The Remnants of Modernity

Two Essays on Sarmatism and Utopia in Polish Contemporary Literature

by Przemyslaw Czaplinski (Author)
©2015 Monographs 193 Pages
Series: Modernity in Question, Volume 6


Polish culture after 1989 has been defined by conflicts surrounding the remnants of modernity, phenomena marginalised during communism. The book considers two such phenomena: the search for a common tradition and the disappearance of utopia. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, romanticism provided a common tradition. After 1989, its place was assumed by Sarmatism, an elite and xenophobic pre-modern cultural formation, into which contradictory values were introduced, creating an explosive mixture of emancipation and populism. The second remnant, the heritage of utopia, is addressed in works whose critical visions of change are not comprehensive projects, but rather rebellions. They begin with a questioning of authority, and lead to a posthuman definition of humanity and interspecies solidarity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: Decycling
  • The Remnants of Tradition: Sarmatism, Liberating Bodies, and Late Modernism
  • I. Historiosophical Solitude
  • II. Them? Us?
  • III. Let Them Fuck Off? Is That OK?
  • IV. Dismissal of the Secular Envoys
  • V. Tertium Est Datur
  • VI. Post-Stalinist Vacuum
  • VII. Phenomenology of the Plebeian
  • VIII. The Holy Sin of Patriotism
  • IX. Zagłoba in the PRL
  • X. The Production of Mass Sarmatism
  • XI. Revolt of the Sarmatian Masses
  • XII. Plebeian Sarmatism
  • XIII. Sarmatians and the People of Modernity
  • XIV. Resentment and Normality
  • XV. Semi-postcolonialism and Rebellion
  • XVI. The Camp Sarmation Body
  • XVII. Sarmatism as a Medium
  • XVIII. The End of Modernity
  • Remnants of the Future: Literature and the Creation of Utopia
  • I. The Momentary End of History
  • II. Twilight of the Gods of Modernity
  • III. The Orphaned Children of Prometheus
  • IV. Sub-utopia
  • V. Defending the Centre
  • VI. Conservative Anti-utopia
  • VII. A New (H)ero(s)
  • VIII. The Third End of History
  • IX. Impossible Anti-utopia
  • X. The Faustian Simulator
  • XI. The Opening of History
  • XII. The Future Present
  • XIII. The Growth of Utopia
  • XIV. Tactics of Resistance
  • XV. Biocriticism
  • XVI. Articulating Existence
  • Conclusion: An Uncertain Whole

Introduction: Decycling

The book you are about to begin reading contains one main thesis and two minor theses. The main thesis is that in Polish culture over the last quarter of a century a process of reconciliation has taken place between two eternal antagonists: modernity and tradition. My minor, more detailed theses are that this alliance represents a dangerous phenomenon because it leads to a Polish variant of the end of history, and that literature and the arts in Poland at the beginning of the twenty-first century have done all they can to thwart this rapprochement.

I will discuss the fate of this attempt at reconciliation and the rebellion against it, highlighting two distinct thematic and aesthetic conceptual frameworks functioning within Polish culture over the last twenty-five years: Sarmatism1 and utopia. This pairing may appear strange, but it will help us to better understand the changes that modernity has undergone since the turn of the twenty-first century. Sarmatism and utopia represent two extremes, two sides, of modernity. The first is the side of its imagined past, from which modernisation in its subsequent incarnations has continually tried to sever its ties;2 the second side, looming in ← 7 | 8 → the distance, is the end of history, seen as a product of the resolution of social conflicts. Polish modernity developed out of a desire to achieve autonomy from both tradition and the future. Therefore, at two moments crucial to Poland’s modernist movements, 1918 and 1945, the attitudes of artists and writers towards tradition underwent a reformulation, and founding gestures were repeatedly made in the form of personal visions of utopia.

However, apart from a few initial, highly ritualistic gestures of repudiation, art after 19893 did not repeat this rebellion against tradition and did not aspire to utopia; instead of clear ideological declarations, writers chose recycling.

In real-life, rather than literary terms, recycling is a modern response to modern waste. It can be narrowly defined as the process of incorporating all kinds of remnants into a system of re-production. From a broader perspective, it can be seen as a widespread practice for organizing our entire social environment. Underlying recycling is the concept of disciplining society for the purposes of environmental protection, economization, and a segregated analysis of our waste. In environmental terms, recycling is a proposal with historical and philosophical foundations: behind the idea of sorting and managing waste for reuse lies the conviction that we will be able in this manner to prevent the negative impact we have on life from growing any worse, and that systematic re-utilisation will help bring the global rubbish heap to a state of relative homeostasis. In an economic sense, meanwhile, recycling means that we are moving from a culture where profits are maximized to a culture where losses are minimized. The savings from recycling will not raise our standard of living, but will instead help keep it from declining further. Finally, in the area of identity politics, recycling can be understood conceptually as the free integration into social life of those means of identification (being a Jew, a woman, a sexual misfit) that were previously excluded. This circulation of identity, which represents a re-processing of the idea of tolerance, is based on the assumption that there is no behaviour so ← 8 | 9 → foreign that it cannot be domesticated, and that there is no identity so worn-out that it cannot be re-used. The recycling of identity does not however involve a radical change in subjectivity. It is based rather on the belief that by means of recycling a pure identity can be created that will no longer be subject to public hatred, xenophobia, or contempt.

Returning from real-life back to the library, I believe that Polish literature from the 1990s likewise utilizes the idea of recycling. By this I mean that the dominant practice used in the production of these texts consisted of simulating references to the clear and easily recognisable literary traditions of high modernism. Books became a realm that provided an illusion of depth, a realm in which traces of intertextual allusions were clearly visible: through these traces associations were made between Paweł Huelle and Günter Grass, Jerzy Pilch and Bohumil Hrabal, Magdalena Tulli and Italo Calvino, Andrzej Stasiuk and Marek Hłasko, and Olga Tokarczuk and Gabriel Garcia Márquez. This play of intertexts included a variety of references to high literature in narratives that were a pastiche of low genres, including the detective novel (Huelle’s Weiser Dawidek [David Weiser] and Chwin’s Hanemann), the thriller (Stasiuk’s Biały kruk [White Raven], the romance (Libera’s Madame) and the ghost story (Tokarczuk’s E.E.). Yet this network of texts revealed nothing and concealed nothing. Textual play was expressed in the creation of new connections between high and low literature, and not in complicating the meanings found in one book by means of references to another. The strategy of intertextual reading used by literary critics in the 1990s, with its plethora of irrelevant discoveries, was in step with the prevailing conceptual principle in mass culture: the fragmentation of culture and free re-assembly of its pieces. This practice seemed to promise to bring a new fullness and reconciliation to culture, which corresponded to economic hopes for the increased use of recycling.

Faith in such recycling is coming to an end before our eyes. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, writers such as Dorota Masłowska, Michał Witkowski, and Paweł Demirski responded to this ideology with a strategy of ‘decycling’. Recycling served to simulate full recovery: its cognitive equivalent, but also its primary product, was the image of a closed circulation of symbols and objects in which products turned into rubbish, and rubbish turned back in products. Due to this illusion of sealed circulation, in which a rubbish bin can be part of the manufacturing process, recycled products mask their origins as waste. We know, of course, that the product is not original, but when we eat something from a plastic plate, we have to believe that the plate does not contain the leftovers of previous dishes. We have the right to believe it is clean. Decycling as an artistic practice is not a means of withdrawing from this circulation; it does not reveal a miraculous source of virgin, original, and untainted raw materials, and thus ← 9 | 10 → belongs to the same culture, that of a disorderly circulation of products, in which capitalism immerses us. It differs, however, from the practice of re-use in that it is unpredictable and does not hide the origins of its products in waste. In decycling, the signs of genesis in waste are distinct, sometimes even ostentatiously highlighted, and the process of production yields a faulty result: the product, a deformation of the idea of secondary production, is not suitable for general use. It carries traces of previous use, that is, the packaging is professional, but the contents are rubbish, and there is no instruction manual. While decycling does not offer solutions to global problems, it does promote a slow, steady change in consciousness. This includes new ways of conceiving of life and literature. In place of life understood as the infinite incorporation of various identities, decycling introduces the idea of disposability. It makes clear the impossibility of eliminating waste and points to the growing volume of recovered remnants. In relation to literature, the practice of decycling involves the re-processing of inferior – incomplete, prohibited, shameful or defective – forms of communication.

These changes find an explanation in the story of Polish culture’s romance with Sarmatism and utopia. It should first be noted that the early 1990s were marked not by a struggle with the past, but by a nurturing of it. Stylistic practices in Polish literature at that time indicated that artists did not want to be liberated from the past, but rather sought to make use of the cultural energy inherent in tradition. The strange compromise between modernisation and Sarmatism, eagerly embraced by politicians, led straight to a Polish version of end of history. Since it was believed that reality could be mastered by mixing the languages of modernity and tradition, after 1989 politicians also stopped planning the future. Utopia’s poor reputation freed them from the obligation of inventing a future history, and legitimized their limiting of election programmes to the social ‘here and now’. No one wanted to cross tradition, and no one wanted to take responsibility for future history. As a result, traditionalism became modern, and modernity assumed a conservative nature.

If the period just after 1989 can be seen as the birth of a discourse of reconciliation, the most interesting variants of Sarmatism I will be discussing here show that not everyone has wanted to be part of this alliance and not every articulation of the relationship between modernity and tradition has appealed to social consensus. For a more complete discussion of the contemporary romance with Sarmatism, I have delved into the past, to literary texts, dramas, theatrical performances, films, radio plays, essays, political commentary, and philosophical works from throughout the postwar period. In spite of this wide range of sources, I would not dare to call this study a systematic exposition of the history of Sarmatism in Polish culture after 1945. No historian would consider my proposed narrative a reconstruction; and rightly so, since the reader will not be provided with a ← 10 | 11 → reconstruction, but with a story about the means by which tradition is constructed. Instead of asking: ‘What was Sarmatism?’, I consider what it was used for after the war, what it was produced from, and for what purposes. I thus begin with the assumption that contemporary Sarmatism may have nothing in common with its historical version.

I allow myself, therefore, to commit historical inaccuracies, and to lose sight of historical specifics because I treat Sarmatism as a myth. I do not separate the true version from the false, recognising, in accordance with Claude Lévi-Strauss, that all versions help create the myth, and that its meaning is produced by interpreting the differences between the versions. Sarmatism in this sense can be regarded as a myth because it has functioned and continues to function as the logic taming Polish modernity and its oppositions: these oppositions, based on class (nobles and plebians), ethnicity (Poles and other nations), religion (Catholics and heretics), gender (masculinity and femininity), and sexuality (heterosexuality and homosexuality), were included in new articulations of Sarmatism and used to produce a new unity. As the result of its gradual absorption since the latter half of the twentieth century, Sarmatism in Polish culture has become not so much the opposite of modernism, as an alternative version of it.

The fate of utopia, whose political death was experienced after 1989, took an unexpected turn during the first decade of the twenty-first century. In the history of post-communist societies, bidding farewell to utopia was something akin to a founder’s funeral, allowing writers, politicians, and economists to limit their responsibility for the future to guarding the democratic-liberal-capitalist order from utopia’s return. This was, it seems, the meaning underlying the narrative of the end of history: we were all to become guardians of the status quo. Meanwhile, over the course of the past two decades, events aimed at the restoration of utopia have been intensifying.

This is not, however, just a simple re-use of the genre, i.e. literary recycling. The modern utopian text does not call for political action, but rather tries to affect the structure of our sensitivity and ways of thinking. Today’s utopia is both unable and unwilling to propose comprehensive solutions. It is unable because of the tools writers have at their disposal, i.e. the remnants of modernity – the leftovers of old ideas of solidarity, equality and freedom. It is unwilling because the genre has to account for its past, i.e. totalitarianism and concentration camps, which were born out of utopian dreams of perfection. Another problem associated with this shift in the centre of power is that utopia today must exist in a world managed by genetics, computers, and mass culture. If we put together the remnants of ideas and the remnants of the genre, utopia ends up among the bastard sons of Faust and Orpheus, i.e. the managers of life today. In response to new phenomena and new incarnations of power, it must renounce its former usurpation of the overall order, ← 11 | 12 → and, at the same time, stir up the fight to reinvent the future. This is why it tries to defend non-totalitarian totality, but does not create an all-encompassing system of order. In light of its own traditions, utopia has undertaken a contradictory task.

This, in a nutshell, is what we find in two stories about the remnants of modernity.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (December)
Polen Post-Kommunismus Xenophobie Romantik
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 193 pp.

Biographical notes

Przemyslaw Czaplinski (Author)

Przemysław Czapliński is a professor of Polish literature at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań (Poland). He is the author of over a dozen books and the recipient of several national book awards. He writes on Polish modern and postmodern literature, the history of ideas, and the sociology and anthropology of literature.


Title: The Remnants of Modernity
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196 pages