Excerpt from Paloma Duong's Portable Postsocialisms

Read an excerpt from Portable Postsocialisms by Paloma Duong

A groundbreaking cultural interpretation of Cuban postsocialism

Paloma Duong’s book Portable Postsocialisms: New Cuban Mediascapes after the End of History is a study of Cuban culture and media in the twenty-first century as both a global phenomenon and a local reality, at a time when the declared death of socialism coexists in tension with emerging anticapitalist movements worldwide. By calling on a vast multimedia archive to offer a groundbreaking cultural interpretation of Cuban postsocialism, Duong examines songs, artworks, advertisements, memes, literature, jokes, and networks that refuse exceptionalist and exoticizing visions of Cuba.

New in our Border Hispanisms series, this book performs the crucial task of redefining how we envision imaginaries of social change in Latin America and the Caribbean. Read an abbreviated excerpt from the introduction of the book below, and get your copy of Portable Postsocialisms; it officially publishes this month!

Praise for Portable Postsocialisms

Paloma Duong’s ambitious and provocative study deftly handles a complicated history, sophisticated theoretical critiques, and the analysis of a plethora of media texts to craft a compelling narrative of the Cuban postsocialist context. Portable Postsocialisms will be a game changer for how we understand both our current moment and Cuba’s particular position within it.

Emily A. Maguire, Northwestern University, author of Racial Experiments in Cuban Literature and Ethnography

Unrivaled in contemporary Cuban media studies, Paloma Duong’s strikingly original, inventive, and audacious book will be a major boon to scholars of new media in the Caribbean, Latin America, and beyond. As we attempt to navigate the onslaught of online life amidst political chaos, Duong is a uniquely capable guide whose vast knowledge and archive of cultural objects from and about Cuba’s postsocialist mediascape have given us a work of real relevance in this historical moment.

Tom McEnaney, UC Berkeley, author of Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas

Abbreviated excerpt from Portable Postsocialisms

What Is the Postsocialist Condition?

The new cultural and media landscapes of Cuban postsocialism lay bare the depth of our political predicaments at the turn of the twenty-first century. While images of capitalist markets consume Cuba’s national imagination, Cuban socialism continues to be a referent for anticapitalist politics worldwide. This illustrates the defining dilemma of our global postsocialist condition: the historical time in which declarations of the death of socialism coexist with the emergence of new anticapitalist desires. Standing at a crucial crossroads between these competing outlooks, Cuban cultural and media practices show how postsocialist critical theory can guide us in thinking about, and through, that condition.

Postsocialist thinking as a mode of critique developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s along with poststructuralist theories, postmodernity, and postcolonial studies. Any mention of “postsocialist” will likely conjure up theoretical hangovers from the heyday of post-isms in the 1980s, though the latest wave of post– terms in our midst—post-truth, post-neoliberal, postcapitalist—shows no sign of fatigue with the prefix. As Susan Buck-Morss points out, the prefixes post– and neo– (and I add alt-) still dominate our political lexicon at the start of the twenty-first century.1 The post- in postsocialism signals a rupture, a change with respect to the word it modifies, while simultaneously acknowledging a continuity, a lingering effect, an unavoidable referent. As an analytic category and as a geopolitical referent, postsocialism has been sent away and welcomed back as a critical recourse against the ubiquitous legacies of Cold War epistemological frameworks.2 Critical postsocialist thought is thus concerned with political imaginaries and vocabularies of social justice that are critical of the socialist past, critical of the capitalist present, and responsive to the recalcitrant demands for a future that hails us to do better.

Like kindred terms, “postsocialist” grapples with the promises of modernity and the failures of modernization as a collective emancipatory project organized via the nation-state and transnational capitalism. It is equally concerned with epistemological ruptures and the undoing of the universal subject, although only with the postcolonial can the postsocialist stake particular claims to geographical place. Sharad Chari and Katherine Verdery argue compellingly that postcolonial and postsocialist cannot be research paradigms indifferent to one another. Not only do they share concrete institutional and geopolitical histories; they also expose situated experiences of capitalist modernization. “Both labels signify the complex results of the abrupt changes forced on those who underwent them: that is, becoming something other than socialist or other than colonized.”3 In the postsocialist aftermath, the linkages between decolonization and socialism in what was the Third World impose a disproportionate toll on the regions that at one time trusted their futures to the expansion and radicalization of the Bandung project.4

Researching postsocialism has chiefly meant asking what it is and when it was. Less often are the places where postsocialism supposedly operates or the ways in which postsocialisms are unevenly experienced and called into question. Without any other qualifier, postsocialism recalls the ostensibly unique material quandaries of those living in the remainders of the grand socialist state projects of the twentieth century in Africa, Asia, America, and Europe. But postsocialism does not simply name whatever comes after socialism. Postsocialist contexts also include those where emergent and expanding markets coexist with a highly centralized political apparatus under single-party rule (such as China, Vietnam, and Cuba), where small and large privatization projects operate with the (nominally) socialist state as a commercial partner, and the communist parties lead political and economic planning in the last instance. Under such arrangements, economic growth and developmentalism become goals in and of themselves, while the values for which the socialist label once stood—egalitarian redistribution and socialization of wealth, the public guarantee of social goods and services, and above all democratization of political and economic instruments—vanish into abstractions. Here postsocialism signals the moment(s) of irreversible rupture between socialism as radical critique of the capitalist present, on the one hand, and political projects that usurp its name on the other. Postsocialism may therefore predate any official end of the socialist state under communist party rule. In this sense, post is not a placeholder for past but the marker of a special kind of historically and geopolitically specific consciousness.5

However, former socialist enclaves are not the only ones living in postsocialist times. The adjective “postsocialist” also describes a global subjectivity for which the end of twentieth-century socialisms had profound implications. Just as twentieth-century revolutions were worldwide events and constitutive parts of the imaginaries of shared mass utopias, their demise as laboratories of collective desire and radical change provides additional clues for critical reevaluations of what they were as opposed to what they called themselves.6 This exercise can offer interpretative tools that speak to a common geopolitical present. That present conjuncture is one where there seems to be no alternative to capitalism, even while we confront the same historical conditions— flagrant inequality, violent dispossession, planetary destruction, political disenfranchisement, permanent war, forced displacement—that yield, now under a myriad of clashing ideological banners, a politics of insurgency left and right. Consequently, the end of the twentieth-century socialist projects defined by the revolutionary takeover of the state apparatus, and the stories we tell about that end, implicate us all both theoretically and experientially. All of us, everywhere, participate in the postsocialist condition; not all of us, however, live in postsocialist contexts.

The distinction between postsocialist context, as a geopolitical space linked to twentieth-century socialist projects, and postsocialist condition, as a shared global historical moment, is either unacknowledged or taken for granted without further problematization in most scholarly literature.7 I insist on using this distinction to account for the dual character of the “postsocialist” as an adjective: on one hand, as a situated structure of feeling, as Raymond Williams theorized it, that is, an emergent expression of context-specific experiences, and on the other as the collective predicament of linked projects of modernity, as postsocialist critics such as Buck-Morss and Chari and Verdery have developed it. Context and condition are therefore mutually constituted, relational frameworks of analysis of the present conjuncture. As such, context and condition should not be understood as the new binary equivalent to East and West, communist and capitalist. Instead, we ought to ask how this global postsocialist condition operates and is made sense of in everyday life across diferent contexts. Popular postsocialist jokes speak to this issue:

An émigré reports to her family back home: I have good news and bad news.
The good news is that everything they told us about communism was a lie.
The bad news, however, is that everything they told us about capitalism was true.

Schoolteacher: “Pepito ¿what is capitalism?”
Pepito: “¡A giant trashcan of cars, toys, and food!”
Teacher: “Excellent Pepito! ¿What about communism?”
Pepito: “¿The same trashcan, but empty?”
(Pepito is the archetypal child protagonist of a popular joke series denouncing the absurdity of Cuban adult society.)

Whatever their situated critique of socialist official rhetoric, these two jokes raise the question of how constituents respond to, and experience, similarities and distinctions between “actually existing capitalisms” and “actually existing socialisms.” To understand what the global postsocialist condition is, we must ask how it is experienced, and how it is made sense of, in its local contexts. Looking in tandem at the postsocialist condition and its contexts accounts for continuities and breaks, without retreating from the postsocialist’s strong claim to the global or from anticapitalist critique. This also allows for a diferentiation between exceptionality and particularity, that is, to describe the conceptual purchase of postsocialism as a particular articulation of global capitalism but not necessarily as an exceptional, geopolitically delimited historical phenomenon. This understanding of the postsocialist condition and the postsocialist context links two seemingly contradictory phenomena: Cuban socialism has been reactivated as an international object of political desire for the anticapitalist imagination in the twenty-first century, even while, simultaneously, the global market has become a national object of desire in postsocialist Cuba. A conceptual distinction between condition and context can address this apparent divergence between global postsocialist imaginaries and their Cuban counterparts.

In this book I chart the political imaginary of this postsocialist present as it is reproduced or contested in media and cultural artifacts and practices, in conversation with a critical corpus of the imaginary engaged with actually existing socialisms and the possibility of radical change.8 A political imaginary is the set of symbolic referents (the enemy, the people, the common good, the shared past, the desired future) that can legitimize as much as contest a given organization of power in a particular social formation; that ideologically anchors the collective identities, practices, values, and meanings (victory, freedom, security, equality, etc.) organized around those referents; and that consequently shapes hegemonic and counterhegemonic processes of domination and resistance within which concrete, historically specific citizen needs and demands (self-determination, well-being, belonging, and so on) are pursued and managed. This notion of the political imaginary relies on post-Marxist elaborations of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and recontextualizes it as a specific intervention in the postsocialist mediascape. If political dominance is achieved not only by coercion but also by the consent of the governed, that consent results from the ideological operations and concrete institutional practices by which various particular interests and social actors come to see their values represented in a centripetal relation within the dominant imaginaries. That hegemonic relation is, however, always incomplete, contingent, and rearrangeable. The cultural and media spheres are not the only terrains where political imaginaries are in play. But they are key spaces where these imaginaries, and the loyalties and values they command, are built, communicated, internalized, contested, or reorganized through the (re)production of social meanings.9 This approach to the political imaginary attunes us to its discursive, cultural, technological, and aesthetic dimensions; that is, to the political work of culture and to the cultural work of politics.

These imaginaries also incorporate and influence distant reception contexts and constituencies. As I will contend in chapter 1, traveling images of Cuban socialism contribute to the tendency to exclude Cuba from postsocialist critical thought. This does not mean, however, that these secondary audiences are straightforwardly deceived or that these values and meanings do not have real, everyday efects wherever they arrive. For example, an Argentinian colleague tells me the story of his parents: communist militants who looked toward Cuba and the socialist bloc as beacons of hope in the grim experience of right-wing military dictatorships and whose ideas about those worlds, and the one they were justifiably longing for, were shaped by the cultural and media materials—music, magazines, news—they received from Cuba. Such modes and contexts of dissemination muddy the gap between the socialist values communicated by those symbolic goods and the socialist character—or absence thereof— of the society that produced them. There are those who benefited directly from this transnational reach, too. Another colleague, for example, brings up the immense gratitude of the Haitian people for the help of Cuban doctors after the 2010 earthquake. This is their direct experience of the Cuban Revolution as a self-advertised sponsor of internationalist solidarity in the Global South. It is as real as that of the Cubans who have experienced political persecution and severe scarcity at home, or of the doctors who participate in these same programs, torn between the opportunity to earn hard currency abroad and the exploitative conditions under which they do so. In the following chapters I take on some of the cultural and media forms of circulation of, and reactions to, this double identity and examine the political imaginaries they buttress at home and abroad.

I contend in this book that engaging the global postsocialist condition from the perspective of the Cuban context must attend to the explosion of images, narratives, and new media practices chronicling change and continuity in everyday life at the turn of the twenty-first century. I will ask how, by whom, and under which conditions they are generated and how they differ from top-down images of postsocialist Cuba, whether they are of national or foreign origins. I will consider how popular, mass, digital, and lettered cultures without distinction register the internal transformations of Cuban postsocialism, as much as how they converse with global phenomena, like the rise and fall of self-styled left-wing governments in Latin America and the rekindling of an anticapitalist ethos in the post-2008 world. Cultural and media takes on these changes will show how postsocialist Cuban culture and its underlying material conditions follow regional patterns in twenty-first-century Latin America, refute persistent images of exceptionalism that still inform scholarly and popular discourses about Cuba, and shape political imaginaries within and beyond its national boundaries.

Paloma Duong is an associate professor of Latin American and studies in the Comparative Media Studies/Writing Program at MIT.