‘I got this thought looped in my head / it keeps me tethered to the earth / somehow I got so used to how things are / that I missed out on my own demise […] it’s all so boring and far from droll / so I compose my necropolo.’ Crooned in Polish to torpid guitar riffs and a droning bass clarinet, the opening lyrics to ‘Nekropolo 2017’ (2017) by Nagrobki (The Tombstones) are both confessional and programmatic. The band’s founders, Adam Witkowski and Maciej Salamon, shun any punk identification, preferring the self-coined ‘necropolo’, whose hallmarks are macabre themes, a healthy dose of profanity and deadpan humour. As a genre, its emergence feels timely.
Necropolo is a spin off of ‘disco polo’, a musical style that developed in Poland in the late 1980s, just as hurried political reforms had ushered in a mood of happy-go-lucky consumerism and economic individualism. These changes resulted in some Poles transitioning from rags to riches overnight, whether through entrepreneurialism, a canny knowledge of legal loopholes or both. With its roots in dance music, disco polo embodied the spirit of the times: light-hearted, ribald lyrics about love found or lost, or carefree holidays, typically backed by electronic keyboard or guitar. Reaching its heyday in the mid-1990s, the genre combined the foreign-sounding ‘disco’ with ‘polo’ – a word widely affixed to Polish products and enterprises to add a whiff of exoticism: hence Polo Cockta, an ersatz of Coca-Cola.
Necropolo should be viewed against the broader context of Poland’s current political and social backdrop, where the democratic state apparatus has been progressively dismantled since the double victory of the right-wing Law and Justice party in 2015’s presidential and parliamentary elections. The most immediate consequence has been a politicization and, effectively, a subjugation of the state media, military and judiciary. But the underpinning narrative, rooted in historical instances of martyrdom, sacrifice and exclusion, largely unfolds in the symbolic sphere of culture and memory. The everyday language of power – militant, patriarchal and resentful – has translated into policies of symbolic violence that replace plurality with a homogenous reading of the past. This state of affairs has invited what Polish artist Artur Zmijewski described in his recent diagnosis of the current political situation in Poland, ‘A Confession of Love’ (2016), as a ‘leap into hard identification’.
In a purported bid to deliver historical justice, legislation passed in April 2016 banned the ‘propaganda of communism or any other totalitarian system’ on buildings, architectural objects, organizations, events, individuals or dates. This has triggered sudden overhauls and apparently contradictory decisions: retaining the street name that commemorated the Soviet liberation of the city of Sopot from Nazi occupation (23rd March), for instance, but decreeing it to celebrate instead Hungarian-Polish Friendship Day, adopted in 2007 by the late president Lech Kaczynski. Following a June 2017 amendment, local officials and landowners are expected to remove public monuments and memorials (other than those in resting grounds) deemed to represent totalitarian regimes, which in reality encompasses communist as well as right-wing monuments. While these damnatio memoriae practices are not uncommon today, in Poland they are accompanied by a plethora of new monuments unveiled across the country. These are mostly devoted to President Kaczynski as well as to the victims of the 2010 Polish Air Force crash that claimed the lives of 96 government delegates en route to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 1940 Katyn massacre (mass executions of Polish nationals carried out by the Soviet secret police), and anti-communist resistance fighters.
The flipside to this discourse of the dead presently animating Polish daily routine is another more passive and nefarious force. The effort to rectify history and rid it of ambiguity cannot succeed in the face of change, attempting as it does to enforce an illusory standstill. These necropolitical mechanisms govern by means of symbolic violence, drawing lines of division that define who can speak as well as who can constitute a member of Polish society: witness the country’s persistent, pernicious regulations that refuse to accept asylum-seekers under any circumstances whatsoever.
Within this desire for ostensible homogeneity, cultural institutions that acknowledge and pursue their own agonistic potential – stretching between the past, a constructed ‘new’ past and the actual plurality of the present – are more important than ever. Culture is capable of denouncing the workings of necropolitics for what it is, throwing this purported homogeneity into relief. As Nagrobki add, with bitter irony: ‘Hey, exorcist from lands beyond / come on, pop by my home / this gloomy castle / all painted black’.
Main image: Nagrobki, Granit, album cover, 2017. Courtesy: the band
First published in Issue 191