Research Notes

Soviet Art and the West during the Cold War: A Constant Dilemma?

By Simo Mikkonen

From the Russian Revolution onwards, the West presented a problem for the Soviet Union (“Soviet Russia” until 1922) and its key ideologues. It became an adversary, but also a competitor and a point of reference. The West was something that the Soviet Union strove to not only catch up to, but surpass, with the primary foci being economic and technological development. The Soviet Union tried to stand out from the West in terms of political thought, social order and culture, which caused a dilemma about how to deal with the West.

As per Marxist theories, the West should have been in decline, but it was clear that the West was constantly ahead of the Soviet Union, especially in technological and economic development. Throughout its existence, the Soviet Union was forced—either willingly or unwillingly—to address advances in Western countries. In culture, the situation was not simple. The world of art, which is my key interest, underwent many changes during the Soviet years as connections with the West increased and decreased but never ceased altogether.

. N153662

Soviet cultural event in Messuhalli, Helsinki. Artistic program was joined with political speeches supporting communist incumbents for the upcoming parliamentary elections. Behind, pictures of Soviet leaders. (Photo courtesy of Helsinki City Museum, N153651, photographed by Väinö Kannisto, 23.2.1945.)

In my doctoral dissertation (2007), I examined the development of Soviet music policies in the 1930s. I used music as a window to Soviet authorities’ perception of music, and to the demands directed at composers and music professionals by the Soviet power. Notably, the arts were given an important role in the ideological and political education of Soviet citizens. Artists were made a part of the Soviet elite yet were expected to align with the ideological and political demands of the system.

During the Stalin era (c. 1930–1953), the West was portrayed as a clear enemy, and everything Western became ideologically undesirable. In the arts, this meant the rejection of contemporary (post-1918) Western artistic developments. Socialist realism, even if it never was a clearly defined concept, became a template for all areas of the arts. The cornerstones of Stalin-era art were the people (art must be understandable), Soviet ideology (art must support the Party), realism (art must be representational) and anti-Westernism. Conversely, pre-revolutionary classical Western art was warmly embraced. The music of Mozart and Bach and the plays of Shakespeare and other classics became the key building blocks of Soviet art.

kuva1

Enter Soviet delegations at the (socialist) Youth Festival arranged in Romania. (Photo courtesy of The People’s Archives, KansA101284, photographed by Yrjö Lintunen, 2.8.1953.) 

The world of art is by default international and cosmopolitan. The arts have always shunned national borders, and the mobility of artists has been quite natural. Thus, before the First World War (1914–1918) and the Russian Revolution, artists of the Russian Empire were in close connection with the West through traveling and often living in European metropolises, such as Paris, Rome, London and Berlin. After the Revolution, many artists left Russia. By the 1930s, the Soviet Union had begun to systematically cut its ties between Soviet artists and their Western colleagues. Although these cuts were never completed, a generation of Soviet artists essentially grew up in a void, where Western influences were kept to a minimum.

Stalin’s death in 1953 began a new era of openness towards the West. Most artists embraced the change, but were given few chances to interact with their Western colleagues. When contacts between the Soviet Union and the West were revived, performing artists (versus creative artists) were allowed to travel the most. For example, in the area of music, instead of sending Soviet composers abroad to promote their works, the Soviet Union sent its world-class musicians all around the world. Typically, they would play Western (and Russian) classics rather than Soviet-era works.

kuva2

Mikhail Khomizer, Olli Alho, Dmitri Hintze, Igor Bezrodny, Väinö Starck, an unknown woman and Dmitri Bashkirov at Jyväskylän Kesä (“Summer of Jyväskylä”) festival in 1968. Encounters between Soviet and Western artists increased gradually in places like Jyväskylän Kesä. (Photo: Courtesy of Jyväskylän Kesä archives, June 1968, photographer unknown).

The Soviet Union had ideological reasons to engage the West after a quarter-century of voluntary isolation: Soviet leadership wanted to challenge the capitalist West and prove Soviet superiority in culture, economics, the military and technology. By sending its best artists and troupes abroad, it wanted to appeal to Western audiences. By winning over the Western populace—or, at the very least, proving that the Soviet Union was also a cultural superpower—the Soviet Union wanted to increase pro-Soviet sentiments and decrease the appeal and outreach of anti-communist forces.

This approach was not new; rather, the target of the capitalist West was a novelty from the mid-1950s. After the Second World War, the best Soviet artistic forces were sent all over Soviet-occupied Europe to astonish and charm the local populace, which was sometimes quite wary of Soviet objectives. There was also one country that, while not occupied by the Soviet Union, nevertheless received many Soviet artistic visitors throughout the first post-war decade: Finland. From the mid-1950s onwards, this approach was broadened to the rest of the capitalist West and to developing countries. It was also significantly expanded.

The author is Finnish Academy Research Fellow (2014-19), Docent of Russian History, and Senior Researcher (on leave) in University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

Cold War Feminism

By Katri Kauhanen

Cold War history is no longer simply history of great powers, diplomacy and war. Women’s and gender history has rapidly paved the way for gendered interpretations of the period that greatly shaped the way the world looks today.

The Cold war era included multiple feminist manifestations and womanly imaginaries. On the one hand, we have the conservative 1950s and the domestic ideal of housewife that Betty Friedan described in her Feminine Mystique (1963), on the other hand the late 1960s witnessed a severe outburst of women’s experiences on gender inequality, sexual harassment and power oppression. The United Nations celebrated 1975 as the International Women’s Year and in the 1980s female figures as different as Madonna and Margaret Thatcher showed what women can be and do. How did the Cold War influence these events and many more?

In my PhD dissertation I study the concept ‘Cold War feminism’ by asking how feminism was interpreted in the context of the Cold War. Cold War feminism refers not only to the idea of gender justice but to the multiple explorations and explanations how feminism could be practiced and how gender equality could be achieved. Cold War feminism is by nature understood as a transnational project. Transnational history of global feminisms complicates the idea of wave feminism and makes visible how feminist projects in different parts of the world emerged and resonated with each other. Furthermore, it challenges the idea that feminisms always originates from the West.

In my work, I examine more closely how Cold War feminism was practiced in South Korea from 1950s to 1980s. To do so, I look at the relationship between a South Korean women’s organization, the Korean National Council of Women, and its international head organization, the International Council of Women. In other words, my approach focuses on the activities of women’s organizations on national and transnational levels. International Council of Women was one of the organizations that received a consultative status at the newly established United Nations and became active participant in the discussions at the Commission on the Status of Women. Through its involvement in the International Council of Women since 1960, the Korean National Council of Women became a mediator between the global movement to improve the status of women and the local conditions in quickly modernizing South Korea.

tiger-3543416_1920

The Cold War drove also the women’s organizations into a war with each other. The old organizations, like the International Council of Women, got challenged by a new-comer, the Women’s International Democratic Federation that represented leftist feminism against the liberal one. The women’s organizations rivaled each other in the United Nations but also in competition over the hearts of women in decolonizing Asia and Africa where both organizations rapidly expanded during the Cold War. How South Korean women were affiliated to the International Council of Women is part of this story where not only geographical but ideological leanings played a major role.

The West-East division is an interesting issue in the framework of Cold War feminism.  The West and the East do not match with the conventionally held geographical areas here, yet there are multiple assumptions on the belonging of different actors to either side. For example, South Korea’s position in the Cold War located it to the Western camp along with Japan. The organized women’s activism in South Korea took a strong anti-communist stance while all leftist ideas were regarded as dangerous to the state. Being anti-communist was no problem for the International Council of Women that, on the contrary, was busy criticizing the women part of the Women’s International Democratic Federation for being political, or in other words communist.

It was also believed that communism was located in the East and feminist endeavors there were buried under the state’s agenda.  In other words, it was viewed that the West-East division divided also feminisms into free and unpolitical in the West and state-controlled and political in the East. The recent scholarship on the Cold War feminisms has had to work hard to resolve these assumptions and the task is only at the beginning.

The author is a doctoral candidate in at the Centre for East Asian Studies (CEAS) of University of Turku, Finland.

My View of the West: Russia, Turkey and Western influence

Toni Alaranta

While I was reading Igor Zevelev’s report Russian National Identity and Foreign Policy (2016), I realized how similar is the close association of foreign policy and national identity in my own research topic, Turkey. Only recently, I have started to better understand how profoundly challenging task the combining of Western influences with own traditions has been in Turkey – and, as I can now see, in Russia as well. These observations lead to the question why all this anxiety? Why is the ability to define and then protect the national identity such a fundamental endeavour? Even though the central role and the need for ‘we’ structures is duly acknowledged in scholarly literature, it seems that the collectively upheld anxiety if these ‘we’ structures come under challenge is even stronger than previously thought.

sunset-3091089_1920

Thinking about the last 150 years, one can argue that the problem of how to combine one’s own and Western culture has not for a second ceased to occupy the intellectual class in Russia and Turkey. Further, the current national discourses in these countries are overheated due to this anxiety. All this creates profound turmoil in the current international system. At least partly similar processes of redefinition, or renegotiation, of national identity take place in several other countries, including the Western nations, and these have their repercussions in the international level. However, it feels fair to say that in the case of Russia and Turkey, the idea of own, allegedly authentic (civilizational) national identity under threat now results in a foreign policy transformation where stakes are much higher compared to various other state actors.

The author is a Senior Research Fellow at Finnish Institute of International Affairs. 

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.

 

All Quiet on the Western Front? No! Germany’s New Right is fighting for the West

By Ann-Judith Rabenschlag

Berlin, fall 2017. I am standing in front of the Library of Conservatism (Bibliothek des Konservatismus), a conservative think tank founded in 2012 and located in Fasanenstraße, one of the finest addresses in former West-Berlin. In order to get inside I need to ring a bell. The door opens, a young woman welcomes me politely, asks for my name and the reason I am coming for.

Quickly she hands me a paper. Maybe I would like to sign up for a membership in order to support the library financially? I get out of the slightly awkward situation by stating that I was just visiting from Stockholm for a couple of days. However, I had heard a lot about the library, so maybe I could just have a short look…? The woman nods and comes back with the head of the library, a man in his forties dressed like a member of a fraternity. A friendly handshake – so very nice that even researchers from abroad are interested in the ideas of German conservatism.

Would I like to see any specific part of the collection?  Anything related to the concept of the West, I respond. We start our tour along the bookshelves. There is a lot on military history. But also plenty of books by and on Carl Schmitt, Oswald Spengler, Ernst Jünger, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck – key figures of Germany’s Conservative Revolution during the 1920s and 1930s.

– How is the library financed? I ask.

 Exclusively by private donations. Luckily there are enough people who have realized how important it is that German conservative thoughts are not forgotten.

Does the library have any political affiliations?

No, we are politically neutral. I know there are people considering us to be part of Germany’s New Right. But we are only making the writings of conservative intellectuals accessible.

We continue the tour. Eventually we stop and the chief librarian points at a couple of books. “Those might be interesting for you”, he states. “They all deal with the Abendland.”

map-3473166_1920

Here it is again – the antique concept Abendland, roughly to be translated with Occident. Oswald Spengler published his bestseller Untergang des Abendlandes about a century ago. In the English translation the book received the title The Decline of the West. The conservative-catholic Abendländische Bewegung (Occidential Movement) influenced public discourse in West Germany during the 1950s. After that, the term Abendland disappeared from public debates until it was revived only a couple of years ago.

In 2014, the xenophobic and islamophobic movement PEGIDA was founded in Dresden, claiming to represent “Patriotic Europeans fighting against the Islamisation of the Occident” (Patriotische Europäer Gegen die Islamisierung Des Abendlandes). Also the right wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), since 2017 represented in Germany’s national Parliament, uses the term Abendland as a synonym for the West. In its party program AfD talks about “the struggle of cultures between Occident and Islam already taking place in Europe.” It furthermore expresses the ambition to preserve “our occidental Christian culture”. (AfD-Party program 2017). Leading AfD-politicians have called Muslim immigration to be a threat to “our Western values” and to “our liberal Western system of values.”

So, is it “all quiet on the Western Front”? No, it is not. Germany’s New Right is trying to take over the concept of the West and to fill it with new meaning. At the beginning of the 20th century, German right wing intellectuals considered the West to be the enemy, presented by France, Great Britain and the detested ideas of 1789. Today right wing populists present themselves as defenders of the West – and as defenders of the Abendland, standing in clear opposition to foreign cultural influences, above all to Islam.

The author is a researcher and lecturer at the history department of the University of Stockholm, Sweden. She is currently conducting research on the concept of the West in postwar German debate.

                     

My View of the West: Gender, Religion, and Francis Bacon

Reeta Frosti

I have spent over ten years with Francis Bacon’s (1561–1626) thoughts of nature, science and human life. Bacon was an English philosopher, lawyer, politician and writer. In his last years he was also Lord Chancellor (1618–1621) and Viscount St Alban (1621–). Today, there are many who call him one of the fathers of modern science or the father of empiricism. Bacon’s ideas have certainly had an impact on the Western philosophical tradition.

My interest in Bacon and his philosophy has revolved around his use of language. In my master’s thesis (2007), I looked at what kind of metaphors Bacon used for nature and women. I analysed his ‘sexual metaphors’ and biblical citations. Later I became interested in Bacon’s idea of masculinity that I think is really behind his natural philosophy.

Francis_Bacon

Francis Bacon by Drebbel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In my PhD thesis, I examine how Bacon’s writings construct an example of early modern European masculinity, and how they link with Christianity. It seems to me that Bacon used the Bible as the foundation to construct his natural philosophy. The Book of Genesis in the Old Testament is of special important to Bacon. Moreover, Adam – the central figure of the Genesis – is also a central figure to Bacon. According to the Bible, Adam is the first human, and for Bacon and his contemporaries, the first philosopher as well as the model of human and the ‘imago Dei’ (image of God).

It is not only Adam but also the whole history of the creation in the Book of Genesis that is crucial to Bacon’s thought. However, there is one exception: Bacon never mentions Eve when he talks about the creation. Is this a sign of the one-sex model which was still in use in Bacon’s time? Or is it merely a sign of Bacon’s misogynistic thinking? After so many studies written about Bacon’s natural philosophy, there are still many questions to ask.

The author is a PhD student of Theology and Religious Studies at University of Helsinki, Finland.

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.

A Gathering of Forces Against Capitalism and Neoliberalism: A Comment on “The Great Transition” Conference (May 2018)

Marie-Josée Lavallée

If the unbridled neoliberalism which imposed after the collapse of the Communist bloc has not been welcomed without reservation, the discredit which then fell upon left-wing political options contributed shutting or marginalizing oppositional voices for a long time to come. Heterogeneous groups and scattered actions gathered under the banner of altermondialism stood as the sole tribunes on which these voices could hope to be heard.

Since this movement tends to put forward interests associated with specific groups rather than broader social and political demands, the forces which unite themselves for a while within it have few chances to merge into a united front. Altermondialism’s lack of direction and cohesion makes it powerless against capitalism which, in the meanwhile, steadily increased its grip on all areas of social, economic, and political life.

Since capitalist domination goes unnoticed by most people, whose lives are nevertheless conditioned by its sideeffects, it tends to meet resistance only in times of crisis and catastrophes, when the suffering it causes suddenly intensifies and appears in broad daylight. This happened in the midst of the financial earthquake of 2008. Dissidents then stepped out of the shadows, invaded the streets, while bookshelves were suddenly flooded by anti-capitalist books.

As to Marx, he got out of the “dustbins of history” for good, and many analysts and scholars gave him back his status as a great prophet of capitalism’s collapse. If implementing a sustainable alternative to capitalism has not been seriously considered then, regulating and reforming capitalism were minimalist requests made even in conservative milieus. Pleading for the status quo almost looked suspect. However, the years went by and neoliberalism got through the crisis without too much damage, so that the hopes awaken by the open protests of 2008 and mere reformist demands faded away. But this moving back does not amount to a new impasse.

The consequences of 2008 still make themselves feel, to the extent that the consensus on which neoliberalism relies has been undermined from various sides, while critics of neoliberalism did not lose their legitimacy. Outbursts of political and social unrest throughout the world have become common. The rise of extremist parties and groups is without doubt the most obvious (and worrying) symptom of a profound discontent with existing conditions, and of deep political and social fractures, whose origins are diverse. Protests against neoliberalism and its order all around the world exhibits increasingly striking similarities, so that they may appear as various expressions of a single antagonistic current, even if the latter is still diffuse and lacks unity. Its contours become more perceptible when actors coming from different horizons gather together.

“The Great Transition” Conference held in May in Montréal has been one of these privileged moments. No fewer than 200 speakers from academic milieus, political parties, activist groups, and unions coming from different countries, offered critical assessments of different aspects of neoliberalism and capitalism from theoretical and practical viewpoints, and sketched avenues of reflection and action for the present and the future. This “global” mosaic was perfectly in tune with our era of globalism. Only an equally “global”rejoinder, in sociological and geographical terms, could have any chance to shake neoliberalism.

The public was highly interested and enthusiastic, thus creating a strong and stimulating synergy. Under the same roof, the attendee had the opportunity of being initiated to Marxist theories and critical theory broadly understood, of getting informed about the most recent academic work related to neoliberalism and capitalism in fields like political science, economy, sociology, history, psychology, gender studies, education and ecology, and of taking the pulse of oppositional activism and left-wing action. The conference program was most impressive and exciting, but because too many panels were running at the same time, the attendees have not had the opportunity to make the most of it. One had to make difficult choices between equally interesting topics. So, the following comment can only underline a couple of the interesting or provocative ideas which have been expressed during this exciting event.

Presentations on economics underlined capitalism’s structural changes since World War II. Since then, capitalism became a process, put forward the dogma “everything is open”, and increasingly went with non-governance, held Robert Latham (York University, Toronto, Canada). These tendencies worsened since the year 2008, which also initiated a new approach for capitalism that the speaker called “hyperfabrication”. Transgression of norms and customs became much common.

Paul Kellog (Athabasca University, Canada) put into question concepts and paradigms widely used to analyze capitalism in economic and political sciences. One should not think in terms of unipolarity, but of multipolarity, he held, underlining that the United States had to face serious competition by West Germany and Japan since the end of the 1960s, a situation which is not alien to the decline of the American dollar which started then. Also, the pattern of North-South diffusion, which underlies the belief that the development of the proletariat in the “South” (he gives the example of China) would be the immediate consequence of the expansion of capitalism in the North would be oversimplistic, and should be revised through careful analyzes of local conditions. In addition, Kellog refuted the idea of a neoliberal ideological counterrevolution: he seems to believe that neoliberalism is a powerful autonomous force which the ruling class is unable to control.

A panel dedicated to the relationships between technic and capitalism opened fruitful avenues of reflection on the economic and psychological sides of the problem. Stéphane Chalmeau (PhD student, HEC, Montréal, Canada) reminded us how much the dynamism of technic, whether broadly understood as a set of means to attain certain goals or restricted to digital technologies, plays the game of capitalism. Relying on insights from famous thinkers of the 20th century, he pointed out that under the reign of technic, society focuses on means rather than ends, while human beings are severed from their own needs through their subservience to a production dedicated to maximal performance and profit. If it’s true that the wide distance between producers and consumers makes the latter indifferent to the former’s predicament, it has become almost impossible to understand fully the consequences of our acts, and to feel that even the most banal ones could be harmful. Technic and technology, rather than serve the motto of maximization, must be aligned to the norm of the sufficient. Only in this way could they be beneficial to individual and social life. This drastic shift would require workers’ self-management.

Sharry Taylor (PhD student, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto, Canada) explored the (too often) overlooked relationships between labour’s double process of “intensification” and “extensification” under neoliberalism, and psychological and psychiatric disorders. Ever-increasing psychic and emotional pressure at work cause physical reactions and distress, which are too often explained by subjective factors. They are considered asmerely individual disorders and routinely treated with drugs. In fact, psychological distress often has its roots in capitalism.Thus, psychiatry would be an accomplice of capitalism by acting as a device of social control.

A series of three plenary talks tackled with the issues of the current situation of the Left and the prospects for social and political change from a theoretical perspective. The scholar and activist David McNally (York University, Toronto, Canada) held that in spite of the failures of the Left, there exists a “dialectic of defeat”, so that no defeat is definitive.  “Our time is not completed,”he said, one must reclaim the “not yet”. Affirming the enduring pertinence of Marx’s thought, McNally commented a public address in which the famous philosopher, reflecting on the failure of the revolutions of 1848, claimed that the “greatest revolutions still lay ahead”. Against a long tradition of interpretation, the speaker believes that Marx’s conception of history was multilinear rather than unilinear. This implies that the milieus where class struggle can unleash and the potential paths of emancipation are multiple.

As to Bruno Bosteels (Cornell University, Ithaca, United States), he explained how various philosophical currents since the 1960s, heideggerian in particular, have nourished the defeatism of the Left. We are “in need of a postmetaphysical Left”, the speaker claimed. The reassessment of radical philosophy is one of the crucial challenges of the 21st century. Frank Fischbach (Université de Strasbourg, France) explained that whereas demands for autonomy and cooperation in workplaces were traditionally tied to emancipatory ideals, just as the “values of 1968”, they have been captured by the management. This observation forces the disturbing conclusion that liberating ideas and strategies can be harmonized with democratic regressions, a situation which the Left has much pain understanding. The current situation characterizes itself by the convergence of neoliberalism, cultural neoconservatism, and populism. While the socialist bloc dissolved itself, neoliberalism constituted itself into a hegemonic bloc, which must be undone. This is a very hard task, but it should start from the “reinvestment” of the content of “the popular”, the “cultivation of an ethic”, and the ending of all compromises which are harmful to workers. Then a real experience of cooperative work would open the path toward emancipation.

Several panels gave the attendees a glimpse of the concrete situation of the Left and the challenges pending over it in various areas of the world. The so-called Pink tide, a name which refers to a set of more or less leftist governments which rose to power in countries of Latin America, is now seriously receding, underlined René Rojas (Hobart and William Smith Colleges, New York). While it can count on powerful mobilization, the Pink tide has been unable to lay on a social basis which would have been strong enough to defeat neoliberalism. The fact that the Pink tide is perceived as a threat to capitalism is closely tied to its weakening.

Taliria Petrone from the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade, from Janeiro, Brasil, denounced in a passionate speech the routine violations of human rights and the violence committed against the people in her country. She called for an offensive attitude rather than a defensive one, and said that there is no other viable choice than socialism. Hendrik Davi, from France insoumise, presented the main goals of the anti-liberal program of his formation, which includes emancipatory measures for workers, ecological actions and the constitution of a 6th Republic, which would be based upon improved citizen representation and participation. Activism must invest the level of ideas no less than action, while all actors, parties, unions, and civil society, must gather and support themselves in order to ensure winning conditions.

Lorenz Gösta Beutin, from the left party Die Linke, from Hamburg, Germany, gave the attendees the political pulse of his country a couple of months after the entry of the AfD, an extreme right party, in the Bundestag. In the current situation, the Left must endorse the important task of proving that there are alternatives based on solidarity rather than division, on hope rather than hatred. The deputy also emphasized that governmental action must be sustained by social movements. Besides, he noted that Die Linke has been attracting new members recently, whose major concerns are labour and social justice, and climatic changes.

In sum, the vitality of intellectual and practical action whose “The Great Transition” Conference testifies is most promising. Strong convergences emerged on the level of ideas, like the acknowledgment that ideas are no less important than action, and that change can only occur through the mutual support of political and social action. Nonetheless, one may have the feeling that there is not yet a sufficient dialog between various actors and perspectives. In addition, the ideological disparities between them are a considerable obstacle. While some advocate a kind of reformism which would be possible inside the existing system, others plea for a more drastic change, but refrain from promoting models like socialism, which stands as the only solution for other actors. These ideological discrepancies run the risk of obstructing the great synergy of forces which is needed in order to fight against neoliberalism’s hegemony.

The differences could surely be set aside during this first, “negative phase”, but the obstacles to overcome would be more formidable in the “positive phase” of change, when it would be time to decide on a common political and social project. Many bridges remain to be crossed, but one has to acknowledge that the first step, which implies increasing unity in opposition, has been taken.

The author is a Lecturer of History at Université de Montréal, Canada.

How is Rambo upholding the Western society?

By Jukka Jouhki

In the mid-1980s, Finland was geopolitically tightroping between the socialist East and the capitalist West, but its popular culture had already been won by the West. Or, more specifically, by Hollywood.

Like most of my friends, I was particularly mesmerized by Rambo in First Blood (1982), the quiet character trying to mind his own business, but forced to be reborn as a super soldier. If there was any anti-governmental critique in First Blood, it was non-existent in Rambo II (1985) in which Rambo had to face evil Russians and Vietnamese holding American POWs captive in the jungle.

Ten years ago, the Rambo film franchise got its fourth installment (Rambo 2008). The cold war had been over a long time ago, and Rambo had no geopolitical battle to fight. The plot of the film was described as following: ‘A group of Western human rights activists are imprisoned in Burma, and Rambo and his mercenaries set out to rescue them.’ It was definitely something a post cold war hero in the West would do.

A social scientist can find many ways to analyze Rambo in as a symbol of his time(s). The movies are fruitful data for anyone interested, for example, in nationalism, Orientalism, corporeality, or masculinity in crisis – with a vengeance. But how warranted would it be to interpret Rambo as a representation of ‘Western society’?

John_Rambo

Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in First Blood (1982). (Source, Licence CC BY-SA 3.0)

For sure, Rambo’s fight against communists could be labeled as geopolitically Western as in being on the side of the capitalist West. Also, he is a citizen of the US, a country that can be said to be in the epicenter of the West – as Hollywood could be viewed as the center of Western popular culture.

On the other hand, Rambo as a character is quite universal. Rambo-esque lone heroes are fighting for justice in a morally dichotomic world in societies around the globe, not just in Western society. Sure, Rambo could be said to be Western, but is he exclusively Western? I would say not really.

But when we look at the above-mentioned synopsis of the last Rambo film, we see a faint but powerful hint of Rambo’s exclusive Westerness. Rambo is not just going to rescue human rights activists, but Western human rights activists. And we know Rambo likes to help ‘his people’. Perhaps more importantly, if we go into the basic collective function of language, the synopsis reconfirms that there is indeed a category of Western people.

Many would say a simple word like ‘Western’ in a film synopsis is not indicative of much. However, I would say it might even be vice versa. Perhaps, it is just this kind of banal, faint and almost undetectable utterances connoting a collective group of people that uphold any society, from villages and tribes to nations and even groups of nations like ‘the West’. As Michael Billig (1995) says, it is not the flag waved with fervent passion but ‘the flag unnoticed on the public building’ that makes banal nationalism which is more effective than explicit nationalism. And that’s perfectly fine – there’s no inherent problem in being nationalist, banally or otherwise.

However, the almost unnoticeably normal labeling of things ‘Western’ (e.g. Western people, Western food, Western clothes, Western fashion) when repeated and reminded of day in and day out, in movie synopses, news, journal articles, and casual talk, unify a heterogeneous aggregate of populations into an imagined community called ‘the West’ or ‘Western society’. Maybe this kind of banal Occidentalism is more efficient in reproducing an exclusive West than any impassioned propaganda for Western society. And exclusiveness means something or some people are left out.

The author is a Senior Lecturer of Anthropology at University of Jyväskylä, Finland, and the director of coordination group for The West Network. He has conducted research on banal occidentalism in media.