Ambiguities and Dogmas of the Real

Ambiguities and Dogmas of the Real

A three-day workshop organised by the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES), Södertörn University in collaboration with IASPIS March 5-7, 2015.

Ambiguities and Dogmas of the Real: Perspectives and narratives of Socialist realism and realism in history and of the today.

A three-day workshop organised by the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES), Södertörn University in collaboration with IASPIS March 5-7, 2015.

The conference takes place mainly at Södertörn University, (room MA 796). 5 March there is a screening and a talk by Laura Erber at Iaspis, The Swedish Arts Grants Committee, 17-20 pm.

Because of the limited number of seats, please notify if you want to attend the workshop at CBEES at the latest 2 March by sending an e-amil to: If you would like to take part in the evening at Iaspis please notify at the latest 26 February by sending an e-mail to

Keynote Speaker:

Professor Benjamin Robinson
The overall theme of the conference is to question in the need and function of realism in the cultural spheres in modernity historically and as of today. It takes as its starting point a reassessment of Socialist Realism as an artistic practice in the former East Bloc, while looking at it beyond the dictate of party literature. Perhaps Socialist Realism is better understood as recent interest in “alternative modernity” (Robinson 2009) suggests, that is, as a particular construction of and access to reality. We wish further to relate the critique of Socialist Realism to that of Capitalist Realism, and ask into what kind of realities or relation to realities different art practices and literary practices presuppose.
Discussion tends to polarize positions and pit e.g. Capitalist Realism versus Socialist Realism (Polke 1963, Fisher 2009). But is the problem really about the “socialist” or “capitalist”? Is it not rather the claims to truth or an intelligible relation to reality in “realism” that has been haunting arts for the last centuries? A common attack on Socialist Realism is that it substitutes reality with its dogmas, but if we say so, is there not an assumption that there is a reality accessible to us in a non-mediated way and that there is a realism that could address that reality? A way out of the pitfalls of realism seemed to be to explore the forms of representation or to turn to documentalism (Vertov 1931), but does this really allow to escape a problematic relation to the real? In this workshop we therefore look for ways how artists and writers have come to terms with reality, historical and contemporary, political claims to reality and aesthetic and poetic methods and means. Of particular interest in this workshop are narratives of and perspectives on reality and socialist reality in the former socialist countries both then and today. How do we relate to Socialist Realism and socialist reality or to Capitalist Realism and capitalist reality and how do we understand our own contemporary reality in relation to these modernities?

Benjamin Robinson
In his speech, he will two fundamental types of Realism in the tradition of socialist realism: the Promethean and Epimethean. Prometheus is the benefactor of humanity and symbolized for Marx the technological power of becoming and the indignant defiance of established authority. Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus, whose name means “hindsight,” seems to be Prometheus’ opposite in every sense. Rather than planning with foresight, he responds passively to what has already happened. Promethean realism is optimistic and immodest about the prospect of changing the world, whereas Epimethean realism submits itself to the existing orders of nature and the state. In political theory, figures such as Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss and Konrad Weiss praised the Epimethean viewpoint as the quintessentially realistic one, whereas the Marxists of that generation mostly identified their revolutionary aspirations with Prometheus. But the aesthetic situation turns out to be much more politically ambiguous. The paper will explore works of art from before, during, and after “real” socialism, focusing on the aesthetic problems of foresight and hindsight, planning and event, Thermidor and avant garde. In reading from Johannes R. Becher and Anna Seghers to Heiner Müller and Volker Braun, the paper will show how closely the ambiguities of the Promethean/Epimethean stances are bound to convictions about what the realistic political tasks of socialism might be.
Benjamin Robinson is Associate Professor of Germanic Studies at Indiana University Bloomington and the Henry H. H. Remak Professor of German. His book, The Skin of the System: On Germany's Socialist Modernity focuses on philosophical dilemmas of real socialism as crystalized in the work of East German author Franz Fühmann. His current monograph project, Indexing Opportunity: Freedom, Determinism and Crisis, focuses on two related themes. Broadly, it investigates traditions of modern thought that emphasize crisis and discontinuity, and how those ideas sit together with traditions that emphasize predictability and control. The most significant touchstone here is the contrast between Marxist crisis theory and the rise of empirical economics. More specifically, the monograph is concerned with the semiotics of political opportunity, especially as signified by the "indexical sign"—which Robinson argues is the non-ideological signifier. By attending to the role of indexicality in modern social thought, the book rethinks the relationship among politically and intellectually disparate currents according to their semiotics of chance and intention. With Claudia Breger, he has edited an essay collection on the topic of "complexity and simplicity" in contemporary cultural theory. He co-chairs the German Studies Association’s Socialisms Network. As an adherent of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, he strives to connect his academic work with community politics and faculty governance, and writes and blogs on issues of academic freedom, immaterial labor, and finance capitalism.

Laura Erber
THE SERTÃO NOTEBOOK (film, 35mm, 14 minutes, Brazil-France 2003)
Original title: Diário do Sertão
In 2002, as a fellow at Le Fresnoy Studio National des Arts Contemporais (France), the Brazilian writer and visual artist Laura Erber made the short-length film Diário do Sertão (The Sertão Notebook) a film that merges with the vision of other films, affected by the images of the past that influence what we see today. The challenge behind the project of the film The Backlands Notebook is that the backlands and all the imaginary that gyrates around it could still serve as fields that stimulate sensibility, a way to “excite” language.
Originally the term sertão referred to the vast hinterlands of South America that portuguese explorers encountered. In a more recent and geographical understanding "sertão" refers to the semi-arid region in Northeastern Brazil and parts of northern Minas Gerais. But in the film the sertão emerges in between a geographical site and a mental/sensorial space, it is a starting point to think about how a location is formed and transformed, and all the sensitive forms that it can take on. The filming followed part of the trajectory of the fictional character Riobaldo Tatarana described in João Guimarães Rosa’s novel Grande Sertão: Veredas.
The film revolves around what I call “the backlands fantasy”, using the sense that Barthes attributes to fantasy: a positive script that pictures the positive side of desire. The film is a brief form in which the option is made to record a situation where spaces are endlessly built and have yet to crystallize - or can no longer be crystallized - neither by image nor by word. The backlands as a place that is never reached (because it is always a bit further ahead, a little longer, or else because it only exists in the fragments of memory), yet it also surrounds us like a circular frontier from which we can never exit.

The talk will contextualize the film within the Brazilian avant-garde cinema experiences, bringing up the uses of light and black and white images in the Cinema Novo movement (60's). Those young filmmakers such as Glauber Rocha, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Ruy Guerra and Thomas Farkas started by assuming that we have a tropical very sharpen and frontal kind of sunlight that should be part of a new aesthetics project. The talk will interrogate their utopian and mythical approach to the Sertão and how the film The Sertão Notebook creates a dialogue with the visual aesthetics of the Cinema novo films incorporating their lighting research and articulating the shadow of myths and utopias.
Laura Erber (Rio de Janeiro, 1979) is a visual artist, writer and professor at Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro UNIRIO where she currently teaches Art History and Art Theory. She has a Ph.D. on Carl Th. Dreyer from Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro and is the author of Ghérasim Luca (EDUERJ, 2012). She has published 4 collections of poems and a novel (Esquilos de Pavlov, Alfaguara 2013). She received grants from the Akademie Schloss Solitude (Stuttgart), Le Fresnoy (Tourcoing), Danish Arts Council (Copenhagen), Triangle Arts (Cuba), Le Recollets (Paris), among others. She has held solo exhibitions at Fondació Miró (Barcelona), Centre International d'Art et du Paysage de L'île de Vassivière (France) and Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro (Brazil). She has collaborated with curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist in the Nano Museum project (2005), with artist Laercio Redondo in the video installation project The glass house (1998-2008) and with Italian writer and critic Federico Nicolao in the book Celia Misteriosa (Io and Villa Medici, 2007). She was awarded the Nova Fronteira prize for Best Free Adaptation of the work of the Brazilian writer João Guimarães Rosa with her video Campo Geral. She lives and works in Rio de Janeiro.

Organizing Committe
Charlotte Bydler, CBEES
Maria Jäärats, Estonian Academy of Arts,
Tora Lane, CBEES
The workshop is coorganized by CBEES and Iaspis, The Swedish Arts Grants Committee. It has also received generous funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundations.


Speakers & Abstracts:!/p3/ext/content.nsf/aget?openagent&key=sh_konferens_4_en_1423822820780