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Doctoral defense: 'Peace-time for “Soldiers of Culture” - “Civic cultivation” in Hungary’s Houses of Culture since 1990' by Marton Szarvas

Marton Szarvas
Tuesday, September 26, 2023, 3:00 pm – 5:00 pm

Chair of the Examination Board: Robyn Radway, Department of History, CEU;

Supervisor: Alexandra Kowalski, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, CEU;

Internal examiner: Vlad Naumescu, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, CEU;

External examiner: Joe Grim Feinberg, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

This historical ethnography of Houses of Culture in two Hungarian towns interrogates the changing relationship between state and culture in contemporary Hungary. I inquired about what actors formed policies and activities in the house of culture. How and who voiced participation and/or resistance to political and social changes in the place? Why did the function of it change? I examine the processes through which actors (both professionals of culture and citizens) create and reproduce but also contest the state's symbolic power in and through practices and programs in the house of culture.

Activities organized there are called civic cultivation (közművelődés). That is an assemblage of educational activities, typically organized by modern states within different cultural institutions to form citizens and labor through moral education and disseminating knowledge about institutional culture and a modern way of life. Civic cultivation operates on the border of civil and political society, incorporating cultural practices and mobilizing symbolic capital, thus providing an opportunity to inquire about changes in hegemonic processes and how social actors and institutions participate in them.

I formulate civic cultivation as an activity organized by the integral state. Following Gramsci’s definition of state (political + civil society), it is on the border of and involves participation from both civil and political society. It affects control and coercion by selecting legitimate cultural practices and distinguishing between authentic and inauthentic traditions.

The history of the house of culture is intertwined in the early 20th century with the expansion of Hungarian national sentiments. It also contributed to the fight against illiteracy and the commodification and display of folk culture. For the early socialist state, it was as important that they referred to the staff as soldiers of culture who maintained social cohesion through disseminating socialist culture. During the 1960s, civic cultivation gradually lost its militancy and became a defined field of expertise. Since the transition as an institution, it has been partially abandoned. Since the EU accession in 2004, it has been a subject of a series of transformations such as Europeanization or after 2010 centralization. House of culture in towns of the countryside became the site of reproduction of local elites, and the cultural means they utilize is social conflict.

I inquire through ethnographic research in two towns located in Eastern Hungary how shifts in understanding of houses of culture’s function on the national scale and the transformation of local practices mutually affected each other. The selection of the field sites was based on the fact that in these localities, there is a continuity of programs alongside their differences in conditions of unequal development. The first field, Salgótarján, is situated in north-eastern Hungary, where the early penetration of industrialization resulted in a lively worker culture. The memory of industrial production occupies a central role in the city's identity. The second case is Mezőkövesd, an agrarian town where folk culture was commodified early and became an essential part of modern cultural practices.

Please register here for the zoom link or non-CEU participants for in-person attendance.