This article was written on 16 Aug 2017, and is filled under Actualities, Literature, Theory.

Back to the Critical Future: Romania

Exceptionality rules every attempt to narrativize the history or culture of the states (or quasi-national entities) making up the Balkans. And in this respect, Romania is no exception. Romania is the “Balkan” that owing to a linguistic continuity spanning extremely diverse regional and political histories and religious traditions, somehow managed to avoid “balkanization”—the dominant socio-political feature in several of its neighboring lands. Each dominant aspect of its national life has been beset by trials of complexity. Its traditional regions, all operating at one time or another as provinces, have shifted back and forth between the domination of the Germans, the Hungarians, the Ottomans, and the Russians, among others. Its primary Eastern Orthodox religion has been polarized, in certain provinces and at certain moments, into allegiance to Greece, and in others into allegiance to Rome. By dint of its Western spheres of influence, Romania has played host and incubator (in the surprising case of Unitarianism, for example), to every known and conceivable stripe of Protestant theology. The radically fluctuating vicissitudes of Romania’s traditional minority populations has added to the richness, complexity, and troubling legacy of the mix. The twentieth century wreaked particular havoc on the country, as it did on Europe as a whole. Enough of Romania’s organic past, for example, a justifiably cherished peasant tradition, peeps out from under Bucharest’s capitulation to Stalinist architecture in the 1950’s through 1980’s to disclose an impressive urbanity prevailing, say, as of 1900.

The 20th annual meetings of the Romanian Comparative Literature Association (ALGCR) were held in Cluj, July 13-16, 2017. If the giant’s share of the interventions cross-referenced one another to a remarkable degree, this was in the endeavor of thinking “open” systems from under the shadow of “closed” ones, of mining or extracting the ouverture implicit within the sequence of rigid architectures synonymous with Romanian history. This endeavor was achieved by all participants whose presentations this reviewer happened to attend—with impressive ingenuity, perspicacity, and erudition. The field of systems theory itself became a site and lead-schema for the eternal cat-and-mouse game between cultural repression assuming protean forms and the liberation nonetheless breaking through under any and all configurations. In the deliberations of an organization such as ALGCR, of course, the medium of astute and inventive cultural inscription is the site where this rage for systematic opening gets acted out.

Romanian intellectuals see themselves as fulfilling a vital public role: “monitoring” for the broader community the amount, nature, and location of the “give” available in the predominant organization at hand, whether this be operated by government, religion, persistent traces of nationalism, capitalism, or the utilities of technology and technocracy. (I leave my readers to determine whether this is a delusional aspiration on critics’ part or not.) Romanian academics demonstrate no issues with cultural critics “moonlighting” in other crucial modalities of cultural text-display such as fiction or poetry; indeed, they revel in “diversification” as the legitimacy of literate empowerment. (Needless to say, the attribution of “supplemental” status to more than a single discursive mode practiced by a cultural programmer depends upon the author and her readership.)

As universities further “West,” acquiescing to the seismic pressures exerted by corporate underwriting, drift further and further toward a model of research, scholarship, and inscription as professions performed by professional sub-classes in at least in partial service to institutional affiliations and “brands,” academics in North America and elsewhere in the Euro-zone do well to look East for this refreshing audacity of public outreach and social value that the Romanian intellectuals attach to their mission. (Persistent ongoing bitterness at the—often brutal–insults to intellectual exploration mounted by the Communist regime in the form of ideological hypocrisy and enforced reductionism makes compelling sense from one conversation, and context, to the next. Romanian comparatists’ embrace of their public mission and their valorization of the inherent diversity of modes of cultural inscription may nonetheless amount to a salutary “specter of Marx” persisting especially from those days.)

There prevailed, then, a compelling internal logic by which the interventions at the 20th ALGCR Congress concentrated themselves at the two frontiers bordering a rich intellectual play-space: at the boundary of paradigmatic delineation and exposition on the one hand, and in the atelier of detailed close reading—itself a fundamental affirmation of singularity, idiosyncrasy, and transgression–on the other. In several notable sessions, of course, these supplemental “extremes” met up: the operative schemas and paradigms, when pushed far enough, unfolded into textual complexity; while under the pressure of close reading, exemplary texts revealed the underlying blueprints of systematic architectures. The participants, as a collective force, proved inventive in assembling a rich display of currently prevailing critical paradigms under this umbrella—among them semiotics, post-colonial theory, Jungian psychoanalysis, World Literature, and world-systems theory.

A glaringly incomplete Cook’s tour of the proceedings must begin with Corin Braga’s (Cluj-Napoca) overview of archetypal frameworks. With nominal allegiance to Jungian psychoanalysis and a first generation of archetypal responses configured around it (Kerényi, Eliade, Campbell, and Bachelard), Braga’s current project is in fact a study of the inevitable emergence of paradigms and schemas in cultural critique. Filtering throughout the extended project is the apprehension that cultural exegesis, for all its gravitation to the singular, the irreducible, and the uncontainable in language, eventually solicits and engages in the “chunking” (or summation) that can only be furnished by archetypes, paradigms, and schemas. Braga’s psychoanalytical orientation makes an unforced and highly productive turn into the field of Cognitive Science (Leonard Talmy and Philip N. Johnson-Laird); also, into the image-schemas developed, in different ways, by August Fenk, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, and Mark Turner. Braga’s approach is nothing if not multidimensional: he invokes Joseph Carroll’s evolutionary psychology as a site highlighting the emergence of cognitive modules and human universals. In the work of Teun A. Van Dijk and Walter Kintsch, he traces the emergence of semiotic superstructures such as would facilitate the making of narrative. In its remarkable breadth and depth, this project highlights the affinities between neural structures and pathways and the branchings, recursions, and loopings making literature so much of what it is. In a striking intervention of his own and very much in this vein, István Berszán of Cluj-Napoca delved into “kinetic space” and its multiple “rhythms,” productively extracting rich theoretical nuance from the figure of strings—all the way from the practices related to string theory and “stringing” to the role of projection as it presents an “out” to imprisonment.

In his ground plan for an interactive study of different media, Doru Pop (Cluj-Napoca) switches the focus in comparative studies from national languages, idioms, and traditions to media operating languages—an absolutely crucial intervention at the present juncture. Drawing on recent work by Steven Tötösy de Zepetnik, he affirms the call for a “comparative cultural studies” broad enough to incorporate the specific media and operating languages in which we and our tools of inscription, storage, and research increasingly “speak.” His intervention operates on the premise that responsive fluency in the inter-medial translation of media such as film, video, comix and anime, animation, text, and soundtrack into one another is an indispensable prerequisite to full membership in the atelier of theoretically motivated critique.

In yet another striking adaptation of prevalent critical paradigms to the challenges of contemporary cultural life in Romania, Alex Goldiş pushes the discourse of post-colonial theory toward that frontier at which it eventuates at the “world-systems theory” originally devised by Immanuel Wallerstein and under current “polysystematic” updating by Itamar Even-Zohar. This thinking, as far as Goldiş is concerned, furnishes a salutary opportunity for the critical re-view of the foundational studies in Romanian literary history (by E. Lovinescu and G. Călinescu, among others). Instead of categorizing East European literary relations as a series of concussions between “closed systems,” drawing particularly on Even-Zohar, Goldiş militates–having also learned from Stephen Greenblatt, Wai Chee Dimock, and G. Ibrăhaileanu–for an “interactionist model,” in which the putatively competing, if not warring, East European cultures, have always already internalized one another’s mindsets and ways of being. The resulting methodological as well as cultural experience is more of a “slide” between different gradations and qualities of shared experience than being detained, if not arrested, at the border of one closed-off cultural domain or another. This approach to comparative studies more as movements along continuums of possibility than as residence in specific languages or political entities also affected Mihaela Ursa’s (Cluj-Napoca) overview of the prospects for contemporary translation—now understandable as a “negotiation between unstable literary fields.”

This is merely the most cursory taste of the current concerted labor being performed by the Romanians, from very different perspectives, at the level of the comparative Prevailing Operating System. There was a powerful understanding shared by participants of the new formulations and nuances of understanding that will be liberated by such carefully introduced adjustments. It was precisely in this spirit that Laura Pavel (Cluj-Napoca), drawing on Bruno Latour, could invoke “compositionism” as an approach achieving deconstructive sensibility—but through restorative activity, the rebuilding of “disfigured or forgotten works.” Or that Horea Poenar (Cluj-Napoca), could venture toward that phenomenological frontier at which the “spatio-temporal horizon” impacts upon the very possibilities and parameters of literary form.

The ALGCR event was every bit as rich in exegetical tours de force in which theoretical updating at the systematic level achieved performance in glosses of specific texts that participants found compelling. In this respect, Adrian Lăctătuş’s (Braşov) comparative approach to the hybrid fictive discourse, fashioned as much out of photographs as text, by W.G. Sebald and Gheorghe Crăciun, came to the fore. Lăctătuş pointed to the amateurish quality of photographic inserts in both cases—above all their indistinct graininess—as a concerted, in no way accidental, feature of their supplemental deployment in multidimensional storytelling. With marvelous precision, Adriana Varga (Nevada-Reno) underscored the cultural ferment and alternate scenes of writing that Virginia Woolf spawned in Romania—particularly for the generation of 1968, but also afterwards. A similarly detailed overview of the Parisian Tel Quel Group’s impact upon Mircea Nedelciu and his enclave, “Noii/Les Nouveaux,” was put forward by Adina Diniţoiu (Bucharest).

In session after session, the Romanians demonstrated an active partnership with the contingencies, distortions, and often, sheer violence of historical experience. The academy and its deliberations are in no way to be held above the fray, in a bubble of putative social or methodological purity. The repression and strictures on intellectual life imposed by the Communist regime are still bitterly remembered—at the same time that it is recalled that literary production and critique, perhaps in their very marginality, constituted the single window that the regime held slightly open for freer expression. A large measure of the challenge facing Romanian writers and thinkers at the present moment inheres in the creativity they can muster in critiquing the current galactic-scale and industrial-strength version of capitalism entering largely from Europe as the replacement socio-economic operating system. The palpable relief that colleagues feel at this development, on the other hand, makes complete sense in view of what they have collectively experienced.

The proceedings ended in the expression of ALGCR’s clear unreadiness and unwillingness to part with the inspiration and sage guidance that have been provided it, since the outset, by founder Mircea Martin, who was reelected to his leadership role. Not only has Prof. Martin performed a disproportionate share in setting the agenda for intellectual engagement in the country; he has personally mentored the generations of writers and scholars who in their current constellation, illuminate the path for the rest of us.

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