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Blackbox Youth. New Perspectives on East-European Youth Cultures 02.11.2012 – 04.11.2012

The youth are in great demand, for they symbolize the future of society, and that future is constantly up for debate. The political potential of young people became apparent once again during the revolutions in the Arab world, all of which were greatly shaped by young activists. As a result, we are witnessing a repeat of the scenario familiar from the uprisings that occurred throughout Eastern Europe during the last decade. The “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine awakened hopes both in its Eastern European neighbors and in the West of a political turning point initiated by the young generation in the country. This event led to a debate about the social-political role of young people. The relevance of this debate to the present-day is confirmed by the events in the Arab world and the latest protests in Russia. The trajectory of the discussion reveals both a social need to project collective wishes onto a society’s young people and societies’ obvious helplessness when it comes to critically reflecting on the disappointment stemming from the exaggerated expectations.

We see this as a sign of a far-reaching epistemological problem. It seems that the established concept of “the youth”, as it crystallized at the end of the 19th century, is no longer suited to adequately describing the role of young people in the current post-industrial and globalized society. The planned conference therefore asks whether the study of literature, and other academic disciplines, have too long maintained an anachronistic definition of the youth and have failed to re-examine the category’s premise. We aim to initiate an open-ended and unbiased discussion of quintessential developments, results and discourses that are central to the youth cultures in Eastern European countries, in order to examine the expectations that are linked with the idea of young people. The discussion could lead to a fundamental revision of the concept of the youth or, conversely, demonstrate that the concept is no longer viable. It may turn out to be possible to use the example of Eastern Europe to show that adolescence is a specific socially, politically and culturally defined phase of a person’s life that is beginning to disappear in the globalized world of the 21st century.

 

 

If we take a look at the perception of the youth in Eastern Europe that has so far been prevalent in the media and academia, we can see that this concept proves to be extremely inconsistent. After the collapse of the socialist societies in the region, many hoped that the young people would complete the political transformation into a better world for which their parents had fought. When this “generational transformation” failed to happen, various stereotypes emerged. On the one hand, there existed the cliché of the completely disillusioned youth, frozen in apathy, like the proverbial Polish “Generation Nothing” of those who grew up after the fall of Communism. On the other hand, there existed the fear, expressed with an attitude of cultural criticism, that the young people might become politically radicalized due to the lack of socio-political opportunities and be caught up in ideologically easily manipulated movements, such as the youth organization “Our Own” (Svoi) controlled by the Kremlin in Russia or the right-wing extremist “Garde” in Hungary.

 

When attempting to describe the lack of illusions about politics, on the one hand, and ideological delusion on the other, both journalism and academia often work with supposedly well-established knowledge about the youth as a descriptive category. In particular, the term “generation” functions as a sign that is very popular among the media while simultaneously scientifically highly problematic, as it tends to interpret unique phenomena as symptomatic expressions of an entire age cohort, in order to be able to construct an unambiguous social and cultural identity based on historical experiences and events. Within the context of Eastern European transformation societies, with their rapid changes in values and experiences, this operation leads to the construction of ever newer youth generations whose believed sequence is meant to illustrate social change or, on the contrary, leads to all Eastern European youth cultures since 1989 being subsumed under the general umbrella of one political concept of generation. Yet it is precisely such uniform generational experiences as the foundation of youth identity that are being called into question in post-socialist globalized societies. A historicizing of the concept of generation, which could lead out of the terminological crisis, has so far never advanced beyond a few initial attempts.

 

Calling the entire generation model into question also results in problematizing the category of “youth”. It is noticeable that many behavior and action patterns of young people in Eastern Europecan no longer be described as specifically youthful, such as in terms of rebellion against one’s parents or as an escape from a state-sanctioned establishment. Instead, Eastern European young people appear to be seamlessly adopting the cultural value concepts and the social habitus of the adults who were disappointed by the transformation. In academic research, scholars even speak of a historic inversion of the roles in this context. The youth thereby become equivalent to a conceptual black box whose output does not seem to correspond to any of the aspirations assigned by cultural theory and social science to them or any of the anthropological characteristics developed for them.

 

The goal of the planned conference is to overcome this methodological and conceptual “black box“. In order to do so, we would like to conduct a discussion in four interdisciplinary sections on parameters that are generally constitutive for the concept of the youth and that have – according to our thesis – changed considerably over the last twenty years. This discussion may enable us to question the explanatory potential of established models and to actively find constructivist approaches to defining the concept of the youth.