Some Thoughts on De Certeau and the (Re)Use of Albanian Communist Posters

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I was recently prompted—after re-reading Enis Sulstarova’s insightful essay “Mbijetesa e Përditëshme nën Komunizëm” in Përpjekja 21—to actually read De Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, a text I confess that I had previously only read the introduction to. This was in part because I have always felt a (rather kneejerk) ambivalence towards De Certeau’s thesis regarding how the “tactics” of everyday life function in relation to the “strategies” of systems of authority. Part of my ambivalence comes from the fact that I think De Certeau often calls practices “subversive” could just as easily be called “collaborative” (though this would truly problematize the use of the term of “heroism,” no matter how much De Certeau wants to posit a new image of the hero). I think that his identification of certain “ways” (of reading, cooking, walking, and so forth)  as falling outside the dominant system of authority/socioeconomic paradigm comes from a failure to sufficiently conceptualize the complexity of systems of authority, not actually from the discovery of the limits of these systems. At the same time, many authors seem to face difficulties when attempting to elaborate concrete examples of the practices De Certeau repeatedly insists are so elusive. In light of Sulstarova’s essay (which is admirable in its efforts to provide real examples, but still reads more as an exercise in theory rather than an examination of phenomena), I have been thinking about examples of everyday, anonymous “manipulation and enjoying” in communist Albania. And I think I have found a rather interesting one.

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            Last summer, I was lucky enough to acquire (from some very good friends in Albania) several issues of the journal Nëndori, the monthly periodical of the Union of Writers and Artists under communism. Most of the issues seem to have come from the same personal collection, an assumption I make based on the fact that many of them were individually wrapped in protective paper coverings, with the date written on the paper covering. (They are not, however, stamped on the inside of the cover with a personalized “This book is from the personal library of________”, as are many of the old books from the communist period that I’ve acquired.) When I first got the collection of Nëndoris, I thought it interesting and encouraging that the previous owner showed such concern for the preservation of books (a value, sadly, that seems to have been more prevalent in communist Albania—at least among those who owned books—than it is in Albania today).

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            The books were not wrapped in just any paper, however. Most of those that were bound were wrapped in propaganda posters, which had been carefully cut to tightly wrap the individual copies of the journal. (They were wrapped so that the blank backs of the posters were on the outside, with the images concealed.) While the art historian in me is of course dismayed at seeing the use to which the posters were put—it’s not the condition I would like to have found them in, cut up and folded around books—their use does, I think, raise a number of important questions of the kind that De Certeau’s theory is trying to get at.

Where exactly do the propaganda posters re-purposed as book covers fall in the typology of practices that De Certeau wants to bring to our attention? Certainly, the fact that they have been used to wrap books, and thus would appear to be linked to the act of reading. Of course, it is also possible that the conservation of the volumes of the journal was linked to the drive to preservation but not necessarily to the drive to consumption. Perhaps the anonymous owner of the volumes never read them, or read them once, dutifully wrapped them in the posters, put them on a shelf, and forgot them. In any case, the care evident in the cutting and folding of the posters to perfectly wrap the journals was striking. What is truly striking, to me at least, is the way the use of the posters shows a casual disregard (if that is not too strong a word) for the imagery of the regime while it paradoxically acts to preserve the words of that same system.[1] This paradox represents, I think, something of the difficulty of pinning down whether or not such a use of the posters can count as “subverting” the communist system of strategies. As is so often the case, it is an act both subversive and collaborative: the owner of the books repurposed images with no regard for their impact as images—since the images were hidden in the wrapping—but did so in the interest of honoring and preserving a different form of the same propaganda present in the images themselves.[2] This raises a question not just about the status of words versus images, but also about how this “everyday” (re)use stands in relation to the power of the communist system in Albania. Should it be seen as an example of that system’s ingenuity at perpetuating itself even in the most mundane acts (one cuts up posters to save the words of the Party)? Or should it be seen as an irregular (I would not say rebellious or subversive) act of consumption, which uses (and uses up) the ideology of the regime in a way that weakens it by hiding it away, cutting it up, fragmenting it, disrespecting its privileged role as image of the New Life?

Recently, I have been unfolding the pieces of poster and using them to decorate my own walls. In the course of doing so, I was able to piece together 3/4 of one of the posters. In doing so, however, I realized that the three pieces I had, while all pieces of the same image, were not from the same poster—which thus frustrated my own attempts to make the images perfectly align. This, it occurs to me, is a perfect metaphor for the difficulty of examining evidence like the posters and their re-use. Reconstructing the motivations for such practices is always part of a new act of repurposing, one that is most accurate when it preserves the subtle evidences of dislocation and disjuncture—even if the significance of those disjunctures is not always, and may never be, clear.

I assume that the use of the posters dates from the communist period (and not afterwards) primarily because of the amount of wear on the posters and the Nëndori journals themselves. Most of the posters appears to be from the mid 1980s, celebrating various 40th anniversaries. Below are several images of the poster fragments opened up.

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[1] Of course, there is some irony in the fact that Nëndori was a journal that also devoted many articles to the visual arts.

[2] It is worth noting that since several copies of the same poster were used, the owner may indeed have preserved the posters as well—but only one copy, the others of which s/he used as wrapping.

4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on De Certeau and the (Re)Use of Albanian Communist Posters”

  1. I want to commend you on the effort to “unpack” the use of posters to cover books as a tactic a la De Certeau but I fear you have fallen into the predictable trap of a “failure to sufficiently conceptualize the complexity of systems of authority” and the need to make the theory “fit”.

    A rather unfortunate case since there is little research into the tactics Albanians employed to circumvent, manipulate, and personalize the vast interstices of life during that period. I know there are plenty of really interesting examples of such anonymous interventions and tactics which are being slowly erased thus giving the perception that the 90s started with a tabula rasa. I think there is something of value in excavating some of these practices because I think they reveal a richness of thought and practice that could have inspired regeneration in practices along many fields. I have in mind some of the clandestine tactics in art, literature and music and the every day embellishments to insert individuality in the bland landscape of uniformity. Those of us fortunate enough to remember, or just curious enough to ask and listen, will discover a myriad of tactics that could have helped anchor the unleashed potentials of the 90s to move forward rather than pretend to start from 0. Instead, all we have is the vast inheritance of social realism materiality and thought without any of the nuances that truly thrived “underground”. Put bluntly: without the memory of some of tactics employed then we navel gaze with just about any wanker that magically appears to be “subversive” today.

    Sorry for that meandering intro: now back to your little discovery.

    Book wrapping was an art form in Albania. Starting from first grade and well into adult life, Albanians covered just about any book that would be subjected to heavy use or was in a poor state. To begin with, students compulsively wrapped all their books, in part because they were often on loan and had to be returned back to the state at the end of the academic year. Sounds reasonable enough and this was a practice that much to my surprise was widely employed in the NYC public education system, although in this case we had these lovely plastic colorful covers that had adhesive on one side. But albanians went one step further: they covered even their exercise and homework notebooks that obviously did not have to be returned. I think this whole practice was primarily driven by the impetus for cleanliness that dominated through every aspect of daily life. But we didn’t stop at paper: where possible transparent plastic was added as an additional protective layering. I remember there being this silent competition as to had the most beautifully covered books. My god, you could pretty much predict which children were well behaved and doing well in school simply by observing their meticulously covered books with impeccable corners. I swear teachers probably had a strong bias towards those notebooks as they gently implied that behind them was a dutiful disciplining parent that made sure their child was the model citizen. I am certain my mother, herself a teacher, gently passed this expectation to my sister and I.

    Later on, as you came into contact with books you read for leisure, which were often passed from hand to hand, you made sure the book was covered to preserve it from wear and tear. Not to forget that if you wanted to read an unsavory book the covering helped you disguise it and pass it along as any other book.

    Now keep in mind that to cover a book you need a certain size paper and this paper was almost impossible to come by. Later on it became sporadically available precisely at the start of the academic year but it wouldn’t be unusual to have books covered in newspapers. Parents were always scouring for paper and where possible they recycled the paper from one book to the next employing arts and crafts skills that would make Martha Steward blush. There was an obvious preference for white paper (it basically advertised purity and cleanliness) and of a certain durable stock. White was also a canvass for what would really be, in my opinion, tactics of anonymous manipulation and enjoyment. You see, once you covered the book all its identifying markers were erased which put you in total control of giving it a new face. You had total freedom in choosing the font, color, style in which to personalize the books title and other identifying information (if for school you usually included your name, class and school). No two books looked the same!! I recall a series of book in my grandparents home that had their original covers removed and replaced with white thick cardboard and the title written in beautiful calligraphy.

    So you see, in a place where there was such a tradition of covering books poster paper was probably the best quality paper you could get your hands on. It had that glossy feel and was thick enough to dignify a journal like Nentori. That they were communist propaganda posters mattered very little, accidental in fact, and only can we insert intention where there was none. I dont want to erase agency from this anonymous person who very well may have been winking ironically at this use of the posters but I am not convinced that this is the case. If toilet paper was somehow of that same quality that too would have been used. You devote a lot of careful analysis to the paradox of using one form of propaganda to preserve another but this would be of relevance only in a world where book covering wasn’t the pervasive practice I describe above. The fact that the posters are identical tells me that this person most likely worked or has access to a printing press or a similar function where you would come into access with many posters. Posters were not something you casually collected like stamps.

    “I realized that the three pieces I had, while all pieces of the same image, were not from the same poster—which thus frustrated my own attempts to make the images perfectly align. This, it occurs to me, is a perfect metaphor for the difficulty of examining evidence like the posters and their re-use. Reconstructing the motivations for such practices is always part of a new act of repurposing, one that is most accurate when it preserves the subtle evidences of dislocation and disjuncture—even if the significance of those disjunctures is not always, and may never be, clear.”

    Reading the above I am reminded of an archeologist coming across some artifact and observing its form and function in a vacuum. When it isn’t amusing speculation it is arrogance in privileging (mistaking) one’s ignorance of historical context as theoretical disjuncture. Please do not interpret my use of the word ignorance as pejorative towards you: you simply don’t know what you don’t know.

    In any case, I am ever so thankful that you excavated these treasures and I hope my interjections proved useful to you in any case as I do believe there is enough in this example to wax poetic about tactics but you misplaced your attention to the posters rather than the act itself. Curious to know if there are any writings on the back of the posters as I suspect is the case.

    Oh, and I noticed that the titles go from Nendori to Nentori which must have followed the standardisation of 72. Odd that you chose to use the first one.

  2. Thank you so much for your comments! They are extremely welcome; part of the purpose of posting about the posters was to receive just the kinds of insights you offered, namely: insights from those with far more knowledge of the actual situation at the time and the networks of practices involved.

    I was curious about the practice of book wrapping under communism, since I have come across other books from that period similarly wrapped (and the practice certainly continues in Albanian schools today–many of my students from the period I taught in Albania wrapped their school textbooks in a similar fashion, and I suspect your interpretation of the practice as being associated with cleanliness still holds true now). (As an aside: the Nendoris have only the date of the issue inscribed on the upper right corner of the cover area; they don’t include anything else written, even the title of the journal, on the outside blank face of the wrapping.) Most of the other books I’ve come across were wrapped in newspaper, as you’ve mentioned; some of the copies of Nendori I have were wrapped in copies of Zeri i Popullit.

    As a historian of the visual arts, I’m interested in what people do (or don’t do) with images; hence my reason for focusing more on their being posters. While I agree that there seems to be much more to the act in relation to the practice of wrapping books, I still think that it is a bit unhelpful to treat the material they were wrapped in as something insignificant and to focus solely on the act of wrapping. (Perhaps saying “insignificant” is reading your objection to strongly, but it seems that you don’t think it makes much difference to the act whether they were wrapped in blank white paper, newspapers, or propaganda posters…whereas to me, that is of equal interest even if it is merely by chance that the owner had access to a large number of the extra posters.)

    I should clarify that I am in fact mostly in agreement with you that this particular practice doesn’t necessarily fit De Certeau’s theory–perhaps I should have made this clearer in my final discussion of the posters. My ambivalence about De Certeau’s conceptualization still holds, and I don’t have much stake in trying to make the case “fit” his theory–if anything, I think that the case (especially given the complexity of the practice that you have helpfully laid out for me) shows the need for the theory to be more flexible and nuanced in its approach to such practices. And, as I note in my (rather brief and not intended to be deeply detailed or critical) discussion of De Certeau, I think that there is far too much of tendency towards finding “subversion” where there is none. The goal of my writing about the posters was simply to think about whether–and to what extent, or if not, why not–the use of the posters could be productively described in the terms De Certeau uses; I think your points are all compelling reasons why it can’t in some ways, but might be in others.

    As to the point about disjuncture: perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in my own use of the term, but it seems to me that you have in fact pointed out the disjunctive character of the practice in even greater clarity–namely, you’ve pointed out that there is a coincidental aspect to the choice of the posters (they were available and had the best quality paper; the person was seemingly not treating them as ideologically charged objects). I would consider this to be disjunctive since it suggests that the system which produced the posters was also engaged in the production of subjects who would put them to uses that had nothing to do with how they might see them displayed, say, in public places (as propaganda). I suppose one question I have for you (and for myself, and others) is: do we and should we consider this one unified “system” that produces the posters as propaganda and trains subjects that use them to other ends (to preserve the cleanliness of their books)? Or should we see multiple systems at work? Or (I suspect we both disagree with this possibility) is what is at work here the product primarily of interactions between anonymous “tactics” and systemic “strategies”?

    I acknowledge my own (disjunctive) distance–and therefore ignorance–of the historical specificity of the practices in question quite openly, and perhaps it is misleading to equate that kind of disjuncture with the kind that I think is evident in the posters. I simply think it is worth stating the project I was engaged in (namely, taping them back together to then put up on my walls), since it is the kind of thing historians often omit from their discussions, under the misconception that what they discover subsequently accurately reconstructs an “objective” view of the past. Please don’t read my ignorance as an attempt to make such an objective statement: the goal was simply to offer some ideas for myself and others to think about. And your comments have certainly contributed t my thinking further about the matter! So again thank you.

    The name does indeed sift with the standardization of ’72; I’ve been looking at a lot of pre-’72 issues lately, and so “Nendori” was the spelling that stuck in my head while writing this.

  3. Raino,
    Thanks for taking the time to make sense of my ramblings and elucidating your points further. I guess what prompted me to jump in is that I actually agreed with you framing of De Certeau and the observation about knee jerk reactions to potential tactics, so I was taken back to see you offer an example which didn’t seem terribly convincing, although your further explanation finds us closer in agreement. Again, I think even with all the insights I offered one could easily arrive at the observation you did about the cover/posters so my intent wasn’t to refute it so much as offer a piece of the puzzle and see how everything now fit, or didn’t, together. I suppose I am sensitive to the jump directly to the poster element without addressing the larger practice, although I hardly have the right to expect you to do that groundwork in order to justify looking at the poster/ art history aspect. As I often remind others when they come to Peizazhe te Fjales, it’s a personal blog so we will address topics from any angle we so wish and we have no responsibility to be exhaustive in an argument beyond our investment in its integrity since blog posts are often as you rightly point out exercises in expanding collective conversations not final authoritative narratives.

    I think what you have hit on, for me at least, is that there is a large vacuum in this kind of analysis from which you could build upon without having to feel like you are breaking ground. I was hinting at this in the beginning of my post: we simply have the narrative of dissidents but none of the anonymous practices, to speak nothing of the little theorizing around the junctures they open up now for analysis of daily life those 50 or so years. I have to admit that I have not read Sulstarova so if you have it electronically available let me know.

    I would say the poster angle is insignificant until the other layers of “tactics” are unpacked, namely starting with the act of wrapping itself, although I find it problematic that I am even arguing for a hierarchy between these tactics. I suppose one has to start at the outer ring of the onion in order to peel it and then look at the significance of repurposing/ inverting posters, newspapers and so on.

    As for your question on systems: I am not sure I can formulate an answer that fits neatly in either one of the options you provide. A cop out would be to say all of the above but this because I tend to eschew grand answers that seem to explain things neatly and in part because for each option I can think of examples that “fit”. Hence my persistence that this whole area be better researched.
    I hope this doesn’t come off as patronizing but I do want to thank you for at least attempting to insert yourself in this account and for humbly inviting the rest of us in this discovery. Oh, and your piece on Ilirian Shima was spot on. Never got a chance to say it before.

    1. Once again, thank you for your comments; I don’t find them patronizing at all, since the point (for my part at least) is to generate discussion and to learn more about other views on the subjects I write about on the blog. Especially since, as you say, it’s difficult to expect any analysis to be exhaustive (something which I certainly don’t pretend to be and don’t expect of anyone else). I certainly agree that the area needs more research, something which I hope some who know more about the everyday practices from the period will undertake (not to let myself off the hook from studying them and learning more, but there are many with more insight than me about the subject).

      Sulstarova’s article (which I think, as I said, does more to plead the case for considering De Certeau’s theory in the Albanian context than it does towards actually finding concrete examples) is in Perpjekja 21, which is available for download from the journal’s site).

      I’m glad you enjoyed my rant about the Ilirian Shima exhibition. It felt like a rather disjointed rant, but the whole exhibition and the coverage of it rubbed me very much the wrong way.

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