On an unseasonably warm evening in March 2019, amidst a series of reconstruction works on one of Sofia’s busiest central streets – Graf Ignatiev (better known as “Grafa”) – a group of friends decided to gather on the pavement for a small beach party. They declared the piles of rubbish, mortar and sand left on the pedestrian sidewalk to be a “sand dune,” brought along their beachwear, portable loudspeakers and chairs, their inflatable toys and flip-flops, to mockingly celebrate Sofia municipality’s “gift” to its residents. The ‘beach-goers’ when speaking to a media outlet, which took an interest in the bizarre action, laughingly describe the impossibility of walking the streets of the city. They point at a dangerous crossing just behind their “beach” and speculate the possibility of a concessionaire taking over their slot and requiring payment per deckchair – or even deciding to build “one or two hotels” just next to them. In exasperation, they declare that they no longer hope for the street’s reconstruction to be “nice,” but “simply want it to end.”1
Their discourse mixes humor with tropes that are ever so familiar to residents of Sofia in relation to never-ending reconstruction works, which are done with little more in mind than the need to quickly spend funds. Accessibility and durability of the infrastructure, its aesthetic outlook, the need for democratic participation in decision-making or to make investments beyond the city center are rarely a priority in these hastily executed refurbishments. Instead, there is piling evidence for fraudulence with public money and European Union funds on behalf of subcontracted companies, which are hired to reconstruct ‘emblematic’ central sites, but seldom such in peripheral and poorer areas. Owners of G.P. Group2, the company that was tasked with the refurbishment of “Grafa,” for example, have been persecuted for money laundering and tax evasion. During its contested refurbishment, an anti-corruption protest was staged in front of the municipality, petitions and critical journalistic articles were written, while photographic evidence of poorly executed work was repeatedly posted on social media, making for cycles of indignation and ridicule. Indeed, the parodic instantiation of the beach party can be considered in relation to a longer succession of humorous enunciations that target a number of public infrastructure works recently executed in Sofia. A proliferation of Internet memes and humorous collages has accompanied the reconstruction of “Grafa.” These memes tend to operate by way of abstracting an element or set of elements from the urban environment and reworking them in a humorous way, at times literally filling the visible gaps and cracks of pavements and sidewalks with clown faces or other fictional characters. When new and remarkably sharp-edged street dividers were installed along “Grafa” in the winter of 2018, for instance, these were quickly dubbed “shark-fins” and integrated into memes that reimagined the street as a marine landscape. Around the same time, bird-eye snapshots of the new and – as some citizens described them on social media – ‘psychedelic’ tiles on an adjacent square were made over as the background of a Super Mario game.
To come back to the episode with which I choose to start this piece, we could ask: What is the modality of its critique? How does the adoption of a humorous attitude vis-à-vis flawed public infrastructure works differ from an anti-corruption discourse that would be equally available as an entry point to such situations? It can be ascertained that the humorous action mentioned above is discursively instable – the city center beachgoers do not articulate one clear ‘message,’ but instead mix parody and critique, self-irony and playfulness. Can this action then be described as a ‘political’ one? And, if so, what are the stakes in such a description, particularly in the context of processes and forces governing Bulgarian post-communist society?
In this brief contribution, I will tackle this question from the point of view of humor’s potential to function as a social and political force. I will aim to show through the works of Alenka Zupančič 3, Boris Buden 4 and scholars working within postcolonial theory that the critical potential of humor in the post-communist context can best be understood from the perspective of its capacity to disrupt a temporal order 5 of historical belatedness and render concrete universals, such as ‘corruption.’
Postcolonial and Post-communist Times
My contention is that post-communist temporality is a potent political construction whose profound governing effects can be discerned in what Boris Buden (2009) has described as a logic of historical belatedness. The political productivity of time and its produced character have been subject of a long-lasting interest in continental philosophy and critical theory. Henri Bergson6 distinguishes between the experience of real duration and the mathematical division into temporal units (the subjugation of an experience of time to space), whereas with Alfred North Whitehead we could describe both space and time as powerful abstractions.7 Michel Foucault’s study of the emergence of the prison system in modern Europe 8 has shown how the imposition of an economy of time – through the increased importance of timetabling alongside the fragmentation of body movements and daily routines – has become an important part of the emergence of disciplinary mechanisms and their coupling with an ever-intensifying industrial production.
Time as a political operator also has an important role to play in postcolonial scholarship: scholars, such as Edward Said, have argued that the othering of the “Orient” depends on the relegation of vast territories and populations to a position of historical and cultural backwardness.9 In the words of Anabel Quijano, writing at the turn of the century from an explicitly decolonial perspective: “[T]he relations between European and non-European suffered a temporal alteration: all non-Europe belonged to the past, and so it was possible to think about relations between them in an evolutionary perspective.”10 The construction of such an evolutionary perspective serves to support a racializing matrix that legitimizes the exploitation of labor, natural resources and divergent knowledges about the world. Europe – a territory which is as imaginary as the “Orient” and the “non-European” – is constructed in this power relationship as civilized, modern and future-bound, showing the way for progress in an economic, cultural, scientific and moral sense alike. Its superior position, however, always depends on a relationship to what is ‘othered’, that is, posited as in need of development, correction and study, relegated to not only another space but also another time: one that is past.
Drawing nearer to the site of the present examination, we might ask what a bringing together of postcolonial and post-communist frames of analysis can add to the discussion of time as a governing mechanism. Nikolai Karkov and Zhivka Valiavicharska have described the productivity of juxtaposing postcolonial and post-socialist perspectives as one that results in a “surplus of vision.”11 Both the postcolonial and the post-communist indicate a temporal relation – signaled by the use of the prefix ‘post’ in conjunction to the two different sociopolitical conditions. In postcolonial theory, it is common to assert that the ‘post’ does not place us at a time that is ‘beyond’ or ‘after’ colonialism 12; post-communist studies preoccupy themselves with both the historical conditions and the ex-communist societies and processes shaping them. Ranabir Samaddar, writing about the ‘post’ in postcolonialism, asks: “What time does the ‘post’ indicate? and what is the condition in which the time designated as the ‘post’ congeal itself?”13 He asserts that he uses the term “postcolonial” strategically as “a condition, an age – global, yet local in many ways – and as a predicament, an age that speaks of a condition with its contradictions, a site of new struggles, contradictory possibilities, and new transformations.”14 Samaddar, furthermore, suggests that this condition “includes not only a certain imagination of space, it also indicates a certain notion of time.”15
The issue of time and temporality is central to both the postcolonial and the post-communist conditions, albeit differently. As asserted by Samaddar, anti-colonial revolutions could be seen as “interruptions in bourgeois presentation of time” 16: if time is precisely what is to be rendered homogenous under capitalism, then uprisings challenge its order and introduce a rupture, an opening, the possibility of a different kind of temporal order and relation to the future. In post-communism, however, we could say that a homogeneous capitalist time is imposed even more forcibly. There, ‘communism’ is itself presented as an interruption of the proper course of history and development, thus, retroactively being vested with the status of an error or deviation from the point of view of a present that needs to be constantly purged from it and smoothened. As Boris Buden has shown in his work, a chief strategy in this homogenizing operation is the imposition of a temporal and political logic of belatedness.17 The governing implications for the populations and territories targeted by it are far-reaching: similarly to ex-colonial countries, ex-communist societies are also presented as occupying another time vis-à-vis the West. They hence need to perpetually ‘catch up’ with an always out of reach Western modernity: by adopting neoliberal economic policies; by implementing reforms in education and culture (often predicated upon the historical erasure of the experience of socialism); and by developing a language and understanding of democracy and politics that are aligned with liberal democratic values strictly after a Western model. In his analysis of the emergence of the metaphor of the “child” post-1989, Buden (2009) has demonstrated how an infantilizing discourse applied to post-communist societies has contributed to the stabilization of a hegemonic temporal and political order.
Accepting and perpetuating the developmentalist, orientalizing and othering discourse of colonizers has produced deep-seated effects in ex-colonial states, but so has the acceptance of the logic of belatedness for ex-communist societies. The subtitle of Buden’s book, “the end of post-communism” (2009), can, thus, be read as an appeal to break with attempts to align discursively and politically with that logic as well as with its violently infantilizing and governing effects.
What could such putting an “end” to post-communism look like? Discourse that takes a critical stance towards the stifling, violent logics of post-communism’s governing regime often adopts the exposure of faults as its working mode, a modality of revealing and unmasking. What I would like to pursue instead in the remaining part of this contribution is the exploration of the potential of humor to act as a social force capable of disrupting post-communist temporality. This examination is undertaken in the conviction that, rather than being discarded in advance as apolitical, the subversive modality of humor can indeed open up intellectually and politically invigorating ways of understanding and intervening in post-communist sociality.
Laughter and Comedy in the Times of Post-communism
In his Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic, written in the year 1900, Henri Bergson offers a peculiar account of the force of humor. He states at the onset that humor and laughter derive their force from their social character and for implying “complicity, with other laughers, real or imaginary.”18 The main way in which he frames the comical is through the experience of something “rigid” 19 or “mechanical” 20 in what is supposed to be in constant flux and change – that is, in life itself. In his theoretical construction, comic impression is created through automatic or monotonous repetitions; through the realization of the artificiality of certain customs (like clothing or ceremonies); or when confronted with the imitability of people. In short, according to Bergson, we find “something mechanical in something living” in all laughable objects.21 Laughter itself then functions as a social corrective by “convert[ing] rigidity into plasticity” 22 and, thus, ultimately serving “life” as that which is a “continuous evolution” in time and a coexistence of “perfect,” inimitable, non-repeating individualities in space.23 What I would like to take from Bergson at this point is the insistence on humor’s social function. In a way, we could say that parody and comedy not only imply a preexisting community of laughers, but they also enact and create such communities.
Alenka Zupančič has offered a rich and complex reading of Bergson’s essay in her book The Odd One In.24 However, her understanding of “life” is quite different from that of Bergson – writing from a Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective, she is wary of opposing it to repetition or mechanism. Indeed, she warns against positing “life” as something self-contained, self-identical or transcendental (as Bergson’s vitalist position appears to do), but instead asserts its immanent emergence in the gap opened by repetition itself.25 Furthermore, instead of conceiving of the comical as what needs to be “corrected” by laughter’s social function, she sheds light on comedy’s subversive potential itself.
Two of the interrelated aspects of comedy discussed by Zupančič seem to be especially pertinent to an understanding of the force of humor on the terrain of post-communism: comedy’s capacity to revert the “abstract” into a “concrete” and also to intervene into a temporal order, disturbing an allegedly natural sequence of “demand” and “satisfaction.”
In relation to the first aspect and drawing substantially on Hegel, Zupančič writes that comedy does away with attempts to represent essences, abstractions or universals – they are instead rendered physical and concrete. The relationship of the self to these universals is inverted because what happens is that abstractions themselves become subjects in the comic act. They are no longer self-identical or forming a seemingly unshakable basis of existence, but appear as concrete and, hence, fraught, fallible, even silly: “the universal itself is precisely as idiotic as its concrete and individual appearance.”26 In the case of our urban beach party, staged amidst rubble and sand in Sofia, it is not that the beachgoers attempt to “represent” corruption or institutional power. Instead, the latter’s idiocy and arbitrariness is what is rendered concrete when they enter the comic scene through the protagonists. The beachgoers reenact the absurdity of municipal decision-making processes and the dominant entrepreneurial logic in a parodic and hyperbolic manner. This occurs, for instance, when the beachgoers hypothesize that they will soon have to pay for deckchairs, surrounded by newly built hotels and beach bars due to the attractiveness of their centrally located beach. The consensual character of universally accepted ‘truths’ of Bulgarian post-communism – such as its corrupt character, the lack of accountability and transparency, the disregard for people’s livelihoods, its market-driven logic – is turned upside down. However, this inversion is not achieved by passing a critical verdict on the faults of these alleged ‘truths and universals’ or by framing them otherwise as unjust, but rather by comically inhabiting and, thus, prying them open for ridicule, which, in turn, exposes their arbitrary and contingent character.
Secondly, according to Zupančič, comedy’s subversive potential can also be discerned in the way it intervenes in a temporal order. Rather than placing the subject in a position where it addresses a never quite satisfiable demand to the Other (as is the case with tragedy), in comedy, the subject is traversed by an unexpected supplement, by a joyful surprise which instantiates the comic sequence.27 As with love, in comedy too, the surplus always emerges elsewhere and at another time,28 rather than functioning according to a logic of a satisfiable demand or an ideal of complementarity. Hence, when we laugh, we do so not simply at the content of jokes but also at the “dimension of precariousness and fundamental uncertainty […] that gets articulated and becomes manifest in every joke.”29
Two points are intriguing here from the point of view of our concern with post-communist time and its logic of belatedness. Firstly, when we laugh, the radically unstable and arbitrary character of the present order of things – including its governing universals – is made palpable. The temporal disjunction, introduced by the moment of surprise of the joke that renders concrete some of these universals, is one that pierces through, however briefly, the post-communist temporal continuum. Vis-à-vis the beach party in Sofia, we can say that its participants no longer address their demands to any higher power (for instance, by demanding that the refurbishment is done ‘nicely,’ transparently or properly); neither do they reproduce one of the grand post-communist narratives (for instance, that of corruption, residual and deficient communist mentality, or of a deferred modernity). The comic situation at hand is one that, instead of perpetuating a claim of belatedness or reproducing preexisting axes of critique, creates its own coordinates and, thus, fundamentally destabilizes any claim of a ‘natural’ order or sequence.
This leads us to the second point that can be made with Zupančič in relation to time and comedy in post-communism. In her discussion of the temporality of the joke and comedy, she shows that while the joke is instantaneous and works in a relatively delimited moment marked by surprise, comedy stretches in time.30 What is even more interesting is the relationship between both. Indeed, we can define the “art of comedy” as “a singular continuity-through-interruption, a continuity that […] builds with – and is built through – interruptions and breaks.”31 Each new joking reference to a part or aspect of the urban and social environment that enters the comic situation not only introduces a moment of joyful surprise and laughter but also partakes in the construction and creation of new coordinates. These stand at odds with what is posited as the ‘given reality’ built by a corrupt and incompetent municipal or state power. Grafa’s new street dividers (a.k.a. the “sharks”), the tram, the sand dune, the maze of daily changing routes amidst the construction site, the imaginary concessionaire, the bar owner or the ticket-seller are not completely materially and semiotically uncoupled from their embeddedness in other, ‘external,’ frames of reference. However, the way they enter the time and space of the comic situation and how they are narratively made to work according to its humorous logic, bestows them – and through them, the comic sequence as well as the whole terrain in which it is itself situated – a dimension of absurdity, arbitrariness and contingency.
This is also where humor’s subversive character comes to the fore particularly strongly: by rendering seemingly immutable and universally accepted ‘truths’ concrete and frail; by interrupting a post-communist and colonial temporal logic of lagging behind; by introducing alternative spatiotemporal coordinates and frames of reference that make the hegemonic ones appear at least as arbitrary and silly as their comic iterations. We can, thus, assert that the end of post-communism will come not with the achievement of a final overlap between Bulgarian and Western modernity, or with the definite purging of the country’s present from the ghost of communism that perpetually haunts it. Rather, its arrival will be driven by the implementation of more tools to decenter and divert it. Instead of discarding them in advance as apolitical, humor and comedy can contribute to the upending of the time of post-communism.
This essay was written in the summer of 2020 during a visiting fellowship at the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography at Leipzig, Germany. Previous versions were presented at two “Conjunctural Geographies of Postsocialist and Postcolonial Conditions” workshops, the Summer School for Politics and Critique, organized by the ISSH in Skopje, and the Research Reveals colloquium at the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies department at Goldsmiths, University of London. I would like to thank the organizers of these events for creating spaces for stimulating exchange in a time when such spaces were especially needed, as well as participants in these forums for their generous feedback. I am especially grateful to Tsvetelina Hristova, Nikolay Karkov, Zhivka Valiavicharska and Lela Rekhviashvili for engaging thoughtfully and critically with the essay, as well as to Yari Lanci and Philip Saunders for their work on proof-reading.
1 Nova TV, Syhbudi Se, March 9, 2019, https://play.nova.bg/video/sybudi-se/season-6/sybudi-se-2019-03-09 (accessed March 8, 2021).
2 This company has won numerous competitions for the construction of over 120 petrol stations for Lukoil, several metro stations for Sofia’s subway company, and contests for large road infrastructures. It was also involved in a previous case of high-profile reconstruction works of Sofia’s city center – namely the refurbishment of the park surrounding the National Palace of Culture that gathered significant public attention ahead of Bulgaria’s assumption of the Presidency of the Council of EU. Founded in 2005, G.P. Group is also operating in other Balkan countries such as North Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia.
3 Alenka Zupančič, The Odd One In. On Comedy, Cambridge/Massachusetts/London 2008.
4 Boris Buden, Zone des Übergangs: Vom Ende des Postkommunismus [Zone of Transition. On the End of Post-communism], Frankfurt am Main 2009.
5 An analysis of the spatial disjunctions and continuities (together with their specific urban and geographical manifestations) would be indispensable for any research into post-communist sociality, particularly in the context of conflicts and negotiations of public space and infrastructure. However, for the purposes of the present intervention, I am deliberately narrowing my analysis to examine the governing mechanisms of time in post-communism and the political productivity of a temporal disruption in this context.
6 Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, Mineola, NY 1998.
7 Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World. Lowell Lectures from 1925, New York 1948.
8 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, New York 1995.
9 Edward Said, Orientalism, London 2003.
10 Anibal Quijano, Coloniality of Power and Eurocentrism in Latin America, in: International Sociology 15 (2000), pp. 215–232, here p. 221; emphasis mine.
11 Nikolay Karkov / Zhivka Valiavicharska, Rethinking East-European Socialism: Notes Towards an Anti-Capitalist Decolonial Methodology, in: Interventions. International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 20 (2018), pp. 1–29, here p. 25. Karkov and Valiavicharska insist on the necessity of taking a critical stance towards accounts that posit the legitimacy of such a bringing together of analytical frameworks upon the presupposition of “structural homologies between postcolonial and postsocialist spaces” (p. 4). They point out how such an assumption replicates Cold War tropes but also erases the “political contributions of the socialist countries in fighting colonial power” (p. 19).
12 The emergence of decolonial theory attempts to address the question of present-day colonial continuities of oppression while introducing a (partial) rupture to an older generation of postcolonial thinkers. The brevity of this contribution does not allow me to go into much detail regarding these debates, nor can I elaborate sufficiently here on the reasons why I decided to stick with “post-communist” (instead of “post-socialist”) and with a hyphenated use of the terms. While the hyphen is used to highlight the composite character of these conditions and retain a certain openness in the tenuous negotiation of the relation between past, present and future, the insistence on “post-communism” as a category stems from the politically situated wish of maintaining the ambiguity and potentiality of communism as a transformative project in and for the present.
13 Ranabir Samaddar, Karl Marx and the Postcolonial Age, London 2018, here p. 18. I would like to thank Raia Apostolova for directing me to the work of Samaddar.
14 Samaddar, Karl Marx and the Postcolonial Age, p. 19.
15 Samaddar, Karl Marx and the Postcolonial Age, p. 17.
17 Buden, Zone des Übergangs.
18 Henri Bergson, Laughter. An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Washington 2008, here p. 7.
19 Bergson, Laughter, p. 14.
20 Bergson, Laughter, p. 17.
21 Bergson, Laughter, p. 39.
22 Bergson, Laughter, p. 84.
23 Bergson, Laughter, p. 44–45.
24 Zupančič, The Odd One In, pp. 111–126.
25 Zupančič, The Odd One In, p. 118, 126.
26 Zupančič, The Odd One In, p. 38.
27 Zupančič, The Odd One In, p. 131.
28 Zupančič, The Odd One In, p. 132, 134.
29 Zupančič, The Odd One In, p. 142.
30 Zupančič, The Odd One In, p. 136.
31 Zupančič, The Odd One In, p. 140.