Time in Transition Mikołaj Lewicki

I / From A to B

The idea of transition implies in itself some final goal or clearly-conceived future toward which the transition is leading. If the transition has a clear spatial direction (to the West) and a well-defined path (of modernization) there should be no issue of time except as far as the speed is concerned. The idea of a certain point in time toward which one is moving already assumes a detemporalized structure of thinking. When the future is known (or assumed to be known) and well described then the steps to be taken toward it seem quite obvious. The future is “there.” One has to reach it sooner or later. The transition time is the measurement of a move from point A (e.g., communism) to point B (e.g., capitalism & democracy). The connection between A and B—even if there is an A1, A2, A3, and a B1, B2, B3, etc.—assumes an increasingly exact measurement of the movement. In this very narrow and rather technical sense, the transition took place in a World Time in which the category of development was put in economic measurements and “objective” indications of development (demographic, social, political, and cultural). The future of a transition that was not enclosed in a utopia but rather determined by an antiutopian discourse apparently had a closed horizon of institutions (EU, NATO), political order (democracy), and culture (liberalism) which was supposed to stabilize it and define its modernity. The fruits of the development were supposed to spread around entire societies through the operation of the invisible hand of the market. Everything that did not fit the model was assumed to be a remnant of communist backwardness and needed to be replaced.

II / Forgetting the Past, Retrieving and Reaching the Future

When symbols of the past such as the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw could not be destroyed or dismantled, they could be “tagged” with modernity by installing the highest clock in Europe and calling it the “Millennium Clock.” The clock replaces and erases the contingent and unnatural past which hindered development. You can paint a tank pink (as did David Černý) or wrap up the Reichstag (as did Christo) in order to rearrange the space and wipe out its former symbols. This technical work assumed a return to “normal.” Every symbol of the past was just a part of the backward past that we abandoned in the name of a retrieved future. Russian rule, or the communism imposed by the Soviet Union, distanced Eastern European organic evolution within its own larger organic space: Europe. As Maria Todorova suggests, “the acceleration of time in the future, the catching up, is with one’s own ‘what might have been.’ Europe’s past is Eastern Europe’s organic, not emulative, future.”1 Therefore, one did not have to rethink the past or discuss the future. The future fulfilled itself paradoxically with the “spatial” accession to the West of some (not all) of the Central and Eastern European countries in 2004 or 2008. Indicators clearly show that within just a dozen or so years some of these countries have almost reached the level of the most developed countries. Eastern Europe is closer to the target than it ever has been. The dream of catching up is close to coming true as never before. The point has been reached. But the future horizon is paradoxically entangled in associations with the past as more and more political voices (and not only the critical ones) question the success of the transition.

III / The Stolen Revolution

Meanwhile, some have started to speak about “a stolen revolution” or begun to search for some kind of hidden agenda behind the visible and discursivized public stage. But it was not merely political discourse which began to acknowledge the fractures, discontinuities, and detemporalized structure of the transition. After achieving membership in EU and NATO—the most symbolic, most generally acclaimed, and most important institutions—and having its own modern clocks, skyscrapers, and supermalls (see “Turbo Architecture” in this volume), Central and Eastern Europe lost its future as a kind of modern model. All of the sudden there was no future ahead … At this moment the past, present, and future became just time segments again. The past appeared as traumas (collaboration, participation in the Holocaust, nationalist conflicts). Earlier untold stories came out about unsuccessful 20th‑century modernization which appeared to be lagging behind rather than moving forward. The present appeared more and more as not just a technological project (transition from A to B) in statu nascendi but rather as an unsteady structure inscribed in an even more unstable structure (the EU).

IV / Searching for Safety

As the present is overloaded with present risks as well as future ones, the future ceases to be the guaranteed (imitated) solution for present conflicts, uncertainties, and questions. Central Europe faces an ambivalent status, as its past is different from the past of the emulated West and its future (as the fulfillment of a known model) is melting away. Every country going through a transition has its own indicators of a specific, indigenous success. Any idea of similarities or the possibility of joining the countries of Central and Eastern Europe together has been abandoned and repressed. Instead, everyone is trying to retrieve their “stolen future” without cooperating with the other “backward” countries. The obvious simultaneity of transition between these countries was replaced by their own path of emulation. The Slovaks have the Euro (currency), the Poles will have it in 2012, the Czechs were the first of the Visegrád Group to have the EU presidency, etc. The future has become a little more tangible and to hand.

V / The Paradox of Technology

However, if we think of time not as a sequence of steps but rather an ongoing ramification of the present by reference to the past and to the future, we see that the transition had quite a special temporal structure. As a project of modernization it accepted a detemporalized structure of thinking and acting (imitation) in order to face a typical paradox of modernity. The more exact and well defined a complex structured project is, the more unlikely is its fulfillment and realization. The more “normal” the societies of Central and Eastern Europe were struggling to become, the more visible were the differences between them—and between them and the West. As the CEE societies became more “European,” the present became less stable and controllable. It was as if the model we had been supposed to catch up with had been thrown away. There is no standard middle-class society represented by a national state with a controllable space or time (see “Belt-Tightening” in this volume). Neither space nor time is delivering clear solutions to the problems that appear in the present. The economic crisis, peace wars and peace interventions, the (in)stability of the political scene, the lack of civic participation, the instability of relationships and of one’s own professional choices as consequences of the accelerating market, and the choices of consumption, living, and artistic expression have become entangled in present contexts which disable every decisive move toward the future. To secure the future one has to be in a hurry all the time. To have any kind of stability one has to take care of everything in the present.

VI / After the Present

The Present as a temporal structure which absorbs the future and tends to shorten references to the past seems to be a “common ground” for those leading and those catching up, or lagging behind. In this paradoxical way, the whole of modern Europe has “caught up” with the problem of security in the future. Similar problems and deep interrelations between societies and countries provoke one to rethink the framework of the present, its past and future, as an environment of the “common ground.” Transition itself does not seem to give any hint as to how Central Eastern Europe could rethink its temporal gaze. Perhaps we should look at it as a past which is more multifaceted than we used to think?


1 / Maria Todorova, “The Trap of Backwardness: Modernity, Temporality, and the Study of Eastern European Nationalism,” Slavic Review, vol. 64, no. 1 (Spring, 2005), p. 160.