Critical Thinking in Slovakia After Socialism

Jonathan Larson has written a meticulously researched and analytically rich account. This unique book is firmly rooted in the particular context of postsocialist Slovakia. It is a snapshot of a distinctive place and its history; yet, the book is comparative in nature. It approaches the distinctive situation in postsocialist Slovakia as an instance of international governmentality of democracy promotion, and it examines its local effects as well as putatively independent local trajectories and parallel histories. The book is first and foremost an analysis of discourses of public and civic criticism and an ethnography of postsocialist Slovakia, and its foundation and its applications are anthropological, comparative, and interdisciplinary. The work builds on and contributes to the discussions in the fields of anthropology, linguistics, political philosophy, education,  and (East) European studies.

In the book the author grapples with the following central questions: “What makes us sense that something in society warrants critique? What role do our interactions with members of communities play in that?… This study, in the end, is a historical and ethnographic inquiry into why various discursive ideologies of liberalism were introduced to postsocialist Slovakia and how a richer understanding of the encounter with that milieu enriches our understanding of liberalism’s practical limitations.” (pp. 2-3)? The anthropological journey that Larson embarks on to answer these questions is an example of the power of ethnography to turn globally circulating, taken for granted and normalized  contemporary phenomena—in this case “critical thinking”—into so-called strange, ethnographically inviting, historically situated,  and socio-culturally patterned practices and subjectivities which reveal the contours of political imagination in contemporary Slovakia and beyond. This great accomplishment is possible because Larson allows the field to surprise him—he is initially puzzled by the nonchalant use of “critical thinking” by so-called western NGOs in Slovakia as well as some Slovak intellectuals: both groups use the apparent lack of critical thinking in Slovakia as a powerful diagnostic of society at large; a society that, the logic goes, perpetually lacks democracy and people who feel their civic duty is to critique. But Larson does not stop at revealing this Orientalizing binary discourse of democratic West and inherently democratically unripe East; rather, he traces and unpacks the use of (social) critique or kritika by historically, socially, economically and geographically positioned social agents in Slovakia, including teachers, students, journalists, and literary scholars, among others.

He uses a broad range of theories from anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and political philosophy to interpret his ethnographic vignettes and numerous publications that he considers.  In doing so Larson is able to situate kritika at its different historical junctures, in its altered social contexts, and in diverse media. In the process, he encourages the reader to rethink and contextualize the notions of liberalism, secularism, public sphere, political subjectivity, and apathy/withdrawal from kritika as a form of social and political critique itself.

The author, however,  does not stop here either—he links these historically situated and presumably Western political models of critical, democratic persons  to the Slovak socio-cultural practices –such as the local understandings of separation, judgment, laments of civic criticism, alienation, and  intimacy. He links these discourses and practices to other idea(l)s—such as love, l’udskost’ and slušnost’ to create a very dynamic account. This exceptionally broad conceptual field enables the author and his readers to realize the significance of unexpected continuities and raptures in ideologies, languages, and practices of public and civic criticism  among Slovaks—the  continuities and discontinuities that do not neatly align with, but rather challenge the dominant formulations  of the supposed transition from socialism to postsocialism.

While the author does an excellent job in supporting his main argument, there are several aspects of this work that could be expanded. First, by constructing an analytically complex study, the author sometimes compromises thickness of ethnographic depiction. This is, of course, an effect of the broad conceptualization and linguistic/discursive emphasis in the book.. The author begins his journey with a powerful and promising ethnographic vignette/encounter on a Slovak bus, during which generational, urban/rural, and class-based expectations of civic duty and critical thinking become apparent. Throughout the book, the author sporadically uses other ethnographic encounters to exemplify tensions central to critical thinking as a situated discourse, knowledge, and practice. The majority of data, however, is discourse based, where the author unpacks (language) ideologies related to kritika visible in different literary journals or in classroom interactions. While these discourse-centered analyses and interventions are highly productive, this reviewer was left longing for more ethnographic viscosity—I wanted to get to know better the Slovaks that the author befriended and I desired to get a more vivid sense of the spaces where the encounters in the book took place. This could have been accomplished through more vivid ethnographic descriptions of people’s homes in Bratislava and Martin, of dusty streets, of empty or crowded urban squares, cafes, classrooms, theaters and of some tangible tokens of kritika in the offices/teachers rooms/classrooms/coffee shops in which this ethnographic study took place.

Second, the author establishes early in the text that kritika in contemporary Slovakia has powerful gender, class, and generational dimensions. In one instance (see especially Chapter 2) Larson unpacks a public debate on the fate of Podhradie, a historical neighborhood on the edge of Bratislava’s historical center and he addresses the emotional/sentimental and rational ideologies and dimensions of kritika (pp. 96-103). Here, the author emphasizes the audiences’ critical and interrupted reception of a female participant’s comments, where the speaker’s gender, youth, and student status were crucial to how her critique of socialist policies of urbanism were received and interpreted by the audience. While in this instance the author provided a fine intersectional reading of situated kritika, in other instances this multifaceted, contextual/intersectional interpretation was absent. For example, in chapters 4 and 5, possibly my favorite, the relationship between kritika and the reading of literary texts in Slovak classrooms was examined. Here, the author showed how social kritika was present in students’ interpretations of literary texts, but that their critique was rigid and narrow—it reproduced teacher-delivered, authoritative, pre-determined, widely accepted, and author-centered ideas of what counted as important/worth of critique, thus overlooking and silencing other possible interpretations of literary texts. These ethnographic settings of Slovak classrooms were highly gendered and generationally uneven; I kept wondering if the fact that these literary interpretations were channeled by teachers who were female, (semi-)urban, middle aged and middle class impacted the treatment of discourses on love, l’udskost’ and slušnost’? In other words, is there a need to further situate and contextualize this ethnographic encounter by submitting kritika to further intersectional analysis in a Slovak classroom, to reveal its gendered, class, geographical, and generational qualities?

In conclusion, this sophisticated and unique work is a great accomplishment that illuminates two phenomena: the country of Slovakia and its postsocialist transformations; and critical thinking as an artifact of anthropological and ethnographic examination. This book delivers an excellent analysis of these intertwined processes and Larson’s work should be of great interest to scholars in anthropology and beyond.

Azra Hromadzic, Syracuse University

Larson,  Jonathan L. Critical Thinking in Slovakia After Socialism. Berghahn, 2013. Read More at University of Rochester Press


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