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Cultural Anthropology

FROM SOCIALIST MODERN TO SUPER-NATURAL ORGANICISM: Cosmological Transformations through Home Decor

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ABSTRACT

Although the trend of bringing the “natural” world indoors took off in many parts of the world with the end of the Cold War, this article focuses on the case of Hungary, where the shift to and then away from state-socialist versions of modernist design was particularly politicized. From the 1960s to the present, Hungary witnessed a shift from the dreams of modernist utopia imbedded in “man-made” miracle materials like plastic and concrete to the neoliberal social order imbedded in “natural” (in fact super-natural) materials like organic wood flooring and high-quality roofing tiles. I draw on scholarship working with a Peircean semiotics of materiality to elaborate an approach to aesthetic styles in material worlds that can track transformations in such styles over time and link them to wider political cosmologies. I argue that the “organicist” materialities that emerged to humanize socialist apartments in generic modern buildings were part of a critique of the modernist project and its “unnatural” attempt to dominate nature and engineer human souls. After the fall of state socialism, the continued affective appeal of this Organicist aesthetics worked to legitimate neoliberal ideologies even as people bemoaned the suffering and inequalities generated by the new order. The emerging middle classes embraced the powers of a “natural” order that included a free market as much as it included a natural lifecycle. In so doing, they are inscribed as moral persons, and as such deserving of material worlds in which nature is enhanced and controlled. The morally justified search for quality produces inequality. The article is thus an exploration of the constitutive relationships among things (like residential housing and furnishings), people (esp. people's embodied experience), and ideology (of the state, market or of a particular group).

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