An Online Journal of Modern Philology ISSN 1214-5505

Peninsular or/and ‘cuestal’ modernisms


Yordan Lyutskanov


These marginalia are provoked by papers presented and discussions carried out at a conference of EAM. E.g., a link between postmodernism and the syncretism/eclecticism of some modernist movements from the European periphery is hypothesised.

In structural geology and geomorphology, a cuesta (from Spanish: “slope”) is a ridge formed by gently tilted sedimentary rock strata in a homoclinal structure.[1][2] Cuestas have a steep slope, where the rock layers are exposed on their edges […][1]

High and Low. Second bi-annual conference of the European Network for Avant-Garde and Modernism Studies (EAM); September 9-11, 2010, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland”. Marginal notes with regard to Session 4: Early Modernism in East-Central Europe: From the “Naked Soul” to Institutionalization; Session 7: Futurism in East and Central Europe; and Session 12: Peninsular Counterculture? Reassessing High and Low, or the Western Front of Modernism from a Transnational Perspective.

‘High and Low’ thematic and large-scale conceptualization of what has been delivered on European modernisms and avant-garde movements found themselves almost lost among voices wanting to be heard: voices of narratives on minor or peripheral cultures focused on stressing that the corresponding cultures indeed took part in the ‘European modernism/ avant-garde movement’. Papers inevitably had to introduce to what had usually been virtually unknown to the scholarly public even as a bare historiography account, and discussions’ half-time has to be spent on recognizing basic facts.

Thus, important issues which could have helped to grasp the specifics of modernism and avant-garde in ‘minor’ and/or peripheral cultures remained either inarticulate or dispersed, fragmented, unsupported by empirical evidence.

I will try to formulate some of them, refraining from pointing out their primary source even when I do remember it: it could have been someone’s paper, someone else’s suggestion during a discussion, or the empathic will of the one who is writing this note to speculate on what was heard.

Jury Lotman’s culturology thesis that new languages come from the area of semiotic dynamism, that is from periphery, to dominate the centre, was referred to, but it remained unapplied to the field under discussion - neither in the paper which reminded of it nor in the post ceding discussions. One issue under constant indirect observance has been modernist and avant-garde art ability of involvement; but it remained unclear what kind of balance (if any) existed between, for example, social, religious, culture-building or nation-building aspects of involvement. Then, it remained unattended whether any national (or regional) or socially-determined predispositions towards certain traits or brands of modernism existed; one should suggest that, for example, the fluctuating ratio between figural and non-figural representation/expression would fluctuate in popularity throughout social strata, national art canons and time. On the other hand, the important (as it seems to me) quest of whether we can make a post-colonial study of East-European and Iberian cultures regarding the/a Western intellectual colonial presence there has been made explicit.

And to move to some more particular questions: why an ingenious for East-central Europe cultural program, one which involved so, at first glance, different phenomena, as the Arts and Crafts Movement, the enchantment with the Garden City idea, and the Esperantist movement, has been displaced by the import program of the Third International (I address here Andrzej Szczerski’s paper, see note 4 below)? And why such a program, one which employs and makes interoperable different aspects and levels of human faculty to communicate (verbal, of spatial forms, and so on) seems to have been displaced by another, one which arranges communication between small nations in terms and on the base of linguistic kinship (that of Slavonic mutualism, the Czech rival of Russian pan-Slavism)?

What has been said in some of the papers reminds me of an idea which might be heuristic if applied to modernisms of the peripheries (i.e. outside France, England and Germany). In the 1830s, Piotr Chaadaev produced the idea that Russian culture lies upon moving sands. Sixty years later, another influential Russian ‘westernist’, Pavel Miliukov, produced another idea visualizing Russia’s specific cultural atmosphere and explaining Russia’s cultural ‘backwardness’: ‘[…] A historical cover [or a sequence of historical layers or strata], of course, does exist in our culture; but it goes somehow sideways, not covering the entire surface and leaving a variety of historical formations to exist parallel, side by side’.[2] (I consider Chaadaev’s idea interoperable with Freudian psychoanalysis and Miliukov’s - with Jungian, and I find the parallel quite telling.)

An attempt to discursively explain the idea might recall the concept of belated-and-catching-up development. But it might recall one more concept - Jacob Burckhardt’s idea of “spational style” (‘Architecture of Renaissance in Italy’): one which steadily instrumentalizes (combines attaining a distanced position) other, ‘organic’, styles.[3] Early modernism of Dmitrii Merezhkovskii in Russia and of Pencho Slaveikov in Bulgaria synchronizes Renaissance, Weimar classicism and Jena romanticism, modernism (decadence and symbolism) in its program. Romanian ‘integralism’ claims, in 1928, that it comprises the best features of futurism, expressionism and dada, at the same time transcending those movements and their achievements (I refer to Emilia David’s paper, see note 4 below). ‘Spational’ styles throughout the 20th century evolve towards self-conscious articulation of their complexness, towards post-modernism. The common denominator: inability to cope with the complexity of heritage consecutively; they have to rely on synopticism. Culture’s insufficiency of capacity to understand itself is being instrumentalized and sublimated into forms/modes of style. It is the language of cultural epochs synopticism which has emerged in European periphery in the beginning of the 20th century or earlier and has become dominant in its centre by the end of it, attaining the sophisticated forms and modes of postmodernism. Let us leave this ephemeral hypothesis as a curiosity; Lotman’s thesis could have been exemplified with the strong influence of the Russian avant-garde in Europe - one which a periphery could have hardly executed.

Revisiting notions such as centre and periphery, backwardness and influence, it is worth introducing the distinction between active and re-active avant-garde; if we are to consider the First World War and after-1917 catastrophe of Russia as the main external stimuli for the emergence of the ‘historical avant-garde’, the distinction will almost coincide with one between pre-war and post-war; the same being with to be considered as avant-garde projects in philosophy of history such as Nikolai Trubetskoi’s and Oswald Spengler’s.

It is worth attempting the following amendment in organizing thematic sessions’ work on large conferences. The fact that session participants exchange their papers days or weeks before the conference begins, should be effectively used. A time for questions after each paper and a time for a common discussion at the end of a session are not enough; time for particular discussion between the papers’ authors and time for the public to pose questions after it are also needed. It could raise costs - insofar time could be money in a literal sense here - but are large scale social contacts within the scholarly guild worth investing in? Don’t we need something more? I am asking the guild here, insofar it is the main investor.

In fact, I have taken part in an event peculiarly similar to and at the same time different from the Champions league. It is difficult to find one’s way there because of financial reasons and of selection procedure (though it, thanks God, does not lie on the so respected anonymous peered-review system, one which, as far as I could esteem, by constitution ergo systematically wipes out personal responsibility and freedom of conscience out of the scholarly network), and this makes it look like that League of noble men. But what makes it quite different is the circumstance that here the financial rating, maybe combined with the linguistic, roughly precedes the quality one: I am not quite sure whether I have been the most relevant person to represent Bulgarian modernism in or without comparison with the Russian on this event - and I am sure that this is symptomatic of a system problem and not of an occasional one. We have two Europas in our - of “arts and humanities” - scholarly guild, and it is a division more fundamental than the one which divides teams in the football Champions league.

This speculative report, hasty in wide-scope judgments as it is but authentic and overt in its subjectivity, does request and look forward for a more balanced, moderate and scrutinising account of the event and, more important, of the issues it posed.

Thus, important issues which could have helped to grasp the specifics of modernism and avant-garde in ‘minor’ and/or peripheral cultures remained either inarticulate or dispersed, fragmented, unsupported by empirical evidence.


[1]Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Cuesta. Available at: Cuesta. (para. 1 of 5) (accessed 2 November 2010).

[2]Милюков, Павел (1899): Очерки по истории русской культуры (Essays on history of Russian culture). Т. II, Ч. 2. ‘Церковь и школа (вера, творчество, религия)’ (‘Church and school (Faith, creativity, religion)’). 2-e изд., испр. и доп. (2nd, revised and enlarged, edition). Санкт-Петербург: Мир Божий, p. 165

[3]Буркхарт, Якоб (1986): Културата и изкуството на Ренесанса в Италия (Culture and art of Renaissance in Italy). (‘Изкуството...’, ‘Архитектурата, гл. V. Теоретиците, § 32. Полифило’ (‘Art…’, ‘Architecture, Chapter 5. The theoreticians, § 32. Poliphilo’) [1867]). София: Народна култура, pp. 485-86

[4] I am grateful to Benedikts Kalnacs and Maija Burima for the opportunity to offer a paper for the EAM conference and to participate. And I am grateful to Anneli Mihkelev, András Zwickl, Andrzej Szczerski, Irina Subotić, Marina Dmitrieva, Bela Tsipuria, Ilona Fried, Irina Genova, Marijan Dović, Emilia David, Rosa Álamo Martín, María Porrás-Sanchez, Esther Sanchez-Pardo, Melania Stancu, to whose papers I had the pleasure to listen. The programme is still available on-line, at (accessed 26 August 2011).

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