman Rushdie, Angela Carter, fairy tales, YA fantasy, and Polish children’s literature, for example in Folklore and Marvels & Tales. She co-edited Towards or Back to Human Values? Spiritual and Moral Dimensions of Contemporary Fantasy (Cambridge Scholars Press 2006), Considering Fantasy: Ethical, Didactic and Therapeutic Aspects of Fantasy in Literature and Film (ATUT 2007), and Relevant across Cultures: Visions of Connectedness and Earth Citizenship in Modern Fantasy for Young Readers (ATUT 2009). Her research interests include children’s literature and culture, reader response, utopianism, ecocriticism, and intermediality. As Director of the Center for Young People’s Literature and Culture, she organizes and coordinates numerous creative workshops and courses for children and young adults. Since 2012 she has been on the editorial board of Filoteknos: Children’s Literature-Cultural Mediation-Anthropology of Childhood, the first Polish academic journal in the field. In 2003 and 2004 she was awarded the Scholarships of the Foundation for Polish Science for young scholars. Her expertise was recognised internationally in 2004 through the Study Fellowship at the International Youth Library in Munich and in 2013, through Kosciuszko Foundation Fellowship and Fulbright Senior Advanced Research Award to work at the Institute of Effective Education and the Department of Childhood Studies, at Rutgers University.