Temporalities of the discarded, or the teachers’ strike in Bulgaria

Time, spaces, now(s)

In my mind, the impulse of Nikolay’s essay is to recuperate moments from the post-socialist present in Bulgaria that are neither purely “post-socialist” nor “capitalist,” but remain oriented towards something different – neither the ever-postponed bright future of socialism, nor the complacent forgetfulness or oblivion of a capitalist present. In the context of socialist Bulgaria, time stood forever suspended and caught up in a dream for a bright communist future which, for the lack of anything better, often took the shape of Western commodities. The present, on the other hand, filled the shop windows with those commodities, forgot about the future, and turned to a complacent enjoyment of itself, Nikolay’s essay, in my mind, argues that there is also another time of the ‘now’ which belongs happily in the realm of the local and the everyday, and at the same time, contains a radical and unpredictable utopian element.
The question then, however, is how to account for temporalities that resist easy historical explanations. Nikolay Karkov offers two examples from the Bulgarian context: an opinion poll, on one hand, and the teachers’ strike in the fall.  I want to stay with the second one, that of the general teachers’ strike, and recover some of the history that I think made this general strike so unique. Unlike other strikes which came with drums and disappeared into quiet diplomacy, this one turned into an authentic event as it managed not only to mobilize a huge number of teachers working for the state school system, but also to suspend the everyday and turn this so conservative institution, the high school, into a space of collective resistance, political action, and carnival. I have been studying far away from home for years, but the news of the strike, the YouTube clips of striking teachers, and the impressions I could gather from conversations were exhilarating and refreshing for me. Where I am, teachers and school personnel do not strike but simply get laid off or leave.

The teachers’ strike
The general teachers’ strike in Bulgaria became effective in September, 2008, and lasted for six weeks. The strike resulted in a true “world turned upside-down,” with scenes better suited for an absurdist play — teachers repainting the schools during the effective strike; students standing around and smoking while the teachers painted; politicians making lame excuses on TV while unwittingly flaunting their ignorance of proper grammar and language rules. On the “day of silence” when the strike became effective, teachers would arrive in the classroom, hold their normal classes, and yet, refuse to speak in class. During my schooldays of old, silence meant not only not having the answer, but also refusing to inform on a schoolmate or resisting the power of the teacher to extract answers. Now, the roles were reversed and the teachers were the ones giving a lesson on tacit dissent and disobedience.

The underground of state-run education
The strike demonstrates that popular resistance did not disappear with the politically turbulent period of the 90s. It also forces us to reconsider the special position of the high-school teacher precisely in respect to our present situation where the market has become the major force regulating salaries, working conditions, and negotiating power. In Bulgaria, state-run schools and education remained, for good or bad, one of the last sectors of the economy to be subsumed by the free-market. My most vivid memories date from the 90s. School teachers – in spite of and against the decrepit state of communist education and the even more dire state of post-socialist reforms – had developed their own version of a ‘shady’ economy that functioned on the basis of private lessons and informal networks. Private lessons and ‘contraband’ school aids with the most abstruse math problems or literary analyses did in a sense guarantee an entrance into a prestigious high-school or university.

Surely, the word ‘private’ immediately evokes associations with “enterprise” or “capitalism,” but that subterranean network of tutors and private teachers that emerged during the years of late socialism and survived well into the capitalist present retained a parasitical link to the state-administered education system, which began to be threatened by privatization only in the recent years. Simultaneously, private teachers depended almost exclusively on hearsay and gossip, and they carefully and jealously guarded their own reputation by making sure to drill their students to a point of superfluous hyper-preparedness. The same teachers were sometimes school bureaucrats themselves involved in the administration of high-school and university entrance exams. Respectively, these exams were aimed well above the level of learning taught in the conventional classroom, and in that sense, the very state-run system and its standards were indirectly influenced by the small niche of private activity.

The obsolete as a form of resistance
Here, my observations refer to my experience as a student in the years 1991-1997, and remain necessarily limited and unrepresentative. This culture of informal education probably thrived only in the big cities and was accessible only to people who could afford it. Yet, the faltering and futile chain of educational system reforms in Bulgaria, I think, reflects a deeper contradiction between the need for a professional and market-regulated education and an institutional setup that is still inherently conservative, self-centered, and protective of its own mechanisms. Additionally, the growth of the private-school sector has made state-run schools increasingly obsolete, defunct, and outmoded. Still, we should resist the temptation to cry immediately for another reform. No educational reform that is not fully attuned to the needs of the market is ever going to prove satisfactory. The obsolete, however, also resists full instrumentalization and commodification. The slowness of the system to adjust its measure of performance to quantifiable results and returns on investment provided a degree of liberty – a negative liberty as it may be – for the teachers. Being left behind in the market reforms in Bulgaria also implied having more political leverage and room for action for the teachers.

In the West, institutions that cannot handle their resources usually appoint a new financial manager or turn to a consulting agency. Such was the case with the Bulgarian Customs, an agency that was paired with a foreign partner in 2001 in order to improve financial control and efficiency. State-run education, however, remains too slow and practically unprofitable in order to attract anyone’s investment appetites, and that may not be a bad thing at all.
Institutions, venues, and practices that survive the general movement towards commodification retain a special power to resist, and that produces a ‘magic’ effect that does not fit the conventional stories of post-socialist transition. We can already glimpse something of the subversive potential of the obsolete and the discarded in the films of Emir Kusturica, a Bosnian Serb director, that tap precisely into those pockets of time left outside modernity. Films like Do You Remember Dolly Bell, Time of the Gypsies, and Underground take us to into the magic world of the cabaret, the sots underground, and the gypsy lore of love and smuggling not in order to make nostalgic trips to the past but rather to give us a glimpse of times and temporalities that have not been yet subsumed into the general drive towards growth and progress. Even Kusturica’s Arizona Dream – with its uncanny combination of vistas from the American South and the droning voice of aging punk icon Iggy Pop – is a reminder that the West has its own spaces of economic non-viability and radical anachronisms. 

I want to thank Nikolay Karkov for the ongoing conversation, and Christian Thorne who first brought up the idea of radical obsolescence.

Ioanna Zlateva is a Bulgarian citizen, currently pursuing a Phd in Durham, NC, U.S.A. She is interested in literary and historical narratives of transition, failure, and errant spatial and temporal movements.

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