Dr Boyko Penchev has graduated from the Faculty of Slavic Studies, Sofia University ‘St Kliment Ohridski' (BA, MA, 1994), where he also received his doctoral degree in 2001. His doctoral dissertation addressed ‘The Modeling of Self in the Modern Circles and Movements in the Bulgarian Literature of the First Quarter of the Twentieth Century'.
Dr Penchev has combined his research and teaching activities at the Department of Bulgarian Literature, Sofia University ‘St Kliment Ohridski' and New Bulgarian University with administrative work and journalism. He has been Director of the BA Programme in Literary Studies and Anthropology, New Bulgarian University (1997 – 1998), Member of the Expert Council of the Literature Programme at the Soros Centre for Arts, Sofia (1999); and Director of the MA Programme ‘Literary Studies' at the Faculty of Slavic Studies, University of Sofia. (2001 – present). Since 1993, he has regularly contributed to major Bulgarian culture and daily newspapers (Litearturen Vestnik, Dnevnik).
The Bulgarian society has undergone profound changes after 1989. How did the teaching of literature changed in the transition period and did it change at all? What happened with the ideological orchestration of canon-reading after 1989? Did it vanish, just like the monuments of Lenin, or it has been transformed into something new?
The teaching of literature in the post-communist school system in Bulgaria could be described as an heterogeneous mixture of "liberal" and "conservative" attitudes. By reading and interpreting literary texts the students are supposed to adopt universal and national "values" and at the same time to learn socially applicable communicative "skills". This mixture is a source of increasing tension, with the literary teaching now looking "too conservative" and "archaic" to the liberal technocrats, and at the same time "too liberal" and "rootless" to the conservative, pro-nationalistic public.
Literary education is a field with agents, acquiring and defending their positions in regard to "internal" and "external" sets of criteria. The internal criteria are based on the professional expertise in literary studies and pedagogy, while the external criteria are connected with the stakes in the public space - ideologies, public opinion etc. All these competing frameworks should be examined if we want to understand the relation between the school reading of literary texts and the public debates.
The first level of analysis will be the examination of the normative documents - the curricula and the so called State Educational Requirements (SER), which are the codified framework of literary education. The next level of interest will be the interpretative machinery, extracting meanings from literary works and combining these meanings into something we may call "structures of experience." The focus will be on several specific "nodes" - identifiable themes and problems, taking part in different discourses and fiercely debated in public (terms like "slavery", "oppression", "exploitation"; temporal thresholds like the years 1978, 1944, 1989 etc.)
The main objective of the study is to explore the way literature is taught in Bulgarian educational institutions and to provide insights how it could be taught in the near future. The precarious balance between liberal and conservative elements in the curricula and teaching methodology most probably will be put under public pressure, growing from the general disillusionment of society and the retreat to "national values" - a process already visible in the public space.
Research Project Description and Contribution to CAS ROH Project
My project aims to explore the specific counter-modern attitudes in the Bulgarian society of the 1960s, generated and reflected in the literary fiction of the period. I am interested in the social and cultural foundations of the great ideological shift, dividing the cultural landscape of the ‘early' (or Stalinist) communist regime from what was called ‘developed socialism' after 1971. The focus of my research is the shift from communist progressivism in Bulgaria toward a backward looking cultural conservatism resembling the conservative, autochthonic ideologies of the pre-World War Two period, as exemplified by the new, post-1950s generation of writers responding to the political and ideological power change by either daring dissent or willful submission. At a cultural level, the post-1950s break-up with the tradition of formal literary technique frequently went hand in hand with a reactionary back-lack of attitudes and figurative strategies, reminiscent of what used to be part of the nationalistic discursive armory of the so-called ‘reactionary', ‘fascist' writers and intellectuals of the 1930s. Would there not be a contradiction between the term ‘modernity' as employed by the Communist regime and the perceived anti-modernity of Communism as the absolute ‘Other' to the modernisation process in ‘the West' as has been suggested recently?
In my research, I propose to discuss the social and cultural structure of Communism as a different modernity, i.e., as another, diverse response to the inherent problematic of modernity. I believe that if we consider the up-rooting of the individual from the predestined social order and the transformation of human identity from what used to be ‘given' into a ‘task' (Bauman) as key elements of the modernisation process, we will be able to identify these elements in the post-1945 Bulgarian society ‘at work', too. While the form of modernisation imposed on the Bulgarian society from the 1960s onwards might be labeled ‘distorted', its nevertheless modernising effect on the social structure and personal identities is hard to deny. The consequent spread of individualism, triggered by ‘the new way of living' and detached from what had been viewed as traditional constraints, soon turned into a fundamental threat to the Communist ideology and power structure. Anti-intellectualism and anti-consumerism, giving birth to new, anti-individualistic feelings, became the paradoxical, intentional or intuitive, response to the new challenge. The sentiments of the 1960s, however, re-echoed earlier, inter-war clusters of similar intellectual conservatism, ‘nativism', and nationalism of the Bulgarian intelligentsia. These similarities seem to be structural, inherent to the fundamental mechanism of modernisation and the responses it generates.
My project focuses on the ways those counter-modern, anti-individualistic attitudes were adopted in the two seemingly contrasting historical periods, and how the appropriation of nationalism by the authoritarian regimes before and after the Second World War II blurred the ‘left-right' political classification. As ‘nationalism' cannot be viewed as a constant, ahistoric entity, my study is going to address its various effects in different social fields and discursive frameworks that constitute a certain ‘epoch'.
My research adopts a theory of modernity developed by Anthony Giddens, Ulrich Beck and especially Zygmunt Bauman, which links modern identity to be an ‘disembedded' character frantically searching for ‘re-embeddedment'. I will make the point that these ‘beds', harboring the individual, are constructs, sustained by institutional discourses and artistic activities. Hence, my study attempts to explore the construction of such new ‘bed' for the uprooted individual of the 1960s - a ‘bed' suggestive of older, pre-Communist national ideology, yet not reducible to it. I will hypothesise that new ‘bed', i.e., desire for belonging, was oriented towards the nebulous realm of a ‘nationhood'. It was a process that I believe, started in the 1960s and continues into the present; a process that partly accounts for the atomised state of society after the Changes in 1989. This artificially-construed ‘bed' of Bulgarianness simultaneously replaces, blocks or hinders the establishment of smaller, partial group identities.
My research material will be derived from authors like Nikolay Haitov, Anton Donchev, Vasil Popov, Yordan Radichkov, and Yordan Vulchev, who were particularly productive in the 1960s and whose positive reception in Bulgarian culture before and after the 1989 watershed is still distinctly related to notions of ‘modern form' and political and ideological dispassionateness. My study focuses on how the literary fiction of the 1960s with its figurative and narrative strategies invests value in the second element in oppositions, i.e. modern - traditional, foreign - ‘ours', artificial - organic, reflexive - irreflexive, history - myth. My intention is not to add another learned interpretation of these works or ‘demystify' them as vehicles of ideological schemes and stereotypes. Instead, I will examine how their meaning-producing mechanisms modify the framework of experience, conditioning modern identity, and how their implicit ideological content and identity-building strategies were brought into a broader network of social communication and eventually socialised.