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Sex Slavery and Queer Resistance in Eastern Europe

Fourteen years into transition from the communist system, eastern Europe is undergoing an economic and ideological crisis.
Tomasz Kitlinski and Joe Lockard

Issue #69, June 2004

Fourteen years into transition from the communist system, eastern Europe is undergoing an economic and ideological crisis. Unemployment, poverty, and homelessness are mounting. Fragile and very limited democracy wants to pass for macho. It is categorically straight, and in general, hostile to minorities.

The Holocaust and communism put an end to multiculturalism, and after 1989 'resurrected' states invested in their mythic identity and monolithic 'national spirit.' The Baltics, when independent, desired to build mono-ethnic nation-states, which resulted in Russians being stripped of citizenship in Estonia. A number of post-communist countries overflow with hatred towards their Roma population. Liberalization processes initiated by legal reforms attendant to EU membership have not changed these underlying social animosities. Indeed, the EU's envoy to Slovakia, Eric Van der Linden, neatly illustrated that political Europeanization can provide one more platform for the same manifest racism when he called for the removal of Roma children from their parents and forcible placement in boarding schools to learn "European values." (New York Times, May 14, 2004)

The new republics are far from welcoming strangers: they fear their purity may be soiled by inclusion of others and excel in entrenching themselves against foreign infections. As it invents new social defenses against contagion, eastern Europe is engaged simultaneously in a master-slave dialectic with the US and the EU: civic sadomasochism, one that inflicts and welcomes social pain, characterizes its bodies politic. Eastern Europe today is filled with growing legions of unemployed and poor, the disposable people, the neo-slaves — Turgenev's lishnye ludi of the nineteenth century. The economics and poetics of sadomasochism persist now as then; the serfdom of eastern Europe continues and its international slavery deepens.

Anti-capitalism protest poster from capitalism in eastern Europe is new slavery: political and military slavery to the U.S., economic slavery to corporations, and cultural slavery to coca-colonization. This old-new Second World remains a dumping ground of goods and a cheap-labor workshop for the West, one with the added advantage of breeding reliable cannon fodder for imperialist wars. And don't we enjoy slavery? Montaigne's partner, Étienne de La Boétie, wrote about volonté de servir. The master seduces us, writes La Boétie in the sixteenth century, but aren't we seduced too? The very name "masochism" comes from eastern Europe, the borderlands of Ukraine and Poland where Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was born and bred and returned to this area in his erotic fictions, among them Venus in Furs. Sacher-Masoch wrote about sex slavery in the seductive thrall of femmes fatales who are in turn slaves of the male imagination. Today the seductions of free-market capitalism involve volonté de servir and eastern bodies/labor organized to offer servitude to western capital. The pleasures are neither equal nor voluntary; we live amid scenarios of civic sadomasochism.

The Poetics of Civic Sadomasochism

Eastern Europe's subordination is a feminized or festishized position: domestic slavery in the world order. East Europeans are trained in capitalism and militarism while they are slowly initiated to the 'free world' of the EU and NATO. This is their coming of age. The rites of passage for eastern Europe require a great deal of preparation, meeting of criteria, schooling, and proper cultural dress. Under the paternal instruction of Westerners, Easterners are expected to mature in their Foucauldian 'docile bodies.' (No wonder that Foucault started his career on a diplomatic mission in Poland.) Eastern Europe is perceived as recipient of aid, discipline, and limited empowerment. It is not an agent, but a submissive partner in global sex.

If eastern Europeans are exploited, at the same time, they (we) dehumanize others. Desire coupled with repulsion dehumanizes and demonizes its object. The slaves of our desire-revulsion are turned into refuse. The desired bonding with the West is a same-sex fantasy, a repressed homosexuality within, which results in homophobia without. It is a combinatory hallucination of Hollywood and the Catholic Church — a gay homogeny that denies itself and denies the rights of others. Male bonding with the West consists in sadomasochistic bondage, a fantasy that war realizes. Intervening in Iraq, the US bonded with Poland, culminated same-sex military desires, and realized male dreams of torturing and killing and fucking — each other and together. Poland is the bottom here, the slave; but the slaves of America, Poland's masters, are tops at home. The violent dominances of the Al Ghraib prison's forced and staged homosexual scenes were being played out through international and domestic symbolism long before these dull military jailors employed them literally.

Eastern Europe is riveted by war, sadomasochism, and psychomachia. Poland is brutalized and brutalizes itself. Poland spreads its buttocks for the US and at the same time rapes its own minorities; Poland is colonized and colonizes; Poland is penetrated and penetrates unwilling partners. This is (self-) enslavement; it is reification of humanity coupled with xenophobic dumping to create 'human refuse,' and these are the same processes as create a domestic regime of legal tolerance for sexual enslavement. The proletarianization of Poland, slavery of women and sexual minorities, violent hate of numberless 'others,' theocracy is coupled with militarism, involvement in the Iraq invasion, economic globalization, coca-colonization. The transition has been from communism to fundamentalism-cum-McWorld.

Hegel's dialectic of master and slave is particularly relevant. Ukrainian-born Alexandre Kojève's reading of Hegel accentuated what we read here as civic sadomasochism. Freud, from out of a mittel-Europe ripped ceaselessly by masculinist militarism, defined armies as libidinous union. With such a libidinal anchor, the army reiterates the primal horde, its violence, and male sexual competition. Kristeva argues that society has changed into the dialectic of master and slave. In our view, sadomasochism rules that dialectic. The sexuality of militaries and paramilitaries prevails in eastern Europe.

This is fala, the 'wave,' an unofficial system of dependency upon surveillance, control, abuse, and torture of — as if Gramsci had predicted it — the subaltern. The slavery of Eastern Europe, the fala, is degradation. It is a mafia-esque S&M pecking order that originated in militaries, entered schools, and now is a social system of the Second World. Fala reflects eastern Europe's feudalism (serfdom ended in 1861 in Russia and in 1864 for Russian Poland) and the traditional sex roles of eastern Europe, restored by the transition.

Fala is sadomasochistic and systemic; it dwells on sexual intimidation, individual and mass. It employs bullying, torture, and ritual S&M for sexual subjugation; it is a duel between competing desires. Voluntary or involuntary, penile or penal servitude — the slavery of Eastern Europe is sexual humiliation. Both the sadist and the masochist feel in charge, in control. Theodor Reik writes about the hubris of the masochist, but maybe sadism and masochism are reversible and forever combined. "Ein Sadist ist immer ein Masochist. Ein Masochist ist immer ein Sadist," according to Freud's diagnosis.

Eastern Europe co-opts the sadomasochism — sadism and masochism in one — of militarized global culture; eastern Europe both receives and inflicts globalist pain. Poland delights in suffering: partitions, hopeless uprisings, failed fights. Gloria victis was the old national slogan: glory to those who failed. It has been renewed by the all-male eastern European political triumvirate of party, militia, and mafia who use fala, either implicitly or explicitly, to evoke fear and exert control. Their passionate sadomasochistic affair with the US has only reinvigorated the fala with US-manufactured social Viagra for extra energy.

Maltreatment of the subaltern in the army, prisons, and schools produces a sadomasochistic language. Not only Russia, but also Poland has adopted the intensely lewd, ithyphallic, S&M language of the prisons. Its use is, as Victor Erofeyev writes, a linguistic show of power; the language reflects the full spectrum of ethnic and gender hatreds. Not only is kurwa (lowest bitch, cheapest hooker) a common conversational filler (the current hit of Poland's cinema dialogs is "what do you, kurwa, know about killing?"), but a number of verbs like jebac name 'fucking, beating, thrashing' inside one term. Gazeta Wyborcza, the most mainstream of newspapers, calls gays pedaly (fags). Prejudice is cultivated through a nonchalant etiquette of linguistic brutalization; language itself has become fala.

Pervasive abusive language is indicative of gender-class abjection, of opinions on the proper uses for bitches, faggots, and kikes. In Poland, lesbians and gays are denied human rights because their claims of humanity are refused. The social transition has gone wrong: it is majoritarian absolutism. Totalitarianism gave way to fundamentalism. Transition has meant liberalization (free elections, travel) without sexual freedom. Mainstream media, in particular the state media, foreground mainstream sexuality. There is no Queer Eye for the Straight Pole here. Poland's body politic is heterosexual, or rather, heterosocial. Sexophobia under communism has heightened in post-communism. There is a rising resentment against women and homosexuals, and the immobility of Polish politics blocks inclusion of sexual minorities.

Aging Dissidents in Status Quo Drag

In eastern Europe the once-dissident class, whether the elegant Havel or the stumbling Walesa, now do not dissent but conform; they have been seduced by the West. They are ready to seduce their own societies, in whose maturity they do not believe, in order to submit them to Western repression. But they also remain slaves to their own traditions of feudalism and strict class hierarchies of the inter-war and even the communist period. Populists and ex-dissidents argue that eastern Europe is a special case due to successive and prolonged political repressions. Yet as Renata Salecl notes, eastern Europeans insist on preservation of cultural difference when it is an advantage in preserving their traditional patriarchal structures.

Lech Walesa image courtesy Nostalgia Central.Polish dissidents delight in their own men's house culture. They were never pacifist or feminist. Their aim was to re-decorate status quo ante communism, to reproduce the male-dominated past beneath a post-modern pastiche. Machismo could be restored and it was in 1989: man-to-man, but heterosexist law and order. Men fuck-kill men in secret, but reject the rights of gays; these same men reject the rights of women too.

Dissidents share with skinheads of the resurgent militias a phobia of women and gays; a homosocial principle runs deep between them. From scouting to patriarchal education to sport, dissidents move within a cult of maleness. Domination, submission, and re-achievement of domination marks their historiographic trajectory. They submit to the West and the Church while they dream of dominating women; they dominate bodies to the point of denying women's control of their own bodies (abortion). In their boasts, dissidents are lady-killers; in their writings, they are squeamish, priggish, and prudish. Their puritanism complements the patriarchal teachings of the Church. The club of dissidents follows the homosociality of the Church and the army; it is a herd of sameness. Here one can wrestle to become master and/or slave; here one can gratify hostility and a hankering for fellow-men. There is no place for women and gays who lead the nation — and Western culture — astray.

Dissidents aimed to break single-party communist domination but enslaved themselves to the ideology and practice of 'free market democracy,' that is, economic imperialism. Their anti-communist militancy changed into pro-US militancy, by no means a necessary political logic. Rather, the official dissident class has always been nostalgic for elitist nostrums of the Western tradition, for a humanistic canon that protected class status. Before 1989, dissidents limited their politics to fighting the system and found an alternative in the repressions of the opposing camp; women or minorities with their rights need not apply. They believed in the power of high culture, Church, and perennial truths. Analyses of class, the unconscious, gender and sexuality were beyond their pale.

Eastern European herself, Julia Kristeva had no illusions about anti-communist dissidents when she wrote in 1977 that the political dissident "still remains within the limits of the old master-slave couple." Some dissidents "retain a certain nostalgia for community and law, and find a substitute in orthodox religion." In their self-regard as the last keepers of the flame of Western culture, this ex-dissident class renders themselves slavish imitators and the perfect submissives in a sadomasochistic drama.

Poland in Imperial Leather

On May 1, as Poland joined the European Union, it was relishing its sadomasochistic affair with the United States. Even as Poland is in the midst of economic and political crises, marching out with American crusaders has raised national hopes. As Poland dresses in imperial leather and sends the army abroad, on the home front global moral salvation is the message of the day. "I give you a challenge, Poland. Please be a world leader in solving homosexuality," US 'conversion therapist' Richard Cohen told Poland on fundamentalist Radio Maryja. Cohen's message was heard not only on radio, but also in the halls of the Polish parliament, as the far-right League of Polish Families invited Cohen to give a presentation there.

In this New Straight Order, true male friends know their subordinate duties; Patroclus stands to fight alongside his lover Achilles. President Bush demanded loyalty from its leading 'New Europe' ally after fey Spain's limp socialist-led withdrawal, and the Polish president let fade his remarks that Poland had been "misled" on Iraq. With its flag flying at Camp Babylon, Poland is truly under the hallucination of globalist conversion therapy. How is Poland, a country with twenty per cent unemployment and widespread poverty, to lead the world in military support of US policy? Bush and hetero-macher Cohen together mislead the world into believing that dominant hatreds are right.

Yet in spite of the pope's opposition to intervention in Iraq, the Polish Church endorses it. Erotic pictures of Polish boys in the media accompany images of chaplains blessing the men before action. A Polish news channel broadcast Christmas midnight mass at Camp Babylon. A media trumpeteer for Bush's war policy, the Polish status-equivalent of the New York Times, Gazeta Wyborcza returned to its prejudices of the 1990s. Propagandistically pro-American when Poland occupied Iraq, Gazeta Wyborcza offered platitudes of pro-intervention propaganda. When Saddam was captured, Gazeta ran a caption under a front-page photograph of him being examined: #8212; One of the most brutal dictators in world history was pulled out #8212; dirty, hairy and tired #8212; from a ground hole near Tikrit. Yesterday the entire world saw how an American doctor checked whether he has lice and looked into his mouth. #8212; Gazeta Wyborcza used the rhetoric of penetration into the dirty, abject other. Medical, media, military and sexual penetration is carried out #8212; violently, visually and tactilely #8212; by a medic, a journalist and #8212; the entire world #8212; with its scopophilia. The penetration is globalized as #8212; one of the most brutal dictators in world history #8212; is humiliated. The abjection of Saddam is symbolic and all too physical: he was made passive, examined for lice, looked inside and penetrated. While participating in such propaganda, the Gazeta neglects the grave crises of Polish society: intractable unemployment, massive discrimination and violence against women, and the spread of working-class neo-slavery. Generally, with very little critical reporting, the media support the neo-slavery superstructure and base of Poland.

Poland's state TV glamorizes, eroticizes, and homoeroticizes the image of Polish troops in Iraq: young men in fatigues, young men without fatigues, young men shirtless, young men under the shower. A gang strip-tease of a Polish platoon. Cameraderie is cultivated soldier-to-soldier, but esprit de corps enlarges into international pacts and the homosociality of NATO into which eastern Europe is now being admitted. Mateship is mating; it produces the manpower needed for sex and war. This is the place to crack the whip — between Johnny and Janek, between Washington and Warsaw.

Every Sunday evening Poland's national TV broadcasts a documentary (or rather, a reality TV serial) entitled The very title denominates Iraqi territory as a Polish colony, as Babylon colonized by the Internet country domain 'pl' for Poland. In its latest installment, featured Polish troops caring for Iraqi children, bringing them sweets, mascots, and exercise books. "Good mistah," says an Iraqi kid of a Polish soldier, much like the "Mistah Kurtz" of Polish writer, Joseph Conrad. The colonized are infantilized: children are children and they dominate the film. But the larger message is that not only are all Iraqis children, indeed all Arabs are children. Colonial militarism demands subordinate subjects for its pedophilic mission civilatrice, and Iraq provides a fresh supply.

These are systemic manifestations of the construction of a cultural market for domination and subordination, a symbolic slave market. This market held alongside the imperial parade-ground desires not only external but internalized sameness, especially gendered and sexual. Control of sexuality is a crucial ideological feature that determines who will be the masters of this market. Throughout eastern Europe parties of the right continue their crusade against contraception, abortion, and sex education. In Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia and Croatia, politicians render Catholicism into a sexophobic ideology. Women's rights are used as tools, if not toys, in the hands of extremists. Women are not true owners of their bodies — the body politic deprives women and gays of the right to equal bodies. Those beyond heteronormativity are perceived as aliens.

After the fall of Communism, this social transit towards majoritarian absolutism in Poland has been facilitated by the forcible and increasing grip of religion-turned-ideology. Adoption of the imperial manner has been aided by the appropriation of religion in support of theocratic political ambitions, a strategy underwritten by ex-dissidents in public office. Women on Waves feminist ship-clinic visiting Poland, 2003.In 1990, religious instruction was introduced into schools without parliamentary debate. In 1992, parliament passed the Respect for Christian Values in Mass Media Act. In 1993, abortion was banned. In 1993, the Polish government signed a concordate with the Vatican; the parliament ratified it in 1998. Polish politicians and ex-dissidents out-pope (and out-Pole) the Polish pope.

Empires of monolithic national-religious spirit, sexual totalitarianism, and free-market capitalism are being built simultaneously.

Sex Slave Proletariat

Eastern Europe has become the sexual playground of the West. Kosovo, Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Ukraine are exploited for sexual trafficking, prostitution, and the sex industry. The Czech Republic and western Poland are used for Western tourism, hetero- and homosexual alike. Traffic operates in all directions: an estimated quarter of prostitutes in Germany are from eastern Europe, and one recent MSNBC report estimates that a tenth of Moldova's female population has been sold into prostitution as a national 'export product.'

The value hierarchy of sex diminishes eastwards, as bodies become ever-cheaper. Sex slavery couples with national-economic-linguistic servitude: predictably, wealthy Finland has its Estonian slaves. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak notes that the ex-Soviet republic of Estonia is being colonized by Finland. At the same time as Polish "docile bodies" are enslaved by social injustices, Poles are becoming masters of Ukrainian prostitutes. Ukraine is abused by the Poles; Ukrainian prostitutes are in Polish brothels, on Polish streets and highways. In this enchained hierarchy, the terms of sexual proletarianization intensify with distance from rich western European centers of capital.

Western militarization furthers this objectification of women as gratification available for cheap purchase. In Kosovo, The Guardian (May 7, 2004) reports "Western troops, policemen and civilians are largely to blame for the rapid growth of the sex slavery industry in Kosovo over the past five years, a mushrooming trade in which hundreds of women, many of them under-age girls, are tortured, raped, abused and then criminalized." In Bosnia in 2002, over 180 employees of Dyncorp, a US military contractor for helicopter maintenance, were implicated in a sex slavery ring.

Social reproduction of masculinist violence gains transmission through gender-class, and reproduces unending trauma in its women victims. Integration into the neo-liberal sphere has provided traffickers with a new mode of expanding an annual traffic, one whose dimensions are estimated variously between several hundred thousand to one million women. This is repetition of earlier trafficking history: in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries eastern European Jewish women were so prevalent throughout the Latin American sex industry that polaca was a common term for 'prostitute.' Religious and social contempt, dissolving family structures, and desperate poverty created this history, and then repeats itself today. Intensification of economic repression focuses on gender-class targets vulnerable to coercion and violent exploitation. Tina Modotti called women "the proletariat of the proletariat." The tide of trafficked women's bodies to service the pyramid of global desire has created an international proletariat of women, and proletariats burn with their own special anger.

Religious Sadomasochism and Counter-Art

Toleration of such civil sadomasochism against the women of eastern Europe reflects the region's having been taken hostage by an unholy trinity of mafias, clerical parties, and former dissidents-turned-devout. The prevailing public ideology has close kinship with the sadomasochistic ideas of Mel Gibson; his blood-adoring version of Catholicism is used to confirm hatreds of 'otherness.' Gibson's Passion became the favorite of Catholic clergy and congregations. The faithful are bused into movie theaters to weep throughout The Passion of the Christ.

Cardinal Jozef Glemp, head of the Polish Church, found the film "pre-eminent"; the director of the Catholic ultra-right Radio Maryja, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, deemed it "arch-beautiful." What one sees in the film though is not body beautiful, but a bloody pulp; it represents the fulfillment, according to psychoanalyst Klaus Theweleit, of xenophobic and totalitarian fantasies. And this sadistic scene provides eastern Europe's phantasmagoria of enslavement and its true path towards liberation.

From the seventeenth century on, Poles believed Poland to be the Messiah of the peoples. The seventeenth-century invention of Poland as the Messiah inaugurated xenophobia in Poland, the repression of 'others' — precisely dissenters (dysydenci or innowiercy — 'other-believers' in Polish), as they were called. Baroque messianism and hatred of the 'other-believers,' Romantic worship of Napoleon, and anti-communist opposition formed the cumulative historical background. In the context of this ever-present tradition, Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in Poland is no innocent business; its preaching reinforces deeply conservative Catholic monopoly. This is a region of Europe where there is special strength to a calendar and its imagery, from Redeemers to Passions, a region that Emmanuel Levinas saw as saturated with "Christian atmosphere." As Jewish and feminist art historian Griselda Pollock asks, "What narratives of history can reclaim for memory the forgotten and the lost without subjecting Jewish grief to an alien, Christian or Greek imaginary?"

The "oblivion of Jews and women in culture" (Pollock's phrase) is particularly grave, in fact tragic, in Poland. But counter-stories and challenges to the causations of such oblivion find little or no public space. Recently a young artist, Dorota Nieznalska, was sued and sentenced for her installation Passion in Gdansk. League of Polish Families members attacked Nieznalska verbally and physically at the Gdansk gallery where her Passion installation was being exhibited last year. The work, an exploration of masculinity and suffering, shows a cross on which a photograph of a fragment of a naked male body, including the genitalia, has been placed. The League sued the artist. In July 2003, a court found Nieznalska guilty of "offending religious feelings." It sentenced her to half a year of "restriction of freedom" (she was specifically banned from leaving the country) and ordered her to do community work and pay all trial expenses. When the judge read the sentence, League members packing the courtroom applauded ecstatically. The artist has been pursuing legal appeal to get the sentence overturned on free speech grounds.

Dorota Nieznalska: Passion, 2003. Photo: Raster, Polen

Instead of Nieznalska's artwork, Gdansk, the city of the Solidarity movement, had Gibson-inspired Easter decoration this year. In St. Bridget's basilica, former Solidarity shrine, the tradition of sepulchers where the figure of Jesus is entombed on Good Friday foregrounded the anti-Jewish motto that even Mel Gibson edited out of the English translation of The Passion: "His blood be on us, and on our children." (Matthew 27: 25) In the country of the unmourned losses of Jews, the prelate of St. Bridget's added a commentary on the sepulcher: "Jews killed Lord Jesus and the Prophets and they persecute us, too." With such inscriptions the Catholic faithful are re-imagined as the suffering subjects of a malignant and present force, part of a sadistic continuum from the Bible to the present. The imagination of persecution specifies an imaginative necessity for suffering, the central necessity of sadomasochism.

Tomasz Kozak, Self-Portrait with the Only PropertyOne young artist, Tomasz Kozak, satirizes such national myths; in fact, he psychoanalyzes them. Kozak, a painter, cartoonist and video artist, provides some of very rare homoerotically-informed analyses of eastern European chauvinism and sexuality. 'La Grande Attaque Hystérique - variété (chez un homme),' from Jean Martin Charcot et Paul Richer, Les Démoniaques dans l'art, Paris 1887 (reprint 1984)One of the pieces banned in the Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw (predictably, since it banned Andres Serrano's 'Piss Christ' years ago, and last year banned persons under age 21 from an exhibition of Nan Goldin's queer photography) was Kozak's painting, entitled 'Self-Portrait with the Only Property.' It depicts the only property left to young Poles: their anal sexuality to be penetrated and enslaved. It enters the anal sadomasochism of eastern Europe and plays against representations of hysteria in the iconography of la Salpêtrière's male patients, where they spread their legs awaiting intercourse and at the same time defend themselves against it. Kozak's critique of the militaristic values that dominate Poland caricatures the anal examinations conducted by medical draft boards that authorize obligatory conscription-enslavement. It is a position for and against fuck-beat-thrash jebac. Kozak's work attacks Poland's militarism and its entry into a global military order; he rejects a national embrace composed, in Shakespeare's words, of "wars and lechery: nothing else holds fashion."

Yet it is too simple to continue to enumerate sadistic and masochistic sources of social oppression, as against individual counter-voices. Outlining broader emergent blocs and forms of cultural resistance is a more ambiguous undertaking, since it traces out shadows — powerful shadows, nonetheless — against substance.

Queering the Polish Academy

Democracy does not mean unmitigated majority rule, but recognition and cultivation of minorities. Writing in The Guardian, Brian Whitaker argues "there are always governments seeking to make exceptions to the principle of universality." Under the umbrella of religious or cultural norms, discrimination is promulgated through the delimitation of cultural contingency. The Polish academy is a major center for advancing rationales for discrimination, as equally it can be a center for its reversal.

In Poland, former dissidents come into social authority now indulge in disputes over the limits of toleration. Their majoritarian tone resonates time and again in Polish debates over education. For example, Andrzej Kozminski, a recent conference panelist discussing the Open the Social Sciences reform report, held that although the idea of diversity is worth pursuing, it should be cleansed of dziwactwa ('eccentricities, quirks, queers'). Another speaker, Andrzej Flis, called the contemporary position of universities "pathological" when, as he claimed, "a self-respecting faculty at a decent university must have an African-American, a few women, including a lesbian or a mute. A key for recruiting has been established that foregrounds characteristics which are absolutely inessential to the production of knowledge."

Recently in an essay in the influential daily Rzeczpospolita, political philosopher Ryszard Legutko called scholars of queer studies 'parasites' — a recourse to Stalinist terminology, when political enemies routinely were accused of social parasitism. This was the same philosophy professor who authored a collection of essays nonchalantly entitled I Don't Like Toleration. The Rzeczpospolita essay referred to gays as "people of a disturbed sphere of sexual desire" and mocked LGBT studies: "There is a mania of looking for homosexual subtexts in many creators of culture. No small legion of university parasites tries to make careers on such research."

'Torment of the Prostitutes,' an 18th-century Russian mural.Despite the historical pronouncements of its narrow-minded religio-ethnic nationalists, eastern Europe has not nearly the tradition of civic antagonism towards homosexuality that they posit. Both Samuel Collins and Adam Olearius, seventeenth-century English travelers in eastern Europe and Russia, commented on the relative open-ness and tolerance of homosexuality and expressed surprise that "Sodomy and Buggery" (Collins) were not capital offenses as in England. Neither does 'eastern Europe' represent a monolithic sexual culture inasmuch as Orthodox canon law, influenced by Hellenistic and early Christian gender concepts, has been significantly more tolerant than the Catholic Church (although it should be noted that last year, in a fit of official pique, the Russian Orthodox Church defrocked a priest in Nizhny Novgord who married two gay men and demolished the 'desecrated' Chapel of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God where the ceremony was held). The Polish academy, historically aligned with and sponsored by the Church, has adopted the less-tolerant Catholic tradition.

The consequences of anti-gay public attacks by senior academics arrived immediately. The day of publication, the chair of the Department for Polish Culture at Warsaw University denied lecture halls for the continuation of a series of extracurricular lectures in queer studies, entitled "Homosexuality in Culture" and organized at the initiative of department students. The first and, as it turns out, last lecture was held by Pawel Leszkowicz on the critical art of New York City gay artist and activist, David Wojnarowicz. Lectures were scheduled to include the subjects of literature, cinema, philosophy, ethics and cultural anthropology in LGBT studies and run throughout the semester. It is equally indicative that when Leszkowicz sent his writing on Wojnarowicz's retrospective in SoHo's New Museum, he received an e-mail from an editor of Gazeta Wyborcza: "Even if they are called the worst obscurantists in the world, our photo editors do not allow such art in our magazine."

Yet counter-posed to the attitude of gay-rejectionist venues, a first collection of LGBT essays in Polish, A Queer Mixture, was published and another is forthcoming. Annual international queer studies conferences and an increasing number of interdepartmental queer studies seminars, with funding from university rectors, constitute part of this new visibility. A new wave of queer art is emerging from university art departments and galleries.

The academy provides fora for oppositionalist public intellectuals in Poland, and women scholar-activists provide some of the leading voices of dissent. Last year Maria Szyszkowska, a professor of law and philosophy and senator in parliament, introduced a legislative proposal for registered same-sex partnership bill, one based on Germany's Act of Life Partnership. While there is very little chance for passage of such an act, the European Parliament may force the government's hand. Its 2002 report on Fundamental Rights in the EU endorsed same-sex marriage and adoption rights for homosexuals, and the EU's Court of Human Rights has ruled repeatedly in support of equal rights for gays. The commitment of a parliamentarian and academic such as Szyszkowska towards achieving equal rights represents what can be achieved through the use of academia to reform public policy. This confluence of public culture and grassroots activism inside universities has had and will continue to have profound social effects.

Queer Slave Revolt

In classical Marxist thought slavery is a mode of production that characterizes primitive communities, feudalism, and pre-industrial agrarian societies. It disappears with the advent of industrial modes of production, replaced by wage labor that constitutes a more efficient mode of social organization for extracting surplus value from labor. This analytic model is flawed because it posits a teleological annunciation of slavery's end. Marx, writing as a journalist observing the American civil war, analyses it flatly as a sectional conflict between Northern industrialism and Southern slave oligarchy. For this model, the inherent feudalism of slavery as a mode of production interferes with creation of a fluid labor force and condemns it to termination by capitalism, which operates through control of labor rather than absolute ownership of bodies. Remnant slaveries are marginal to history under industrialized modes of production. The constitutional abolition of slavery, Marx argued in an 1862 Die Presse article, was only a prelude to "the revolutionary waging of war." Slavery's abolition, in such analyses, constitutes a predictive historical dividing line in the progress of national social institutions rather than a moment in a continuing emancipatory contest involving a wide spectrum of slaveries.

In our view, slavery does not fade into history. Complete abolition is no more possible than perfected human liberation. Slavery lies in wait; it emerges in fits and starts; it re-invents itself in continual neo-slaveries; it is part of the human condition. Modes of production foster or diminish enslavements; they do not eliminate the phenomenon. Slavery emerges from powerful psychological forces in the unconscious, and consequently is part of the political unconscious that constantly re-emerges into public expression. Slavery employs, even arguably equals, masochism. It operates through individual and social desires to create obedient submission, and to create in others a will to submit.

Gender-class slaveries express such inherent psychological drives to dominate and enslave in industrial and post-industrial societies. Social and legal regimes of domination and suppression organize to support production imperatives with gratification of sexual desire and the reproduction of labor. Hegemonic and masochistic masculinities re-invent neo-slaveries that delineate subordinate or outlaw legal status for women and queer people. Slavery, defined as permanent legal, social or economic inability to achieve autonomous control of one's body or independent decision-making, exists as a constantly re-invented mode of dominance. Citation of gender-class cultural tradition, itself of recent origin, provides ideological reinforcement to creation of new-old slaveries that blend elements of domination systems. Regulation of gender and sexuality, whether through religion, economic emiseration, or violence, is crucial to maintaining the massive inequalities of social power created by gender-class slaveries.

Thus the question, will a queer slave revolt bring empowerment? Can women, abused, commodified, and trafficked as sex slaves and quasi-slaves in astonishing numbers, gain a threshold on equality and freedom through social revolt? How can gender-class commonalities join in a shared political program? What practical forms will such revolts take?

Liberal capitalism proceeds under the assumption that there can be no slave revolts because there are no slaves left, that 'slavery' is an antiquarian concept or at least a hidden criminal enterprise subject to prosecution. The various Marxist traditions argue that social revolt emerges from disempowered under-classes, the same as are frequently characterized by broadly-shared antipathies towards 'queerness,' women's equality, and heterosexist absolutism. Marxist governments — viz. Cuba and Vietnam — have been as willing to foster sexual commodification and gender-class subordination, particularly via sex tourism, as liberal capitalist governments. Ironically, liberal capitalism and state Marxism have shared a false belief that they have eliminated slavery and their competing rhetoric attributed new forms of slavery to each other. Masochistic gender-class relations of domination and subordination have as much inherent potential of generating revolt as any other fundamental social inequality, irrespective of state political philosophy.

This revolt has been happening. Writing on sex and political economy in Global Sex, Dennis Altman argues that the last thirty years have witnessed a global queer revolution:

It is not clear that the changes in sexuality in, say, post-communist Russia or rapidly industrializing China are any greater than those wrought by the Atlantic slave trade of the eighteenth century or the massive urbanization of nineteenth century Europe. What is different however is a far denser and faster system of diffusing ideas, values and perceptions, so that a certain self-consciousness about and understanding of sexuality is arguably being universalized in a completely new way.

Where there is human revolution, there are subjects in revolt. The rapid diffusion of liberating ideas and universalizing promulgation of a new self-consciousness is the work of a queer revolt against the enslavements of sexual subordination and exploitation.

The same 'new-ness' that Altman identifies devolves into specificity of effect within particularistic cultures. Social and political queering of national cultures has become one of the ideological features of emergent globalism. This development has been strongly influenced — but far from exclusively, as right-wing nationalists and religious xenophobes assert — by the Americanization that has provided the leading definitions of globalization processes. Queer cultures and traditions are rooted in particularistic native cultures even as they draw from universalistic global culture. Political resistance to homosexual equality frequently establishes itself on rejection of homosexuality as a 'foreign' import; it distinguishes between an 'authentic' family structure and sexuality legitimated by state and divine sanction, as opposed to anathematized sexual corruption.

Pink Paint Party - Indymedia ItaliaQueer political culture undertakes a double burden of historicizing itself within national particularisms and legitimizing emergent norms of international human rights. Implicit in the arguments of Altman and others is the problematization of relations between domestic and global queer movements and social egalitarianism, and their present and future effects in relation to politics that promote sexual and gender supremacism. This is not a critique Altman articulates, given his assertion that "I am less convinced that the term (queer) provides us with a useful political strategy or even a way of understanding power relations." Political strategies and analyses of social power will employ terminology as per their need, but we cannot agree that a queer enunciation of sexualities and power relations will have less than an overwhelming eventual impact.

Poland and eastern Europe are paradigmatic of such politics of culture clash and queer revolt, where public queer-ness constitutes a focal point of visible resistance to violent and masculinist political authority. The region has lengthy histories of political dissent that have encouraged queer-ness as a site of cultural resistance to religious dogma and conservative nationalism. Where under communism political dissidents opposed the regime, so now feminists and gay activists rebel against an oppressive gender-class system. Too, the region is undergoing a simultaneous process of incorporation into EU legal and human rights norms that will have emphatic effect towards equal citizenship. The combination of these processes potentially can provide queer resistance with explosive leverage.

Co-author Tomasz Kitlinski and partner Pawel Leskowicz featured in the Let Us Be Seen media campaign.The public sphere is in expanding contest, as the spread of visible gay organizing testifies. Pan-European organizing is supporting this drive towards social and political visibility. The first Christopher Street parade was organized in Russia in 1992, with the aid of Berlin gay organizations. Similarly, in Poland the current Campaign Against Homophobia and its Let Us Be Seen public advertising campaign is being assisted by the German Green Party.

Widespread violence meeting assertions of queerness and women's rights indicate the fundamental challenges that these movements embody. Senator Szyszkowska receives death threats; in Lublin, skinheads screamed at her; in Cracow, she was called a witch by the local leader of the League of Polish Families and presented with a broomstick; a Church prelate suggested that she deserved an acid attack. Mass social fears arising in the aftermath of collapse of misty visions of nation translate into violence towards palpable human symbols of difference, those who are not of the nation-that-will-not-be. After witnessing anti-gay/lesbian violence against a demonstration on the Square of the Republic in Belgrade in 2001, Jasmina Tesanowic wrote:

Behind the huge, organized mass of violent, ethnically superior patriots, behind the ultra-nationalist Serb Radical Party, the homophobic organizations, the illiterate democrats, there is a bigger presence: the silent majority, including people in power, from both the former and current regime. These are the people who will say that Serbs have suffered enough disgrace and dishonor, and gays shouldn't air their shame in public, that digging up dead Albanian bodies is just about enough. These are the people who, to purify national self-esteem, would love to impose religion in schools, restrict abortion, silence the voices of ethnic or sexual minorities.

No less in Poland. On May 7 of this year, a queer demonstration was attacked violently in Cracow. The demonstration was part of the Festival of Gay and Lesbian Culture and it sparked a political controversy even before it began. The city council wanted to ban it. Two Nobel Prize winners and residents of Cracow — the poets Milosz and Szymborska — came to the defense of the gay culture festival. When the demonstration was staged, skinheads from the League of Polish Families attacked demonstrators and tried to throw caustic acid at them. Acid is what is used in eastern Europe to erase memory, minority culture, and diversity. The police defended the demonstration and the Old City of Cracow, under the hill of the royal castle, witnessed a street battle. This clash of cultures was profound and basic: an anti-woman, anti-gay, and anti-secularist right arrayed against gay and lesbian activists.

The slaves are revolting.

Tomasz Kitlinski lectures in the Department of Philosophy, Maria Sklodowska-Curie University, Lublin, Poland. Joe Lockard is assistant professor of early American literature at Arizona State University.

Previous Bad Subjects essays by the same authors:
Kitlinski and Lockard: Polish Garbage and Dreck Heroes (2001)
Kitlinski, Leszkowicz, and Lockard: Monica Dreyfus (1999)

Credits: Anti-capitalism protest poster from
Lech Walesa image courtesy Nostalgia Central
Dorota Nieznalska: Passion, 2003. Copyright © Dorota Nieznalska
Tomasz Kozak, Self-Portrait with the Only Property. Copyright © Tomasz Kozak
'La Grande Attaque Hystérique - variété de la contorsion (chez un homme),' from Jean Martin Charcot et Paul Richer, Les Démoniaques dans l'art, Paris 1887 (reprint 1984)
'Torment of the Prostitutes,' an 18th-century Russian mural.
Co-author Tomasz Kitlinski and his partner Pawel Leszkowicz, featured in the Let Us Be Seen advertising campaign. Courtesy Campaign Against Homophobia. Photo by Karolina Bregula.

Copyright © 2004 by Tomasz Kitlinski and Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.