Sensual Austerity interview with Sergiu Novac

Austerity is a word that falls easily from politician’s lips these days. It has a sense of moral duty, that makes it sound so much nicer (and harder to oppose) than ‘cuts’. Of course, nothing is new under the sun, and austerity has been at the forefront of political discourse before.

Last month we kicked off a five-episode podcast series about austerity in socialist Romania. Conceived, assembled, recorded and edited by Sergiu Novac, a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, the podcast uses the audio collections of the Blinken Open Society Archives to retell the austere decades of Romanian history.

 We sat down with him over a modest lunch to find out more about his podcast series.

Why does the world need to hear a podcast about 1980’s Romania? I mean, people are going to draw parallels with current austerity measures – can the Romanian experience give us any clues into how society responds to austerity?

We live in complicated times, in which globally the right seems to have a clear hold on power. A peculiar effect of this is the way in which an anti-communist discourse is still, even after almost three decades, employed to explain the problems of particular societies - I am talking of course about countries that went through the experience of state socialism.

Romania is exemplary in this respect. And this happens despite the fact that in the academic literature this issue seems to have been settled for good and the totalitarianism interpretation has been discredited. There is a plethora of leading scholars that argue the exact contrary, namely that the party was not and could not be all-mighty - quite the contrary, it was relatively weak and its weakness was showing at every level of power. Just one of the many examples in this respect is the work of Kathrine Verdery.

But the issue seems to be settled only in academia. So one incentive for me to make the podcast about the Romanian 1980s was to open up the space for a potentially larger audience and look at the period through a different lens. Of course there was state repression - plenty of it! -, of course there was surveillance from the secret police, but this is not the core of what Romanian socialism in the 1980s was about. And here austerity comes into the picture.

 Because if we stick to this obsession with totalitarianism we create some sort of idea of exceptionalism. We easily forget that Romania was deeply embedded in circuits of global capitalism during that period and that the decisions taken by the leaders of the country were responses to changes in the global economy. Therefore, we also forget that state socialism was deeply embedded in the development of capitalism in the 20th century - and that is a minimalist claim. It is here that I think working with austerity creates an interesting counter-narrative.

 After all, it is because of specific crisis of global capitalism, especially in it's core countries, that states from the periphery and semi-periphery were pushed into acute debt relations. Irrespective of socialist or capitalist, they all shared the obsession with sustained economic growth and since in the 1980s growth was seriously lagging behind, states recurred to specific measures of 'fixing the economy'. One of them - an extreme case of it - was Romania, since it decided to choose a path of economic 'independence' and pay off all of its foreign debt. The result of this decision were acute austerity measures imposed on the population.


It is clear that the specific mechanisms of the present austerity measures in, let's say, Greece are different. But this austerity is again the result of a crisis of capitalism and an entrapment into deep debt relations of semi-peripheral countries towards core countries in the global economy. Even more so, Greece also tried to choose a path of 'independence', by facing head on the 'Troika' and trying to have its debt written off. And the result of this attempt is well known. As is the fact that as things stand, Greece will never be able to pay off its debt.

 In the long run, I also think there are some clues into where austerity can lead. If it is sustained for prolonged periods of time, society will ultimately fight back. The question is just whether it will be a revolution or a reactionary coup. Unfortunately many signs in the present point to the latter.

 A last note on the use of austerity in the podcast is, I think, necessary. I was limited by the material with which I was working and had to stop in 1989, the moment socialism collapsed in Romania. But that was not the end of austerity, since the 1990s were also very austere times, but in a different way.

 Also important to note is that I am not a historian of Romania, so there are many events and stories which I simply did not know when building up the stories. This means that the podcast is also an invitation to a continuation of the story of austerity, first by adding to the senses of austerity in the 1980s and second by continuing it into the 1990s when Romania had to adapt to a market economy - a long and painful process for a large part of the population, a process which created new inequalities and in some cases exacerbated existing ones from socialism.  

How does working with sound change the way you research? / What were the main challenges in producing audio rather than written scholarship? 

 At least at a formal level, the process of working with sound and working with written text is rather similar. You listen to crude material, take notes, cut snippets that seem relevant and which you would like to use at a later phase. However, there is - at least for me - a certain degree of added freedom to working with sound. This means that already from the research phase I can work in a more ... let's say chaotic way, while gathering the sound snippets and selecting what I find relevant. Written outputs, especially in academia, where the target group is other academics, have a rather standardized format with reminiscences of positivist influences. Working with sound gave me the opportunity to depart from this and play with associations at a more metaphoric level.


And this is I think also a key point, namely that working with sound enables a different approach to free associations and is closer to artistic rather than academic work. I think the part that is closest to written outputs in academia is of course the first draft of the script. But even there I encountered the challenge of adapting the written piece to the way I would naturally speak and the other sound bits I would embed while creating a narrative. And this was a back and forth process, with trials and errors and at least three versions of the script and several attempts at recording and re-recording. For someone that has experience in working with sound I think this process is much more streamlined, but for me it was actually helpful to try to create order out of the chaos that I had in front of me. It thought me how to actually engage sound work, even if in this way it took much longer to have the final product. 

You can listen to the series here.

 A previous series created with Blinken OSA – Speaking to the Soviets – can be heard here.