Today’s guest post is by Anikó Imre, author of TV Socialism, which provides an innovative history of television in socialist Europe during and after the Cold War, finding a variety of programming and economic practices that exceed state propaganda and challenge conventional understandings of culture and politics under socialism. Imre is Associate Professor and Chair of the Division of Cinema and Media Studies in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.
Socialism gets a bad rap. It’s true that Bernie Sanders recently resurrected the term to mobilize a large base of youngish people fed up with the futures that neoliberal capitalism has to offer. But Sanders’s version of socialism cautiously evoked only select features of Western European social democracies, which, in the popular imagination, remain fairly distinct from that other socialism, the actually existing, Soviet type. That other kind, more commonly referenced outside of the post-Soviet region as communism, is assumed to have died along with the Cold War. Only it hasn’t. In the frenzied rearrangement of ideas that marked the end of the bipolar world order in the early 1990s, much of the information about really existing socialism became frozen in simplistic or distorted images inherited from the Cold War. Under pressure to shore up the legitimacy of the winning and only remaining political-economic system, these images quickly became fossilized into stereotypes of a joyless, oppressed bloc uniformly yearning for freedom, democracy and consumer goods, whose only hope were brave, West-looking intellectual heroes resisting the regime.
The most audacious point I am making in my book TV Socialism is that real-life socialism is well worth uncovering from under the rubble of the Cold War. It is worth doing not just to correct the historical record sealed by the victorious world order but also to imagine more hopeful correctives to the increasingly dire perspectives afforded by global capitalism. To get to the hidden layers of socialism, however, we need to bypass the usual sources that shape common perceptions of socialism, such as Hollywood films about the Cold War and memoirs of (self-)exiled Soviet intellectuals. A very different, varied, and often surprising story of socialism has been emerging recently from multidisciplinary research across history, anthropology, sociology and cultural studies on the everyday cultures of socialism.
My own contribution to this research concerns the cultures around television, the true mass media of the (late) socialism of the 1960s-80s. Rather than serving as an effective instrument of propaganda, television was always slipping out of party control. It lived an ambivalent and contradictory life in the intersection of the public and domestic spheres, between top-down attempts at influencing viewers and bottom-up demands for entertainment. Rather than being confined by the Iron Curtain or national borders, it encompassed a variety of contradictory and hybrid aesthetic, political and economic practices that included frequent exchanges and collaborations within the socialist region and with Western media institutions, a programming flow across borders, a steady production of genre entertainment, borrowings from European public service broadcasting, a semi-official, constantly expanding commercial infrastructure, and transcultural, multi-lingual reception experiences along borders that shared broadcast signals.
These practices around television show us a socialist mass medium well integrated within European and global media cultures. Socialist TV developed in synchronicity with European television from interwar experimental broadcasts through a postwar relaunch in the 1950s, to adopting the principles of educational-nationalistic broadcasting from European public service media and gradually shifting to an entertainment-focused model by the 1970s of the political thaw. In the book I use the structuring grid of genre to demonstrate this integration, understanding genre loosely as a transcultural form of expression and currency of conversion rather than a set of specific television genres defined by Anglo-American TV studies. The generic grid does not only make socialist television accessible to readers unfamiliar with local cultures and TV programs; it also helps track socialist media cultures’ roots into presocialist eras and their afterlife in postsocialist times.
For instance, contemporary reality programs inevitably dialogue with the docu-fictional, educational programming that dominated socialist TV schedules, which foregrounds both the latter’s relative strengths (its non-exploitative, democratizing, educational intention) and omissions (its motivated neglect of minorities on the margins of the normatively white, masculine nation). For another example, genres of late socialist TV satire not only resonated with but also anticipated the satirical mode that has taken over news reporting worldwide since the end of the Cold War. In a similar vein, socialist superwomen characters who “did it all” as the anchors of 1970s-80s “socialist soaps” both prepared the ground for and issued an early critique of the postfeminist politics often associated with contemporary global quality drama. In a chapter on socialist commercials, I discuss how the most liberalized socialist televisions of Yugoslavia and Hungary inherited advertising structures from the pre-war era and sustained their own marketing activities throughout the socialist period. In fact, socialist commercials – an oxymoron if there ever was one — remain testimonies to the surprising complexities of socialist television and, for that reason, have attracted great deal of nostalgic affection in the postsocialist region. As I also elaborate in the book, nostalgia itself is a vastly more layered structure of feeling than the stereotyped, pathetic longing for a world system that cannot be recovered. Postsocialist nostalgia’s origins reach back to the beginning of European nationalisms; and its contemporary manifestations yield clues to the surprising and growing political and economic divides between East and West. Rather than scarcity, homogeneity and brainwashing, TV Socialism conveys a mixture of recognition and strangeness, which should defamiliarize some of the fundamental assumptions of media studies as well as our ingrained notions of socialism.