Patterns of Development in Estonian Culture of the Transition Period (1986–1998)

This research project sets out to investigate the cultural processes at work in Estonia between 1986 and 1998, a time-frame known as the transition period, corresponding to the disintegration of socialist systems in Eastern Europe and subsequent meticulous political, economic, institutional and technological changes. This collaborative research project unites scholars from three institutions: the Estonian Academy of Arts, Tallinn University and the University of Tartu, capitalising on their expertise in literature, visual culture, theatre and cinema. Our result aims for a synthesis of wide range of cultural phenomena from the transition period, set against their wider cultural and social background.

The study of developmental processes in the former Soviet republics, as well as in the post-socialist states of Eastern and Central Europe, has focused increasingly on the societal, political and economical changes in the period following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The study of related cultural phenomena has so far been delegated to specific fields or to particular regions. The ongoing search for a suitable theoretical framework for approaching transitional/post-Soviet culture in general has drawn upon a vast array of critical orientations: critical theory, postmodern theory, postcolonial studies, gender studies and contemporary disciplinary innovations (e.g. multiple “turns” in the humanities, visual culture studies, postdramatic theatre theory and new formalist theory).

The research project sets out to investigate the generic patterns of development that occurred in Estonian culture during the re-establishment of its national independence. The term “transition period” has been commonly applied to the period from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s; the culture of that era is accordingly referred to as “transitional culture”. This research project will focus on the years 1986–1998, which can be regarded as the active process phase of transitional culture; they were followed by the stabilisation of the new cultural situation; the end of the era has been described as a shift from the transitional society to the late-modern network society (Marju Lauristin in the collection “Nullindate kultuur I”, 2012, pp 13-43).

This period was characterised by profound political, economic and technological transformations occurring simultaneously in different arts. One of the key factors was retrospective development, which means that post-socialist cultural situations contended with an accumulation of (imported) elements adopted from different eras and different Western contexts, and this fact amplified the sense of fragmentation. While these changes have been studied sporadically in different cultural fields, a comprehensive account of the competing developments of the eraʼs culture as a whole has been missing.

We proceed from the hypothesis that, in order to form this comprehensive account, one must consider them within the framework of a certain politics of aesthetics, more precisely the democratisation of the aesthetic field. This encompasses not just transformations in artistic practices, but also broader changes in a sensible fabric that creates specific forms of “common sense” regarding aesthetic realities. This approach largely stems from Jacques Rancière’s analysis of the common basis of aesthetic and political change, but it also offers an opportunity to discuss through the culture-politics nexus the notion of democracy in a wider sense.

It’s important that democracy in culture is not identical to democracy in the political sense. It does not refer to culture’s direct intervention in society’s functioning or to the management of culture (i.e. cultural policy), but rather to the more general re-configuration of the modes of discourse, visibility and (aesthetic) judgement. Thus, aesthetics is not limited to a collection of artistic principles, or to a discourse on beauty, but encompasses what ought to be represented in art, the means that can be used to do so, the question of who gets to participate in creative processes (and via which institutions), who gets to reflect on those processes (and via which channels), etc. Changes in these parameters define the dominant cultural imaginaries of a given moment, i.e. what is accepted as culture and which practices are excluded from the public sphere of culture.

The goal of this research project is to use this interdisciplinary approach to investigate the most significant transformations that emerged during the transition period across the culture. The additional, meta-scientific goal lies in developing a theoretical instrument that can be used (a) for a synthesising analysis of other periods of Estonian culture, and (b) as a basis for analysing transitional culture in other (including Baltic) countries.