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Some treatments of the concept of ethno-futurism in Estonia
Heinapuu Ott & Andres Heinapuu

 Ethno-futurism originated in Estonia but - while spreading in the boreal world - has taken new forms and has been re-interpreted several times in ways about which nobody in Estonia knows. But on the other side, while Estonian critics have started to analyse the ethno-futurist art originating from elsewhere (e.g. the performances of Kuchyran Yuri, Udmurt, Mari, Komi painting and other fine art), the rest of the world is in relative oblivion about the use of the concept in Estonia. The Estonian contribution to the international treatment of ethno-futurism has been scarce (as compared to the number of texts in English and Russian produced by Kari Sallamaa and various Udmurt researchers and artists): it comprises the so-called manifest of ethno-futurism (in English, Finnish and Russian; 1), two articles by Piret Viires (2) and a recent study by Heie Treier (in English; 3). With this short review on what has been written in Estonian on the concept ethno-futurism we try to alleviate this shortage of information. The aim has not been, however, to cover all the material published in Estonian, rather have we intended to introduce what seemed to us most important and least known outside Estonia. In addition to that, we have tried to find parallel phenomena and ideas from other Finno-Ugrian cultures.

The 'ethno-futurist triangle' by Rein Taagepera (4)

Ethno-futurism has been interpreted in its widest sense by Professor Rein Taagepera at the 3rd conference of ethno-futurism in Tartu (1999). Taagepera models attitudes toward traditional culture and possible orientations in culture.

Cosmofuturism postulates a 'brave new world', post-ethnic and cosmopolitan, or supra-ethnic. Taagepera presents the Soviet idea of creating a post-ethnic 'Soviet nation' out of the existing nationalities and ethnic groups as an example of a cosmofuturist ideology. The 'Soviet nation' idea depended on the belief in progress, the belief that nationalities and ethnic groups are no longer necessary and doomed to disappear in the close future.

Ethno-praeterism is an orientation toward the ethnic past. The past is valued, as well as the 'purity' of ethnic or national culture, intolerance against anything new (that is, alien) is spread. Thus ethnic or national culture is deemed to be little more than one of the previous strata in its history. Development of the culture brings about distance from that ideal culture and foreign mental culture is inevitably adopted along with elements of foreign material culture. This way of thinking helps marginalise and finally destroy ethnic culture.

Ethno-futurism sees possibilities even for smaller peoples to retain their ethnic peculiarities: ethnic diversity is considered possible in the future. Orientation is toward the future, ethnic or national culture is viewed as dynamic and developing. Adopting elements of foreign material culture does not inevitably bring about the adoption of foreign mental culture.

Taagepera emphasises that ethno-futurism contradicts both cosmofuturism and ethno-praeterism whereas ethno-praeterism has no connection with cosmofuturism. This is due to the fact that ethno-praeterists have nothing to say about the future and cosmofuturists, on the other hand, have nothing to say about ethnic or national culture. Both advance linguistic and cultural assimilation.

Taagepera admits that his three concepts are ideal types which appear side by side or in various combinations.

Estonian poetry in the 1990s: ethno-futurism vs. ethno-symbolism

In a narrower sense, ethno-futurism may mean the corpus of ethno-futurist texts in a given culture (literature, art, elite culture) which share a method of composition; ethno-futurism may be defined as the method itself. In Piret Viires' words, "ethnofuturism is joining the archaic, prehistorical, ethnic substance peculiar to our nation with the modern, sometimes even futuristic form. Or vice versa - the archaic form (e.g. runo-song) with a contemporary vision of the world. Ethnofuturism can be also related with surrealism, but it is more nationalistic in its manifestos strongly stressing national diversities." (2)

Characteristic of ethno-futurist texts are (a) the striving to give traditional cultural phenomena new meanings according to the conditions of current culture, (b) recontextualising phenomena which are decaying and are frequently considered extinct, (c) reviving or reconstructing traditions which are not practised any more (on the basis of oral or written sources), (d) translating phenomena of archaic culture (e.g. runo song, traditional ornament) to new spheres of art without altering the poetics of these phenomena.

Kajar Pruul has dichotomised ethno-futurism with ethno-symbolism (5). According to Pruul, the dominant method of Estonian poetry before the restoration of the independent Republic of Estonia had been ethno-symbolist. Ethno-symbolism can be considered a means of poetic resistance to occupation and assimilation policies. Ethno-symbolist poetry by Hando Runnel and others meant repetition of already known signs, thus fulfilling important mnemotechnical and mobilising functions. According to Pruul, the influential political poetry of the late 1980s, including the lyrics of commonly known resistance songs by Jüri Leesment, were not ‘original’, they rather consist of conscious quoting, collageing and paraphrasing both the motifs and aesthetics of 19th-century popular choral songs. Such a treatment of ethno-futurism in opposition to ethno-symbolism may refer to the possibility that ethno-futurism (which Piret Viires labeled a ‘peripheral and provincial variant of postmodernism’) may in fact be a means of surpassing postmodernism. Collage, pastiche and excessive quoting are characteristic of postmodern aesthetics, Pruul considers these techniques as attributes of ethno-symbolist art. Viktor Shibanov (6) has come up with a similar idea, albeit from a different standpoint.

In this sense, the practice of utilising those practically extinct phenomena which have a heavy significative burden is also ethno-symbolist. For example, wearing traditional Estonian costumes at a song festival is very patriotic, although the tradition of making the costumes and wearing them is extinct for the large majority of Estonians. Thus the costumes worn need not be from the home parish of the wearer, the details of the costumes have lost their significance and people do not know how to wear the costumes properly.

Among other Finno-Ugrians, a similar example of ethno-symbolism is the custom of opening a speech with a greeting in the native language and then switches to the language of the majority (Russian, Latvian, Norwegian, Swedish). In this way, the speaker has made his language a mere symbol without any practical use. The speaker may or may not speak the local language, it is even possible that the majority of the audience speaks the language, the use of which is restricted to the sole function of an ethnic symbol. The Livonian language has an ethno-symbolist prestige among most Livonians. Very many descendants of Livonians consider it natural that only folk songs and choral songs are sung in Livonian, deeming it nearly sacrilege to ask for a light onto a cigarette in Livonian.

New modus vivendi for a culture in crisis

The ‘manifesto of ethno-futurism’ (compiled from the material of three presentations held at the first conference of ethno-futurism; 1) states that “ethno-futurism is not an ideology, but a way to survive as well as a modus vivendi”. The purpose of the ethnofuturist way of thinking is the integrating elements of foreign material culture (technologies) into the ethnically peculiar model of culture and local world picture without altering it. This kind of thinking is often spawned by cultures in crisis at times when a society is rapidly undergoing social or cultural changes and in situations when the invasion of foreign technology is about to bring about the invasion of foreign mental culture. In all these situations, the continuity of traditional culture is endangered.

The standard example on the invasion of foreign mental culture in the Estonian ethno-futurist discourse concerns the creolisation of the Estonian culture with German culture in the 19th century during the so-called period of National Awakening. It has been claimed that the Estonian culture adopted the whole system of norms and values from the German culture while retaining the Estonian language (7). Kauksi Ülle has proposed a number of ways to continue the Estonian traditional culture today in her paper Ethno-futurism as a way of life (8). Kaido Kama has brought the following example to illustrate the relations of modern technology and ethnic culture: “The aborigines of Australia use boats with two most powerful Johnson motors at the back. But the fishing devices are Stone Age technology. Considering a local natural conditions, the local sea, the local fish, a thousands of years old experience works better than any plastic or nylon. Of course, today’s civilisation has much useful to offer us. However, an optimal relation must be found. It is completely normal that there will be a personal computer in every future Estonian home. But no-one can make me believe that there would be any better material than softwood log for building houses in Estonia.” (9)

To set Anzori Barkalaja’s study of the new generation of the Pim river Khants as our model, we can use the concept of culture shock to explain ethno-futurism in this sense. Barkalaja considers the effect of oil mining in the Surgut district (along with the invasion of Russian culture, the creation of expansive centres of Russian culture on Khant land) as a culture shock for the local Khant culture. According to most researchers, this has lead the Khant culture to the brink of extinction. Barkalaja emphasises the importance of the new generation for whom this new ‘marred’ environment is the only environment and who could come to terms with it. Culture shock can seriously influence two generations, the emergence of the third generation may mean the recovery of the culture from the shock as the third generation will be able to assimilate foreign technology and foreign cultural influences to their own culture.

Ethno-futurism in a state of culture shock is represented by the necessity to create an ‘own’ urban culture for smaller Finno-Ugrian peoples to counter the foreign urban culture, noted by Rein Taagepera, Andres Heinapuu and Kari Sallamaa (10).

In the paper presented on the 4th conference of ethno-futurism (summer 2001), Kaido Kama stated on the basis of his experience in the Southern Seas that Vanuatu - after being modernised by colonial authorities - has partially returned to local custom law and social traditions by means of a KASTOM-campaign, the spirit of which is ethno-futurist. In contrast, there did not seem to be any need to start similar campaigns in Papua New Guinea for custom law, traditional culture and traditional organisation of the local societies are viable there.

By now, the concept of ethno-futurism has become vague in the Estonian culture. Perhaps this is due to most Estonians' opinion that we have successfully overcome the crisis. However, the crisis is still present for those who strive to continue the Estonian traditional culture, cut short by a 'cultural suicide' (to use Rein Taagepera's term) in the 19th century. For these groups, ethno-futurism is still topical. But we have to admit that the strivings of these groups are relatively peripheral in the Estonian culture, although a part of the younger generation is susceptible to the ethno-futurist direction in the Estonian culture (e.g. the Viljandi Folk Music Festival seems to be the most popular music festival in today’s Estonia). The crisis is also present for Finno-Ugric minority peoples. We do not know of any Finno-Ugric minorities who would have been let live in their own tradition without any external interference as the circa hundred peoples of Papua New Guinea have been let live. Thus we can hope that Finno-Ugric minority peoples have the unique chance to surpass postmodernism by means of ethno-futurism.

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