GRADUATE STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: THOM SLIWOWSKI

Thom Sliwowski is in his sixth year in the PhD program in Comparative Literature, writing a dissertation tentatively titled Minor Senses of Historical Time in Late- and Post-Socialist Central Europe. He is affiliated with the Institute for Slavic, East-European, and Eurasian Studies, and he is currently living abroad, on a research fellowship with the EXC2020 “Temporal Communities” cluster, at the Friedrich Schlegel Graduiertenschule für literaturwissenschaftliche Studien, Freie Universität, Berlin.

Critical Theory: Could you tell us how, personally and professionally, you became interested in comparative literature and Critical Theory more generally? Did broader political or social concerns play a role in shaping your research? 

Sliwowski: I wish I had less ignoble origin stories to offer here. Critical Theory I encountered through high school debate, which I stuck with despite having zero debating acumen. This was more like a cartoonish, vulgarized version of Critical Theory: Foucault and Adorno and Butler repurposed for cynical debate strategies simply called (as in, “Kritik”), in which you steer the discussion to a realm of abstraction that your opponent won’t be able to keep up with. Why debate about drunk driving laws when these are just expressions of the State’s biopolitical project? At the time, I didn’t realize I was pretty much just cosplaying a conservative fever dream about Critical Theory as a nihilistic, dangerous mode of thought that threatens to upend the social order. (Oh! If only it had that power…) But at least I got a taste for reading theory.

My interest in comparative literature was very pragmatic. As an undergraduate I had a zeal for collecting languages, and comparative literature let me turn this into a course of study. A theory nerd already in college, I was aware of the fact that the most interesting continental philosophy was being taught in modern languages departments, and so I gravitated towards them, developing a somewhat less ham-fisted understanding of Critical Theory along the way, too.

My going to college coincided with Occupy Wall Street’s permanent protest in Zucotti Park. Going to these rallies, hearing speakers like Slavoj Žižek or the late David Graeber, and twice getting smacked by NYPD officers—these experiences radicalized me and introduced me to leftist thought and to the culture of critique, allowing me to develop a less cynical and self-serving relationship to continental philosophy and grounding my politics in actual lived experiences.

Critical Theory: Could you tell us about your dissertation and what you see as the significance of your research?

Sliwowski: My dissertation tries to catalogue some peculiar senses of time in late- and post-socialist Germany and Poland, from around the 1970s to around the 1990s. Conventionally, we think of historical time as mechanistic and automatic, rushing forward from a receding past into a future that gradually comes into view. I inquire, broadly, about how framing historical consciousness as an object of sensory experience—an affective phenomenon, rather than as a cognitive one— might allow us to grasp how it operates as a kind of nexus of historical knowledge and historical experience. This might seem arcane, but I think it’s actually so ubiquitous in our time so as to be almost invisible. The “feel” of the 1990s, or the atmosphere of the 70s: these terms are more than just marketing woo, and what they describe is more than just a shallow sense of nostalgia. Now, at least for the past thirty years, we have begun to relate to historical pasts in ways that we don’t yet have the language to describe: pasts become “virtual realities” haunting the present moment—like the caucasian, conservative dream of a pre-Civil Rights United States.

I focus on late- and post-socialism because this period is uniquely ripe with weird experiences of historical time. These range from the glacial terminology by which Soviet history was periodized, as a series of “freezes” and “thaws”—terminology which takes on a new resonance in our own age of general melting and global heating—to the experience of “retrograde modernity” in those satellite states that felt, and feel, themselves to be stuck in the past, forever playing catch-up to the West. So by making my object of study these peculiar temporalities, which seem to “peel off” from the forward-moving time of progress or historical development, I’m engaged in recovering the affective or bodily experience of participating in large-scale, collective, historical processes. Our fantasies about particular historical pasts, and their circulation in popular culture, can be read as symptomatic of the loss of this kind of historical consciousness in our own moment—or they can alternately be read as a weird haunting of this experience. Sometimes these phenomena are subsumed under the rubrics of “collective memory” or “nostalgia culture,” but these paradigms fall short when they attempt to describe the temporality of these historical eddies and countercurrents.

We’ve had a great example of this in the past couple of years, as Civil War statues and place-names, which stood silently, mostly unnoticed and effectively invisible for decades and decades, suddenly became the center of the public’s attention, becoming the unlikely stages for political struggle over the recognition of America’s white supremacist legacies. What happens to the history of the Civil War when it is “reactivated” in this way? How does the history of slavery, of Jim Crow, and of manifold kinds of anti-Blackness come into focus as not just a narrative, but as a felt experience, as history that is carried in Black bodies in this country? To me, that is what George Floyd’s murder last summer made very apparent: every police killing of a Black man is already a historical reenactment, one that is centuries in the making. But then what kind of thing is historical consciousness in this social scenario? History appears here not as something in the discursive realm—as some set of “facts” of which certain uninformed people need to simply be “convinced”—but as a sense of the past’s bearing down on the present in a way that feels more urgent than anything else. There’s this Goethe quote I recently found: Maybe the best we have of history is the enthusiasm that it excites. I’m not one for quote collecting, but I do think that’s a good one.

Critical Theory: How did the collapse of communism in 1989 affect people’s sense of history and time, particularly their sense of the future, in Germany and Poland? Similarly, how was this reflected in cultural works and the general intellectual milieu in the same regions?

Sliwowski: Until the current pandemic, the collapse of communism in 1989 was the most recent collective historical experience in which people in the cultures that I study were aware of experiencing as historical. Prof. Alexei Yurchak, who is one of my advisors, wrote a very influential book about the peculiar feeling that the Soviet system was totally solid and eternal—until it suddenly seemed to evaporate into thin air. The collapse of communism in East Germany and People’s Poland was distinct in some important ways. In East Germany, it was contiguous with the annexation of the country by West Germany, with the almost overnight devaluation of everything uniquely East German. In Poland, on the other hand, it was fitted into a larger historical rhythm, composed of waves of Russian re- and de-colonization, framed as a return, as in many other countries in the region, to an interrupted Interwar national sovereignty. In both cases, as in the USSR, the “opening” of these societies to Western capitalist market forces coincided with the evaporation of a socialist futurity which had long seemed to be compromised. These kinds of historical experiences are hard to parse in reductive, empiricist models of historical time as linear and forward-moving. Where does a sense of the future go when it vanishes? Why does it come to feel like it was never really there in the first place? More to the point: how might finding the right theoretical armature for describing the historical experiences of communism’s collapse perhaps aid us in finding a way to talk about our own experience of our historical present— be it the rot of imperial stagnation, the “cruel optimism” of the American vision of the good life (to borrow Lauren Berlant’s term), or the nihilistic doom of an anthropocene we already sense that nobody will actually escape?

The Soviet Union and its Central European satellites (I focus on Poland and Germany) were political orders with an almost comically paranoid attitude towards the written word— these were societies where literature mattered a great deal more than it does in our world today. As a literary scholar and a writer who has never not been broke and who has about $50K in student debt, it’s hard not to indulge in a little playful nostalgia about this: who could ever complain about a state that provided you with a spacious apartment, rent-free, for life? Who wouldn’t want to have a personal censor, one willing to read every word one writes and give generous, thoughtful feedback—even if their suggestions were phrased more like stern commands? There’s this Polish writer Tadeusz Mrożek: he is kind of an obscene racist in some of his writing, but what’s interesting about him is that, even after emigrating to Paris, he sent all his writing to a publishing house in Warsaw. He couldn’t live without the care and control of the censor, and after 1989 he couldn’t write anything at all. Stuck in reductive paradigms about “free speech” and stale fantasies of creative autonomy, I think that we still don’t even have the tools to ask the right kinds of questions about these literary cultures.

Polish telephone factory

I think their politics—whether anticommunist dissidence or third-way attempts to imagine so-called “socialism with a human face”—are among the least interesting things about these writers. Far more compelling to me are the ways in which writing becomes a technology for making different senses of time felt. I am currently working on a chapter on Tadeusz Konwicki and his fixation on unhinged temporalities and retrograde modernity: his novel A Minor Apocalypse is less like a conventional narrative than it is like discursive performance art, asking the reader to inhabit the feeling of being left behind, to tune into the feeling of a wasted life realized way too late. The East German writer Christa Wolf, a sympathetic and true-believing socialist, wrote a book not long after the Chernobyl meltdown in which she revises bits of text from many of her earlier novels, musing along the way that, now, the words like “cloud” or “radiate” can never return to their innocent meaning, “contaminated” as they are by this event, and that all Romantic nature poetry consequently needs to be reread. This sense of the historical event as a radical revision of its own historical context—what sorts of problems does this bring to light about the status of historical knowledge? How does it constellate, perhaps, with our own contemporary attempts to articulate the anthropocene, which, like Chernobyl, recasts old words in new lights—including words like “meltdown”?

Critical Theory: How do you utilize concepts and/or research from Critical Theory scholars in your work?

Sliwowski: More than anything else, reading and rereading Walter Benjamin has broadened the kinds of questions I’ve learned to ask and equipped me with the discursive tools to articulate problems at the intersections of literature and history. Two courses offered in the Program in Critical Theory helped me to think through Benjamin’s notoriously knotted and self-referential writings: Prof. Rob Kaufman’s seminar on the Frankfurt School and Prof. Karen Feldman’s seminar on the Philosophy of History. Very different ways of teaching Benjamin, to be sure, but both integral to my own intellectual development. For Benjamin, historical reality was something quite different from what it was to his contemporaries: halfway between a very heterodox Marxism and an equally idiosyncratic Jewish mysticism, his writing about history is concerned above all with articulating messianic temporality, radical synchronicity, and the ways in which every present is “shot through” with moments in the past. One strand of the Marxist tradition that features prominently in Benjamin and in Adorno has always been committed to critiquing facile understandings of historical time as simply progressing or declining, as if it were a natural, organic process. Instead, every moment is shot through with possibility and catastrophe, with futures that are foreclosed and pasts that are suddenly, unexpectedly reactivated. Instead of easily-stomached narratives of triumph or defeat, it turns out to be always, frustratingly, somehow both too late to avenge the victims of the past, and too early to pass judgment on the fate of modernity.

My understanding of Critical Theory itself, and the Program in Critical Theory in particular, is actually rather conservative in some ways, very self-consciously building upon the original tradition of the New School for Social Research founded in 1919. For me, Critical Theory is both a body of canonical texts—one of our required seminars is often simply titled “Kant, Hegel, Marx”—as well as a robust tradition of critique that interrogates the limits of these thinker’s questions, continually expanding what counts as Critical Theory. A compelling way to think of the function of Critical Theory in the humanities and social sciences I learned in one of Prof. Tony Kaes’s seminars: Critical Theory works like an interdisciplinary lingua franca, allowing scholars with vastly different objects of study to make claims that are legible and relevant to one another’s work. An anthropologist working on indigenous Brazilian land rights and an architectural historian working on Stalinist skyscrapers might find in Rancière’s concept of the political a level of theoretical abstraction that suddenly reveals their seemingly disparate projects to be concerned with complementary questions. In this way, Critical Theory provides conceptual bridges that disciplinary methodologies or raw empirical data simply cannot—and, what’s more, it does this best precisely when we work to expand the bounds of what Critical Theory entails. This is, for me, the surprising and inspiring way in which Critical Theory works against the atomization of academic hyper-specialization: it is its most significant value for an institution like our own.

Critical Theory: What are your future research or career plans?

Sliwowski: I’ll stick to my future research plans, since it is these that I feel closest to at the moment. I really like the prospect of writing research-based nonfiction that can also find a popular audience. One day I want to write a book about spas, saunas, and sanatoria in Central Europe; water-cures, mineral springs, literary representations thereof, like The Magic Mountain, and the strange social functions of these spaces. I would love to find a way to write about the phenomenology of these various water cures, since my interest in them grew out of my experiences in saunas, spas, ice plunges, etc. In fact, I would say that going to the sauna, and specifically to Albany Sauna and Hot Tubs on Solano Ave, is what I miss most with this pandemic. There is something about sweating and drinking water, turning yourself into a sponge, and non-sexual nudity, that is very cleansing and special. It’s hard to be dishonest in a sauna, least of all with yourself.