The Enlightenment Is the Booty: Slavs and Tatars.
Katarzyna Czeczot and Ewa Tatar in conversation with the art collective whose mid-career survey débuted on 25 November at CCA Ujazdowski in Warsaw before moving to CAC Vilnius; Pejman Foundation, Tehran; Salt Galata, Istanbul and Albertinum, Dresden through 2018.
Ewa Tatar: When was the first time you encountered pickles? Do you make pickles yourselves?
Slavs and Tatars: We only consume the pickles of our elders. But our plan is to open a pickle bar in Berlin in 2017. We’re big fans of the pickle pavilion at the Dorogomilovsky Market in Moscow, where Russia’s colonial footprint is displayed in all its fermented complexity.
ET: Lately you have been doing a lot of research into Towarzystwo Szubrawców (The Society of Rascals), a nineteenth-century society in Vilnius, and in various ways connecting them with pickles. The connection is not so obvious; can you explain it?
S&T: We often conduct parallel research into things that, at first glance, don’t appear to have any co-relation. Given its recent fad as a form of eco-friendly, bourgeois nativism, we thought it’s time to consider the political agency of pickling, or how to politicize the concept of fermentation. We can apply it, for instance, to the increasing nationalist rhetoric in Poland, or the Brexit vote in the UK. Fermentation allows us to renegotiate our understanding of the other, of the foreigner, in so far as the firstthe Other is the microbe. A bacterium is usually considered a bad thing. Nowadays we pasteurize everything to kill bacteria. But the pendulum of pasteurization has swung too far, to the point of eradicating or eliminating microbes. Fermentation allows us to think of the microbe and the bacteria as the original foreigner and thereby question our anthropocentric world.
Katarzyna Czeczot: So souring cucumbers is a metaphor of the other who is not to be excluded from or included in the community (in the process of assimilation, for instance), but is originally inside.
S&T: It challenges the Cartesian idea of the world, where we are the center and we are rational subjects, while the bacteria are unwanted beings, something we need to get rid of. Souring has an appealing double meaning. It can mean to turn bitter or rotten, or an emotional state of dejection. But it also implies a transmogrification. Souring is the preservation or activation of a substance into another substance. You become something else.
ET: Tell me about the trocki cucumbers, which were grown mostly by Karaims in Trakai, near Vilnius.
S&T: The Karaites, an anti-rabbinic sect of Judaism that is in Polish, Lithuanian, and Crimean history, have an interesting relation to identity. Specifically, they changed their identity several times to survive. In the nineteenth century, they convinced the Russian tsar that they were not ethnic Jews and thus not responsible for the death of Jesus. So they were exempt from extra taxation and escaped the pogroms. When the Nazis came some fifty years later, the Karaites convinced them that they are actually ethnic Turks (some argued they were Khazars) who converted to Judaism in the ninth or tenth century, so they managed to escape the Holocaust. They performed a kind of dissimulation, a different narrative of origins, for each occasion.
ET: So in other words, your turn to the Karaites and Towarzystwo Szubrawców is a means of questioning the idea of sincerity?
S&T: Towarzystwo Szubrawców first interested us a couple of years ago, when we were researching Polish orientalism. The more we read about them, the more we enjoyed their critique of Adam Mickiewicz, Polish patriotism, and the Romantic idea of the motherland. It seems relevant today. We were in Szczecin recently, where there is a huge sculpture of Mickiewicz, like in so many cities across Poland. Mickiewicz’s ideas on national identity are the source code for lots of the strange, reactionary rhetoric heard in Poland today.
KC: There is, of course, a paradox in this concept of politicizing pickles. Take for instance the debate surrounding Poland’s entry into the EU. Within Poland, opponents of the accession warned that the EU would put an end to pickles, because sour cucumbers and sauerkraut do not meet EU food regulations. Pickles became a symbol of Polish uniqueness and Polish identity, which the EU was bent on destroying. Fermentation became a tool in defense of national purity.
S&T: Pickle juice contains within itself two antithetical ends. Sok kiszony (Polish) is used as a hangover cure. And in America, it is now being marketed as a sports drink to enhance performance. So on the one hand, you have the preternaturally Slavic idea of destroying your body and then restoring it, and, in America, it is of course positivist: the new Gatorade, a neo-liberal beverage for high-performance.
KC: I must confess that I do not entirely share your fascination with Towarzystwo Szubrawców. I like the way they mocked the noblemen and I do appreciate their critique of feudalism, but they were also quite problematic. One of their main targets was what we would nowadays call “alternative medicine.” Of course, you might say that they battled charlatans, because they aspired to provide professional care for ill people, but we can see from today’s perspective that this battle also included class divisions and power relations over who owns access to the truth. The Romantics wanted to break the academic monopoly of knowledge production, whereas the Szubrawcy wanted to maintain the privilege of noblemen with university diplomas.
S&T: We definitely don’t endorse the Towarzystwo. We don’t agree with their admiration for British rationalism. They were also anti-Semitic: they made a lot of unnecessary cartoons based on stereotypes related to Jews. But their contrarian nature, their standing up to the Romantics, their championing of cosmopolitan identity during a very difficult period of Russian rule over Poland, offer certain lessons in political agency. We embrace their ambiguity, even if we don’t agree with it.
If anything, we stand in the metaphysicians’ corner, with the mystics, against the raging Cartesians. We find the partisanship of art quite tiring: as if we must agree with the subject matters we investigate. We find the Szubrawcy interesting because they do not fit anywhere in the spectrum of Polish historiography. We even found out that the name “Szubrawcy” comes from the river Rawiec, coming from the Czech Republic, which was the river used on the bursztyn (amber) road. And szubrawcy were the people who were always stealing there, like river pirates.
ET: This pirate idea of stealing and redistributing illustrates the methodology of Slavs and Tatars.
S&T: I hadn’t thought about that, but it makes sense, especially if the Enlightenment is the booty. Another person we discovered while doing this research on other orientalisms is Johann Georg Hamann, a colleague of the most important thinkers of the time: Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottfried Herder. He went to London for a while as an advisor to a rich family and something happened to him there: he had a crisis, went crazy, slept around, took drugs, and then he found God again and became a born-again Lutheran. And through the unlikely scope of Lutheranism, he became the first anti-Enlightenment thinker. He attacked his former friend Kant, through a very vulgar and sexualized language mixed with the Revelation. You could say he was a proto–Georges Bataille or Antonin Artaud, but some two hundred years earlier.
And he never became famous, in part because he always wrote very short texts. He used obscure references as jokes. The dedications in Hamann’s essays are literally out of this world: “This is dedicated to the lover of one and to boredom.” This is inspiring, but you just don’t understand what he’s talking about. Who is the lover and the one, and who is boredom? Elsewhere he starts to defend the letter H from the perspective of this letter H itself. You can’t help but wish such figures were part of the canon, incorporated into the genealogy of thought, taught at universities.
ET: Let’s talk about the shovel. It’s an instrument of work and the rural class, and yet somehow also the symbol on the cover of the Towarzystwo Szubrawców weekly.
KC: It is funny. The shovel, according to the Szubrawcy, was to be an instrument of the scientists. They wanted to redefine it, appropriate it, steal it from the witch who flies on it and present it as a tool of the modern thinker, taking the side of individual achievements.
S&T: I thought that Baba Yaga flies on a broom.
KC: There are versions of the myth in which she flies on a shovel.
S&T: The shovel speaks to our anti-modernist understanding of the avant-garde and innovation itself. Let’s think about this: a rural area, rural farmers, folklore, craft—all these elements present a real challenge to our Western idea of innovation. Innovation and the avant-garde are often situated in opposition to a preceding order or movement. It’s a series of ruptures: Pop art against Abstract Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism against new realism. It’s always how the next generation fights the previous generation. But there is an alternative way of telling this story: Hammad Nasar speaks about focusing on continuity, not ruptures. And the rural often allows for innovation not through individualism, but through the collective. The rural is always anonymous: you don’t know who farmed your potatoes. You know the names of artists who painted certain paintings, but you don’t know the names of artists who stitched your tapestry.
We also like about the Szubrawcy’s code of conduct: they were against excessive drinking. We almost never offer alcohol at our openings. In Berlin, for example, we served tea, and recently in Warsaw we filled the gallery with this very pungent smell. The idea was to serve another kind of fermentation that is nonalcoholic. And also to complicate the gallery space, which is supposed to be clean, antiseptic, even scientific in some sense.
ET: Ha, so, you exchanged the potato for the cucumber.
KC: Your idea of politicizing fermentation reminds me of Roberto Esposito’s reflection on the word munus, which means both a gift and a debt, and is the root of immunization and communization. Pickling as a political project consists basically of a disapproval of immunization—a rejection of the Cartesian subject isolated from the evil bacteria.
ET: Towarzystwo Szubrawców’s sense of humor has been used in the aesthetics of Slavs and Tatars since always! For example, the cucumber as a breast.
S&T: If you look at the language of political parties of the present and the past, the government is often portrayed as maternal or paternal, nurturing you. So instead of giving you milk, it’s giving us sour milk, kefir from the breasts of power. And what comes from power is a certain kind of substance, but it’s not the sweet one (in English, there’s the expression of the milk and honey of government). In this case, it is a sour substance, a rotten substance.
ET: In Polish the homeland is not feminine. In Poland we are nurtured by the father—you say the “fatherland” and the “father tongue”—which is kind of perverse, but unconsciously recognized, as if the nurturing orifice periodically exploded and spilled out its crappy contents for us to feed on, yet it’s never explicitly invoked in the discourse around nationalism. It’s choked up.
KC: And this image is both ridiculous and bitter, or sour. It reminds me of the battle around breast-feeding that took place during the French Revolution. The campaign to make higher-class women breast-feed their children (instead of giving them to wet nurses) turned out to be a way to keep women away from politics. An idea that was supposed to obliterate class divisions became a tool for strengthening gender division.
S&T: I would love to read more about that.
Katarzyna Czeczot holds a PhD in humanities and works at the Polish Academy of Sciences, taking a particular interest in Romanticism and feminism. Her two books (on Ophelism and on magnetism) are forthcoming in 2016.
Ewa Tatar is a writer and curator of exhibitions, most significantly Imhibition (National Museum in Krakow, 2006) and Farm hands in factories, boas in brasseries (Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2016). She is interested in issues of subjectivity, identity, and perception.