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

In the “Participatory Poland” report a group of Polish aca-fen makes a preliminary attempt towards defining the specificity of an Eastern European country’s participatory culture shaped both in the communist and post-communist periods. By placing the development of selected fan-based activities against a broader socio-historical background, we are trying to capture the interplay between the global and the local context of participatory culture, as well as take preliminary steps towards making its Polish branch available for academic research. Thanks to Professor Henry Jenkins’ incredible support, we are able to share the first, though by no means final, results of our investigations with aca-fen worldwide. The posts included in this report deal with several examples of Polish participatory activities, namely, the literary and media fandom of speculative fiction and role-playing games; comics fandom; fandom of manga and anime; historical re-enactment associations; and the prosumerist phenomenon of bra-fitting. While we are planning to continue and expand our research, we hope that its samples presented in this report contribute to the exploration of participatory culture.

 

Participatory Poland — An Introduction (Part Two)

Agata Zarzycka and Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak

Department of English Studies

University of Wroclaw

Poland

 

PARTICIPATORY POLITICAL RESISTANCE

Throughout the 1980s, Orange Alternative , an overtly political movement formed in 1981 by Wroclaw students, with Waldemar Fydrych as its leader, successfully covered its resistance agenda with seemingly innocent activities, using surrealism as a weapon and the spontaneous involvement of the street crowd as a power source for actions that would later bring the organization international recognition. Those actions shared many features with other underground resistance initiatives of that period, yet were characterized by the cultivation of their anarchist roots and the employment of methods often verging on the absurd, as reflected by Orange Alternative’s trademark sign – a dwarf. Hana Cervinkova explains that the fairytale symbol, which soon lent its name to the movement’s activity, labeled as “Revolution of the Dwarves,” took its origin in a graffiti war against the militia. When the actual subversive inscriptions left by resistance activists on city walls were removed by the authorities, Fydrych, soon followed by more people, marked their previous locations with dwarf images (3). In 1988 the symbol was so popular that a demonstration of thirteen to twenty thousand dwarf impersonators in Wrocław attracted the general  attention and confused the regime forces unsure how to deal with the happening (3). Throughout the 80s, that and other humorous formulas enabled Orange Alternative to carry out numerous public performances (3-4), sometimes verging on a flashmob style and involving random passers-by.

Surrealism did not guarantee safety from repressions, but definitely encouraged the participatory support of regular citizens who gained a chance to get involved without becoming targeted resistance activists (“Orange Alternative: The Story” n. p.). The Orange Alternative activity, naturally suspicious to the regime protectors, was also criticized by fellow resistance movements for the light treatment of the political struggle (“Orange Alternative: The Story” n. p.). Still, initiatives engaging a broad circle of supporters, not all of whom would be ready to risk their lives and the wellbeing of their families for the political cause, created, as Cervinkova puts it, “a venue for symbolic action that was social and asso­ciational in nature, a performative and symbolic means for creating free space for deliberative democratic action” (5).

Cervinkowa sees Orange Alternative as a spectacular, yet not the sole example of what Matynia calls “performative democracy” – a phenomenon relying on the collective consideration and modification of the political and social conditions, which is enabled by seemingly non-political collective activity providing a forum for exploring and practising civic involvement. Such a platform in socialist Poland was, as pointed out by both Matynia (10) and Cervinkova (5) the Youth Theatre of the 1970s. The theatrical connotation seems to imply a participatory factor, especially in the light of Matynia’s argument that: “… just like carnival, it [performative democracy] happens, and when it happens, it releases a robust civic creativity, prepares conditions for backs to straighten up – and this is an achievement of lasting value” (9). It might even be claimed that Matynia’s definition offers an insight into the politically significant dimensions of broadly understood participatory culture when the author declares that “performative democracy can actually be joyous and affirmative dimension of the political, yet one that self-limits its passions by necessarily framing them into agreed-upon forms, genres, and conventions” (6). Indeed, the last years of socialism in Poland seem to have brought a growing importance of the carnivalesque and participatory factors in the public sphere. Marek Oziewicz follows Padraic Kenney’s A Carnival of Revolution in tracing the mass turn of informal social demonstrations between 1985 and 1989, not only in Poland, but also in other countries of the Eastern Bloc, towards spontaneous and often humorous initiatives motivated by a whole spectrum of inspirations, from universal ethical issues through artistic performance to actual fandom-based fascination with writers such as Tolkien or Isaac Asimov (Oziewicz 364).

 

POLISH FANDOM AND POLITICS

It is no wonder that in the turmoil of the public life in socialist Poland, the development of fandom movement, focused at first around science-fiction, had a special political significance. The relationship of Polish science-fiction with the official political system was ambivalent and dynamic in the period between the 1950s and 1980s. According to Jacek Inglot, a recognized writer and fandom commentator, the 50s brought on an awkward parallel relationship between speculative fiction and official political demands of “socrealism” which included, among others, a socially involved protagonist; a discrediting depiction of middle-class individualism contrasted with the affirmation of community as the source of empowerment; and an emphasis on the superiority of socialism over capitalism (62-63). Inglot tracks down three categories of speculative fiction’s reactions to the imposition of the above-mentioned criteria: marginal acknowledgment; “servitude”-induced political statements included in the text, but having little to do with the actual plot and possible to ignore; and finally genuine ideological involvement (63).

As argued among others by another prominent author and critic, Maciej Parowski, speculative fiction proved to be a good way of misleading censorship. because sketching a fictional vision that drifted away from the immediate reality was often enough to enable implicit attacks on regime philosophies (n.p.). A person who embodied the bonds between Polish fandom and political resistance was Janusz A. Zajdel, a recognized author of dystopian SF, who was also a Solidarity movement activist. In 1985, during Polcon, the first (and since then the biggest) Polish convention, he received an award for his contribution to the growth of speculative fiction in Poland. Since his death in the same year, the award has been called by his name and constitutes both the major Polish distinction for writers of speculative fiction and the most spectacular symbol of the fandom’s tribute to the political cause.

It is to be emphasized that even without such direct connections with resistance, fandom in socialist Poland promoted politically significant activities, such as informal, grassroots organization and free exchange of thoughts, not to mention the frequently unofficial influx of Western literature with the focus on science-fiction, a genre not only characteristic of imperial culture, but also interested in the exploration of political and social doctrines. Since the fall of the Eastern Bloc and in the new, post-communist popular culture of the 1990s and beyond, the relation between politics and media-oriented participatory movements in Poland has been more complex.

On the one hand, it is possible to observe the continuity of Nowa Fantastyka’s political orientation, though in the new reality the echo of the magazine’s once liberating and progressive character discourages some readers with its right-wing affinity. On the other hand, communities centered around various forms of participatory entertainment, from particular fandoms through historical reconstruction to LARP and RPG practice, which since the 1990’s have continued their dynamic and growingly diversified development, have been affected by a broader cultural and political shock connected with the exposure to contemporary Western political and civic discourses preoccupied with collective identities.

As Joanna Tokarska-Bakir writes in the introduction to the first Polish edition of Erving Goffman’s Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity from 2005, “the isolation of Polish humanities in the communist period resulted in the emancipatory discourse initiated in the 90s being far ahead of Poles’ social education . . . . In the Polish discourse of difference, ‘excess’ has in a way preceded ‘lack,’ and as a consequence, various postmodern strategies of stigma management are faced not with emphatic critique, but indifference, arrogance or even overt hostility” (7, translation ours).

Today, eight years later, civic identity politics is a visible and more or less familiar element of Polish political and social landscape, but its functions, practice and reception in particular environments remains far from balanced. That is why “Participatory Poland” report aims to consider several examples of the civic practices and policies developed, challenged or objected to by Polish participatory culture movements. We hope to show the ways in which those movements, although by definition open to global ideas and co-creating “pop cosmopolitanism” with similar environments from all over the world, simultaneously reflect and cope with Poland-specific issues.

 

COMING UP NEXT

The series of the upcoming blog entries, which will offer an insight into several dimensions of the “participatory Poland,” is opened by Michał Mochocki’s essay on the participatory culture of historical reenactment, combining specifically Polish phenomena with inspirations from the West. The essay presents the origins and development of historical re-enactment movements in Poland, their political dimension and impact on regional identities. Michał’s special focus is on the dynamics of conflict and cooperation between re-enactment-connected grassroots organizations and state-run institutions.

The next entry, co-authored by the research team composed of Justyna Janik, Joanna Kucharska, Tomasz Z. Majkowski, Joanna Płaszewska, Bartłomiej Schweiger, Piotr Sterczewski and Piotr Gąsienica-Daniel, reflects upon the impact of historical, political and social factors on the development of collective identities and their representations within Polish fandom. Relying on sociological research carried out specifically for the needs of the report, it will focus on identity politics within the contemporary young-generation fandom.

Third on the list is a text by Michał Jutkiewicz and Rafał Kołsut, considering the genesis and consequences of a striking social and cultural separation of the comics fandom from the more uniform speculative media fandom in Poland. While numerous Polish fans share several fields of interest, from media consumption through live or computer gaming to historical reenactment, the fact that they also tend to read comics does not prevent the Polish comics environment from functioning as a rather independent community. The authors investigate the reasons for this situation and establish the extent to which it is specific of and significant for the fandom in question.

Katarzyna Wasylak’s essay on the Polish manga scene offers an insight into a participatory movement building up from the scratch and sinking into the Polish socio-cultural context. The essay uses the “pop cosmopolitanism” perspective to consider the origin and growth of the Polish manga and anime fandom, its inter-cultural potential, as well as its fusions with Poland-specific phenomena and representation of Polish identity within the fandom worldwide.

Finally, the report by Aleksandra Mochocka considers bra-fitting, a recent phenomenon that represents not the fandom-fuelled, but economy and marketing-related side of participatory social practice and has grown in Poland to be transported to other countries. The essay depicts the bra-fitting movement as related to the construction of femininity and the body image issues and as initiated by means of grassroots Internet communication. The rapid development of the bra-fitting community has contributed not only to an emancipatory change in socially acknowledged beauty standards, but also to a modification of some lingerie companies’ production strategies and their successful debut on the American market.

We are aware that these relatively brief presentations of selected participatory culture aspects are likely to reveal further blank spots, questions or directions begging for more extended research. We are also aware that the “Confessions of an Aca-Fan” readers are well-phrased in all things participatory and may find a lot of what we have to say more than familiar. Still, we hope that the combination of a nation-specific perspective with that embracing participatory culture as a global phenomenon proves useful to others, just the way it has proved challenging and thought-provoking to us.

 

WORKS CITED

 

 

Cervinkova, Hana. “The Kidnapping of Wroclaw’s Dwarves: The Symbolic Politics of Neoliberalism in Urban East-Central Europe”. East European Politics & Societies 20.10: 1-14.

Frąckiewicz, Sebastian. “Wywiad z Maciejem Parowskim: 30 lat ‘Fantastyki’ – Rozmontować karabin i sprzedać jako wózek” [An Interview with Maciej Parowski: 30 Years of Fantastyka: Disassemble the Gun and Sell it as a Cart]. Polityka.pl. 26 October 2012. 31 October 2013. http://www.polityka.pl/kultura/rozmowy/1531337,1,wywiad-z-maciejem-parowskim-30-lat–fantastyki.read

Inglot, Jacek. “Soc Fiction (1): Rzecz o fantastyce polskiej pierwszej połowy lat pięćdziesiątych”[Soc Fiction(1): On Polish Speculative Fiction of the early Fifties]. Nowa Fantastyka. March 1991. No. 3 (9/102): 63-65.

Jenkins, Henry. Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York and      London: New York University Press, 2006.

- – -, Katie Clinton, Ravi Purushotma, Alice J. Robison and Margaret Weigel. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. MacArthur Foundation, 2009.

Koczanowicz, Leszek. Politics of Time: Dynamics of Identity in Post-communist Poland. New York : Berghahn Books, 2008.

Lessig, Lawrence. “Re-examining the Remix”. TED. May 2010. 28 October 2013. http://www.ted.com/talks/lessig_nyed.html

Matynia, Elżbieta. Performative Democracy. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2009.

Orange Alternative. “Orange Alternative: The Story”. Orange Alternative official website28 October 2013. http://www.pomaranczowa-alternatywa.org/orange%20alternative%20overview.html

Oziewicz, M.C. “Dwarf Resistance in Communist Poland: Fantastic-Ridiculous Dwarf Esthetic as Political Subversion in the Orange Alternative Movement and the Movie Kingsize. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 22.3: 363-376.

Radziejewski, Bartłomiej. „Sarmacja – niedokończona przygoda” [Sarmatia: An Unfinished Adventure]. Fronda.pl. 12 July 2009. 31 October 2013. http://www.fronda.pl/a/sarmacja-niedokonczona-przygoda,2444.html

Tischner, Józef. Etyka solidarności oraz homo sovieticus [Solidarity Ethics and Homo Sovieticus]. Kraków: Znak, 2005.

Tokarska-Bakir, Joanna. “Wstęp do wydania polskiego: Et(n)ologia piętna” [Introduction to the Polish Edition: Stigma Eth(n)ology]. Erving Goffman, Piętno: Rozważania o zranionej tożsamości. Trans. Aleksandra Dzierżyńska and Joanna Tokarska-Bakir. Gdańsk: Gdańskie Wydawnictwo Psychologiczne, 2005. 7-26.