Exploration of Class, Distinction, and Habitus in Popular Culture of Eurasia

Exploration of Class, Distinction, and Habitus in Popular Culture of Eurasia

German Historical Institute Warsaw – Branch Office Prague; Faculty of Arts – Charles University Prague; Centre for the Study of Popular Culture
Czech Republic
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
26.10.2023 - 28.10.2023
Jaromír Mrňka, Außenstelle Prag, Deutsches Historisches Institut Warschau

Class, distinction, and habitus have a contested position in the political and social sciences. No less controversial are the concepts in the humanities, even though the study of class in cultural studies seems to be long past its prime. The research agenda of Eurasian looks a bit different. Due to the allegedly different path to modernity, exploration of class, distinction, and habitus in popular culture offers interesting stimuli even today, as the conference of the same name, held in Prague on 26-28 October 2023 showed. 30 scholars from 15 different countries convened to unravel the intricate tapestry woven by the confluence of culture, politics, and aesthetics across varied societies. The Prague branch office of the German Historical Institute Warsaw orchestrated the conference with the Faculty of Arts at Charles University Prague and the Centre for the Study of Popular Culture. Held within the grandeur of Charles University's former chapel, the event served as a vibrant forum for discussions how class, distinction, and habitus were represented in the popular culture as well as the extent to which culture in a broader sense, contributes to shaping the above phenomena.

The conference's program featured an array of sessions, embracing themes such as the politics of taste, the discourse of class and distinctions, the intersection of music and politics, and the portrayal of class in television and cinema. One conference day was devoted to a critical examination of Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts using the examples of post-socialist Eastern Europe and Sweden. In the conference's inaugural session, AGÁTA KRAVČÍKOVÁ (Prague) used the concept of taste researching on the workers’ theatre in Ostrava, the most industrial agglomeration of the interwar Czechoslovakia. MIOARA ANTON (Bucharest) explored political campaigns in post-Stalin Romania aimed at educating the population to "socialist tastes", spreading high culture to the masses and eliminating negative phenomena such as alcoholism, hooliganism and corrupt practices from society. ALEXANDRA BARDAN (Bucharest) shed light on importance of hairstyling and hairdressing for the formation of new “socialist” identities and gender models. Based on the qualitative content analysis of the Romanian specialized magazine Coafura (Hairstyle) from the mid-1960s to 1980s, she revealed the intertwining of individual body and habitus with politics.

The second session delved into the multi-faceted aspects of daily life and class dynamics within various communist and post-communist countries. IVAN LAVRENTJEV (Tartu) offered a glimpse into the everyday life of the Soviet metal industry plant, Dvigatel in Tallin. He recounted the history of housing, health care and leisure activities that accompanied the campaigns against drinking, theft and bullying by which the communist authorities sought to improve the performance of workers. VALENTINA PRICOPIE (Bucharest/Cluj-Napoca) analyzed the discourse on “class” in the Romanian communist newspaper Scînteia in the long-term perspective from 1948 to 1989. In between, an entire repertoire of meanings was deployed to explain the party’s role in shaping national history. Moreover, the presence of societal groups, such as women and youth have a surprising development over time, from a marginal occurrence, to institutionalized forms of organizations. PETRA POŽGAJ (Zagreb) undertook a social distinctions and habitus within Yugoslav youth magazines from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. She focused on popular music criticism and the letters of editors and readers in order to demonstrate how texts represented social hierarchies and inequalities. ANNA RONELL (Medford) employed the Bourdieu’s concept habitus to discuss how the Russian author Nina Voronel moved from Soviet intelligentsia to post-Stalin dissent and later Jewish identity. ALINA THIEMANN (Paris) inquired into the representation of working class in recent Romanian media landscape. On the example of an alcohol advertising campaign, she revealed the devaluation of manual work, which neither garners social recognition nor yields economic benefits.

The session on "Music and Politics" was opened by PADRAIG PARKHURST (Melbourne), who has done research on cultural policies of the East German ruling party, presenting how rock musicians balanced the demands of their audiences with professional opportunities offered by the state. He challenged notions of nostalgia for East German culture and underlined the distinctive way in which rock music played out daily life under 1970s state-socialism. JOUNI JÄRVINEN (Helsinki) focused on less-studies punk, new wave and gothic scenes that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s Czechoslovakia. He analyzed punk music as a specific kind of habitus deviating from societal norms and the dominant values through the lens of symbolic politics and performativity. ADAM RUBCZAK (Toruń) dealt with the Polish alternative and independent music, i.e. yass scene of Bydgoszcz and Tri-City during the post-communist transformation and asked how this music responded to logic of free market economy, cultural production and consumption. ONDŘEJ DANIEL (Prague) covered the period of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Czech national culture rapidly changed and was step by step integrated into the global music industry. Despite the recognition of music genres after 1989 that represented the fringes of Czech society, rock, alternative or dance music scenes remained under the middle-class gaze. ANNA KAZNACHEEVA (Prague) focused on the Russian reception of music video by the French singer Mylène Farmer and demonstrated how the consumption of highbrow Western pop functioned as a means of acquiring highly valued cultural capital. SARAH CHAKER (Vienna) examined the consequences of municipal policies on street musicians grappling with street music ordinances in major Austrian “cultural” and “creative” cities. Despite liberal rhetoric emphasizing individual freedoms and rights, street music performances were strongly regulated. JELENA GLIGORIJEVIĆ (Dublin) looked at concepts of class within popular music studies associating for example Balkan neo-folk with working classes and Balkan Beat/World Music as an upper middle-class music with cosmopolitan sensibilities. She plead for a nuanced discussion of these often-reductive concepts.

The sessions on music and politics were closed by two papers presenting all that jazz. JADE JIANG (Edinburgh) argued that development of jazz in China since 1980s has been a process of how diverse privileged social groups mobilized foreign cultural forms. Jazz education in China was institutionalized and participants without systematic training in jazz gradually excluded. Jazz musicians from middle class background enjoyed huge advantages and established themselves as cultural elites in the music industry by creating a new cultural distinction in the socialism-market economy infused new China. ÁDÁM HAVAS (Barcelona) explored the Hungarian jazz diaspora highlighting the subversive role of jazz towards the concept of “national cultural”; Hungary’s transcultural swing between “East” and “West” and the emergence of a folk music inspired free jazz movement.

The class on television and the silver screen was on the program of the late afternoon of the second conference day. BLANKA NYKLOVÁ (Prague) traced continuities of popular culture before and after 1989 on the example of TV show Receptář na neděli depicting home improvement activities [“kutilství” in Czech]. According to them, kutilství was highly gendered term underpinning the specific kind of masculinity and defining women as inferior, not comparably skilled and useful. AURELIAN GIUGĂL (Bucharest) analyzed how the Romanian sitcom "Las Fierbinți” coded social and economic inequalities and mocked people who did not conform to the idea of post-communist economically independent citizen. JAN GÉRYK and JANA TOKARSKÁ (Prague) discussed various strategies how politicians tried to convince the people that they are a part of the folk. These strategies were explained in terms of the “personalization of politics” related to the concept of “fan democracy” that appeals to celebrity fandoms instead of the ideas. IRENA ŠENTEVSKA (Belgrade) illuminated the transformations witnessed in Yugoslav cinema, from its revolutionary genesis, aimed at forging a new society, to the moments of doubt and revision in the late 1980s. ANCA SERBANUTA (Bucharest) explored the changes in representation of the peasant habitus in popular media from the depository of national values to a marginal lower class, striving to keep up with the urban lifestyle. DOMAGOJ KRPAN (Rijeka) introduced the narrative of the Croatian movie Marshal Tito's Spirit, humorously exposing the paradoxes of communism in this cinematic journey.

In the last conference day devoted to the post-socialist transformation, four papers revolved around the impact of Bourdieu's conceptual framework in understanding class structure within different societies. STEFAN VILOTIĆ (Novi Sad) understood the cultural participation as a form of embodies cultural capital, which, together with habitus and taste has an impact on the creation and maintenance of social inequalities in today’s Serbia. PIOTR MARZEC (Essex) undertook a comprehensive analysis of the class structure in Poland post-1989 emphasizing its similarity in terms of the capital volume principle and capital composition to the one observed in Western European societies. ŽELJKA TONKOVIĆ (Zadar) embarked on a voyage through the terrain of cultural tastes and class divisions within contemporary Croatia, wielding survey data and Bourdieu's concepts as tools to identify seven clusters of cultural preferences. JOHAN LINDELL (Uppsala) pointed out to the increase in social inequalities, linking dynamics of social differentiation to a particular domain of lifestyles – television preferences in contemporary Sweden. Television preferences lend support to the notion that culture consumption functions to maintain social class differences. The sessions were closed by JIŘÍ ŠAFR (Prague) and MIROSLAV PAULÍČEK (Ostrava) who focused on the development of children’s emerging taste in reading of both printed and digital texts on the internet, watching different genres of videos online and cultural engagement during leisure activities.

In the conference conclusions, ZDENĚK NEBRENSKÝ (Prague) appreciated that papers included not only a static, but also a dynamic approach, as intended by organizers. Although many of speakers were not historians, they included in their research a long durée perspective and historical change. Themes of papers were very original and diverse. Many concepts of Western cultural studies were discussed, often underpinned by rich empirical evidence, some of them gently revised.

Conference overview:

Ondřej Daniel (Prague): Introduction

The Politics of Good Taste and Looks

Agáta Kravčíková (Prague), The Taste of the Low: Workers’ Theatre and the Transformation of the Working Class Culture between the 1870s and 1940s

Mioara Anton (Bucharest), The Education of Good Taste in Socialist Romania

Alexandra Bardan (Bucharest), Mapping the Eastern European Look: Hair, Hairstyling, and Hairdressing in Romania, 1965- 1985

Ivan Lavrentjev (Tartu), Working Class Culture at the Dvigatel Industrial Metal Plant in the Late Soviet Union

The Politics of Class

Valentina Pricopie (Bucharest), Discourse on “Class” in Communist Romania. A Case-Study on Scînteia Newspaper, 1948-1989

Petra Požgaj (Zagreb), The Production of Distinctions in Popular Yugoslav Youth Magazines

Anna Ronell (Medford), Intelligentsia and Habitus in Nina Voronel’s With No Embellishment

Alina Thiemann (Paris), Dorel and the Devaluation of Labor: Exploring the Representation of the Working Class in Post-Communist Romania

Music and Politics

Padraig Parkhurst (Melbourne), Red Rockers as Working-Class Heroes: The Formation of the Ostrock ‘Genre Public’ in the ‘Classless Society’ of 1970s East Germany

Jouni Järvinen (Helsinki), Music that Infuriated Commies: Rock, Performativity and Symbolic Politics in Late Socialist Czechoslovakia

Adam Rubczak (Toruń), Intelligentsia’s Ethos in Polish Independent Music after 1989

Ondřej Daniel (Prague), “We, who are not as others”: Studying Music, Youth and Class in Czech Post-Socialism

Anna Kaznacheeva (Prague), Popsa Versus the French Chanson: Popular Music and Class in Post-Soviet Russia

Sarah Chaker (Vienna), Post-Liberal Policies, Urban Planning and Social Inequality among Street Musicians

Jelena Gligorijević (Dublin), A Critical Overview of Theories Using the Class Concept Vis-à-Vis Popular Music Practices of the Ex-Yugoslav Diaspora

Jazz and Politics

Jade Jiang (Edinburgh), Becoming Cultural Elites: History of the Chinese Jazz Field Since the 1980s

Ádám Havas (Barcelona), “Swinging” Cultural Difference in Eastern Europe: The Genesis and Structure of the Hungarian Jazz Diaspora

Class on TV and the Silver Screen

Blanka Nyklová, Petr Gibas (Prague), DIY Gendered Practices at Czechoslovak Television in the Late 1980s and Early 1990s

Aurelian Giugăl, Romina Surugiu, Alexandru Gavriș (Bucharest), The TV Show “Las Fierbinți”: Mediation of Inequalities and Marginalization in a Neoliberal Romania

Jan Géryk (Prague), Jana Tokarská (Prague), Politicians and their “Folk” Self-Presentation on TV and Social Media

Irena Šentevska (Belgrade), Posljednji podvig diverzanta Oblaka: Revolution and Class Dynamics in Yugoslav Cinema

Anca Serbanuta (Bucharest), Representations of the Romanian Peasant in Popular Media

Domagoj Krpan (Rijeka), Marshal Tito's Spirit: Communist Elites On the Road to a New Class

Bourdieu and the Post-1989 Transformation

Stefan Vilotič (Novi Sad), The Role of Cultural Participation in Reproducing Social Inequalities in Serbia

Piotr Marzec (Essex), A Bourdieusian Analysis of the Class Structure of Poland after 1989 – On the Path To Convergence with Western Europe?

Željka Tonković (Zadar), Taste Structures and Class Divisions in Contemporary Croatia

Johan Lindell, Andreas Melldahl (Uppsala), Class Distinction and Culture Consumption: The Case of Television Preferences in Post-Social Democratic Sweden

Jiří Šafr (Prague), Miroslav Paulíček (Ostrava), Reproduction of Cultural Taste: Children’s Emerging Habitus and Parental Social Class

Zdeněk Nebřenský (Prague): Conclusions