Faces Exposed, Faces Concealed: Exploring the Politics of History in Poland

CSSH: Your essay, “Facing History: Sovereignty and the Spectacles of Justice and Violence in Poland’s Capitalist Democracy,” explores the public display of the faces and names of hundreds of communist-era securcity officers across Polish cities and towns. These exhibits were organized by the “Institute of National Remembrance” during the right-wing government in 2005-07. What inspired your interest in this issue? How did you choose the theoretical framework of this essay? On the one hand, tracing the trope of the “face” for your analysis seems like a fairly obvious choice given the focus of the “face” of the exhibit. Yet in your analysis you also connect these kinds of talk about the face to larger anxieties about national sovereignty, power, and violence in a post-socialist society. What allowed you to see and develop these connections?

Saygun Gökarıksel: The essay has arisen out of a puzzle that has long preoccupied me. While it has been a common strategy to invoke the face, metaphorically or literally, in humanitarianism and transitional justice efforts, the figure of the face has received little attention in its own right. The face appears in the title of the works of transitional justice like “facing humanity” or “facing injustice,” or it has been used in media and public spaces by, for instance, the mothers of the disappeared in Argentina and Turkey holding the photographs of the faces of their children. Then, there are the faces of the criminals, bandits, traitors, and transgressors of different kinds that the state authorities search after. A decade ago or so, I remember seeing an exhibit in Kraków that showed the photographs of the faces of Nazi officers at a summer camp by the lake, swimming, lying on the grass, basically, enjoying their leisure. The caption of the exhibition stuck to my mind. “To the eye, they are all innocent.” It was, of course, a provocation. The eye learns to see or not to see, and looking is not devoid of power structures, whether of class inequality, racism, or homophobia. But that provocation made me rethink about the exhibits organized by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN). When I first heard about the exhibits from friends and colleagues in Poland, I did not give them too much thought even though I noticed my friends’ anxiety and awe about them. But the exhibits found me again during my research stay in 2009 at the IPN, where employees presented the carefully prepared exhibit catalog. Like the exhibit, the catalog reproduced the aesthetics of the police files. The photographed faces were directly from their personal files. Everything looked solemn and official and carried the insignia of the state. The IPN wanted to stick to what was there, guided by the ideal of transparency. Justice consisted of making public what used to be secret and expose the things as they really are. All was supposed to be transparent to the eye. The eye would see these portraits simply for what they are: guilty of “communist crime.” It was not the “eye of innocence,” but rather the eye that would see the inner guilt of those persons through their faces.

CSSH: But as you have described in the essay, it was not that straightforward. There was a risk in placing them in the public squares, exposing them to the view of the people.

Saygun Gökarıksel: Exactly. There were different factors in play, most of which can still be observed in Poland; the deep social polarization (the so-called culture war), antagonistic political blocs, and the contradictions of capitalist transformation that involve the production and reproduction of inequalities and exclusions of class, gender, and sexuality. But this risk also begs the question of the figure of the face, in other words, the process of the figuration of “secrets” and “crimes” into the face. This is in a sense nothing new or unexpected. For centuries the face has been entwined with the contentious questions of guilt, secrecy, and purity, as historians such as Valentin Groebner 1 insightfully discussed. Whether in physiognomy, theology, or later psychology and criminology, the face has been taken to make visible, legible, or knowable what lies beneath, or sometimes what is already there. Yet, the face also appeared so elusive, understood not as a finished form or already given totality, but as a mode of appearance, changing movements, and difficult to pin down. Suspicion about its truthfulness remains. The face is able to draw in all sorts of uncontrollable affect, energy, and attachments. That was particularly the case in a public spectacle orchestrated by the state agency, which is largely considered to follow the political line of the right-wing government. It was no secret that the “Law and Justice” party, which largely dominated the IPN’s agenda and which rules the country today, turned transitional justice into its official policy to bolster its nationalist sovereignty politics of purity and victimhood. So, suspicion of those groups’ political instrumentalization of the exhibits was widespread.

However, the contradictory reactions to the exhibits also point to the problem of reproducing the secrets and forms of domination, which the exhibits allegedly claimed to unmake. Indeed, this problem has also been explored by other critical research in places like South Africa, Guatemala, Colombia, and Argentina. How have the public confession rituals of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission reproduced the sexualized and gendered violence, re-victimized the testifying women (Fiona Ross)2? How to write about terror without using its terms and rhetorical devices (Michael Taussig)3? How to create a different form of social critique and praxis that would not reproduce the scopic regime of violence, its eroticized performance, as in the Argentinian “dirty war” (Diana Taylor)4? This is not a question of the “good intentions” of the person who wants to expose violence or represent it truthfully. Rather, it is the complicity that lies in the uncritical employment of the means of violence and knowledge including its archives, used by the regime that one detests. So, the very process of exposition, what one does while revealing or denouncing violence, is very much at issue here. In this sense, the IPN’s uncritical embrace of transparency ideology and its employment of “police aesthetics,” to borrow the term by Cristina Vatulescu,5 becomes complicit with what it wants to denounce. The IPN seems to follow the Soviet tradition of depicting the portraits of state officials as part of a collectivity which Serguei Oushakine’s 6 recent work explores perceptively.

Yet there is also another complication about the exhibited faces. The “secret communist agent” is something of an occult figure that gives a face to different kinds of desires and fears about the transformations from state communism and about the unfinished reckoning with the communist-era state violence and the violence of capitalist transformation. The destruction in the formerly working class city of Katowice highlighted that. The destruction was both very trivial – what is the point of thinking about some “hooligans’” attack of the exhibit while at issue here is supposed to be the grand, indecipherable violence of the communist state with so many secret agents here and there? – and strangely illuminating. It enabled one to trace the connections between different forms of violence, communist-era state violence and capitalist violence, which are typically discussed as if they take place on different planets. There was and still is only little discussion about the multilayered violence of capitalist transformations. One methodological inspiration for me was the Japanese filmmaker, Masao Adachi’s documentary, Serial Killer, about a 19-year old murderer. Instead of focusing on the individual motivation of this person, the film explores the social-spatial environment of crime through daily life. His neighborhood, whereabouts, his daily commutes, and so on. In my case of the missing attackers, there was no way to identify their names, their case was not brought to court and was too trivial and old for the journalists by the time I started investigating it in Katowice. So, I reworked Adachi’s method through the anthropological research on the daily life of urban violence, the invisible violence of the so-called “peacetimes” of neoliberal capitalism.

In my current book project, I explore further the entangled forms of violence and nationalist appropriation of transitional justice in the context of neoliberal democratization or de-democratization of Poland in Europe’s periphery. I focus on the dynamics of transparency and secrecy that are set in motion by the law and archival practices and the contradictions of neoliberalization. There, I am more concerned with the court trials of the people accused of being secret communist agents. In my analysis, I focus on the judges, academics, journalists, workers, and human rights activists involved in these cases.

CSSH: Toward the end of your essay you mention that in 2015 a group of citizens who protested against the electoral victory of the authoritarian “Law and Justice” party even re-appropriated the approach by placing their faces in an empty frame with the text “The Worst Type of Poles” (139). When comparing Poland’s current political discourses to the discourse of the right-wing government from over a decade ago, are there are other ways in which these practices or counter-practices live on? Does this earlier research provide you with insights into current political trends in Poland or elsewhere?

Saygun Gökarıksel:
You may be familiar with this image from the film High Noon. It was used on the poster of the Solidarity movement in the first semi-free elections in 1989, which has been taken to mark the end of communism in Poland. The poster has become a symbol of democratic transition, based on the round-table negotiations between the opposition and the party-state. There is lot to be said about this sheriff who stood up to defend the town from dangerous outlaws, and about what that meant for 1989. With the current right-wing government’s constant recourse to the accusations of treason and denunciation of the round-table agreement as an act of great “elite betrayal,” the poster also has taken its share. As the image from June 2018 reveals, the sheriff has become the thief who actually robbed the country while pretending to defend it. So, the government’s quest for hidden faces and employment of unmasking and “en-masking” practices continues. It keeps looking for treacherous secrets, seeks to purge the public space of “communist” names and force the “red” judges to retire early, impose a draconian abortion ban and curtail civil and political rights and freedoms. But the struggle against the authoritarian right-wing rule also continues in different fronts. The feminist groups in Poland in particular have been the driving force of oppositional politics and created a space for other groups to flourish, with or without the face. In the meantime, a few groups that claim to be the new voice and indeed the face of politics have emerged. The recently formed “Spring” party extensively uses selfies to popularize its image through social media. We will see whether it will be an alternative to the two political blocs, the “Law and Justice” party and the centrist neoliberal “Civic Platform.”

Saygun Gökarıksel is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Bogazici University, Istanbul. His current research concerns the legal and political anthropology of transitional justice in Poland and Eastern Europe, with a focus on historical memory, state and class formation, nationalist populism, and neoliberal globalization. He is currently working on a book manuscript tentatively titled “Through a Glass Darkly: Transitional Justice and Remaking the Public after State Communism.” His recent publications include (with Umut Türem) “The Banality of Exception? Law and Politics in “Post-Coup” Turkey” (South Atlantic Quarterly, January 2019); and “Neither Teleologies nor ‘Feeble Cries’: Revolutionary Politics and Neoliberalism in Time and Space” (Dialectical Anthropology 2018).

  1. Groebner, Valentin. 2008. Defaced: The Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages. New York: Zone Books.
  2. Ross, Fiona C. 2003. Bearing Witness: Women and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. London: Pluto.
  3. Taussig, Michael. 1991. The Nervous System. London and New York: Routledge.
  4. Taylor, Diana. 1997. Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s “Dirty War.” Durham: Duke University Press.
  5. Vatulescu, Cristina. 2010. Police Aesthetics: Literature, Film, and the Secret Police in Soviet Times. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  6. Oushakine, Serguei. 2018. “Presence without Identification: Vicarious Photography and Postcolonial Figuration in Belarus.” October 164 (Spring): 61-100.