“There’s Lots More We Can Do” Interview with Aljoša Pužar14. 9. 2020
Cosmopolitan is, or should be, Aljoša Pužar’s middle name. He has authored six books on cultural studies and is an associate professor at the Department of Cultural Studies of the Faculty of Social Sciences in Ljubljana. Before that, Pužar had been a lecturer at two universities in Seoul. Further back, a cofounder of the cultural studies programme in Rijeka. Still further back, he lived and worked in Trieste. Somewhere in-between, in the United Kingdom, he completed his second doctoral thesis project. At the moment, Pužar resides in Ljubljana, brought here by an international job posting. However, he says that for some time, he wasn’t sure his work wouldn’t take him to Finland instead. Luckily for us, it didn’t. Not just because he likes it here in Ljubljana, but also because he is one of the key members of Ljubljana’s European Capital of Culture 2025 bid team.
What was it that attracted you to cultural studies?
Although I’d studied Slavic languages and literature, I found myself mostly writing about Italian literature. I also studied cultural management; however, I was more interested in theory than practice. Nevertheless, I never developed the common empty fantasy of being a philosopher. If anything, I’d prefer to be a good poet. I’m just an average poet though. However, my first obsessions were theatrical acting and directing. People don’t know this, because I’m no longer active in the field, but I’m actually still a better actor than professor, although these things aren’t actually all that different. There’s just feminism, which came to me a few years later, in my late twenties, through self-criticism and other people’s critiques of my early research, which took the bad kind of neutral approach to gender (gender-blindness). I know exactly how that happened and how important it was. I’ve changed through the years … partly for the better and partly for the worse. It’s always an escape of sorts, a shift, a reversal … And cultural studies wholly supported such shifts and reversals.
In South Korea, you spent nine years teaching at various cultural studies departments. South Korea is often thought of as America on amphetamines, and Parasite has probably further reinforced that. However, is this impression at all accurate? How would you explain the South Korean fascination with America and everything American?
South Korean fascination with America is no longer as noticeable as it used to be. It had been characteristic of the Cold War decades when the Korean Peninsula split along ideological lines and became dependent on greater powers. Today, South Korea is a major global player. Children in Domžale and Trbovlje listen to K-pop. We’re talking about an ancient, rich culture, whose global influence has greatly increased in recent years. Today, Korea is hip, and the world is obsessed with products of Korean culture, not the other way around. East Asia is our future, in one way or another. At least it is for people from other parts of the world, people aged 50 or less. However, the implications of this are both optimistic and dystopian.
What was your South Korean experience like?
Complex, intense, multifaceted, incredibly difficult and beautiful. For an average person with an insignificant academic background, I was unexpectedly successful; however, I’d paid for the success dearly. Exhaustion, political conflicts. I accelerated to a breakneck speed: I was working on my second doctoral thesis in the UK while simultaneously teaching in South Korea. I was living on flights, bleeding money, damaging the planet (along with my personal planets). At the Association for Cultural Studies, I still represent East Asia, which is crazy … I’m in Europe now. Things have slowed down. I can allow myself to feel nostalgic. Remind myself that I used to be an anarchist of sorts – and still am. The “Food, Not Bombs” collective, anti-NATO campaigns, etc. My old dreams and activities. Which are reflected in how I lecture, grade papers, talk to people. But still … with this 2011 hipster haircut? A metro-anarchist? Quite absurd, really. You know, I’d prefer to live my life like Kajetan Kovič’s dear old Muri the Cat … Muri and I belong to the same generation, but he’s much more relaxed.
You had also taught at the University of Trieste and cofounded the first department of cultural studies in Croatia, at the University of Rijeka, where you worked until 2007. Are migrations a necessary part of our modern academic world?
Yes, they are. Medieval students and professors moved from one place to another, and so do the neo-medieval (i.e. contemporary capitalist) ones. It’s in our blood, and to a certain extent, this is how things should be. However, such migrations differ from those that you’re forced into, e.g. to provide security to your family and feed your children. Migrants of the world actually fall into two categories: the very privileged ones and the very underprivileged ones. During the course of their life, most people just migrate between their home and their job. To use a personal example: for an Istrian with Italian, Slovenian and Croatian roots, and a Mediterranean – is there anything other than movement? Even if you’re not migrating, the borders, flags and armies around you do so all the time … The seas and oceans are connected.
In your opinion, how is Rijeka doing as the European Capital of Culture?
Not so well, to be honest, mostly due to profound and inherited local financial issues of the recent past and due to poor crisis planning that was unable to respond properly to the coronavirus crisis. However, there are some competent, friendly and smart people who are working as hard as they can to salvage the project. I hope they make it. However, in a city whose energies are mostly channelled into cheap tourism, they may actually be miracle workers. Trying to transform a pink-coloured drink into wine … Rijeka certainly deserves a miracle.
You are also a member of the Ljubljana – European Capital of Culture 2025 bid team. Together with your colleagues, you have created a programme that’s detailed as well as modern. How much time and effort is needed for something like that?
It’s not a trifle at all. The project could lead to great changes for people in the cultural industries as well as for all Slovenian citizens. Even those who would prefer not to play. Luckily, Ljubljana is a miracle in this regard. The cultural scene, its extent and its potential, is greater than the city itself. From my dear anarchists who are flipping the bird at us to conservative powers – nobody will remain untouched. It’s truly a big project. It will polarize us, energize us, make our voices loud. It will divide us, but mostly unite us. However, that’s par for the course for a project of this scale. The city has repeatedly proven, starting with the European Green Capital title, that such a project is well within its capacities. We’re doing our best to showcase the best facets of Ljubljana. The main thread connecting the various aspects of the project is solidarity. We’re working on making it real, tangible, within the ECoC project framework of course, which is in itself a spectacular thing – or was at least meant to be. However, we’re living in “interesting times”. At the moment, we’re in the middle of a global battle, a battle that will decide what kind of a “new normality” we can even dream of. I personally work with people I respect, people who fight for the right things, and yes, of course, everything is paradoxical, just like cultural studies, just like culture itself. As an outsider, I’m of course unfamiliar with certain Slovenian constellations, feuds, clashes of egos, etc. Which is again good for me, as it allows me to do my job without getting too distracted.
The city of Ljubljana invests a lot of time and a significant part of its budget in its cultural strategies, and it shows – Ljubljana has become a modern city of solidarity. In light of all this, what kind of an opportunity does the ECoC title present for Ljubljana?
Ljubljana – European Capital of Culture 2025 offers a great opportunity for us to re-evaluate the polycentric and decentralized cultural scene, and not just in Ljubljana but also in the Ljubljana Urban Region, in Slovenia, as well as abroad. Ljubljana, not Belgrade or Zagreb, is the capital of what we wrongly call the Western Balkans. Our space here is too limited for me to elaborate on this, but that’s my honest opinion. As such, Ljubljana has an opportunity to improve its position of the ethical, well-functioning doorway between different worlds and cultures and to remain a respected national capital, worthy of its role despite its small size. Social cohesion indicators are usually somewhat lower for big cities, and cultural statistics is a sadly underdeveloped field in Slovenia as well as in the EU. There’s lots more we can do, especially now that the world is changing before our eyes. The project has been developed based on ideas coming from the bottom up, from individuals and NGOs, from ad hoc collectives and institutions. Solidarity is often an empty platitude, but it can also be a tangible way of doing things. Now, I certainly don’t expect anarchists to support European projects – that would simply be absurd for everybody involved. However, I’m convinced that our project has a lot to offer to them, as well as to everybody who dreams of a better world in spite of our differences. When you have such a unique city that invests over 11 percent of its budget in the cultural and creative industries, you have an open space in which you can take huge steps forward. This project is undoubtedly one such step.