Exploring the Connection Between Polish Pop Culture and Politics: An Interview with Wojciech Lewandowski
By Gillian Ginley, CSEEES Spring 2023 Intern
Wojciech Lewandowski is a visiting Fulbright Slavic Award recipient from the University of Warsaw. He joined the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures for the 2023 spring semester and currently teachers Polish 5230: Poland and Europe: Ideas, Politics, Popular Culture. Lewandowski holds a PhD in political science and DSc (habilitation) in political science and administration and is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Theory and Political Thought at the University of Warsaw. Throughout his academic career he has been interested in incorporating elements of cultural studies into his research, and looking at relations between popular culture and politics as well as political ideologies. Lewandowski kindly agreed to an interview with CSEEES intern Gillian Ginley to talk more about his research and his time at Ohio State thus far.
What inspired you to apply for the Fulbright at Ohio State in the first place?
There were a lot of factors that went into my decision to come to the United States. It was an interesting offer to teach about Poland in the European context, but later on, I discovered that Ohio State has a huge collection of comic books and comic-book related material, especially in the National Cartoon Museum in Sullivant Hall. This was an important factor because not all materials that I was interested in researching are available in Poland, but they are available for research at Ohio State. So, I was intrigued by the chance to explore my passion for Polish pop culture through this opportunity and I am looking forward to going to Thompson Library to delve into the archives that they have there.
How does your educational and teaching experience in Eastern Europe compare to your experience in the United States so far?
In Poland, most of the courses I teach are for international students from Europe and Asia, and I have had a few students from the United States take my courses as well. What I like about teaching in the United States, as well as with my international students in Poland, is that there is more dialogue, even if the courses are set up in a lecture format. American students and students from Western Europe are prone to ask more questions, which allows me to test my own knowledge of the subject and convey things that might not be so obvious to these students since they are not from Eastern Europe. When I describe aspects of Polish culture to American or English-speaking readers, I have realized that the ideas that are quite obvious to me might not be as easily understood for people who have not shared my experiences of living in Poland. This is quite interesting because I get to see an external look at the elements of my culture that are internal to me.
Where did you first find your passion for politics and pop culture?
When I was finishing my PhD, I returned to reading Polish comics, which I had stopped reading when I was in secondary school. The comic book market in Poland began to rebuild itself in the 1990s. When I completed my PhD, I thought maybe it is time to combine my passion for comics with my passion for political science, so I started to look at what developments have been made to Polish comic books after the market revival. My supervisor liked the idea of combining my passions because the connection between politics and comics has not been researched deeply, so I began teaching courses on Polish politics and pop culture. Through my research, I wrote about this topic in many articles, and eventually wrote books on the topic as well.
Why should undergraduate students have an interest in Polish culture and language?
Poland has a fascinating culture, and it is becoming accessible to the international audience because media materials, like books and movies, are becoming more available and being translated into English. For example, there are plenty of Polish TV shows and movies that are now available on Netflix that allow viewers to learn about Polish culture in a more entertaining way. Poland is also a rich and very old culture. Since Poland has existed for over a thousand years, we’ve had time to accumulate certain cultural products, especially in the last 30-40 years. Specifically, the children’s comics industry is developing at a fast pace and is a huge part of Poland’s comic book heritage.
What do you see as the most important social and political issues that are currently taking place in Poland and/or Eastern Europe?
There is definitely one thing that takes the attention of everyone in Poland right now, which is the war in Ukraine and how the political situation connected with it will develop. On a more practical level, many Poles are trying to figure out how to host the immigrants from Ukraine. There was recently a huge influx after the beginning of the war, and it was hard to respond to this because Eastern Europe was not prepared for these refugees. There were a lot of signals that something bad was going to happen in the region, but many believed that it would not happen, so there was little preparation done. Yet, everything became so organized on a social level because the government was just following the social solidarity with the Ukrainians, which was quite important for us. We also rediscovered the friendship between our nations, which also has some difficult history, as do many of the nations in Europe due to the conflicts that exist between one another. Yet at the same time, we discovered we could find more in common and put our differences aside.
How has the current political landscape of Russia’s War in Ukraine impacted pop culture and politics in Poland?
In Poland, there were a lot of memes circling the internet in support of Ukraine. The war has only been going on for a short period of time, for less than a year, so no huge projects have been released like movies or films to detail the war, but I think that there has been a spike in an interest in Ukrainian culture as a result of the large influx of Ukrainian refugees. Political satire is flourishing, especially in support for the Ukrainian war efforts, and of course, trying to convince people that we are on the right side of the conflict. I’m sure that there will be more texts that are directly trying to reflect on the subject in a more philosophical or analytical way, but for now I have mostly only noticed some short comics written on the war efforts, in terms of pop culture.