Cultural Studies Threatened in Poland
An Interview with Ewa Majewska
In October the Polish Minister of Higher Education and Science announced a plan to erase Cultural Studies (among other disciplines) from the Polish register of scientific disciplines. This shift is billed as part of a general reform of the university system in Poland, supposedly directed at making the system of education more effective. While it is unclear how it accomplishes this objective, it threatens to weaken the critical humanities or even dismantle cultural studies altogether. Polish scholars launched a petition to request support for the continuation of Cultural Studies. The conversation below provides more details of the situation from Professor Ewa Majewska from the Artes Liberales Department of Warsaw University in conversation with McKenzie Wark from Eugene Lang College at The New School.
Ewa Majewska, could you first sketch out for me a little about your own work?
I am a feminist philosopher who is currently working on theories of subaltern counter-publics in the peripheries, weak resistances, and the avant-gardes. I am also interested in the resistance to fascism, and for this some Habermassian belief in institutionalized politics might be inevitable. Perhaps institutions of the common, but still — public, accessible and shared, and not owned. The universities should be one of them — institutions of the common, not just state run or private factories of knowledge.
This proposed erasure of cultural studies from the list of registered disciplines in Poland — what was the official reason, and what do you suspect might be other kinds of motivation ?
The official reason for the erasure of cultural studies from the list of registered disciplines in Poland was that it constitutes an element of a more general restructuring of the Polish academia. For some unknown reason the Minister of Science and Higher Education in Poland, Mr. Gowin, declared that the Polish academia should mirror the OECD system of disciplines, which is confusing and different from what we have and what is currently applied in other countries in the EU. This adjustment does not follow the logic of the evolution of the Polish disciplinary division towards the EU. Some 40 disciplines would be erased. What seems most troubling is the general negligence of the OECD towards the humanities — it is a system clearly favoring more technically oriented sciences and therefore unsuited and risky as a model of transforming humanities. The same applies to anthropology and art history.
His response was criticized by many scholars. In the monograph University as a Common Good, a brilliant analysis of the university as an institution of the common, Dr. Krystian Szadkowski makes the point that while the restructuring might actually open even more ways to fully include the diverse interdisciplinary cultural studies curricula into the measurable academic records, everything hides in the details of such a change. For example, whether the changes will create empty gaps in the developments of particular careers, departments, and journals.
I think that the main issue now is therefore to demand more clarity and exact answers to the details of this transformation, or to withhold it until we develop a clearer method of its execution. The Ministerial reform of the academia has already been criticized for its size, and perhaps the reshaping of the disciplines should be postponed, since it neither seems to be ready, nor necessary for the general reform.
Do you think this is part of a general movement towards a more conservative or restrictive approach to culture and scholarship in Poland? Are there other instances to which you think it is related?
For many scholars here this supposition sounds plausible. The majority of critical, progressive humanities scholarship is produced within the cultural studies disciplinary field– in our departments, journals, conferences, and other events. However, this field is not monolithic — the departments of cultural studies at Polish universities are diverse, and heterodox, particularly if you look at their programs and faculty. We have legitimate fears that the interdisciplinary character of the cultural studies will be torpedoed. However, as I emphasized above, the main problem is perhaps the negligence and carelessness of this proposition, not its explicitly political aims.
Cultural studies in the Anglophone world has a reputation for asking difficult questions, about class, race, gender, authoritarian populism, and so on. Does Polish cultural studies have any of those features or commitments?
Well, yes we do. We do all of that, to be precise. While in philosophy departments former Marxists almost all became conservative preachers after the political changes of 1989, within the cultural studies material cultures and histories, gender and ethnicity issues have always been at the core, recently joined by the problems of class, privilege and habitus, also the studies of rural populations and cultures often have some critical axis, as well as the research work on artistic production, naturally critical of neoliberal productivity and precarity, as well as the art histories, which — especially if developed within the cultural studies — bring critical responses to the ideological reproductions of privilege within various fields of cultural production.
What would Anglophone scholars recognize within Polish cultural studies, and what would you say are some unique theoretical or practical aspects of how this work is done there?
Our cultural studies offer several journals, which work internationally and are also produced in English, such as:
Praktyka Teoretyczna (philosophy, social sciences and cultural studies; interdisciplinary)
Interalia (queer and feminist studies)
and Kultura Współczesna, the oldest journal in the field, only published in Polish.
There are several developments within cultural studies which might be of interest, such as Holocaust Studies; The analysis of popular culture and feminism; Feminist and queer studies (within aesthetics); Aesthetics and theory of the image.
There’s analysis of cultural production — aesthetics as a matrix of the neoliberal production and forms of resistance. Of the university as the commons and of institutions of the common. Analysis of popular classes. Of resistance, messianism and popular cultures. There is also work on Intercultural and interspecies cultures. Just to name a few topics.
How has the reaction been from other Polish academics? Are you getting support from your colleagues?
We collected some 4700 signatures of support for our petition. This might give an impression of the support; it seems quite large I think, as the academic disciplines might not be the most important topic for most people. Some scholars openly say that this change is nonsensical. Regardless of this, we only get signs of support.
The Polish Sociological Association (Polskie Towarzystwo Socjologiczne; a professional organization) as well as The Citizens of Science (Obywatele Nauki , a general lobby for science, including scholars of different disciplines in Poland,) issued critiques of the ministerial reform project and, in support, letters for our cause. We also have the support of the Crisis Committee of Polish Humanities (Komitet Kryzysowy Humanistyki Polskiej). Their statement is here.
Ewa Majewska is at the Artes Liberales Department of the Warsaw University.
McKenzie Wark is at Eugene Lang College, The New School.