The Agency of the Powerless: The Transformative Power of the Non-politics of Small Things

Oct 25 2023
Vienna 1090
Phone: 01 313580
Wednesday, October 25, 2023
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Jan Patočka Memorial Lecture

The IWM Jan Patočka Memorial Lectures series was established in 1987. The Czech thinker Jan Patočka (1907-1977) is considered one of the most important modern philosophers in Central Europe and was a co-founder and spokesman of the civil rights movement Charter 77. His works have been researched and published at the Institute for Human Sciences since the 1980s. The series of lectures was inaugurated by Hans-Georg Gadamer and is taking place for the 34th time this year. Previous speakers include Nancy Fraser, Lord Dahrendorf, Edward W. Said, Albert O. Hirschman, Francois Furet, Jaques Derrida, Leszek Kolakowski and, most recently, Lord Skidelsky, Chantal Mouffe and Aleida Assmann.

Beginning with Vaclav Havel’s essay on the power of the powerless, this lecture is to extend the application of his insights about the daily reproduction of the communist regime, and the related potential for its erosion, into the vast field of intentionally apolitical and inconspicuous social practices.

The communist state’s attempted control of all spheres of life rigidly constrained the pursuit of various personal needs and aspirations. The post-Stalin reforms gave it more flexibility and allowed for a modicum of the private sphere but opened room for bottom-up testing of the limits of its toleration, and for the expansion of irregular practices and gray zones.

A microhistorical perspective will allow us to see the patterns and dynamics of this expansion and how it contributed to the evolution of the regime, its script being blurred and subverted by unplanned roles and scenes, including the gray and other colored markets. While differing from the emancipatory “politics of small things,” the proliferation of irregular non-political practices did produce notable changes, including in the distribution of power. Their history helps us better understand both the decline and the decades-long stability of the communist regime as correlates of its social and cultural embeddedness.

Dariusz Stola is a historian and professor at the Institute for Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. His research focuses on the history of the communist regime in Poland, Polish-Jewish relations, and international migration in the 20th century. He has authored and co-edited several books on Polish history and is a regular contributor to scientific journals. His most notable publications include: Kraj bez wyjścia? Migracje z Polski 1949-1989 (A Country with No Exit? Migrations from Poland, 1949-1989), Kampania antysyjonistyczna w Polsce 1967-1968 (The Anti-Zionist Campaign in Poland, 1967-1968) and Nadzieja i Zagłada (Hope and the Holocaust). Stola serves on the boards of several international and Polish organizations dedicated to the study of contemporary history, such as the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and the Centre of Migration Research at the University of Warsaw. Between 2014 and 2019 Stola was the director of the Polin Museum of Polish Jewish History, where he contributed decisively to its success as the European Museum of the Year in 2016.

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