ESR 1 Blog May 2021: Gabor Erlich

‘I’m painfully aware that the way I have arranged the writing of this book assumes—both about me and about my readers—that we are socially distant from the circumstances and from the people who still live the kinds of lives I am attempting to describe and to reconstruct. I am equally aware how improbable it is that any of those people could end up reading these pages. When people write about the working class world, which they rarely do, it is most often because they have left it behind. They thereby contribute to perpetuating the social illegitimacy of the people they are speaking of in the very moment of speaking about them. This happens even if they write with the goal of exposing or critiquing the very status of social illegitimacy to which these people are relegated over and over again, because in writing they take a necessary critical distance, and with it comes the position of judge or an evaluator.’
– Didier Eribon

This time I am not attempting to write about the working class, my quest is rather to address some personal doubts concerning my position as well as to point to the underlying causes of the dubieties.

So, let’s talk about the working class, shall we?

Didier Eribon’s book, Returning to Reims[1] is a sensitive yet harshly honest memoir. The memoir circles around a personal decision and the price one ought to pay for it. His decision was to leave his class of origin, to get away from the devastating poverty growing up in a working-class family entails in the material as well as in the cerebral domains, in pursuit of a life(style) that is crucially different— to become an intellectual in Paris. In the author’s case, being able to live his identity as a homosexual man was another decisive motivation. Eribon reconnects with his mother when his father’s condition (Alzheimer’s) gets critical and tells his story (and that of the family, the neighbourhood, and beyond) as a stream of reflexive remembrances.

On the personal/family level, my experience was smooth, I was never punished for the decision to leave, that I too made rather early in my life. Notwithstanding, this does not mean that I was/am free from the traumas such a switch comes with, as much on the surface as in the depths of one’s self. It seems though, that Eribon was more concerned with “what members of my new class would think if they knew my origins” while in my case it was always the other way around: “how will I be able to maintain a presence in my class of origin in a way that all what is the new me doesn’t seem just pure extravaganza for its own sake”. I was/am more intimidated by the cultural handicap one is made to feel, more often than not, when one makes such a decision. There are so many things out here I still do not feel confident about or comfortable with. This may seem a personal issue, and I am sadly very good at interpreting my impediments in that way, which only lowers my self-esteem, so that, when it gets to a critical point, can manifest in shockwaves of dissatisfaction. All this is ever-present, even though I know it for sure that the core of the issue is systemic. To twist Kuba Szreder’s metaphor (which he debunked so greatly in his Feinart public lecture) for the sake of the story: there is always a multitude of people trying to see more than just the bottom of the iceberg, although the strength of the stream is exhausting to the degree that, only a few will reach even the ‘twilight zone’, let alone the surface. Upward social mobility is thus a very lonely passage, the coercive hegemonic order makes it full of uncertainties, intimidation and repetition.

My goal is to figure out in which way can my class-heritage help the work I am engaged with.

(A couple of things I already know.)

Apart from Eribon’s book, an exhibition made me think of the class-divide in the past couple of days. As I’ve mentioned in earlier entries, the third edition of the OFF-Biennale Budapest is taking place this month in Budapest and online. One of its projects is called ‘Everyday Shortcomings’[2], a group show which is a collaboration of artists and social anthropologists (PAD). Here, it is important to state, that I am no art critic, so the scope of this entry will only allow me to scratch the surface of the issue, jotted above.

The exhibition stems from the long-term research of the group of anthropologists, who are carrying out fieldwork in the absolute peripheries of rural Hungary to see how people struggle with getting by in settlements with very few to zero public services. And then comes the part I find problematic: the PAD invites a group of young artists, with whom they have shared the findings of the research, to realise an exhibition that depicts the situation of the neglected subaltern in such a way that visitors will be able to experience not only the struggle, but also the originality of the people’s responses. The outcome, as they say, is:

‘An interactive exhibition and a series of workshops will enable the visitors of the OFF-Biennale to meet and experience the challenges of the situation and to learn about the ingenuity and creative coping mechanisms of segregated communities.’[3]

With it, the PAD group wants to point the visitor’s attention to the fact that despite their mediated depiction of the people as being lazy and “just waiting for the benefits”[4], they are shown to be active and creative agents of their lives. I cannot agree more with the first part – the ways in which the media represents poor peoples’ lives is, indeed, shameful. However, I am less convinced by the methods the group chose to battle this phenomenon. In this video[5], you’ll get a tour around the exhibition. Watch it, and then I’d like to talk about the responsibility of the artist/researcher, the goals of the show and the hindrances caused by its actual realisation; and also, the elephant in the room: if art is a vehicle of emancipation, how would some hundred people’s visiting the show contribute to the emancipation of the very people who are represented by the exhibition?

Since there is no comment section (there should be!), my email is, I’ll continue this line of thought in next month’s entry.

[1] I have the Penguin paperback version which was published in 2019. Special thanks to John Roberts for understanding how much reading this book would mean to me.


[3] Ibid.

[4] Everyday phrase in Hungary, which is only amplified by Viktor Orban’s rhetoric praising the ‘society that is based on work’.


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