Adjustment and Radicalisation. Dynamics in Popular Culture(s) in Pre-War Eastern Europe

This joint project explores the developmental dynamics of popular cultures in Belarus, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and Hungary since the 1980s from an interdisciplinary, comparative perspective. Under the leadership of the ZfL and in cooperation with the Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO), the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History (ZFF), and the Professorship for Slavic Literature and Cultural Studies (with a focus on Polish Studies) at the University of Potsdam, the project will conduct a series of case studies to research popular culture phenomena and genres. The subprojects take on a literary, historical, or cultural and media studies perspective to address popular-cultural phenomena and figures in different genres: from literature, film, and the fine arts to TV shows, folk and popular music, videos, memes, murals, and graffiti to political journalism and social media. The comparative, interdisciplinary examination of popular-cultural products and trends promises new insights into their dynamics—from the euphoric awakening of democratisation in the 1980s and 1990s to the current rise of nationalist ideologies and right-wing populist or authoritarian political structures. Furthermore, the project’s layout allows it to map out the similarities and differences between the analysed late and post-socialist national popular cultures and their development.

As both an indicator and a booster of societal moods, popular culture plays a key role in understanding socio-political developments. Also, since the 1980s, popular culture has fulfilled a number of specific functions in Eastern and East-Central Europe: it served to mediate Western trends, images, and stories as well as to redefine national, religious, or state-socialist symbolisms and narratives. When it comes to models of society, family, home, and other identities, popular culture has the potential to link notions of modernity, zeitgeist, and material wealth with both progressive and conservative values. Thus, it serves as a vehicle of both collective wishes and dreams as well as of latent frustrations and fears. It may contribute to subcultural, oppositional or dissident radicalisation, but also to a rather uncritical consumerism and the normalisation of nationalist discourses. In particular, the joint project investigates which aesthetic and medial resources are being used in popular cultural products and practices and how they become politically effective, thus shaping these cultures’ social debates. To avoid a one-sided observation of popular culture as a form of counterculture and “resistance” against cultural hierarchies and structures of power, the project also addresses its problematic potentials. These may not only be found in popular culture’s commercialisation, but also in the populist radicalisation and discursive adaptation to political power relations.

Beyond the work in the individual subprojects, the joint project will found an international research network aiming to obtain a better universal understanding of general dynamics and operating principles of popular culture in the light of digitalisation and globalisation and their respective conditions.