Transformation. Memory and Matter in Early Polish Capitalism

Text: Dorota Sosnowska

The process of political and economic transformation which started in Poland in the late eighties is narrated in terms of regaining freedom and establishing democracy. The end of the totalitarian regime also brought the end of censorship and political persecution, the beginning of the free market, and the free flow of commodities. However, on the other hand, the Polish transformation can also be seen as a moment of deep crisis. The privatization of state-owned enterprises, lands and buildings, the almost instant change of language and culture, disappearing jobs and identities, new identities arising from a new definition of the individual – this brutal process described wildly within the framework of transformation studies – produced a feeling of disorientation and loss. In the new capitalist reality, Poles found themselves chasing a western lifestyle and identity models in an impossible race to become part of Europe.

This crisis – of social networks, relations, and self-definition; of language and cultural references – can be observed as a specific disruption in today’s memory of the transformation. In her very interesting book, framing her own experience of remembering her childhood, Olga Drenda – a Polish essayist and writer – states:

I realized that memories from the eighties and nineties are full of disruptions. It is, of course, their nature to be prone to falsifications and misdirection – but why in the generational memory can one find so much technology driven terror? Is it because we remember this through an image full of “ghosts”, afterimages, dualities as in a Rubin television set [an old Russian brand of television set] prone to implosion? (Drenda 2016, 4)

To name this specific kind of memory, Drenda refers to Jacques Derrida’s hauntology and uses this term to describe a memory that is “blurred, haunting, mutated and deformed by the pressure of the layers of information” (Drenda 2016, 5). She is especially interested in the places where the realities clash. She describes a photo of a girl dressed in jeans walking with her child in a stroller on the crooked pavement. The girl stops in front of the music shop: Pop Magic. “Pop Magic! In this grim circumstance of holes in the walls, falling plaster, torn threshold, decay” (Drenda 2016, 6). Hauntology as a formula for describing the memories of the Polish transformation is trying to frame this interference of different layers of reality depicted on the photo. The old and the new, the totalitarian and the liberal, and the communist and the capitalist orders which infiltrate one another. What we remember as the beginning of freedom and democracy is haunted by the uncomfortable afterimages and blurs hiding the material setting of the transformation process. Things, spaces and bodies dismissed by the new definitions of citizenship, personhood, individualism and community still influence and interfere with the generational memory of transformation.

What is particularly interesting in Drenda’s concept is that Polish hauntology as she names this memorial flaw, cannot be thought without things. Photos, furniture, old curtains hanging in the shop entrance – those are the triggers of memories somehow disturbed and disrupted. Although the connection between memory and things is, of course, a phenomenon widely described and studied, at least from Bergson’s Matter and Memory, it should be pointed out that an interesting transposition appears in this more literary rather than philosophical concept coined by Drenda. The relation between memory and things should be read in the context of the social, political and economic system providing the very definition of things and materiality. In this particular case, the definition is unstable, fluctuating, causing an interference, associating things with terror and pleasure at the very same time. This is a visible mark of the cognitive crisis that shaped the experience of the Polish nineties. To look at it closer, it is worth recalling one of the most important theatre spectacles from the nineties – somehow following Derrida who builds the category of spectre using Hamlet – Tropical Madness staged at the Variety Theatre in Warsaw.

In 2017, the theatre celebrated the 20th anniversary of that premiere which somehow established it as a new kind of institution. In 1997, Grzegorz Jarzyna as Horst D’Albertis staged Tropical Madness based on two dramatical texts written by the prominent Polish avant-garde artist Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (“Witkacy”). To celebrate that event, a documentary film was made by Joanna Makowska entitled Theatrical Madness. The beginning. It depicts the effort of the young artists to reenact the original spectacle in some way. They plan to stage a reading of the play which will be haunted and interfered with by the original scenes played by the original cast. They start to gather what’s left of the performance: one armchair from the original set is located in the PR bureau of the theatre, some hats are found in the theatre warehouse outside Warsaw, one dress is still in the wardrobe. Those poor remains, partial, incomplete leftovers of the original spectacle make the protagonists think about the ephemerality of the theatre, its susceptibility to evaporate and disappear. But those few elements found during the meticulous investigation trigger the memories of the actors, the director, the people working in the theatre. They talk about the work process, the energy unleashed by working on something completely new, the personages, the premiere, the enthusiasm of the young public, reviving the spectacle as an event and an experience that suddenly surpasses the limits of ephemerality. At the same time, the photos from the premiere are shown: a dual reality of the nineties, a modern theatre haunted by clothes, haircuts, and furniture from the other reality and the materiality appears in full view. But two of the remains found during the process have a different status. These are an authentic Indonesian ritual mask and an arrow. With them in hand, the memory of the “new theatrical tribe” appears.

The action of Witkacy’s drama takes place in a generic place in the tropics, a mix of Asian and Pacific cultures. It was written after the trip Witkacy took with Bronisław Malinowski – a famous anthropologist – in 1913. Written in 1920, it depicts white colonialists in a state of madness making crazy deals, falling in love, killing each other in the sight of the silent natives playing the roles of mates, waiters, butlers, and prostitutes. While the white businessmen and their wives go wild in the sun of the tropics, bringing to life in Witkacy’s absurd manner all the fantasies from cheap melodramas and erotic novels, the almost silent presence of the natives marks a level of reality outside narration, fantasies, statuses and dramas, the reality of the colonized body. For Jarzyna, staging this text in 1997 becomes a particular enterprise. Tropical Madness with its narcotic, absurd, crazy vibe gives an opportunity to establish new theatrical aesthetics open to pop culture references, modern music and a sense of humour, a new tempo of the life shaped by the marketing and fantasies of the big city. But, at the same time Jarzyna introduced on stage his own experience of the “tropics”. For a couple of years, he worked as a travel guide in Asia, Indonesia and Australia. It started with a trip following in the footsteps of the great theatre directors of the sixties and seventies: Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook. However, it took the shape of a work problematically embedded in capitalism. The tropics on the stage of the Variety Theatre in 1997 does not represent a place of enlightenment and deeper ritual knowledge, nor a metaphysical journey to discover oneself. Rather they become translated into the bodies and their specific movement.

Two months ago, that is 22 years after the premiere, I watched the spectacle on a modern flat TV screen. The recording made in 2002 as Tropical Madness was restaged and shown again to the Warsaw public. The registration was undertaken with two video cameras during a regular show. The viewer can see what is happening on the stage, apart from the scenes played in the dark, but the viewer can’t hear what is being said. The sound is too poor to recognize the words. The recording is – like haunted memories of the nineties – disturbed by the clash of two realities: modern technology and theatre which is anachronic by definition. But even with this registration, this specific kind of technologically disrupted memory, something crucial appears. The spectacle itself was built as a set of interferences and disruptions. Tropical Madness is interfered by another drama by Witkacy – New Liberation – also from 1920, scenes from which appear as a dream, a memory and a narcotic vision all at the same time. Also the actors disrupt their roles, the flow of action and text, by sudden movements, shivers becoming ritualistic dances materializing some other bodily reality on stage. What interferes here is not a spectre of communism but rather a repressed body of democracy – the nocturnal body described by Achille Mbembe.

Mbembe – one of the most important postcolonial thinkers – in his Politiques de l’inimitiéstates that the story of democracy is told as a story of the West. It has its hero – the worker. His body constitutes the solar body of democracy – shining and visible at the very centre. But what is not seen is the other body – the nocturnal body of the slave that also constitutes democracy as a social and political reality. “Colonial empire and slave state –plantation and galleys to be more precise – signify the most important symbols of that body” Mbembe writes (Mbembe 2017, 32). It’s there where the democracy is also shaped by slave work and exclusion. What’s important is that the nocturnal body embodies, in fact, what Mbembe calls necropolitics or the necropower of today’s political structures and institutions to limit not only the life of citizens but also their death. This colonial order introduced to organize free labour becomes the modern reality defining war, occupation and other forms of state aggression. Considering the paradoxical status of the slave in frames of the necropolitical order, Mbembe writes:


«In spite of the terror and the symbolic sealing off of the slave, he or she maintains alternative perspectives toward time, work, and self. This is the second paradoxical element of the plantation world as a manifestation of the state of exception. Treated as if he or she no longer existed except as a mere tool and instrument of production, the slave nevertheless is able to draw almost any object, instrument, language, or gesture into a performance and then stylize it. Breaking with uprootedness and the pure world of things of which he or she is but a fragment, the slave is able to demonstrate the protean capabilities of the human bond through music and the very body that was supposedly possessed by another.» (Mbembe 2003, 22).


The nocturnal’s body performance breaks with the unhuman status of the slave identity, but at the same time seen from the other perspective breaks with the understanding of matter as something opposite to body. Nocturnal body put in the position of necros – political and social death – surpasses the definitions of body and matter, of human and things. As Alessandra Raengo writing from the point of view of black studies in her Black Matters states: ‘[T]here is no ontology of the image that can consider itself complete until it has dealt with blackness. There is no ontology of the object that can consider itself complete until it has dealt with black. That is, if ontology cannot account for either one, then it is not flat at all’ (Raengo 2016, 246). This means that nocturnal body has a different material status inseparable from things, paradoxically opening the space of resistance towards capitalism and its strictly defined difference between subject and commodities.

Of course, it would be difficult to maintain that a Polish theatre director staged in 1997 what postcolonial authors would write a couple of years later. But what seems important is the intuition of Jarzyna (and Witkacy) that in order to talk about business, about capitalism, about new identity models proposed by a new reality, one needs to travel to the colonial world. What’s more, this world materializes itself on the stage as a mix of different materialities: luxury, poverty, ephemerality and the embodiment of almost ritualistic movements and gestures.

The story is quite simple. In a hotel bar, we meet the Polish Brzechajło family who run a rubber business in the colonies. The father is a typical white male from Eastern Europe, the mother listens to Caruso and has no idea about business, the son is seduced by the tropics. He smokes opium, sleeps with prostitutes, and suffers from tropical madness. In that same bar, Ellinor – the aristocratic wife of Mister Golders – the most powerful local businessman – drinks her wine. When Mister Price sees her, he immediately falls in love although he came to the bar with a mission to stop the meeting between Brzechajło and Golders. A series of absurd dialogues and situations reveal a growing lust between Price and Ellinor and his madness as well as the subplot of the unstoppable growth of the business. In the final scenes, Ellinor and Price, who are supposedly brother and sister at this point of the drama, spend the night together in Price’s hotel room breaking all the rules. After this outbreak of madness, a void appears. They don’t see any reason to live anymore. She proposes that they commit suicide together. He has a powerful poison in the room. She takes a little bit of it with the use of some kind of skewer. After a kiss being an act of love and aggression at the same time she pierces his lip with the skewer, killing him and at the same time revealing that mad Price was a “savage”. Ellinor doesn’t die. Soon enough, she starts to seduce the young Brzechajło. This scene seems meaningful. It reveals the aggression hidden beside the lust, the danger of playing with colonial rule, the death at the end of the apparent freedom to follow the desire provided by capitalism. With the skewer in his lip, the dead body of Mister Price lying on the stage is like an image of what lies at the foundations of the capitalist freedom just introduced into Poland. Like the authentic mask and the arrow, this body cuts through the attractive and full of humour layer of the spectacle to reveal the nocturnal reality of the Polish transformation.

To sum up what can be seen in Jarzyna’s spectacle is that the work of memory about the nineties is disturbed not only by the clash of two political systems during the transformation process, but also by the unstable status of materiality mediating the memories of that period. Polish hauntology can also be understood as deeply rooted in the experience of the body. While losing their jobs, their social status, and every kind of social security, Poles were calling themselves (in a characteristically racist manner) “blacks” meaning slaves. They were losing in this game like Mister Price by revealing the nocturnal status of their dead bodies, becoming things themselves. But as Mbembe shows, this can also be the very tool of resistance in a world that became a colony on a global scale.



Drenda, Olga, 2016, Duchologia polska. Rzeczy i ludzie w latach transformacji, Kraków: Karakter.

Mbembe, Achille, 2017, Polityka wrogości. Nekropolityka, trans. Urszula Kropiwiec, Katarzyna Bojarska, Kraków: Karakter.

Mbembe, Achille, 2003, Necropolitics, trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture no. 15.