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Don Mitchell’s _The Right to the City_

The conundrum of public space, both spatially geographically and as an idea, is that it serves as an opportunity for the manifestation of either culture or anarchy. It is within this spectrum of possibilities that Don Mitchell, in his work _The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space_, explores the question of who has the right to occupy and use public spaces and how, in turn, these rights are legally determined and enforced. For Mitchell, the matter boils down to restriction of behaviors which do not fit within societal norms. This is especially true, according to Mitchell, for two groups, which serve as exemplars of highly visible deviants of the social order: protestors and homeless people. Each group does not exhibit what some, such as George Will or Matthew Arnold, would consider proper conduct for a “civilized society.” In this conceptualization of civilized society, protestors are viewed as presumptuous agitators; the act of protesting, whether peaceful or not, is automatically assumed to be indicative of disorder. As for the homeless, behaviors such as pan handling are often construed to be the result of poor personal choices rather than viewed as direct evidence of a nation’s poverty or social problems. As Mitchell notes, for someone such as Will, Arnold, or Rudy Giuliani, the most rational response to such conduct, whether it be protests or panhandling, is to enforce stronger restrictions over public space. These restrictions of public space are, according to Mitchell’s work, can be a product of both fear-based politics and economic rationalities rather than a matter of true social concern, for example, the “broken window” policy, is only enacted in poorer neighborhoods and the removal of the homeless from the streets are often done in the name of promoting economic renewal.

Despite Mitchell’s deep skepticism about the economic and political motivations of those who create and pass resolutions and ordinances for public space, he does NOT, in fact, advocate for anarchy or physically violent actions. For Mitchell, it is necessary in a democratic society to accommodate “disorder” in the form of allowing multiple and dissenting voices to coexist in a public space. This type of disorder, argues Mitchell, is generally the only option for marginalized groups to voice their concerns in public because otherwise, these individuals will be silenced or banished from public space in the name of “order”. For Mitchell the crux of the matter is that Americans, as a collective, tend to shy away from thinking about inequalities as a social condition. Many find it far more safe and reasonable to think about such matters in the abstract or regard its physical manifestations (i.e. poverty, homelessness) as the product of poor personal choices. He attributes this collective blind spot not to a dearth of intellectual capability or even so much to lack of compassion, but rather to the entwined nature of capitalism, American politics, law enforcement and jurisprudence. While Mitchell makes a compelling case for the need for democratic “disorder” as a preventative against a type of “order” which quashes dissent and democratic ideals, he elides the prominence of race within his otherwise sharp-edged discussion of the ways in which order is enacted and accepted in public.


Serene Artino
PhD Student in History
Binghamton University
Posted December 2014

Katherine Lebow’s _Unfinished Utopia_

Katherine Lebow’s _Unfinished Utopia: Nowa Huta, Stalinism, and Polish Society, 1949-56_ is an analysis of the dynamic between state and society in the Soviet periphery. In investigating the reality of day-to-day life in the Polish “socialist city” of Nowa Huta, Lebow argues that “liberal critiques have exaggerated the supposedly hyperrational, hyperlinear relationship between plan and practice in totalitarian regimes” (42). But Lebow neglects to mention that it is not only liberals, fond of emphasizing excesses of state power, who exaggerate the efficacy of Soviet planning. The literature’s tendency to accept some mythologized uniformity led by Soviet decree is likely, as Martin Malia argues in The Soviet Tragedy, due at least in part to those on the left in the Academy with revisionist sympathies who rather willingly accepted Soviet-produced information that can be seen in retrospect as propaganda. In short, both left and right often take for granted that Soviet planning ‘worked.’ In reality, Lebow posits, “much that was built in Nowa Huta was unplanned, and much that was planned remained unbuilt” (9), an observation of “Stalinism as a civilization” that Lebow aptly parallels with Stephen Kotkin’s seminal investigation of Magnitogorsk. Much like in Magnitogorsk, day-to-day life in Stalinist Nowa Huta was far from ruled top-down with an iron fist. The bogeyman of Soviet socialism was often (and continues to be) exaggerated, and Lebow seeks to contextualize the collapse of the Soviet Union by questioning the solidity of its foundation.

This low-to-the-ground, day-to-day understanding of Stalinism offered by Lebow reminds us, in the vein of James C. Scott, that even if the Leviathan seems all powerful, resistance to domination on the part of those within the system is often ever present. The Polish Communist apparatus was forced by shortages, geography, and other factors to compromise its utopian plans in the face of concrete realities. These compromises, just as Kotkin emphasizes in Magnitogorsk, created opportunities for Nowahucians to assert their own visions in the spaces of Stalinist Poland. Lebow argues that there existed an oft-overlooked penchant for work and rupture with the past in post-war Europe that drove many willingly from Poland’s rural villages into modernizing projects like Nowa Huta. These men and women, drawn not necessarily by inherent interest in Soviet socialism but instead by the promise of progress, education, and an opportunity to construct rather than destroy (as destruction was all too common during the war), were not easily subdued by Soviet policing or repression.

To much of Nowa Huta’s growing population, the city’s “newness meant freedom from the ascribed status of region, family, and caste [it also] offered hopes of civic enfranchisement for rural Poles who historically had been politically or economically marginalized” (46). In other words, in a post-war world the city offered space for expression and progress regardless of political affiliation. That Nowa Huta was founded as a ‘socialist’ city does not mean that its population lived or built the city as socialists. In fact, Lebow argues, many saw the construction of the “‘little fatherland’ they would build on the banks of the Vistula” as a matter of national pride (46). The ‘push’ factors of the rural village and the ‘pull’ factors of the city do not necessitate the assumption of ideological fervor to explain the growth of Nowa Huta.

Indeed, the “new men” and “new women” of Nowa Huta often lived in stark opposition to Party plans, ironically often because of Party promises. Nowa Huta came to be distinguished by a significant disillusionment with Stakhanovite productivity, as evinced in the films on worker protest by director Andrzej Wajda and in the memoir (or is it a diary?) of the idealist Edmund Chmielinski, one of Nowa Huta’s first new workers (91-96), who highlighted in the 1970s and 1980s that even for those like Wajda and Chmielinksi who committed themselves to socialism and work, no good future was guaranteed. Similarly, migrants from rural areas often refused to accept socialist plans for separate living arrangements for unmarried men and women, and cohabitation was common; “living wild” in squats was a direct challenge to the Party and the authority of the plan, and Nowa Huta grew in unanticipated, unplanned ways as a result (65-69). By their refusal to vacate these spaces of opposition, and by their harkening back to the unfulfilled promises of a “modern, Soviet city,” Nowahucians in the long term held open the door for the eventual emergence of the Solidarity movement in Nowa Huta, which turned everyday resistance into outright protest against the Party in the 1980s by calling upon the state to fulfill its promises.

Lebow’s piece does suffer to some extent from a lack of witness accounts: she often concludes sections of her chapters by waxing philosophical about the implications of her observations – but in examining subject matter from the 1940s – 1980s, she certainly could allow those conclusions to be drawn by those who lived the experience of Nowa Huta through conducting more interviews than she did. Similarly, she in some circumstances takes for granted that her audience will understand the intricacies of Soviet history, for instance in mentioning Khrushchev’s secret speech without explanation of its important content (146). This regrettably will surely make the text more difficult to access for lay readers.

Nonetheless, Lebow offers an insightful look into the lived experience of Stalinism in a city created from nothing to serve the purposes of the state. Nowa Huta’s inhabitants, largely young migrants from rural areas never fully accepted that the city should serve only the state, and instead sought to carve out space for the expression of their own visions of post-war modernity. Interestingly, this process of resistance quite often took place using rhetoric drawing from unfulfilled Soviet promises of what Nowa Huta could mean for workers. A “workers’ city” was promised, but never fully provided. In the 1980s, workers rallied around Solidarity in demanding that Nowa Huta ought to serve those who had built it. This meant that, often, the city escaped the control of the planners and took on a life of its own. In this way, Nowa Huta certainly “represented in miniature the utopian impulses of a liberated continent” (184) and, indeed, anticipated the collapse of the Soviet system.


Michael Newman
PhD Student in History
Binghamton University
Posted December 2014

Greg Castillo’s _Cold War On the Home Front_

Published in 2010, Greg Castillo’s Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design offers a meticulous and compelling study of how consumption and domesticity were interpreted and promulgated by both camps in the East-West confrontation after the Second World War. Selecting trade fairs and exhibitions as the main sites of his narrative, Castillo skillfully analyzes the ways in which divided Germany became the focal point of propagandist campaigns launched by the United States and the Soviet bloc, which sought to promote competing ideologies through the showcase of the household as a symbol of popular prosperity and well-being. As this battle of competing models for domestic consumption gradually played out, the Soviet state deliberately opened its door to the American version of consumer modernity. In this regard, contrary to what many suggest, it did not succumb to the Western adversary’s propagandist pressure to provide Soviet citizens with a higher standard of domestic consumption.

Castillo contends that the deployment of America’s middle-class model home as a benchmark of economic democracy in Marshall Plan Europe marked a major shift in the tone and substance of Washington’s Cold War strategy, one that favored democratic consumerism over military confrontation as a forum for East-West rivalry. For many of those involved in the Marshall Plan, modernist design and democracy were complementary ideologies, in that the former was construed not only as the ideological representation of but also as the physical embodiment of the latter. Edgar Kaufmann Jr., a prominent Marshal Plan curatorial commissioner, once proudly proclaimed: “Modern design is intended to implement the lives of free individuals,” who would be able to enjoy the freedom to want instead of despotism (p. 41). Such embodied democracy, they imagined, would permeate every part of people’s daily life reconstructing them as new postwar subjects who “would be affluent, cosmopolitan in taste, politically democratic, and culturally hegemonic” (Castillo, 59).

In response to Washington’s efforts to define West German and modern European design culture, the Soviet Bloc developed its own competing model for cultural internationalism – one that rejected the notion of a singular, transnational “modern” form of design. Produced exclusively by Party functionaries rather than their design consultants, Stalinism’s signature aesthetic theory (Socialist Realism) functioned mainly as an ideological proclamation. It prescribed socialist realism as a superior alternative to aesthetic modernism, which “expropriated bourgeois taste and aesthetic achievement in the name of the proletariat, supporting Lenin’s vision of proletarian culture” (Castillo, 49). The purpose of this peculiar Soviet creative method was, at least in theory, to create a new cultural aesthetic that combined a neoclassical patrimony with elements of locally specific national and fork art.

In the late 1950s, East Berliners began to witness the rehabilitation of modernism’s socialist credentials, in particular, the aspiration to achieve “world-class” standards in household design. The rapid comeback was made possible by the fact that the crackdown on East German modernism was never complete, as nonconformist designers found internal refuge in provincial academic ghettos such as Weimar’s Institute of Interior Design and Halle’s Burg-Giebichenstein Academy of Art and Design. The rehabilitation of modernism opened the door for a future socialist style of housing which was conceived to be international, featuring radically standardized building parts and furniture produced by a modular assembly system. This design discipline, one might assume, represented the shared modernism of divided Germany. However, underneath such stylistic unification still lay an ideological split distinguishing the “cultured” functionalism of the socialist East from the “decadent” capitalist modernism. For example, following Dresden’s Fifth German Art Exhibition in 1962, the use of the color gray in the home design was criticized by the Party as “a politically illegitimate, Western-oriented attitude” and “ongoing impoverishment of the applied arts” (p. 198). By the 1990s, this proclamation of cultural superiority could not, however, be sustained in the face of social discontent over the fact that despite the government’s promise, the socialist command economy had failed to eliminate goods scarcity while people’s demand for them continued to rise.

Castillo’s narrative challenges the tendency prevailing in the Cold War cultural scholarship to consider the dynamism of Americanization as heading solely in an outward direction. Instead, by analyzing how the Soviet bloc actively pursued an alternative route to modern living, it shows that any complete understanding of the history of Americanization needs to move beyond such American-centric approach to take into account the central roles played by its Eastern European rivals. In addition, Castillo presents the nature of Washington’s postwar expansion abroad as not only an enterprise of cultural hegemony but also as one of economic and political integration with Western Europe. Drawing on a wealth of beautiful imagery illustrations and an impressive number of archival materials, the book is a visualized and textualized exhibition of mid-century modern design itself. As an intellectual product combining its author’s architectural expertise and historical sensibility, this study could be a fascinating read for both historians and a broader spectrum of readers interested in subjects such as graphic and interior design, advertising, and exhibition space.

Cold War on the Home Front makes a convincing case that modernism, in particular modernist design, needs to be understood as a potent form of soft power advanced by both the United States and the Soviet bloc in their bid to win the ongoing Cold War. Such power manifests itself in the ability of modernist designed objects not only to physically transform everyday life but also to popularize and represent otherwise intangible political ideologies and their claims to superior moral authority. All of these components were imagined on both sides of the Iron Curtain as instruments for producing the new postwar citizens of Western Europe: the modern consumer.


Hanh Nguyen
PhD Student in History
Binghamton University
Posted in December 2014

Katherine Lebow’s _Unfinished Utopia_

Katherine Lebow’s Unfinished Utopia: Nowa Huta, Stalinism, and Polish Society, 1949-1956 (Cornell University Press, 2013) provides a fascinating account of Poland’s “first socialist city,” Nowa Huta. Located just a few miles from the historic city of Krakow, Nowa Huta was intended to serve as a model for a new kind of socialist modernity through city building and the creation of “new men.” Although historians have often cited Nowa Huta as a prime example of Communist domination Lebow argues that, “Far from being a gray and regimented landscape, Nowa Huta in the 1950s was colorful and anarchic, a place where the formerly disenfranchised hastened to assert their leading role in building socialism—but rarely in ways that authorities had anticipated.” (4) Furthermore, Lebow argues that Nowa Huta does not represent a site in which Polish society rejected the idea of being turned into “new men.” In fact, it was the very encounter with Stalinist ideology in the late 1940s and early 1950s, including attempts to create a new, better, and more egalitarian civilization, that set the stage for Solidarity’s protest in the 1980s. By using the particular case study of Nowa Huta, Lebow offers wonderful insights into the everyday lives of citizens under Stalinism.

Lebow begins her work by exploring the unstable interplay of visions, plans, and realities that existed in the beginning stages of Nowa Huta. Although Nowa Huta was intended as a model city of Stalinist city planning, the socialist city could not wait for its architects to finish its designs, ensuring that much of what was constructed in Nowa Huta was unplanned and unintended. As a result those that came to live and work in the city were able to carve out their own spaces and sites of resistance. According to Lebow, “becoming Nowohucian was a process of self-invention—-a willed act, for many of its pioneers, of becoming modern urban citizens of their self-built small fatherland.” (9) Stalinism’s relentless labor competitions, prevalent in Nowa Huta, carried with them unanticipated consequences in which the visions of collective effort and shared rewards reinforced popular understandings of a moral community of labor within the city and its surrounding enclaves.

Lebow also highlights the ways in which assumptions about Nowa Huta’s ability to become a site for the cultural enlightenment of the masses crashed upon the rocks of inadequate funding that confounded many socialist cities behind the Iron Curtain. Without funding for state-sponsored cultural activities Nowohucians created their own spaces of entertainment by embracing jazz, jitterbugging, and drinking rather than high cultural pursuits. Particularly interesting is Lebow’s examination of bikiniarstwo, a youthful subculture formed from a pastiche of supposedly American dress styles and behavior, and Nowohucian fashion, described as “hipster,” as a space of resistance to Communist authorities. In fact, Lebow’s examination of Nowa Huta’s landscape finds that it was where Stalinism most disrupted conventional geographies of everyday life that Nowahucians were able to carve out spaces of relative freedom. As Lebow explains, the generation that made Nowa Huta one of the most militant centers of the Solidarity movement in the 1980s consisted of the sons and daughters of the city’s original builders. In this way Lebow argues that “A selective memory of Stalinism . . . provided Nowohucians with a usable set of tools for struggle and dissent, while Nowa Huta’s distinctive industrial and urban geography proved particularly conducive to organization and protest.” (11)

Wonderfully written and persuasively argued Katherine Lebow’s Unfinished Utopia provides a much needed addition to the historiography of socialist city building. Drawing upon memoirs, oral history interviews, unofficial transcripts of Stalinism, and archival records, Lebow presents a fascinating portrait of the lives of Polish peasants in the process of becoming industrial workers. Much like Stephen Kotkin’s Magnetic Mountain Lebow’s work provides concrete examples of Henri Lefebvre’s concepts of domination and appropriation within the production of space. Although Nowa Huta was imagined as a site of industry, cultural education, and socialist transformation by its planners, it was the everyday workers and residents that ultimately carved out their own social spaces of acceptance and resistance. In this way Lebow’s work helps to explain the paradox of why, years after the fall of communism, many residents of former communist-bloc cities reminisce about their relative freedom under Stalinism. In the end Nowohucians embraced their role of creating Poland’s first socialist city. However, much to the shock and disappointment of Communist Party officials, the city they built became a site of conflict and negotiation between the promises and realities of post-war socialism.


Chris Byrum
PhD Student in History
Binghamton University
Posted December 2014

Weimar Modernity: Ward’s _Weimar Surfaces_ and Swett’s _Neighbors and Enemies_

Modernity in Berlin, especially during the Weimar years, is a vast topic; to better understand the concept of modernity, it may be useful to compare Pamela Swett’s Neighbors and Enemies: The Culture of Radicalism in Berlin, 1929-1933 and Janet Ward’s, Weimer Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany. While Ward’s Berlin is conceived as a fantasia of visuality and consumerism, her modernity is that which was enjoyed almost exclusively by the middle and upper classes, as flâneur and flâneuse. Swett, on the other hand, relies on the political radicalization of working class residents in the kiez—neighborhood enclaves defined by locality, occupation, economic status and political affiliation—as a statement about the impact of local urban politics in the waning years of the Weimar Republic. Modernity as experienced by the working class denizens of Berlin, according to Swett, contributed to a loss of traditional communities. In contrast, modernity in Ward’s book is one where consumption and spectacle create cultural adhesion.

Swett posits that the strong and localized political engagement was part of a concerted effort to strengthen communities in response to the economic, political, and social instability that marked the Weimar Republic. While such instability was found throughout Germany and Berlin, it was the distrust of both national politicians and increased state surveillance by welfare officials within these neighborhoods, which eroded the sense of local autonomy within the kiez. Intrusions from outside authorities, coupled with the rise of the new woman and the economic woes due to the depression, led many within these tight knit communities to rely on local political activism as a way to maintain order and local authority. The strident political activism within the neighborhoods was meant to increase unity and act as an antidote to the changes associated with modernity. In reality, this political polarization led to the fracturing of local communities, making it difficult to form the coalitions necessary to enact important social changes needed to alleviate the poverty and crime found within the kiez. Moreover, street brawls between local activists legitimized violence as a political tool.

While Swett argues that Berlin’s working class responded to social and economic changes with an intensified political activism, Ward’s book paints Berliners as eager consumers so distracted by the ocular delights of the city, that they eschewed meaningful political engagement. Ward notes that a style known as New Objectivism, defined by the use of clean lines with little ornamentation, came to be associated with modernity during the Weimar era. This style could be found in architecture, fashion, advertising (in neon signs and large display windows), and film. New Objectivism, according to Ward, exemplified all that was modern about Berlin not only because it was a rejection of the ornateness that exemplified the previous era, but because it also promoted the primacy of ‘surface’ or exteriority in both the cultural and industrial domains. Much like Marshall Berman’s work, All That is Solid, Melts into Air, Ward presents Weimar modernity as an abstraction which was a wonder to behold and shies away from presenting the other side of urban modernity, including the poverty and violence endured by residents of working class neighborhoods.

Ward and Swett engage some of the same cultural forces, the urban entertainment and the New Woman, but they do so in radically different ways. Ward’s Berlin residents seek out urban entertainment, such as cinema newsreels and the pleasure parks, as part of a communal ritual of consumption. Swett, on the other hand, notes that such activities were especially popular with working class youth not only because they were relatively inexpensive (or free), but more importantly because they acted as diversions from the realities of small tenement buildings and crime and served as a way for young people to fill days that were free due to high unemployment. Another difference between the works of Swett and Ward is how they conceptualize the impact of the New Woman, as an icon of modernity, upon Weimar era urban residents. Ward presents this cultural concept as, much like the architecture of the era, a force that created and reflected the urban individual and collective identity as much as it did urban and clothing design. This conception of modern femininity, according to Ward, was viewed as one of many proofs that Berlin had become a thriving metropolis and helped erase the memory of Germany’s defeat in WWI. Swett, on the other hand, notes that the arrival of the New Woman within the kiez further increased gender tensions. The economic depression and the unavailability of skilled jobs led to the increase of women in unskilled positions as sole bread winners for families. This new employment status of women made “unemployed husbands feel inadequate.” The New Woman contributed to rising economic independence of women, which further increased the insecurity felt by the young, unemployed men within the kiez. Swett argues that the increased economic and sexual autonomy of women created an atmosphere where working class men who sought to “halt the dissolution of male authority in the home and neighborhood” looked to radical politics to assuage their masculinity. Leaders within the radical political parties, aware of such gender tensions, promoted party activism as a masculine venture. They employed the use of gendered insults as a common strategy to discredit political opponents and also relied heavily upon street violence to demonstrate the physical strength and the masculinity of members.

How then, can we reconcile the representations of Weimar modernity experienced by those of the kiez with the modernity experienced by Berliners in Ward’s Weimar Surfaces? The answer is that there are similarities between how Ward and Swett view modernity; however, each author chooses to highlight different aspects of it. For example, they both argue that the necessary loss of tradition which follows modernity can carry a particular valence and this is often articulated within national politics. This insight is demonstrated by how the kiez residents and the New Objectivists viewed modernity as both a social and national matter. Working class residents mourned the break with tradition and community ties and associated this loss with Weimar government policies. Residents of the kiez viewed the participation in local communist and Nazi groups as a way to restore the sense of social and political stability characterized by the previous Wilhelmine era. The New Objectivists, on the other hand, celebrated the end of Wilhelmine traditions and sought to distance themselves from the old-style aesthetics and gender roles, which were associated with the kaiser and Germany’s defeat in World War I. For the New Objectivists, the aesthetic sensibility of sleek lines and sparse ornamentation within architecture, fashion, and manufacturing became a political statement about Germany as a democratic republic. This politically charged vision of design identified a new Germany which would eschew the vulgar decorations associated with the Wilhelmine era, erase the shame of military losses sustained under the kaiser, and become a leader of modernity and style within Europe. Thus, Ward and Swett demonstrate the manichaean quality of Weimar-era Berlin politics and society. To many, the Weimar Republic government represented either the return of Germany’s glory, through social progress and modernity, or the country’s downward spiral into a dystopia of social anarchy.

According to both authors, this dualistic view of social modernity in Germany explains the rise of Hitler. According to Ward, the Weimar Republic ended because the New Objectivist movement of modern “surface” aesthetics was stripped of its political message. Once denuded of its political values, the movement revolved exclusively around the exterior. Furthermore, the exaltation of exteriority and the bloat of consumerism created a bleak sense of collective political apathy, paving the way for Hitler. Swett on the other hand, argues that Hitler’s political ascendance can be traced back to the kiez and the residents need for a strong social order after the chaos of modern cultural forces, such as the New Woman, and the increased street violence from local competing political movements. The Weimar era is usually studied as only a brief period between the German defeat of WWI and the rise of the Nazis in 1933; it is hardly studied for its own sake. While neither Ward nor Swett transcend the temporal bookends of WWI and the Nazi government—because both of their arguments rest on those demarcations—they each depict the the 1920s and early 1930s as a period where myriad political and cultural possibilities hinged on both the positive and negative valances of modernity.

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Serene Artino
PhD Student in History
Binghamton University
Posted November 2014

Patricia Acerbi’s “A Long Poem of Walking”

What constitutes belonging to a place, or more specifically to a city? Is it being born there? Having a house or apartment there? Maybe even going to school there? Or is there actually more to it than that? According to Patricia Acerbi, author of “‘A Long Poem of Walking’: Flâneurs, Vendors, and Chronicles of Post-abolition Rio de Janeiro,” belonging involves much more. Being part of a city means engaging with it and, in the case of the street vendors and chroniclers in Acerbi’s article, walking it, which she argues created a type of urban membership, separate from legal definitions of citizenship and in some ways more homogenous than it. For me, her understanding of belonging holds particular appeal because I believe the only way to really experience a city is to walk it and soak up the sights, sounds, and smells. These aspects were important to Rio’s chroniclers, who were literary journalists, because in walking the streets, they took particular note of the different sounds and sights of street vendors of various immigrant backgrounds.

While Acerbi’s article engages with Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, even using one of his phrases for her title, her concept of belonging does not quite align with his view of walking and the city. For Certeau, “To walk is to lack a place. It is the indefinite process of being absent and in search of a proper” (Kindle location 1577), yet for Acerbi, “walking the city…fermented a new sense of belonging in post-abolition Rio” (99). I think Acerbi’s view of walking deviates from Certeau’s understanding of it because she is concerned with urban membership, of which walking is a key component. If she adopted Certeau’s view, urban membership would be irrelevant for walkers because he claims they do not belong to a specific place.

In the late 19th and early 20th century Rio de Janeiro, street vendors and chroniclers occupied a liminal space between the traditional and the modern that governing elites were trying to erase. For governing elites, street vendors were problematic because, before abolition, they were mostly urban slaves and, after abolition, many elites categorized them as vagabonds; neither slaves nor vagabonds fit their image of the modern city. Chroniclers could also be considered vagrants as one chronicler, João do Rio, equated wandering through the city (flâner) with vagrancy, albeit of an intellectual nature. While street vendors did not have a place in governing elites’ vision of modernity, resulting in laws and police actions designed to remove them, they were an important part of the everyday lives of much of the urban population, providing them with easier access to a variety of goods. The competing views about street vendors highlight the tensions within modern cities as various groups sought to define what ‘modern’ citizenship was and was not. The survival of street vendors throughout this period indicates that governing and business elites did not have unilateral control over the definition of the modern city; the general population also had the power to define it, and chroniclers helped them do it.

Chroniclers acted as intermediaries because they occupied a space between the elite and lower classes; they were educated yet walked the streets like vagrants. They observed daily life in the modern city and then helped readers make sense of it through their stories. Street vendors became a popular subject of these stories, in part, because they straddled the traditional and the modern and allowed chroniclers to wax nostalgic. Despite this in-between state in which chroniclers and street vendors found themselves, Acerbi argues that both were modern subjects. Their modernity did not originate so much from their appearances, ideas, or mindsets but rather from the spaces they occupied. Their ability to move rather easily through both bourgeois and lower class spaces of the city made them modern because they were able to perceive the positive and negative effects that came with the creation of a modern city. While the urban elites often overlooked or ignored the dark side of their modernization efforts, such as displacing the lower classes, chroniclers and street vendors took notice but also appreciated other changes brought on by modernization, such as boulevards, which provided them with grand places to walk.

By highlighting the importance of walking as the way chroniclers and street vendors used spaces within the modern city, Acerbi provides just one example of the many ways people engaged with the city and, by doing so, found a sense of belonging within it. By becoming a part of the fabric of a city, one can become a part of that city despite all else. Such notions shed light on what it really meant and means to be a New Yorker, a Parisian, a Berliner, and even a Nashvillian.

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Jennifer Montgomery
PhD Student in History
Binghamton University
Posted November 2014

Susan Reid’s “Cold War in the Kitchen”

In her article “Cold War in the Kitchen: Gender and the De-Stalinization of Consumer Taste in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev” (Slavic Review 61.2 [2002]), Susan Reid examines the representation of women and consumer culture in domestic advice manuals and the Soviet press, particularly in Ogonek,[1] in the Khrushchev era. It is her contention that the visual and textual representation of women demonstrates a variety of ways in which manipulation and regulation were simultaneously used to construct a new concept of the ideal female consumer. This discourse, Reid argues, emerged as a result of the Khrushchev administration’s perception of women as powerful yet irrational patrons of mass consumerism. A rational, functional, stripped-down and modern taste for consumer goods, therefore, needed to be instilled in them.

Khrushchev’s enterprise served two purposes: first, to consolidate and exercise power upon the populace without resorting to terror and coercion, a political move strategically made to distance him from the Stalin regime. Second, this Khrushchevist discourse of gender and consumption propagated rationality, modernity, and austerity, seeking to dictate women’s private indulgences as well as their domestic sphere. According to Reid, this particular form of state control could be interpreted as an effort to impose “communist morality,” which demanded that citizens cultivate self- discipline in even the seemingly most mundane matters of their daily lives.

But Reid’s article is not solely about Khrushchev’s mode of governance, but also about the penetration of Cold War competition into the domestic realm. In 1951, American sociologist David Riesman, the mastermind behind the Nylon War scenario, urged the Soviet regime to “turn out consumers’ goods, or face mass discontent on an increasing scale” (p. 222). This Nylon War campaign, which involved successive waves of air-dropped samples, was described as a “bombing campaign” to disrupt citizen satisfaction “as [its] housewives saw for their own eyes American stoves, refrigerators, clothing and toys.”[2] In other words, the U.S. authorities, having launched an offensive armed with goods instead of guns, imagined that they would be able to force Moscow to scale down its heavy industry and weapon production in order to satisfy consumer aspirations.

As both powers assumed that domesticity and consumption were inherently female concerns, it is no surprise that the kitchen suddenly became an important battlefield of the Cold War. Opened in the late summer of 1959 in Moscow, the American National Exhibition showcased the “typical” American homes which featured a kitchen full of modern appliances. The display was, to some extent, misleading as not every contemporary American working-class household could afford such model homes furnished with latest Macy’s designs from Manhattan department store.[3] It created, nevertheless, immense pressure on the Soviet state to compete with the Western adversary through improvements in its citizens’ living standards, including housing and consumer goods. The Khrushchev regime was, however, not totally passive in this “peaceful” confrontation. In fact, it sought to present socialism as a system that could meet consumer aspirations.

According to Reid, Ogonek, the major verbal and pictorial source of her research, proves to be a useful site of study given the fact that it contents paradoxically and strategically covered both conventionally feminine concerns and current affairs. Her article also draws on a number of eyewitness accounts by Western journalists and members of specialist delegations visiting Soviet Union in the late 1950s and early 1960s. By using these eyewitness accounts, her study moves beyond state policy and Soviet mainstream press to present more individualized remarks on Soviet people’s consumption patterns on Moscow streets and their desire for a variety of consumer goods, ranging from a pair of shoes to Western high-end fashion. On the one hand, Reid is rightly cautious about the possible lack of authenticity in these contemporary eyewitness accounts, which were “ideologically over-determined, genre-bound, and framed in the terms of the Cold War construction of the Soviet Union as the communist “other,” as well as being “unapologetically patriarchal” (p. 215). It is, on the other hand, precisely these characteristics of the observations that captured the growing centrality of consumption in the Cold War politics, one of the major arguments of the article.

This study is an effort to offer critical insights into consumer culture in the thaw, a largely marginalized topic despite scholars’ growing interest in consumerism in post-Soviet Russia and the potential for substantial historical analysis of the Khrushchev era. It also presents a challenge to the common dismissal of Soviet Russia as a non-consumer society. Furthermore, given its focus on women and consumption, the article underlines the importance of the micro level of power in understanding the ways post-Stalinist regimes exercised and maintained their authority. Another significance of the study lies in Reid’s sensibility to both historical continuities and changes which, in many ways, shaped the Khrushchev-era discourse of gender and consumption.

As Reid herself has pointed out, one limitation of this study is the absence of female subjectivity as a consumer, who, she believes, “through her consumption choices, or refusal to consume, may or may not have had an impact on the way policy and ideology were shaped, and who made her own meanings of government-issue consumables in the process of active appropriation and bricolage” (p. 214). While it is undoubtedly necessary for scholars to conduct further research on female agency in Soviet consumer culture, it is also crucial to do so without losing sight of the important role of men in influencing women’s consumption habits. It may also be useful to investigate the impacts of the Khrushchev-era discourse of gender and consumption on the leisure culture of Soviet urban life.

The modern era marked the rise of a “mass society” and of “mass consumption.” Such phenomena have been commonly associated with capitalism and democracy rather than socialism and authoritarianism. By focusing on the Khrushchev era, this article presents, however, a distinct case in which mass consumption can be identified with the latter, in particular, the Soviet state’s manipulation and governmentality of women as the owners of the kitchen space. In other words, while the Soviet structure and practice of consumerism was significantly different from those experienced by Western societies, they show how mass consumption was, in fact, part of a shared modernity.

[1] Ogonek was a popular illustrated news magazine along the lines of the British Picture Post or the American Life and Look. It had a large readership consisting of both men and women.

[2] Greg Castillo, Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), vii.

[3] Ibid, ix.


Hanh H. Nguyen
PhD Student in History
Binghamton University
Posted November 2014