The sun of modernity changed the cityscape. It straightened streets, burned away squalid quarters, used newspapers to shed light on the criminal underworld, and offered electrified neon showcases. Under its scorching lights the elegant functional buildings of Weimar Berlin and the ascending Stalinist peaks of the Seven Sister towers arose. Fevered by its heat, citizens began to scurry around a city, connecting to every corner through its a net of transportation.
However, Sonia A. Hirt argues in Iron Curtains that the sun of modernity went down. Building on the statement of Zygmunt Bauman that socialism was the culmination of Western modernity, she presents the collapse of socialism in Sofia, Bulgaria as the downfall of the era of modernity. But what would happen to people and their city life after this sunset? To answer this question, the author deploys a metaphor from Karl Marx: “[T]hus, when the universal sun has gone down, the moth seeks the lamplight of the private [world].” Developing this idea, Hirt discusses how beautifully designed streets with their wide sidewalks became soiled with dirt and garbage, how monumental buildings came to be covered with giant ugly billboards, how public parks became fragmented by private villas with tall fences and walls, and how people preferred to escape from urban centers to suburbs where they hid from local villagers in their newly built fortresses, constructed in an architectural style that the author names “mafia baroque.” In place of what was once an obligatory and artificially promoted social life in the public sphere of socialism, privatism emerged with its ideals of personal gain at the expense of the public good. It filled a vacuum after the ideological collapse of socialism in the 1990s.
These abrupt transformations were impetuous and touched not only Sofia but characterized the entire post-socialist world. But what if this change occurred not as a reaction to a long-pestering socialism, and was instead caused by another powerful ideology? One character in the novel of Russian post-modernist writer Victor Pelevin asks, “Whose light reflects the sun?” Is it possible that what Sonia Hirt named the death of modernity was, in fact, only the sunset of socialism, and the lights of modernity that the sun-socialism reflected have continued to rule people’s lives? In our post-modern times, we criticize the project of modernity and declare the relativity of modern discursive constructs. However, those forces that formed Enlightenment, capitalism, and socialism still play their roles in the world, affecting different societies in different ways. Along with many undeniable positive innovations that modernity brought to our life, it also modeled our thinking, constructing dominant patterns of behavior that are considered as the norm in today’s society. The rational measurement of personal achievements represents one of such patterns. Thus, the processes that Sonia Hirt described in her book more likely reflect the influence of a post-socialist alternative modernity project, not the end of modernity altogether.
MA student in History