The 5th Annual Summer Conference and the Inaugural Edition of the Summer School, august 21–25, 2016, Telciu (Transylvania)
Ion Matei Costinescu
„Revista română de sociologie”, serie nouă, anul XXVIII, nr. 1–2, p. 103–122, Bucureşti, 2017
This paper aims to provide a critical response to the 5th Annual Telciu Summer Conference and of the inaugural edition of the Telciu Summer School. These conjoined events took place August 21–25, 2016 in the Transylvanian village of Telciu and were convened under the title “Rurality, Modernity and Decoloniality: Unmaking the Legacies of Empire from Below”. Together, the academic conference and summer school gathered over 50 panellists, faculty, students, and attendees from Romania, the EU, China, and the Philippines. Organized by the newly-established Center for the Study of Modernity and the Rural World in conjunction with the Mayoralty of Telciu and the “George Coşbuc” Bistriţa-Năsăud County Library, these proceedings were part of an on-going series of seminars that propose to engage with “modernity” both as an analytical concept and as an ensemble of cultural norms and socio-economic practices embedded in specific historical and geographic contexts.
The conference itself featured approximately 20 papers organized around the following broad thematic panels: “Rural Transformations: Modernity at Work”, “Navigating Modernity in Rural Spaces: Magic, Religion, and the Arts”, Debunking Modernity from Below: Rural Case Studies”, and “Rurality – Between Vestige and the Last Frontier”. It is important to note that, in the admittedly self- interested opinion of the author of this article, who is part of the Organizing Committee, the Summer School was intellectually on par with the Conference and sometimes even better.12 This is because School’s scheduling allowed for more ample exposition and discussion of the material presented.
Sample course titles included “The Postcolonial–Postsocialist Junctures and the Decolonial Options”, “The Rural Reconstruction Movement in China”, “Decolonizing Romania and Rural Resistance”, and “Semi-Peripheral Modernities and the Rural Alternative: Case Studies from Interwar Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary”. Consequently, this essay will eschew analytical distinctions between the conference proceedings and summer school courses, focusing instead on some of the most important themes that emerged in the course of the various presentations and ensuing debates. These themes will be illustrated by discussing select papers and courses chosen according to this author’s interests and ability to comment on the subject matter.
The theoretical premises underlying this symposium were that “modernity”, “rurality”, and “decoloniality” were mutually constitutive categories. Consequently, I would argue that the most important insights that emerged from the proceedings had to do with the specific ways in which these three notions enrich each other as analytical concepts and facilitate, indeed necessitate novel interdisciplinary approaches drawn from the entire range of the social and humane sciences. A brief clarification of the underlying epistemic framework is therefore needed. On the one hand, decolonial thought is a fairly coherent epistemic and political project. It is rooted in the capitalist world system as a unit of socio-economic and geopolitical analysis, but grants more autonomy in the Marxist sense to the cultural sphere as the site in which colonial-type power/knowledge mechanisms continue to articulate hierarchies of class, gender, race/ethnicity, and nation well after the end of formal colonial rule13. At the same time, it is in the realm of culture that resistance to the narratives of power emanating from the West is imagined and articulated.
On the other hand, there is the self-evident consideration that, historically and demographically speaking, most subaltern populations, namely groups that are rendered marginal and powerless by virtue of social status, were predominantly rural-based. Yet “rurality” itself is an analytically and ideologically contested concept. It is most frequently imagined as an opposite end on a continuum ranging from tradition (associated with rurality, the periphery, and the past) to globalization (associated with modernity, the present, and core power). Nonetheless, as concrete and variegated historical phenomena, both rurality in modernity and rurality as the precursor of modernity have been configured by global asymmetries of power and uneven processes of socio-economic development. As such, both the rural and the modern are inherent to and heirs of imperial, colonial and post- imperial/postcolonial matrices of power and of the particular configurations of national spaces derived from them. In this overall context, it comes as no surprise that the majority of the papers and/or courses were either organically and unselfconsciously of an interdisciplinary bent, but more often than not explicitly and reflexively so.
Accordingly, Vintilă Mihăilescu’s course and keynote address brought a historical and anthropological perspective on the tension between tradition and custom in self-imaginings of the “modern”. The main plank of his analysis was the heuristic distinction between what he termed custom-practicing societies characterized by attributes such as cosmocentric visions, heteronomy, and a sense of the sacred, on the one hand, and modern societies defined by anthropocentric visions, autonomy, and secularism/disenchantment, on the other. In this framework, “traditions” emerge as functional constructs created by modernity through selective and critical ways of relating to the past. Traditions, Mihăilescu contended, are an “inverse filiation” whereby sons invent fathers for the purposes of legitimizing social positions and/or ideological programs. A pertinent example can be found in modern projects of configuring Romanian national identity. The 19th century switch from the Orient to the West as a point of reference, the argument went, framed Romanian national identity between competing Occidentalist and exceptionalist visions of national character and endowed it with a schizoid perspective on the past. Romanian exceptionalism took form either in the guise of autochtonist ontologies of continuity and/or becoming or as various types of defeatist exceptionalisms. The latter held and continue to hold Romanians inherently incapable of achieving genuine progress without some form of outside influence. Concrete examples in all categories include Dacomania, Orthodox mysticism, and the ironic motto “in the EU we trust”. Mihăilescu pointed out that both Occidentalist projects and some variants of Romanian exceptionalism were and continue to be laced with a respectable dose of essentialism and self-hatred. In turn, this raised the provocative question of whether self-racialization either in the form of self-colonizing westernizing projects or self-essentializing autochtonisms constituted a veritable pathway through and to modernity.
As a way out of the conceptual cul-de-sac described above, Mihăilescu counterposed the dynamism and creativity of traditions in a Hobsbawmian sense (i.e. traditions qua cultural inventions with their own internal logics). Traditions, he suggested, are the antidote to what he termed the “conservative patrimonialization” and reification of cultural heritage, not least material culture. In this way, “traditional” materials and techniques, skills and practices, as well as ways of relating to nature typically associated with peasant life can be mobilized anew as a way of designing cultural landscapes that would serve as wellsprings of sustainable development. In this way, Mihăilescu demonstrated how Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen’s (1906–1994) concept of bio-economics, which was in turn inspired by the study of interwar Romania’s peasant economy, can be combined with Hobsbawm’s insights concerning the socially innovatory role of traditions in order to produce a critical revalorization of rurality.
In a somewhat similar vein but using a much more finely-grained historical and geographical optic, Iulia Hurducaş’ paper “Constructing the Rural Periphery on the Vişeu River Valley, Maramureş, Romania” problematized the distinction between rural and urban infrastructure. The broader region of Maramureş was constructed as a rural periphery in relation to both modern cities and the modern idea of the city, but Hurducaş placed her emphasis on the linkages between the global flow of timber during the Habsburg period, the infrastructure that supported this trade including water as a conduit for timber, and the imperial policy of settling the area with German colonists to work on the forests. These factors point towards a broader economic logic and a mode of constructing territory that cuts across the rural-urban dichotomy, the more so since nowadays state policy and local development programs construct the territorial flow of water as an infrastructure of the urban. By contrast, Hurducaş’ analysis showed a way of decolonizing the idea of the city.
The conceptual dichotomy between rural and urban was also called into question by Călin Goina’s course “Rural-urban symbiosis – an ethnographic exploration of a Cluj street”. Based on a study that combined ethnographic and social-historical approaches via life histories, Goina’s course shed light on broader social forces that caused rural-urban migration into the city of Cluj during the last half century. One of the key findings was that migrants’ economic strategies implied an evolving relationship with urban space as the site of what might termed a ruralized urban economy comprised of gardens and animal rearing. Consequently, between 1950 and 2000 the street in question was a transition zone, namely the site for an intermediary semi-rural and semi-urban lifestyle. The rising cost of land after 1990 gradually de-peripheralized the area in which the street is located. Most new residents are city dwellers in search of houses with gardens. Yet another important finding was that ethnic and class identities persisted, but were reconfigured as the descendants of various waves of migrants from the countryside self-consciously embraced an urban identity. In short, Goina’s case study reinforces the need to think of the “rural” itself as a continuum.
By contrast, Irina Marin’s paper “Land Reform and Social Combustibility around the Triple Frontier between Romania, Austria-Hungary, and Tsarist Russia at the End of the 19th, Beginning of the 20th Century” adopted a transnational, comparative social-historical perspective that examined some of the consequences of mid-nineteenth century land reforms and their resultant social transformations in the triple border area of the Russian, Ottoman, and Habsburg empires. In this context, the 1907 Great Peasant Revolt in Romania appears as one instance in which comparable socio-economic processes lead to different outcomes depending on local conditions. Grounding her analysis in a cross- border comparison of land reforms and land-tenure arrangements, Marin sought to account for the ways in which the interaction between states, peasants, and landed elites resulted in various degrees of social combustibility. Her main conclusion was that the potential for social unrest depended upon the social consequences of land reforms, more precisely on whether said reforms resulted either in a free and prosperous peasantry, peasant proletarianization, colonization, or the replacement of legal with economic bondage (neo-serfdom). Marin’s analysis was also mindful of Romanian communities residing outside the Old Kingdom as relevant case studies. The pertinent issue here is why Romanians in the neighboring Habsburg provinces of Transylvania, Bukovina, and the Banat, as well as in the Tsarist region of Bessarabia remained comparatively peaceful. In this way, Marin’s paper showed that there is a need for new research regarding the regional impact of the Great Revolt.
Similarly, Manuela Boatcă’s course “The Coloniality of Labor in the Global Periphery: Eastern Europe and Latin America in the World System” also employed a comparative transnational perspective. However, Boatcă’s approach was macrosociological, focusing on long-term patterns and processes within the capitalist world system. Her analysis evinced a continuous concern with how slavery fits into capitalist development. The underlying question was how serfdom as a pre-existing normative benchmark of “backwardness” problematizes our understanding of slavery in a global context characterized by multiple gradients/varieties of non-free labor. Examples of non-slave, non- free labor regimes include (legally) coerced cash-crop labor, share-cropping, and various forms of coercive tenancy. Precisely because whatever is not associated with free labor is typically construed as “backward”, Boatcă showed that, historically speaking, various (semi) peripheries gave rise to local varieties of non-free labor. She substantiated this point by comparing Engels’ concept of “second serfdom” for sixteenth through nineteenth century Eastern Europe with Dale Tomich’s notion of “second slavery” for eighteenth through nineteenth century Brazil, the Caribbean, and the US South. The comparison between these institutions and regions revealed not only structural similarities, but also the fact that these labor regimes were not homogenous since they encompassed different degrees of coercion of workers. Furthermore, Boatcă argued that the abolition of these regimes resulted in complex patterns of free and non-free labor which continue to characterize contemporary peripheral labor regimes. In short, although a single capitalist world economy has existed since the 16th century, there never was a universal capitalist regime. Consequently, instead of casting the multiple varieties of non-free labor as temporalities that configure “backwardness”, it would be more useful to consider wage labor as the local labor regime of the capitalist core.
The papers and course discussed above should be sufficient to give readers an idea of the broad range of topics and interdisciplinary approaches that were the hallmark of this symposium. In this sense, it is worth reiterating that the establishment of Center for the Study of Modernity and the Rural World Modernity, as well as the debut of the Telciu Summer School mark a new, more ambitious phase in the already successful series of international academic conferences organized in the village of Telciu. In fact, the Telciu Summer School is the first and so far the only one of its kind in Eastern Europe. In 2017, in addition to the conference and summer school, the Center for the Study of Modernity and the Rural World plans to launch an interdisciplinary academic journal. Most likely, the journal will be titled Telciu Journal of Decoloniality. At the time of this writing, the prospects of obtaining financing for this venture are good.
Yet perhaps even more important than the content of the academic debates is the nature of this novel educational experiment. The very placement of the School and of the conference in the heart of the village is premised on drawing together researchers, local residents, and School participants into a framework of reciprocity and dialogue. For example, in addition to a theater play, film screenings, public readings, informal discussions, as well as a theater workshop for local schoolchildren, the curricular enrichment program of the School featured two extra-curricular courses intended primarily for local residents. Taught by David Schwartz and Aurelian Giugăl, these courses were respectively titled “Political Theater on the European Periphery: A Short History of Engaged Theater the Context of the Post-Socialist Transition” and “From Right to Left: How to Understand Politics”. Hence, when all things are considered, there are good reasons to say that this symposium came as close to establishing a heterotopic space as this writer has experienced. Most participants and the organizers certainly strove to make it so. That the event fell and most likely will continue to fall short of this ideal is far less important than the fact that it took place in the Romanian social context, where the ostentatious fetishization of “culture” and of the status of intellectuals as its interpreters is a well- established social practice brought about by the modern era. This latter point is sufficiently self- evident so as to require no elaboration, save perhaps a reminder that this kind of fetishization played an important functional role in both nation-building and social stratification processes. In this context, what matters is the attempt to carve out spaces that permit the emergence of hierarchy-attenuating forms of culture and cultural struggle.
12 The Organizing Committee for the Conference and Summer School consisted of Valer- Simion Cosma, Manuela Boatcă, Ion Matei Costinescu, Ovidiu Ţichindeleanu, Miki Branişte. The latter played a key role in helping organize the curricular enrichment part of the Summer School program. Special gratitude is also due to our partners, namely the Secondary Technical School of Telciu, Cinemobilul, Reciproca, and the Faculty of History and Philosophy, Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj. More information about the Conference, Summer School, and related curricular enrichment activities can be accessed at http://www.centrulpentrustudiereamodernitatiisialumiirurale.ro/.
13 For example, see Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Latin America Otherwise) (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Anibal Quijano, “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America.” Nepantla: Views from the South. 1: (3)/2000, p. 533–580.
- CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF MODERNITY AND THE RURAL WORLD. “Telciu Summer Conferences” and “Telciu Summer School”. Available at http://www.centrulpentrustudiereamodernitatiisialumii rurale.ro/;
- MIGNOLO, “The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Latin America Otherwise)” (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011);
- QUIJANO, ANIBAL. “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America”. Nepantla: Views From the South. 1: (3)/2000, 533–580. Available at http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/ icb.topic203438.files/Anibal_Quijano.Coloniality.pdf.