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Politics in Color and Concrete: Socialist Materialities and the Middle Class in Hungary

0 Comments 🕔04.Jun 2014

Politics in Color and Concrete is about the affective and class-constituting powers of material culture. Centered on the material practices of Hungarians during the 1990s and 2000s, Fehérváry’s research is motivated by a key paradox: given the instability and insecurity of post-socialist socio-economic conditions, why have Hungarians been so eager to invest substantial resources in remaking their homes? In exploring this question, the author traces contemporary material practices – specifically, efforts to make one’s living space more ‘livable’ in the mold of an idealized normalcy – to their origins in the expectations of modernity cultivated by the socialist state. At the same time, Fehérváry tracks how the socialist ‘middle stratum’ morphed into a post-socialist middle class. The result is a serious historical analysis inflected throughout by a sophisticated ethnographic sensibility. This is a project with broad implications. As Fehérváry notes, the disappearance of the ‘second world’ of socialism has “reconfigured what it means to be middle class globally” (p. 22). Thus, the intellectual contribution of Politics in Color and Concrete is at least threefold: it advances theorization of the global middle classes, legitimates material culture and its qualities as ethnographic evidence, and challenges conventional wisdom about the nature of socialist consumption practices and their lingering effects.

Fehérváry organizes her historical discussion of the socialist built environment into five ‘aesthetic regimes’: Socialist Realism, Socialist Modern, Socialist Generic, Organicist Modern, and Super-Natural Organicism (3). This framework serves to highlight the ways in which affective responses cohere around sets of material qualities, but also how these properties can become unmoored from the politics that first prompted them. The Socialist Modern aesthetic, for example, entailed a devaluing of the qualities assigned to bourgeois furnishings – a “set of materialities saturated with history and class hierarchies” (p. 78) – in favor of clean modernist lines and multifunctional forms. Yet during the 1990s, Hungary’s bourgeoisie (polgár) returned to the center of political discourse, and the lifestyle, values, and heavy ornate furnishings associated with this class were positively resignified (only to be devalued again with the regime of Super-Natural Organicism). Fehérváry’s discussion of the transformations of aesthetic regimes and their attendant values is bookended by chapters situating this study in the context of present-day Dunaújváros, a steelworks town in central Hungary. Formerly known as Sztálinváros, City of Stalin, the author’s field site is a city planned and built in the 1950s as a model socialist town – an ideal location for exploring the making and remaking of socialist materialities. The book is based on extensive archival research, interviews with various professionals, and participant observation of the everyday worlds of Dunaújváros’s middle classes. In order to access the semiotics of the material world ‘beyond words’, Fehérváry also makes extensive use of print media, in particular the home décor magazine Lakáskultúra (p. 24).

As to be expected, Fehérváry’s class analysis unfolds throughout the book, tightly woven with her explorations of socialist and post-socialist aesthetic regimes. The significance of the regime of ‘socialist realism’, for example, was in fostering expectations for higher standards of living that the built environment failed to deliver. Such expectations nurtured the emergence of the Hungarian ‘middle stratum’ that coalesced the 1960s and 1970s – a broad swath of the population that defined itself largely in terms of consumption habits. In drawing parallels with the postwar middle classes of the West, Fehérváry offers an important recalibration of the taken-for-granted equation of socialism with endemic scarcity and capitalism with consumer abundance. Indeed, much like its Western counterpart, the Hungarian middle stratum was “defined in terms of its modernity” (p. 93), signified by the embrace of technology and current trends in fashion and design.

The home was central to the normative lifestyle of the socialist middle stratum – ideally, a ‘cultivated home’ (p. 110). And yet, as the state could not meet the consumer demands it encouraged, Hungarian citizens were increasingly compelled into forms of self-provisioning, such as do-it-yourself construction projects. Such projects came to be seen as ‘abnormal’ practices made necessary by the disjuncture between the demanding citizen’s expectations of modernity and the productive abilities of the socialist state. Regional scholars will appreciate Fehérváry’s attention to the ‘discourse of the normal’ (p. 27) that permeates post-socialist Hungary and indeed, much of the former Soviet bloc (although the author notes a somewhat different manifestation of this discourse in Russia). Here, “‘normal’ materialities were regarded as signs of the emergence of a modern, civilized country, one that conferred citizens with the full humanity accorded to those people of coeval status with a first world” (p. 28). While this is a widespread regional discourse emerging out of what came to be seen as the ‘not normal’ conditions of socialism and the disappointments of the 1990s, Fehérváry demonstrates how in Hungary the discourse of the normal is crucially linked to discourses of national identity and geopolitical imaginaries as well as cultural concepts of order. It is through these intertwined discourses that the material world comes to be evaluated and the ‘middle-class values’ of Fehérváry’s informants take shape.

Ethnographers will likely find the Preface and Chapter 7 on the ‘new family house’ to be the most gratifying. Fehérváry’s brief Preface is a rare gem that weaves together a reflexive tale of entry into the field with an introduction to the key questions that motivate the author’s research. Chapter 7 centers on the efforts of three Dunaújváros couples to realize the newly valorized middle-class dream of constructing a single-family home outside city limits. This ideal was domesticated through alignment with the aesthetic of Super-Natural Organicism that revalued rural life as a healthy antidote to the polluting influence of the city. Family-house aesthetics carried moral weight, as “the decisions these couples made about this house form became a way through which they negotiated changes to their status within a larger, shifting landscape of social prestige, respectability, and well-being” (p. 198). Fehérváry’s nuanced analysis is an important contribution to recent scholarship interrogating how post-socialist subjects negotiate and understand their own social positions amid shifting hierarchies of value (see also Jennifer Patico 2008, Michele Rivkin-Fish 2009, and Suvi Salmenniemi, 2012).

Overall, Politics in Color and Concrete is a model for richly historical ethnography and an important contribution to the second generation of scholarship on post-socialist Europe. In focusing on the home as embodied space, a contested site “that is shaped by and powerfully refracts shifting social norms and ideals through materialized aesthetics” (p. 13), this book joins other recent works (e.g., Olga Shevchenko 2009) that position consumption as inherently political and the strategies by which people attempt to achieve mastery of their material worlds as revealing of their subjectivities and social worlds. In explicitly historicizing such practices, Fehérváry adeptly deploys a focus on the built environment as a vehicle for chipping away at the meanings of socialism and capitalism that have become cemented in place since the end of the Cold War (see also Stephen Collier 2011). This book is thus also a rigorous anthropological addition to an important interdisciplinary effort aimed at complicating the stubborn binary of socialism/scarcity vs. capitalism/abundance (see also Patrick H. Patterson 2011 and Johanna Bockman 2007, 2011). Politics in Color and Concrete will be of great interest to scholars of socialism and post-socialism, class, consumer culture, and aesthetics alike.

Reviewed by Dana N. Johnson, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Politics in Color and Concrete: Socialist Materialities and the Middle Class in Hungary
by Krisztina Fehérváry
Indiana University Press
Paperback / 312 pages / 2013
ISBN: 978-0-253-00994-4

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