Dreamworlds East and West

Utrecht, NL
Roosevelt Study Center (RSC, Middelburg), Dutch Institute for War Documentation (NIOD, Amsterdam), Research Institute for History and Culture (OGC, Utrecht)
26.09.2008 - 27.09.2008
Joes Segal

In recent years there has been increasing scholarly attention given to the ‘Cultural Cold War’. In general terms this phrase is used to refer to the ideological struggle between the US and Soviet blocs following the Second World War, and how this struggle was conducted with ‘cultural arguments’ in East and West. This trend has broadened our understanding of the political relevance of Cold War cultural manifestations, but it has also raised questions concerning the value of the Cold War, and its implicit East-West divide, as a valid periodisation for examining cultural history. Some scholars have argued that a full understanding of cultural activity can only take place if a longue durée analysis is used which takes into account developments long before the Second World War. Others have focused on the similar mission of East and West within their ideological contest to claim the heritage of universal Enlightenment rationality, leading to the potential for a cross-bloc comparative analysis of common cultural themes.

To be sure, the Cold War, as a unique ideological contest between East and West, remains a very significant backdrop to the cultural history of the 1945-1990 period. In this context, cultural activity played a crucial role in shaping the meta-narrative of both blocs. This was done either actively, by those who consciously engaged their art or intellectual output with the political environment, or passively, through the co-optation of cultural forms for political purposes. Culture became the sign through which the ideology of the Cold War was represented and understood in society at large, and contributed significantly to the process of ‘mobilisation’: the concentration of energies in the service of countering external as well as domestic threats.

Susan Buck-Morss offers an ideal starting point for investigating these insights with her book Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (MIT Press: Cambridge MA, 2000). In this work she portrays the mass-utopian experiments of American-style capitalism and Soviet-style communism as two paths that led from the same industrial modernity. Both systems claimed exclusive access to happiness, optimal social organisation, and the end of scarcity. Both systems promoted a dreamworld of messages, images, and artefacts to transmit their inevitable triumph to a mass audience abroad, co-opting along the way all possible means and media to do so. By using this perspective, the hindrance of a high/low culture division dissolves into a general analysis of how all cultural forms were drawn into and utilised by the competing dreamworld meta-narratives. After all, high culture relied on mass media and a mass audience for its impact to be registered.

This conference seeks to explore the ways in which the Cold War heightened the contest between these cultural dreamworlds of East and West while at the same time exposing their structural similarities. The conference encourages papers on other cultural agents who were active in this field but escaped (or tried to escape) the rigid East-West divide. This will allow a greater appreciation for the many actors involved and the multifarious agendas and ideals that were being expressed within, through, and around the norms of bloc politics.
The conference aims to build on the results of the April 2007 conference ‘European Cold War Cultures’, organized by the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung (ZZF) in Potsdam, which specifically focused on European cultural identities in the context of the Cold War. We would like to attract contributions that address the following issues:

East-West divide
- How did cultural forms and cultural activity contribute towards portraying the respective capitalist and communist dreamworlds?
- What was the role of the state in promoting these processes, either alone or with private partners, and how did this vary from country to country?
- What was the relation between portraying the utopian dreamworld and demonising the enemy through stereotypes? Did the one rely wholly on the other?
- Is Cold War essentially to be understood in terms of the bipolar divide, or have we gained new insights on the structural similarities between East and West which have gradually revealed themselves since the end of the Cold War? What was the range and impact of cultural dialogue or ‘flow across the borders’ (Marsha Siefert)?

Culture and politics
- To what extent did the context of the Cold War reduce culture to a political message, so that it became little more than propaganda? What were the effects of the ‘mobilisation’ of culture and cultural producers for political goals? How possible was it to escape the straight-jacket of Cold War interpretations?
- Alternatively, what did the political engagement of cultural producers contribute to the discourse of ideological struggle? How did cultural forms shape the expression of political agendas?

Longue durée
- Which developments before WWII have to be taken into account for a well-founded understanding of the cultural Cold War?
- How did these issues change over time, from the tensions of the early Cold War, through the period of détente, to the 1980s?


Please, send your proposal (c. 1.500 words) and a short curriculum vitae before 1 December 2007 to Joes Segal, Department of History and Art History, University of Utrecht, Drift 10, 3512 BS Utrecht, The Netherlands, or by e-mail: Joes.Segal@let.uu.nl.

Dreamworlds East and West, 26.09.2008 – 27.09.2008 Utrecht, NL, in: H-Soz-Kult, 06.11.2007, <www.hsozkult.de/event/id/termine-8256>.