Fall Term 1995
Jirina Smejkalova
Department of History

Course Description

This research seminar deals with the processes of censorship and canon-formation within the cultural contexts of the post-World War II Central European countries. By focusing on the institutional structures (for example in the Czech context) we will consider how the centrally-controlled cultural politics of the former communist state imposed restrictions and constraints while paradoxically producing supportive spaces for the emergence of alternative cultural practices. My intention is to enrich our understanding of the relations between people and cultural production within a particular place undergoing historically unique transitions.

After 1968, Czech and Slovak cultural life became - more dramatically then in many of the other countries of the region ruled by communist governments - divided into three spheres: a state-operated sphere of officially produced culture, another sphere of culture produced within dissident and underground circles (samizdat, home-theater performances), and a third sphere of exile culture. We will examine the ways in which the state-controlled web of institutions (such as publishing houses, distribution authorities, libraries, and bookstores) protected and conserved the mutual impenetrability of all three domains. We will also consider the tensions resulting from the most recent collapse of these formerly relatively autonomous spheres into a commonly shared space of reprivatization and the reintroduction of a market economy.

In conjunction with these institutional issues, we will read the work of both Czech and Western authors with particular attention to their textual representation of the 'oppressed cultural context. We will ask how the "in" has been represented by authors writing from outside of that place, how the "out" has been represented by the authors working within. Here we will be especially concerned with how the institutional constraints and their transitions described above have been embedded in the discourses and themes of such texts, as well as with how memory and time have been narrated in relation to the representations of "actual events" across lines of historical and institutional discontinuity (1948,1968, 1989). The students will read selections from the works of Milan Kundera, Vaclav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal as well as conduct their own research projects in the Open Society Archives.

This course aims not only to expose a social and cultural space which remains largely misunderstood by the international academic community. It should also test the limits of the Western cultural theories by confronting them with the experience of the "other" Europe. It will question models of censorship which treat it as the oppressive exercise of centralized power by clearly defined "others" who decide on the inclusion and exclusion of particular texts. Our question will be how readers' access (Williams) to the text is constituted and instituted (Goldman, Ziolkowski). I will present "censorship" (Darnton, Holquist) as a far reaching phenomenon, closely related to the process of canon-formation (Altieri, Culler), as a practice of selection which imposes limits (Hall, Said) at various institutional levels. The concepts of "authorship" and "authority" will be reexamined in terms of repeated and communally shared performances (Butler, Havel) maintained and anticipated by "men of letters. " Using various media (texts, music, slides, films), and the materials of Open Society Archives the course will challenge the view of Europe as a unified, monolithic obstacle to the realization of a multiculturally variable world.

CRC-Curriculum Resource Center
CEU Budapest, Hungary
Modified: June, 1996


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