"Persuade the Old Hag!": De-territorialised culture does not exist

8. 5. 2010 / Jan Čulík

This is the text of a lecture given on Saturday 8th May, 2010 at a conference devoted to "deterritorialised culture" at Manchester University.

I have lived for several decades between the English speaking community in the United Kingdom and the "exotic", small language community of the speakers of the Czech language in Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic. On the basis of this experience, I humbly submit that in my view, deterritorialised culture does not exist. British comedian Mark Watson was talking here yesterday about how he "deterritorialises" his stand-up comedy to make it acceptable for the Americans and the Australians, but the experience of the non-native English speaker, which is the experience of most people in this world, completely eludes him. Would he also be able to de-territorialise his comedy, if he was a Bulgarian stand-up comic? In certain contexts, the received stereotypes simply do not work. If the definition of "deterritorialised culture" equals the loss of the natural relation of culture to geographical and social territories, as it was mentioned here yesterday, there are large areas of this world where this definition is simply faulty.

Certainly in countries and communities which used non-globalised languages. I would argue that even today, communities are still strongly defined by their language and their cultures exist more or less in isolation. This is at least my own experience. What do you people know about what makes people tick in the Czech Republic, for instance? As the Russian specialists present here know, speakers of English do not have a proper awareness of what is happening in other language cultural areas. In fact, while there seem to be some cross-cultural influences, the filters which are used in each culture seem totally dependent on national, local customs and prejudices. These are usually defined strictly within a concrete language area. These customs and prejudices have been created throughout many decades and when taken together, they form strong cultural attitudes, which are extremely resilient.

It is fascinating to see that only those elements from other cultures are taken up in a given culture which are acceptable and/or conform to the set of values prevalent in the recipient culture. Remarkably, this happens even in the internet age, where one would think that cultural information percolates freely regardless of borders. It isn't so -- there are strong cultural boundaries, even in the internet, and they usually coincide with linguistic borders.

I will look more closely at an example of such one-sided, cultural cross-fertilization from the current Czech Republic. I feel this is a remarkable example of cultural transfer where only those features which were required by the prevailing local conditions were taken over by the local culture, from a foreign work. I believe it proves my point.

But before I do so, let me make voice some more general doubts. It is quite understandable that the English speakers talk about de-territorialised culture; the English speaking world on the internet is vast. But this doesn't mean that there are not other, quite separate cultural areas on the net, all of which are determined by the closely defined language community. What do we know, for instance, about the Portugese culture on the internet in Latin America? What do we know about the internet culture in China? In Russia?

My daughter, a graduate of Russian and French from Oxford University, now lives and works in St. Petersburg. Even the Russian internet is a separate world of its own. This is what she has to say about (the non-existence of) "de-territorialised culture" in contemporary Russia:

Arguably the most important web community in the world, Facebook, is in Russia used by practically no one (it is used only by those with friends abroad). The Russian equivalent of Facebook is вКонтакте, which is used by EVERYONE, because there is so much information to be found. Any self-respecting company or organisation has a group on вКонтакте, and hence doesnt really need a full website.

вКонтакте is used not only for mindless chatter, but also for buying and selling, as a discussion forum, people use it instead of YouTube to upload films and music! (no copyright restrictions here!!!)

Apart from that, the older version is одноклассники, which the election candidates were using 2 years ago to try and be trendy.

If in Britain and America bloggers use either blogspot or typepad (sometimes wordpress but it's not as cool), then here the most important is livejournal (or ЖЖ - живой журнал) http://www.livejournal.ru/ as opposed to the livejournal.com which I used as a teenager.

Instead of googlemail, which is the standard in the UK and US, here most people use mail.ru or yandex.ru. In fact, yandex replaces google for almost everything. it has mail, dictionaries, search, weather, and even "Яндекс Карты" - I doubt they have different satellites to google though.

For illegal downloads the russian web is much wider and well-stocked. Most of it is based around the torrent site rutracker.org (formerly torrents.ru - it was closed down, which the ministers announced with glee on TV as a victory against piracy.. then less than a day later the exact same site opened at a new address). Incidentally, there is a Czech version too: http://tracker.cztorrent.net/login-page?url=%2F .

Finally, i can say that while for us in school the Instant Messenger of choice was MSN messenger, then in america everyone used AOL, and here in Russia ICQ. It means that if you don't have that programme installed, you can't chat with people until you do. "Are you on MSN?" Here they even have a russified name for ICQ - Аська.

The fact that there each non-English language culture has a parallel discourse which is not accessible to those who do not speak a local language is obvious to anyone who visits an English language bookshop in Prague. There you can see works testifying to the fall of communism twenty years ago, there are shelves full of respectful biographies of Václav Havel, etc. etc. In fact, if you talk to anyone in the street in Prague about Havel, you will find that many people regard him as thoroughly discredited or, at least irrelevant for the contemporary Czech Republic. The Czech Republic doesn't live with Slavenka Drakulic or the Museum of Communism these days -- these are artefacts, put up purely for tourist consumption. The real cultural life goes on the inside, totally invisible to the outsiders. It highly controversial, shocking, stimulating. But it doesn't for a part of what the English speakers see as "de-territorialised culture".

I was first alerted to the existence of a double, parallel discourse related to the non-English speaking countries, about five years ago in Olympia in Greece, when I attended an American-sponsored seminar for gifted postgraduates from the world's conflict areas. A number of young participants from the countries of former Yugoslavia pointed out to me that there is a literature on the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s is English, and then a parallel literature in Serbo-Croatian, and Slovenian, which corrects the various mistakes and inaccuracies in the English-language works about Yugoslavia. But, it was pointed out to me, that these two discourses, the local one and the international, English language one, never meet, because the authors of the monographs written in English usually do not know the local languages and so they do not have any knowledge of the "other" discourse in the local vernacular.

The situation is exactly the same in countries such as the Czech Republic. No one in the outside world follows what is going on in these countries. The cultural achievements and/or political developments of these countries remain hidden. No one cares, there is no cross-fertilisation. All cultural traffic goes one-way, from the West to the East. Have you ever hear a name of a contemporary Czech rock-singer, for instance? Is this de-territorialised culture? John Tomlinson was telling us here yesterday that British television produces an English remake of the Swedish detective series about Kurt Wallander. How deterritorialised is that?

And it works the other way about as well. The Czechs talk only amongst themselves. The internet is supposed to be a global phenomenon, isn't it? Well, it isn't in the Czech Republic. The Czechs, remarkably talk about "the Czech internet", which seems to be a contradiction in terms, since the concept of the internet is supposed to be borderless? The Russians talk about the "Russian internet" -- and the English speakers shake their heads. Surely the internet is global, international...?

There is a election campaign going on in the Czech Republic, as we speak, and various manipulative means are being used. As an example to prove my point, I want you to have a closer look at an electioneering film clip, recently made and published on YouTube by the Petr Zelenka. Zelenka is a well-known feature film maker in the Czech Republic.

The clip is ZDE

The translation:

If you knew that you could change the fate of this country by visiting your grandparents, would you go to see them?

Of course you would. Unless you are completely bonkers.

My name is Martha Issová. Persuade the Old Hag.

And also Persuade the Old Man.

He is Jirka Mádl.

If the Left wins the forthcoming election in this country, it will be the fault of the old people.

Because it is the old people who vote for the left. It could be people from your family. It could be your aunt, your uncle, your granny, your granddad.

And mostly, these people live in the country. How is this possible?

They were simply born there.

No, how is it possible that they vote for the left?

Have they forgotten what it looked like here for those forty years that communists were in power?

You see, the old people have a selective memory.

That means that they only remember the nice things. How they first kissed at a ball. But they have totally forgotten about the Stalinist showtrial with Milada Horáková.

No, that is Rita Heyworth.

The communists forced the best people in this country to emigrate. Miloš Forman, Miloš Forman, Navrátilová, Kundera, Milan Kundera...

We are making this video to persuade you to pick up sticks, to buy a bus ticket, train ticket or to get in a car and go and visit your grandparents or parents in the countryside and persuade them that they should vote for the right.

Or a new party.

Yes, or a new, right wing party. The right hand is this.

Yes, but for them it is the other way about.

All over the world, people use their right hands to greet each other or to feed themselves. All over the world, people use the left hand to wipe their arse.

Well, in some countries.

If you vote for the left, the left will then wipe their arse with you.

The old people say that they vote for the left for you, their children and grandchildren.

So you must tell them that they shouldn't vote for the socialists and communists for you.

On the contrary. To vote for the left is in direct contradiction with the interests of their descendants.

Because the left will incur debts and the old people will die, and it will be us who will have to be paying these debts off for the rest of our lives.

And if someone votes for the left just because they have to pay thirty crowns to see a doctor, very well, then, but it is a really selfish decision which will harm me.

On top of that, the left wing do not want to tackle the problem of the old age pensions, but if there is no reform, the state will not have the money for the pensions. And people without savings will be really badly off. But the left wing is not interested because its voters are old now and not in forty years' time.

The left wing will not allow university fees. They like to say that this will allegedly make education inaccessible to poorer people. This is total nonsense. It is the other way about. Education in this country isn't very good and if we can't motivate universities to do something about this, the best students will go abroad.

If common sense doesn't work, use pressure. Grandchildren are the most precious thing in the world for the grandparents. So if they vote for the right, they will receive an extra visit this year from you for free.

And if they don't , well, let us hope that they will still be alive when you next come.

And the reward for you if you persuade your granny and granddad?

We will tell you where on the web to find, totally free of charge the best animal porn with an Italian MP, Rocko di Fredi and an eel.

But first, persuade the old woman and the old man!

Now, what is remarkable about this clip is that it was almost 80 per cent copied from a US pro-Obama election clip, made by the American comedian Sarah Silverman. On the face of it, this seems to be a convincing example of deterritorialised culture: What Sarah Silverman made in the United States, was taken up by people in the Czech Republic. But is that really so? Have a look at the Silverman clip and compare it with its Czech copy. HERE

The American clip seems to me humane, self-ironic and affirmative. It respects human dignity.

Although the Czech clip seems to mimic it fairly slavishly, only those features are admitted in the Czech cultural environment, which bear significance within it. Other features are modified and enhanced. I feel it is an extremely interesting exercise to compare the two "texts".

Before we start, a little information about the context is needed. As Britské listy, a Czech-language cultural and political daily has pointed out - and the issue was then taken up by the Czech mainstream media - due to various cultural and social factors, there seems to be a huge generational gap in contemporary Czech society. The reasons for this may be various. One of them may be that Czech parents usually bring up their children in a fairly authoritative manner, so there is often little empathy between children and parents. There seem to be little contact between generations. The feeling of alienation between generations may be caused partially by the fact that older people have experienced from communism which younger people tend to despise. In their view, their own world, the one that exists now, is the best possible world.

The hangs up and prejudices of the younger generation in the smaller, non-English speaking cultures, are disseminated and greatly enhanced on internet social networks. Incidentally, here is yet another example of the non-existence of de-territorialised culture and of the existence of totally isolated parallel discourses. The discourse on Western social networks in small, generally "inaccessible" languages often contain gross infringements of decency and ethics, but these offences are not policed. As has been documented, in the Czech Republic, Wikipedia, Facebook and other social networking sites have developed clannish, mafia-like structures of local supervisors who push through their own political interests and block - not gross indecency or violence, but political views which differ from their own, and people whom the supervising clan regard as "part of our own mafia".

Britské listy has pointed to the fact that there is large group of Czech young people on Facebook who express hate against old people. The after it has been taken up by the mainstream media, has provoked a considerable amount of interest and soul searching. The hatred of young Czechs, felt towards the older generation now seems to be taken as a matter of fact.

The film director Petr Zelenka is a well-known author of filmatic mystifications. He is also a well-known right winger. If we can trust his statements in the Czech media, made over the past two weeks or so, the "Persuade the old woman" clip is not a mystification, though. He apparently genuinely fears the victory of the Czech left wing in the forthcoming election and has decided to act against it.

Let us leave aside whether his clip can be successful. In order to appeal to the younger generation as a whole, it must be fairly basic and provocative. It must be seen as breaking taboos and at the same time it must not be too intellectually demanding. These pre-requisites of course mean that the impact of the clip will be fairly counterproductive. The clip is just preaching to the converted - to the inveterate, semi-fascist right winger. More than 575 000 people have seen the clip on YouTube and many of them have been scandalised by it. Lots of people have said that the clip has persuaded them to vote for the left wing, even for the communist party. Some people have even speculated that the clip might be a left-wing provocation. This has incidentally been dismissed by most commentators? if nothing else, the actors featured in the clip are well-known right-wingers.

But let's leave all this aside. What is particularly relevant for the purpose of this conference, is, though, the deliberate use of the hatred directed towards old people as an important ingredient of the mix which the director uses to ingratiate himself to the Czech young people. The breaking of social, ethical and moral taboos has been used for manipulative purposes.

It has to be admitted that a critical attitude towards older people is latently present even in the original American pre-election clip; although Sarah Silverman presents her Jewish relatives who live in Florida in a fairly loving light. The relatives may be slightly confused, but they are still depicted quite lovingly in the American clip. There is none of the open disgust, disseminated by the Czech clip, which implies that old people are stupid, decrepit, cannot be trusted, are obnoxious and we will all give a sigh of relief when they are dead.

Bohumil Kartous, writing in Britské listy has listed the some characteristic features of the Czech clip. Notice how they differ from the American original. The clip has been fully adjusted to local Czech cultural requirements.

Kartous points out to the fact that the Zelenka clip is a complicated semantic conglomerate, made up of several layers. The impact of the clip is based on the interplay of the individual layers. The impact of the clip is complex, in spite of the fact that the commentary of the clip is extremely banal.

The following factors are at play:

- The message is communicated by two well-known young popular culture celebrities

- The clip uses a highly emphatic, personally persuasive approach of the speakers to the viewer

- There are frequent personal appeals to the viewer, these are "lightened" by elements of irony and humour. At the same time, the message is aimed to wake up the viewer.

- The clip is deliberately "different", so it stands out in comparison with normal, anodyne, political advertising.

- The sofa scene implies that the setting is casual: the message must be taken seriously exactly because it is not communicated in an official way.

- the accompanying images and graphic effects are a part of the contemporary clip culture, which fragments reality and creates the impression that this is the real "in" approach.

- some elements of the clip deliberately break ethical taboos. The aim is to make the clip feel "original" and "innovative", as an attempt "to provoke a debate"

The kitsch vulgarity and infantility, which is the source of energy of the clip seems more important than the verbal message, which is banal and factually incorrect.

What are the differences between this and the Silverman clip?

In spite of the fact that Sarah Silverman is well-known as a controversial comedian in the US, the pro-Obama clip does not break ethical standards. It is friendly, humorous, and self-ironic. There is maybe a hint of a threat when Silverman implies at the end, that the old relatives might die before the young ones come to visit. This hint is taken up and brutally enhanced in the Czech version.

Much more than the US clip, the Czech clip seems to play to local conditions, by highlighting aggression, mockery and brutality. On the whole it is an interesting example of how cultural cross-fertilisation works -- only those external influences are allowed in the receiving culture which are present within it in the first place already.


Obsah vydání | Sobota 10.12. 2016