“Like Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project on nineteenth-century Paris, Derek Sayer’s book on twentieth-century Prague brilliantly mixes an infinity of small worlds that reflect the greater world of an enigmatic and fascinating city.”—Jan Baetens, author of Rebuilding Story Worlds: “The Obscure Cities” by Schuiten and Peeters
“Postcards from Absurdistan is a compelling account of the official and the everyday dramas of twentieth-century Prague. Derek Sayer evokes the farce, satire, tragedy, and absurdity of the fragments that create history, masterfully balancing reality and the myths constructed by visual artists, writers, dramatists, and composers.”—Marta Filipová, author of Modernity, History, and Politics in Czech Art
“An extraordinary entrance ticket to modern Czech culture—erudite, independent, fascinating!”—Jindřich Toman, author of Czech Cubism and the Book
“Brilliant and addictively readable, Postcards from Absurdistan is at once an intimate history of Prague and a lively retelling of the story of the twentieth century.”—Paulina Bren, author of The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring.
On 24 February 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, I responded to an argument on a friend’s Facebook page that the West should give in to Vladimir Putin’s demands in order to avoid the prospect of World War III and possible global nuclear annihilation.
A few days later, to my great surprise, I was informed that my comment had violated Facebook’s “Community Standards” and my account would be subjected to multiple restrictions, including a ban on posting or commenting for a week, a ban on participating in groups for a month, and having all my posts moved down in Newsfeed for two months.
Facebook operates a system of escalating penalties, and this was not the first time I had fallen foul of their algorithms. I was reminded that “multiple posts from the last year didn’t follow our standards.” They listed three previous violations. One was for “bullying” (I had the temerity to suggest that to describe COVID-19 as “a little headache” when over 800,000 people had died of it in the United States was “stupid and dangerous”) and another was for “nudity” (I posted a picture of the newly published Czech translation of my book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, whose cover utilizes a collage by Karel Teige featuring a bare-breasted woman). I can’t track down the third violation because “this content is no longer available.” This is hardly a litany of hate speech.
I checked the box disagreeing with the decision over my latest post. Facebook responded confirming that in their view, my post violated their standards. They told me, however, that I could appeal to Facebook’s (allegedly) independent Oversight Board, “which was created to help Facebook answer some of the most difficult questions around freedom of expression online: what to take down, what to leave up, and why.” There is no guarantee the board will review any particular individual case: “The Oversight Board will define the criteria that will ensure it selects eligible cases that are difficult, significant and globally relevant that can inform future policy.”
While I do not think my personal quarrels with Facebook are of any great importance in themselves, I believe how and in whose interests Facebook and other social media control the flow of information on the internet are among the most pressing political issues of our time.
Here are extracts from my submission to Facebook’s Oversight Board. If I get a response I will post it here. I’m not holding my breath.
Summary of case
I am a professional historian and an acknowledged expert on modern European history. Among other honors and awards, my book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 2013) won the George L. Mosse Prize for 2014, which is awarded annually by the American Historical Association for “an outstanding major work of extraordinary scholarly distinction, creativity, and originality in the intellectual and cultural history of Europe since 1500.” This book was also chosen as one of the Financial Times History Books of the Year.
The comment Facebook removed read (in full):
“This is my last territorial demand in Europe” (Adolf Hitler, speaking of the Sudetenland, September 1938).
The Sudetenland is the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia that the leaders of Britain and France agreed Nazi Germany could annex following the 1938 Munich Agreement in order to achieve “peace for our time” (Neville Chamberlain). It soon became clear that this appeasement policy did not work. Hitler occupied the rest of the Czech Lands in March 1939, and invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, triggering World War II.
The context in which I posted this comment was a discussion on a colleague’s timeline of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. People were suggesting that the most prudent course of action was to appease Putin by agreeing to his demands to demilitarize Ukraine and prevent it joining NATO. My point was that Putin’s behavior toward Ukraine was reminiscent of Hitler’s toward Czechoslovakia in 1938, and to appease him now would likely have the same result. Concessions would encourage further aggression elsewhere. I am far from the only person to have made this case on Facebook or elsewhere.
Nothing in my post can reasonably be construed as praising or endorsing Hitler or Nazism. And my scholarly record of opposition to fascism speaks for itself. This decision is preposterous, and sends out a chilling message for scholarly debate.
Why did I post this comment on Facebook
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is arguably the greatest threat to peace in Europe and global security since World War II. As a professional historian of modern Europe, I believe I have a right as well as an obligation to bring my knowledge of recent history to bear on current debates on Facebook and elsewhere. In this case I was drawing attention to the strong parallels between Adolf Hitler’s behavior toward Czechoslovakia in 1938 and Putin’s behavior toward Ukraine in 2022. The quote I chose (“This is my last territorial demand in Europe”) was intended to suggest that Putin’s assurances on Ukraine should be treated with skepticism. Historians know that appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938 did not prevent World War II breaking out a year later. By using this quote I was implying that appeasing Putin over Ukraine is no more likely to stop him moving into (for example) the Baltic states if he is not resisted now.
Did Facebook misunderstand my reason for posting?
Yes, I do think Facebook misunderstood my reason for posing. The context of the debate into which I was intervening should have sufficed to make it abundantly clear that I was in no way endorsing Hitler. For example another of my comments in the same exchange read: “If Joe Biden can seize all assets of Bank of Afghanistan in US and give them away to Americans, he can sure as hell do more to sanction Russia and Russians than he has done to date. Same goes for other western leaders. If they don’t, Putin’s troops may well think the road is open to Riga, Tallin and Vilnius … and who knows, Warsaw and Prague.”
Does this case raise issues of wider social importance?
Yes. It is universally accepted that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a grave threat to world peace, and how best to respond has been debated in every western country. The invasion gave rise to the first emergency UN General Assembly session since 1982 (and only the tenth such session since 1950). It is essential that academics be allowed to bring their professional knowledge to bear in commenting on such issues on Facebook and elsewhere. They cannot do so if mere quotation of Adolf Hitler or similar figures, irrespective of context, is treated by your algorithms or adjudicators of “community standards” as tantamount to endorsement. If I know this is how Facebook acts, I will self-censor and avoid even mention of possibly controversial topics in order not to get banned from a network that is useful to me for other purposes (keeping up with family and friends across the world). If everyone responds similarly for fear of having their Facebook account disabled, the net effect will be to close down informed debate on important social and political issues – WITHOUT in any way deterring the real, organized, purveyors of hate speech, like white supremacist organizations, who have proved adept at taking advantage of your platform many times in the past.
Can you suggest improvements Facebook can make to avoid this happening?
The simplest measure you could take is not to treat the mere mention or quotation of a historical figure as an endorsement of their views, but to examine to context in which the mention or quotation is made. And, possibly, employ better educated adjudicators.
10 word summary of complaint
Quotation should not be treated as endorsement irrespective of context.
Czech readers are at last getting a translation of the best known book by the internationally acclaimed and award-winning Bohemist, which is an adventurous tour through twentieth-century Prague in all its surreal corners, that lurk at literally every step.
Prague – “a city located at a crossroads of imagined futures that seemed boundless and imagined pasts that eternally threatened to return.” Just because of this it became an inspirational metropolis for a movement so sensitively reactive to the social changes of its time. Now, surrealist Prague is presented in a spectacular monograph, which in more than 500 pages shows the important role of this uncanny city in its interwoven connections, without which surrealism would not have achieved its celebrated forms. And what is still more remarkable – it is not a Czech but a Canadian-British Bohemist who narrates this adventure …
In his spellbinding account of the turbulent art of Prague and the lives of its creators, Sayer does not forget the finest details … (Elizaveta Getta, “Město surrealistických snů,” iLiterature.cz, 1 August 2021)
I dare not estimate the total number of pragensia, i.e. books dedicated to Prague, that have so far been published. Two of them, however, are absolutely fundamental works and rightly recognised throughout the world. These are Magic Prague by the Italian bohemist Angelo Ripellino and Prague in Black and Gold by the now ninety-eight-year-old Prague native and Yale University professor emeritus Peter Demetz. These two admirers of Prague were joined eight years ago by a generation and a half younger Canadian-British bohemist Derek Sayer, with his extraordinary cultural-historical monograph Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, subtitled A Surrealist History …
I consider Derek Sayer’s book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, with the significant subtitle A Surrealist History, to be an excellent guide to the history that we assume we know. This Canadian has managed to make it special precisely by looking from elsewhere and putting into context what, seen from up close, appears like some impressionist paintings – illegible spots of colour. (Zdenko Pavelka, Meziřádky Zdenko Pavelky, Magazín OKO, 25 May 2021.)
According to the author, the modern history of Prague is “an illustrative lesson in black humor.” Where else can one get a better sense of irony and absurdity, a lasting mistrust of the sense of grand theories and of totalitarian ideologies, and a Rabelaisian delight in how all social and intellectual claims to rationality are indiscriminately subverted by the erotic? But above all, Sayer repeatedly emphasizes that we should understand “modernism” as Vítězslav Nezval prefigured it in his collection Woman in the Plural, namely as something diverse and plural. According to Sayer, it is time to acknowledge that abstract art and the gas chamber are equally authentic expressions of the modern spirit …
The author’s picture of Prague and those times … is dominated by left avantgarde artists … about whose occasional inclination toward the Stalinist Soviet Union the author writes overly generously … Despite this slight bias and minor errors, we can agree with Lenka Bydžovská, who wrote enthusiastically about the original book that Sayer amazes the reader with his “encyclopedic knowledge, his reliable orientation in specialist literature, memoirs and correspondence, in literature and art, but above all with his inventiveness, his ability to illuminate seemingly familiar events, stories and works from a different angle.” (Jan Lukavec, “Surrealistická setkávání v modernistické metropoli” [Surrealist encounters in a modernist metropolis], Deník N, 3 June 2021.)
A substantial book on art has been published – and yet it doesn’t weigh 5 kg! It is, however, weighty in its genuine passion, content and reach. The main theme is the interwar cultural scene in Prague, with an emphasis on the local surrealist circle, which has gained an international reputation. The book is about this phenomenon, but it is is also full of enjambments, digressions and wider contexts. It is a great read – and yet it is based on a truthful, factual and clearly accurate text. Here we have writing that is extremely learned, informed as well as naturally flowing. It is strange that no one has written a book like this before. Only now has a foreigner taken it up. And that is very good …
Sayer’s book is a great achievement. It is a source of information, education and entertainment. A volume that brings Czech history to life, a text that penetrates its numerous hidden corners, a collection of (un)known stories of which we can generally be proud, for they prove the valuable place of our cultural activities and art in the first half of the 20th century. We belonged to the avant-garde, and Derek Sayer knows how to write about it. (Radan Wagner, “Vynikající kniha nejen o Praze a českém surrealismu” [An exceptional book not only on Prague and Czech Surrealism], ArtReview, 12 June 2001.)
A slightly incorrect and provocative guide to the cultural history of Prague, not only of the last century. It reminds Western readers how significant a role Prague played in the world’s modern culture. For those here, it can help them to perceive in a new, unhackneyed and lively way many of Prague’s realities that we too often take to be self-evident. (PLAV, iLiteratura.cz, 19 June 2021.)
Eight years after the original, a Czech translation of a monumental guide to Czech modern culture has come out, whose author is Derek Sayer … The author’s aim is not only to rehabilitate Czech surrealism before the global public, but to present Prague as the city of “another” modernity: “This is not ‘modern society’ as generations of western social theorists have habituated us to think of it, but a Kafkan world in which the exhibition may turn into a show trial, the interior mutate into a prison cell, the arcade become a shooting gallery, and the idling flaneur reveal himself to be a secret policeman …”
For him Prague is also the capital city of the twentieth century because “this is a place in which modernist dreams have again and again unraveled; a location in which the masks have sooner or later always come off to reveal the grand narratives of progress for the childish fairy tales they are.” And also a place where “the past is not easy to escape … even when, and perhaps especially when, you are making new worlds.” (Petr Zídek,”Kniha o českém surrealismu aneb monografie světové Prahy” [A book on Czech surrealism or a monograph of global Prague], Právo, 1 July 2021.)
None of these reviewers are without their criticisms, and I am grateful where they have pointed out occasional factual mistakes in the text. There are of course errors, mostly minor, in the book (and as Petr Zídek noted in his review, some more were added in the Czech edition that were not picked up by the Volvox Globator editors). Zdenko Pavelka also (justly) alerts readers that:
“Sayer’s knowledge of realities and his ability to connect them in time and space are exceptional. I have to warn, however, that sometimes maybe also with a certain exaggeration or, let us say, poetic license. Perhaps you know that the Kinský Palace on the Old Town Square was the seat of the State German Gymnasium at the end of the 19th century, which Franz Kafka attended as a student. Sayer mentions that just outside the windows of his classroom is the balcony from which Gottwald spoke on 21 February 1948. I’m not sure whether in this case Sayer is not slightly embellishing reality in the Hrabalian manner, because the rooms at the disposal of the gymnasium were supposed to be in the rear of the palace. But even if Kafka did not sit in that balcony room, the well-known story of how in a later retouched photograph of the balcony scene, only the cap of Gottwald’s faithful comrade Vladimir Clementis remains, of course on Gottwald’s head, is certainly close to Kafka, but also to the surrealists.”
Precisely. In this case the error was inadvertent, but call it hasard objectif. The Kinský Palace remains an excellent example of Prague’s surrealities. As to the comparison with Bohumil Hrabal, I take it as a compliment.
I am very pleased to learn that a Czech edition of my 2013 book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, translated by Jindřich Veselý, was published in March 2021 in Prague by Volvox Globator. The book is available in hardcover or as an e-book from many stores including Kosmas.cz.
I had three top albums this year. I couldn’t make up my mind between them. It depends a lot on my mood. They are very different from one another. But all have superlative songwriting with great lyrics, highly imaginative scoring, and kickass vocal delivery. It’s great to hear popular singers using the full range and colors of the female voice just like opera singers do.
But if I had to choose just one album, the 2019 award would go to:
It’s all for the lovers tryna fuck away the pain. The future of music in the UK (unlike everything else) seems to be in very capable hands.
The Number Twos
Lana Del ReyNorman Fucking Rockwell
I’ve been tearing around in my fucking nightgown/ 24-7 Sylvia Plath
‘Cause if I was a man/ Then I’d be the man. (No apologies. I loved Abba too.)
The rest of the top ten
in alphabetical order
The Comet Is ComingTrust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery
Another incarnation of the great Shabaka Hutchings, on Coltrane’s old Impulse label.
Yes, that’s a fucking tuba. With Moses Boyd on drums and Nubya Garcia on tenor sax. Inimitable 21st-century jazz, courtesy of the London diaspora.
Christone “Kingfish” IngramKingfish
Straight outta Clarksdale, Mississippi, channeling the ghost of Robert Johnson. Wow.
Joshua Redman QuartetCome What May
Shouldn’t like this (I generally prefer full-on honk-squeak sax) but I do. Saw this quartet in Calgary this year, masters of their craft. Cerebral, yes, not a note out of place but there are times it’s just so pleasurable to put this on the turntable and relax. Great cover too.
Caroline Shaw/Attaca QuartetOrange
Sublime. We have “Mozart in the Jungle” to thank for introducing us to Caroline Shaw.
Kate TempestThe Book of Traps and Lessons
A voice poor benighted Britain badly needs today. And not just Britain. Maybe y’all should listen.
North Mississippi All StarsUp and Rolling
Jim Dickinson’s boys Luther and Cody have been great in various iterations of this band for 20 years. In this version they are joined by Sharisse Norman and Shardé Thomas on vocals for some down and dirty Mississippi country blues. If there was an award for quality of sleevenotes, the beautiful booklet in here would win hands down too.
Best previously recorded albums first released in 2019
(the OK boomer section)
Leonard CohenThanks for the Dance
Spare, sexy, graceful. What a way to bow out. Thank you too, Mr Cohen.
John ColtraneBlue World
The great quartet, a little before they recorded A Love Supreme.
Bob DylanThe Rolling Thunder Revue: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14 Live 1975
And a very good time was had by all. Performances for the ages.
Bob Dylan (feat. Johnny Cash)Travelin’ Thru: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15, 1967-1969
I suspect of greater historical than musical value, but some fun rockabilly and boom-chicka-boom from Bobby and Johnny back in the day.
Townes Van ZandtSky Blue
Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that (Steve Earle).
a handful of excellent albums
that in other years would likely have made it into my top ten but didn’t because this year’s top ten were so damn good
Ezra CollectiveYou Can’t Steal My Joy
Michael Kiwanuka Kiwanuka
Sturgill SimpsonSound and Fury
Sharon Van EttenRemind Me Tomorrow
“Seventeen” is my song of the year.
And no, I’m afraid I haven’t yet listened to the 2019 albums by Nick Cave, Solange, or Brittany Howard. I should. Maybe next year.
This set of texts and images was part of an exhibition titled EX SITU: (Un)making Space out of Place that led to a photobook of the same title. The exhibition was convened and the photobook edited by Craig Campbell and Yoke-Sum Wong.
EX SITU was part of a series of international workshops/events held over the last five years in the US, UK, Germany, and Greece involving art and media practitioners, academics, and research students from different disciplinary backgrounds. These meetings have led to an anthology of essays, Feelings of Structure: Explorations in Affect (McGill-Queens University Press) co-edited by Karen Engle and Yoke-Sum Wong.
All participants in the EX SITU exhibition/photobook were asked to couple up to six images with the same number of texts, each of no more than 100 words, on any topic of their choice. I shot the photographs in Athens, Greece in 2016. The original photobook layout with text and image side by side can be downloaded here.
I found the form an interesting one to work with. My intention was to set up layers of open-ended resonance and signification within a limited group of texts and images, rather than have the images simply illustrate the texts or the texts caption the images. I wanted to convey something of what Milan Kundera calls “the density of unexpected encounters.”
I am posting this work now in eager anticipation of the latest in this series of events, the STRUCTURES OF ANTICIPATION research creation symposium at the University of Windsor, Ontario.
Greece’s government has said the country is “turning a page” after Eurozone member states reached an agreement on the final elements of a plan to make its massive debt pile more manageable.
The government spokesman, Dimitris Tzanakopoulos, hailed “a historic decision” that meant “the Greek people can smile again.”
The government in Athens will have to stick to austerity measures and reforms, including high budget surpluses, for more than 40 years. Adherence will be monitored quarterly.
Guardian, June 22, 2018
The latest video by the Carters, a.k.a. Beyoncé and Jay-Z, is a treat. Filmed in the Louvre, “Apesh-t” begins with close-ups of various old master paintings. A bell tolls atmospherically.
And then, out of nowhere, comes a moment of pure swagger.
Beyoncé and Jay-Z, sumptuously dressed, stare out diffidently, like a royal couple posing for a baroque marriage portrait. Behind them, out of focus, is the Mona Lisa. The gallery (which was once, of course, a royal palace) is otherwise empty.
Washington Post, June 19, 2018
Note: the word in Greek letters in the top left of the photo reads: “AESTHETICS.”
Origin Late 18th century (in the sense ‘relating to perception by the senses’): from Greek aisthētikos, from aisthēta ‘perceptible things’, from aisthesthai ‘perceive.’ The sense ‘concerned with beauty’ was coined in German in the mid-18th century and adopted into English in the early 19th century, but its use was controversial until much later in the century.
45, Asomaton Str.
The residence with the caryatids in Kerameikos has been cherished like no other not only by the Athenians, but also by the city’s visitors … When the French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson visited Athens in the 50s, he “captured” two spry old ladies dressed in black, walking under the shadow of the lissome and proud silhouettes of the caryatids. The contrast of the black and white figures, of motion and stillness, of decay and eternal beauty, created a powerful picture, one of Bresson’s most representative.
Tina Kontogiannopoulo, Streets of Athens blog
The first version, that of 1926 I believe: a carefully drawn pipe, and underneath it (handwritten in a steady, painstaking, artificial script, a script from the convent, like that found heading the notebooks of schoolboys, or on a blackboard after an object lesson!), this note: “This is not a pipe.”
The other version—the last, I assume—can be found in Aube à l’Antipodes. The same pipe, same statement, same handwriting. But instead of being juxtaposed in a neutral, limitless, unspecified space, the text and the figure are set within a frame.
Michel Foucault, This Is Not a Pipe
The definition of a museum has evolved, in line with developments in society. Since its creation in 1946, ICOM updates this definition in accordance with the realities of the global museum community.
According to the ICOM Statutes, adopted by the 22nd General Assembly in Vienna, Austria on August 24th, 2007:
“A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”
The book has received what I am told are excellent reviews in several leading Japanese newspapers and magazines, including Yomiuri Shimbun (28 December 2018), Asahi-Shimbun (“The City of Kafka and Čapek,” 6 November 2018 book page: “a great book”), Mainichi Shimbun (by Shigeru Kashima, 27 January 2019, reproduced in All-Reviews, 6 March 2019: “It is a must-read document for understanding the Czech avant-garde”), and Repre (no. 35, 2019, by Haraka Hawakame: “With a focus on Prague, the Czech capital, this book crosses literature, art, music, cinema, theatre, architecture and all cultural areas starting from the surrealism movement and draws nearly 600 pages of European cultural history in the first half of the 20th century. It is a great book”).
I have also been told that Tosho Shimbun (the reviewer’s weekly) “recommended the book as one of the most impressive books for 2018.”
I am extremely fortunate, not to say honored, to have a leading Japanese expert on the Czech avant-garde, Kenichi Abe, as my translator, assisted by Kawakami Haruka and Atsushi Miyazaki. An Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology at the University of Tokyo, Dr Abe has translated (among many other Czech works) Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England into Japanese. Translating Hrabal must be the pinnacle of the translator’s art! Kenichi Abe’s most recent translation, appearing this month, is of Bianca Bellová’s Jezero (The Lake). His own book Karel Teige: Poezii no tankyusha (Karel Teige: the surrealist who pursued the poiesis, 2018) is a first attempt to map the Prague interwar avant-garde in Japanese.
The publishers have done a superb job of producing this Japanese edition, with outstanding book design, many illustrations (some not in the original English edition) and a stunning cover by Junpei Niki that montages some of the book’s key motifs.