by Veda Popovici and David Schwartz
Our discussion is rooted in the presentation Veda Popovici gave at the conference-workshop Nationalism, Fascism and the Holocaust in Romanian History – A Critical Approach, organized by Third Generation Buchenwald during October 16 – 20 in Bucharest. Veda Popovici is interested in national identity and decolonization, topics which she pursues both in her artistic work, as well as in her theoretical endeavors. She completed her PhD on the topic of nationalism in 1970s and 1980s art. David Schwartz is a theatre director interested in the genealogy of nationalism in Romania and in histories of progressive resistance movements in the local context.
V: Romania has recently elected a new president and it is symptomatic how relevant a role – essential, even – the manipulation of the desire of belonging to Europe has played in the legitimation of this presidency. Not only has the intellectual obsession for Europe not receded, but it is now stronger than ever.
D: I agree, I think this would be the starting point. On the one hand, I believe this obsession existed before the 19th century, but the national ideal – which was also formed as an attempt to mirror the formation of the Western nation-stated – only gained a firm footing in the 19th century.
V: Exactly, the obsession with belonging to Europe settles in during the 19th century: the elites begin shaping the national project, as well as the economic and cultural policies of modernization. If we understand modernity as an ample programmatic process of adjusting a marginal, peripheral society to Western modernity, we already see that we had the perfect premises for the settling in of this “desire for Europe.”
D: But I also believe it was a strategy. In the context of Ottoman and Czarist expansion, it was a political strategy.
V: It was definitely a political strategy as well. These things are complementary, after all. The idea that the option for Westernization is politically arbitrary is not very useful. The political elites were already in a state of subalternity in a geopolitical context, and the Romanian space was long overdue for a systemic integration.
V: National discourse in the Romanian context is primarily a narrative of belonging to Europe. Its different versions each build their own representation of Europe. Some feed off others, others compete with one another, but all seek to demonstrate belonging. If we look at fascism, belonging to Europe is shaped in similar fashion to camaraderie: in a masculine, patriarchal ethos of assertion through aggression, the tendency is to align to the great fascist powers of the time, Germany, Italy and Spain. The discourse on the nation smothered rather than fueled theories which might have led to a critical, emancipatory, decolonizing discourse. Cioran offers an eloquent example of this vision: entering history through the extreme violence of the strongest. He regards history as the great, Hegelian, European History of the transcendental political organisms which are the nation-states. This is the typical perspective of a colonized subjectivity, an internalization of the colonial gaze which claims that you are outside history and you must perform an extraordinary act to overcome your condition in order to enter history.
D: If we look towards other areas or to other processes of decolonization, we come across a very significant aspect: the need for a history or a mythology, no matter if it is national or not, which can be claimed, which can offer trust and legitimacy and help you regain the dignity of an autonomous subject. In Latin America, a great deal of references to the indigenous movements – even in states where the indigenous population is not very significant – have precisely this goal and this meaning: they serve the legitimating process of a subjectivity which is just as powerful as that of the colonizer. That’s why I believe it important to analyze where proto-cronism began and where it failed. On the one hand, how did it end up in this extreme, laughable form, lacking credibility and being of no help to a potential emancipatory process, on the other hand, even more relevant, what would be the alternatives. I believe it would be very important to construct this mythology. It would offer a different type of dignity and resistance to Western domination and I don’t think it’s a coincidence the fact that a movement like the one in Pungesti (against shale gas exploitation through fracking) went so far to the right. The far right is the only one offering such a mythology which comes with a mobilizing potential. This why I believe it would be important to ask ourselves what would be the possibilities of constructing historical and mythological landmarks to serve emancipatory purposes, not repressive ones.