Aesthetic Torment and Samizdat Whispers: Questions for the Study of Czech Countercultural Social Movements before and after 1989 in a Global Perspective

Thursday, 19 July 2018
Distributed Paper
Martin THARP, Charles University, Faculty of Humanities, Czech Republic
My current research examines the working-class counterculture of post-1968 Czechoslovakia – the groupings and networks of hippies, rock musicians and samizdat authors often termed the ‘underground’ – as a social movement, yet one significantly diverging from the standard frameworks of scholarly analysis applied in both the Global North and South. The experience of European 20th-century state socialism, it would seem, remains unintegrated into scholarly attention from outside the geographic region where this method of governance existed; in turn, post-communist analytical methods predominantly adhere to a deliberate methodological restriction in their application of a paradigm of the uniqueness of ‘totalitarianism’ against any trans-national comparisons. Moreover, the Czech underground itself presents several questions for confrontation with standard social movement theories. It did not propose concrete demands to political power, but instead a far more diffuse and generalised sentiment of rejection, an emotive-artistic resistance to state cultural control. It did not challenge specific policies or actions of the Communist regime, working instead to evade the symbolic violence (‘aesthetic torment’) of the consistent ideological cultivation and administration of every aspect of life from architecture through music to fashion. As an essentially ‘post-materialist’ social movement, the Czech underground managed to highlight the specific forms of symbolic violence used by state socialism; perhaps even more importantly, its study in confrontation with current methodologies of social-movement theory might well illuminate the persistence of symbolic violence even in the post-totalitarian world and its contribution to growing exclusionary populism there.