A review of Nation Queer? Discourses Of Nationhood And Homosexuality In Times Of Transformation: Case Studies From Poland, by Robert Kulpa.
In her landmark work Uncanny Slavdom, literary critic Maria Janion characterizes Poland as an instance of a dubious “postcolonial” space; a colonized nation that at the same time feels superiority over its colonizer, and a country that has been identifying itself as part of Europe, while at the same time struggling with its identification with the “East” (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2006). Over the years within postcolonial and feminist scholarship the ambivalences surrounding Eastern European gender and sexuality dynamics remained unexplored. Robert Kulpa’s pioneering research confronts the silences around the dubious location of Eastern European narratives on sexuality by challenging the existing conceptualizations of the homosexuality, Central and Eastern Europe and nationhood.
In particular, he explores three aspects of the complex and complicated relation between homosexuality and nationhood in Poland: constructions of the Central Eastern European spaces as one of the West’s others, representations of the nationhood and homosexuality as mutually exclusive and opposed categories, and the conceptualization of homosexual subjects as passive objects of the national and supranational political discourses. Kulpa’s work is also a brilliant example of introducing reflexivity into academic research; by linking theoretical conceptualizations of nationhood and homosexuality with examples of current social practices, his thesis illustrates how narratives of nationhood and sexuality intersect at national and transnational context in Poland and within the experience of traveling subjects, like himself.
While the first part of the thesis sets up the theoretical, geopolitical context of the analysis, later in his work Kulpa offers a thorough examination of three case studies to illustrate his provocative, unexpected and stimulating arguments. Chapter one introduces the research questions and genealogy of the author’s academic interests by drawing on his personal experience of becoming a “nomadic” subject in the globalizing world. The employment of Kulpa’s own experience and positionality of an intellectual and traveler, Polish native, PhD student in British metropolis, and a lost in translation Polish gay man in Western Europe gives a reader a first glimpse of what becomes a major preoccupation of this work: conceptualizing sexuality as culturally (and nationally) imprinted and unpacking the hybridity of the Eastern European uneasy location between East and West.
Chapters 2 and three present the theoretical and methodological frameworks of the thesis, while contextualizing Kulpa’s argument in relation to the literature concerned with nationhood, national identities and nationalism, at the local, national and transnational level. Building on Judith Butler’s concept of performativity he argues that the “nature” of sexuality and nationalism is similar, as both are social constructions, never finished and never sure of “safety” of its borders and stability. Both chapters theorize nationhood with reference to questions of globalization, narration, time, and the possibility of utilizing some of the postcolonial theories frames in the context post-communism.
Chapter 4 is critical to Kulpa’s work as it contextualizes existing literature in reference to Eastern Europe pointing to the challenges and problems in utilizing existing frames in the analysis of this ambivalent location. This chapter engages with issues of time, location, hegemony and power as it confronts constructions of Eastern European as a form of subaltern territory, emerging within dubious geopolitical and theoretical space, one that belongs neither to West or East. The chapter vividly retraces how such narratives produced by the West serve as a frame of reference within which Eastern Europe is represented as a space “in transition”, “in between” or “little behind” the West (p. 68). Kulpa presents his original concept of leveraged pedagogy, which he argues, is the latest discursive strategy of “protecting” and “promoting” Western modernity in reference to gender and sexuality, and the European Union’s eastern enlargement. While reintroducing the old representations of Eastern Europe as the Western European backward “other”, and adding a new one: Eastern Europe as homophobic space, leveraged pedagogy becomes the newest attempt at securing the representation of the West as fully developed and advanced (p. 70).
Chapter 5 focuses down the argument on the formation of “traditional Polishness” and its components, including various types of “otherness” (such as the positionality of Polish Jews within the national narrative), and invokes themes common in Polish historical narratives such as victimhood and martyrdom. It considers Poland’s uneasy resting place between East and West, and calls for examining Polish history as an instance of postcolonial condition which strong attachment to Catholicism, Anti-Semitism, anxiety towards Russia, hostile relationships with Germany, feelings of inferiority and constructing national belonging as exclusively heterosexual are only some of crucial components. Following scholars such as Maria Janion, Kulpa argues that in Poland, as in case of other post-colonial countries, the relationship between nationhood and sexuality is fueled with emotions of desire and the emphasis on homosociality which simultaneously call for the repression of the homosexual subtext of the narrative that focuses on the community of brothers.
By probing the discrepancy between the “official” representation of homosexuality as opposite and in conflict with nationhood, and the multiple examples of strategies of inscribing homosexuality within the national discourses chapters 6 to 8 of Kulpa’s thesis demonstrate the relevance of the latter to the ongoing process of destabilizing the relationship between the nationhood and homosexual subjects and as “self” and the “other”. Chapter 6 for example uses the methodology of discourse theory developed by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe to examine former president’s Lech Kaczyński’s National address, and asks what role it plays in positioning the Polish state against old (Germany) and New (EU, gays) enemies of the national sovereignty. Kulpa argues that although the address represents the homosexual subjects as nation’s “others”, at the same time it constitutes them as an indispensable components of the national identity. As the negative becomes a part of the self, seemingly oppositional and exclusive discourses of nationhood and sexuality form a tight relation of co-dependency.
Similarly in the second of the analysis chapters, Kulpa scrutinizes the process of LGBT communities’ participation in the mourning after tragic death of the homophobic president, in 2010 as another case of the strategic and transgressive move, that aims at “reconciliation” of the two seemingly conflicted identities. He argues that the bereavement provided a symbolic space in which Polishness and gayness could be expressed at the same time. Participation by LGBT communities, as Poles, in this extraordinary process created an opportunity for moving from the outskirts of the national community, and paradoxically, according to Kulpa brought about a promise of challenging and blurring the distinction between “us” and “them”. Finally, in the last case study, presented in chapter 8 Kulpa takes a closer look at the LGBT social campaigns that represent the strategy of normalizing the homosexual subjects in the context of the ongoing debate about the sexual citizenship. Drawing on concepts of respectability and “banal nationalism” he illuminates how the two campaigns seek to inscribe sexual subjects into cultural politics of individualisation and productivity, characteristic to the “new” capitalism of Eastern Europe.
Overall, Kulpa succeeds at providing a convincing argument that rooting the construction of “sexual citizenship” in the hyper-performance of Polish/ gay identity during the time of national bereavement and the employment of normalization discourses in the recent the social campaigns can be interpreted by transgressive rather then regressive move of the LGBT groups in Poland. These strategies he argues serve as legitimization strategies of the homosexual subjects that challenge to the dynamic of “us” vs. “them”, while simultaneously representing LGBT groups as active and participating producers of the nation.
On the other hand, by situating the question of “sexuality” within much older discursive frames of Polish nationalism, Anti-Semitism, homosociality and anxieties towards East and West, Kulpa manages to challenge the existing representations of Eastern European’s social movements as “behind” its western counterparts. In this sense his thesis is a very much-needed addition to the ongoing debate on Eastern Europe as an important site of the formulation and reformulation of global gender and sexual identities.
Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology
Sejm of the Republic of Poland, resolution on Sovereignty of Polish legal system in the area of morality and Culture (April 11, 2003)
Sejm of the Republic of Poland resolution on the European Parliament, resolution on “Intensification of Violence based in Homophobia and Racism in Europe (June 23, 2006)
President of the Republic of Poland Lech Kaczynski’s National Address speech (March 17, 2008)
The Archives of the Campaign Against Homophobia
Birkbeck, University of London. 2012. 240 pp. Primary Advisors: Lynne Segal and Sasha Roseneil.
Image: Photograph by Robert Kulpa.