Cieślak on Zysiak and Śmiechowski and Piskała and Marzec and Kaźmierska and Burski, 'From Cotton and Smoke: Łódź - Industrial City and Discourses of Asynchronous Modernity, 1897-1994'

Agata Zysiak, Kamil Śmiechowski, Kamil Piskała, Wiktor Marzec, Kaja Kaźmierska, Jacek Burski. From Cotton and Smoke: Łódź - Industrial City and Discourses of Asynchronous Modernity, 1897-1994. Krakow: Jagiellonian University Press, 2019. 308 pp. $60.00 (paper), ISBN 978-83-233-4488-9

Reviewed by Marta Cieślak (University of Arkansas at Little Rock)
Published on H-Poland (September, 2020)
Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)

Printable Version:

From Cotton and Smoke: Łódź – Industrial City and Discourses of Asynchronous Modernity, 1897-1994 by Agata Zysiak, Kamil Śmiechowski, Kamil Piskała, Wiktor Marzec, Kaja Kaźmierska, and Jacek Burski is an important book for one major reason: it offers English-language readers an opportunity to grapple with the history of one of the most fascinating but globally less-known Polish cities. This is not to say that literature on Łódź in English does not exist. Articles touching on different aspects of Łódź’s history as well as issues pertinent to the city’s present have been widely published in the last three decades. Book-length publications, however, are much scarcer. Some comparative studies place Łódź in the context of other European cities (A Comparative Study of Łódź and Manchester: Geographies of European Cities in Transition edited by Stanisław Liszewski and Craig Young [1997] and Lviv and Łódź at the Turn of 20th Century: Historical Outline and Natural Environment edited by Mykola Habrel and Elżbieta Kobojek [2013]). English-language monographs and pedagogically invaluable collections of primary documents on Jewish Łódź remain some of the most important sources on the city’s history for international readers (for example, The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, 1941-1944 edited by Lucjan Dobroszycki [1987], Ghettostad: Łódź and the Making of a Nazi City by Gordon Horwitz [2010], Jews in Łódź, 1820-1939 edited by Antony Polonsky [2004], Life in Transit: Jews in Postwar Lodz, 1945-1950 by Shimon Redlich [2010], and Łódź Ghetto: A History edited and translated by Yehiel Yeshaia Trunk and Isaiah Trunk [2006]). From Cotton and Smoke thus joins the still limited English-language scholarship on a city that is not as known to global audiences as Warsaw or Cracow but the history of which encapsulates the history of Poland. Once culturally diverse and brimming with opportunities to be a heart of Europe, Łódź has strikingly embodied the ups and downs of recurrent crises and transitions in Polish history. At the same time, it has always struggled with ambitions to become more visible, more important, and more modern (as the authors of From Cotton and Smoke argue), regardless of what that meant at different points of history.

The premise of the authors, whose backgrounds range from sociology and historical sociology to history and anthropology, is that Łódź is (or more precisely, historically was) a site of “asynchronous modernity,” where narratives, visions, and desires of progress and advancement clashed with the fluctuating fortunes of industrialization and urbanization. In the case of Łódź during the period under investigation (1897-1994, albeit with gaps), the latter more often than not implied nonexistent or flawed urban infrastructure, labor unrest, and insufficient welfare provisions rather than a polished modern metropolis. According to Zysiak, Śmiechowski, Piskała, Marzec, Kaźmierska, and Burski, Łódź repeatedly “found itself a city on the edge of tomorrow, a vanguard and a victim of progress. Its history,” the authors note, “is a series of struggles to become modern, to be ‘just on time.’” Modernity in Łódź, they argue, “triggered a constant will to become modern without asynchronous distortions, to achieve the harmony of a city that would finally meet the demands of the day” (p. 20). In short, Łódź was always “behind” but was also aware of its provincial or even backward status and thus strove to shake it off and join the club of truly modern cities. What that implied is to a large extent the central question of the book.

The authors mine local newspapers in search for debates over what Łódź was and what it could or should have been. The newspapers, they argue, became a platform for the creation of local discourses that responded to the global promises of modernity and in which an ideal of urban modernity constantly clashed with less-than-ideal reality. The methodology is effective, particularly because the authors enrich their newspaper discourse analysis—the book’s analytical foundation—with ample use of secondary literature, which allows them to analyze contemporary press debates against the background of what was really going on in the city. Zysiak, Śmiechowski, Piskała, Marzec, Kaźmierska, and Burski see the newspaper debates representing different political spectra and proposing various solutions to commonly identified urban-industrial problems as “modernity projects” that not only mirrored the views of local journalists, activists, and politicians but also tell us something important about the readers, or urban residents invested in the victories and failures of their city (pp. 26-27).

From Cotton and Smoke consists of four main chapters, in addition to an introduction and conclusions, each written by different authors and focused on a different historical period. Chapter 1, by Marzec, Śmiechowski, and Zysiak, discusses Łódź’s transition into an industrial hub of the Russian Empire, highlighting the years 1897-1914, which the authors see as the key period for the creation of a new modernized vision of “Polish Manchester” (the starting date of this period marks the emergence of two major daily newspapers, Rozwój and Goniec Łódzki). Chapter 2, by Piskała, focuses on the years 1918-23 and paints a picture of a city that was trying to determine its own national, social, and political identity. Consequently, it serves as a voice in a national quest for identity taking place at the time in newly independent Poland. Chapter 3, by Zysiak and Piskała, examines the unique place of Łódź in the years 1945-49, when Łódź appeared to be on the way to fulfill the promises of modernity and for a split second became “the most important city” in new Poland (p. 168). Chapter 4, by Śmiechowski and Burski, deals with the years 1989-94, which produced the exact opposite experience for Łódź. While the immediate postwar period abounded with hope, the post-1989 years exposed the city ’s greatest vulnerabilities and made its path to capitalism particularly debilitating.

While central research questions and methodology connect all chapters, each constitutes a separate unit. Chapter 1 (1897-1914) offers a multifaceted discussion of Łódź’s arrival onto the urban map of Russian Poland. The city’s growth from a small town as late as 1860 to an industrial hub by 1913 took many by surprise. But, as Marzec, Śmiechowski, and Zysiak compellingly show, the same impressive growth produced a city that local and national observers repeatedly claimed to be a failure of urbanization. Lacking or nonexistent infrastructure, extreme economic disparities embodied in palace-like residences surrounded by slums, or no plan that would promote further growth all found their place on the list of problems that local press fervently debated. Simultaneously, the Polish-language press and other commentators suggested that the problems were a (by)product of the city’s diverse population. This diagnosis emerged out of a debate that mirrored increasingly ethnic Polish nationalism developing at a national level. That led some to suggest that the predatory capitalism in Łódź was an outcome of the city’s social composition, where “foreign elements” (most notably German and Jewish but also Russian) were to blame for the city’s failures. At the same time, the local Polish-language press strove to propose a vision of an urban polity that needed to transcend ethnic, religious, and linguistic differences to make Łódź the modern city that it deserved to be. Marzec, Śmiechowski, and Zysiak demonstrate how the Polish-language press navigated an ethnically nationalist concept of citizenship in the city’s multireligious and multilingual landscape. A vision of Łódź where modernization implied Polonization coexisted with a recognition of the city’s multicultural reality. The aim of the latter was to “self-assert” a sense of local identity (p. 87). The analysis of the tension between ethnic nationalist trends and the local experience of remarkable diversity is among the chapter’s most interesting contributions.

The authors offer a wide-spanning discussion and achieve a goal of creating order out of often self-contradictory and inconsistent press debates. In a way, Marzec, Śmiechowski, and Zysiak make sense out of Łódź that appeared confusing even to its contemporary observers. However, the authors’ at times imprecise approach to history writing leads to the chapter’s unforced weaknesses. For example, on pages 39-40, while discussing nineteenth-century Łódź as “an industrial hub” that “lacked all the attributes of an urban lifestyle” recognized by Europeans, the authors insert a comment “albeit quite typically absent [that is, the attributes] in colonial worlds, like India or the area dubbed the ‘Wild West.’” To suggest that colonial India, infrastructural heir to the Mughal Empire, whose cities were envy of Europeans, and home to British urbanization projects (with New Delhi and Kolkata as two classic examples) was a colonial province with cities that functioned merely as industrial hubs is simply wrong. The use of “Wild West” illustrates a different issue. It is not enough for historians today to place this obsolete term in quotation marks. Its use represents the same settler colonial perspective that led to genocidal policies, which eradicated entire civilizations from those territories in the first place. Finally, the abundant use of passive voice weakens the chapter’s otherwise interesting conclusions. The authors too often do not hold themselves accountable to determine agents of historical processes that they discuss. This, as it usually does, leads to vague statements that beg for precision. Sentences like “The typical citizen of Łódź was certainly not viewed as Polish, or even German. He [sic!] was rather...”; “It was feared that the new capitalist order would change people’s mindsets”; and “the vision of Polish national capitalism was more grounded in a quite literal ethnic Polonization” are only three (among many more) examples that all signal important processes yet all deny the reader agents behind them (pp. 85, 89, 92). Who viewed? Who feared? Who grounded? Authors? Editors? Urban reformers? Readers? A particular segment of Łódź’s residents? Given the centrality of the tension between ethnic nationalism and multiethnic urban polity in the chapter as well as the authors’ methodological claim that discourses in local press contained multiple actors these are critical determinations. The passive voice provides a convenient hiding space where the authors can avoid to make them.

Chapter 2 (1918-23) highlights the urban challenges of national independence. Already during World War I, the proximity of Łódź to the Russian-German border turned it into a site of fierce imperial competition. At the beginning of 1917, the German-occupied city witnessed its first election to the city council. Piskała notes that this decision was as much a gesture of good will from the new occupying power as a way to divide “the responsibility for the population’s deteriorating material situation” (p. 104). More interestingly, the author argues that this turn to democratic politics, absent during the Russian rule, positioned debates on Łódź’s modern status in relation to a municipal government “appointed and supervised by the citizens” (p. 106). After the war ended, the Polish-language press no longer represented an elusively defined “Polish nation” fighting for their own voice in the city that was purportedly overtaken by “foreign elements.” Now, newspapers officially and unofficially represented political factions that themselves were a product of polarizations. Proposals of reforms were steeped in the competition over power and thus over who was responsible for the city’s transformations. Unsurprisingly, left-leaning newspapers had very different visions of modern Łódź than their right-leaning counterparts. “Municipal socialism” of the left competed with “national capitalism” of the right. While both narratives reflected the recognition of the same urban problems (lacking infrastructure, poverty, economic disparities, etc.), they pointed to different culprits. For the left, in the center of Łódź’s misfortunes was class warfare. The immediate postwar municipal government dominated by socialists and its supporters in the press emphasized it was time for the working class to mobilize politically and gain control over the city that was always theirs. Conversely, the right-wing press determined the culprit to be (obviously) the socialist municipal government as well as the city’s Jewish population, a discursive offender that comes as no surprise to the students of Poland’s interwar history. Piskała’s compelling reading of anti-Semitism in the right-wing press exemplifies how anti-Semitism, while certainly not new in Polish-language press in the city, took a powerful role of “a vehicle of modernity” (p. 141). In short, Łódź was not as modern as it could have been, such newspapers as Kurier Łódzki or Rozwój claimed, because of the mythically unlimited power that “Jews” held over the city.

Piskała’s clear and focused analysis of political polarizations reveals some of the most tragic outcomes of the post-World War I victory of ethnic nationalism. In the reality where subsequent local elections shifted power from left-wing parties to a nationalist right-wing coalition and back, despite the city’s diverse political landscape, ideological wars replaced specific plans or even a discussion that would aim to advance Łódź. As Piskała writes, “the modern promise of order and prosperity” in the city was now linked to the belief that “the triumph of one of the parties in the ideological war” would be enough to get Łódź out of the postwar crisis. As the two political camps applied similar rhetorical strategies of “binary oppositions” and the language of threat and confrontation, the victim of this ideological war was first and foremost Łódź (p. 126).

One inconsistency of the chapter is its premise, which undermines some of the arguments proposed in chapter 1 and thus the book’s coherence. Piskała’s starting point is the notion of “the decline of the ‘Polish Manchester’” built on the assumption that the post-World War I years no longer supported “the positive image of the city, as one of success and continuous prosperity.” While the author notes that the perception of the city as the embodiment of “chaos and the fall of morality” existed too and, in fact, competed with “positive stereotype[s],” he concludes, “it is hard to say which one clearly dominated before 1914” (p. 101). That would have been more convincing if chapter 1 did not suggest repeatedly that “success and continuous prosperity” were dreams rather than perception present among Łódź’s residents and observers.

Chapter 3 (1945-49), the most multilayered in the book, best illustrates the book’s underlying argument. Immediately after World War II, Łódź became “postwar Cinderella,” ready to take the role of the leading metropolis in once again restructured Poland (p. 165). The industrial and working-class identity of the city coupled with the fact that, unlike Warsaw, it was relatively spared by war damages made Łódź an ideal leader of the new and now socialist-communist vision of urban modernity. Furthermore, the city finally gained a long-desired status of an intellectual hub. By 1946, five institutions of higher educations were established and in 1948 the renowned film school opened. However, in a bitter twist of irony, this short-lived triumph soon turned Łódź into a city whose needs were not as urgent as the needs of the cities destroyed by the war, most notably Warsaw. Zysiak and Piskała note, “Łódź once again fell outside the core of urban change in Poland” (p. 170). Simultaneously, a changing path of Polish communism shaped the press that, on the one hand, reached unprecedented numbers of readers and immediately after the war became a site of a still pluralistic discussion and, on the other, after 1948 turned to “totalitarian newspeak” (p. 174).

The chapter’s carefully developed narrative highlights rhetorical somersaults that the press applied to project hope and promise of the new regime while acknowledging the city’s challenging post-World War II predicament. The avoidance of topics that would imply negativity or trigger postwar trauma, including virtual silence about what had happened to the city’s Jewish population, allowed the press to promote a sense of optimism. Its building block was a juxtaposition of the capitalist past, “dreadful” because steeped in “social injustice, political dictatorship, economic instability and the proceeding degradation of Łódź,” with a new socialist model of modernization led by the same workers who had resisted the Nazi occupation (p. 186). Interestingly, Zysiak and Piskała demonstrate that the press revered the working class “as torchbearers of progress and democracy” but did not encourage their direct engagement (p. 188). Any political, not to mention revolutionary, action of the workers was allegedly unnecessary. The life of and in Łódź after the war was to be, in an almost mysterious way, apolitical because it focused on improvements in infrastructure. Those improvements would ensure dignified jobs, access to education, health care, recreational facilities, etc. In short, postwar socialist modernity signified a path toward “normal” or “decent” life in a city that was to be finally orderly, functional, and well planned (p. 192). The authors call this short-lived trend “modest modernization.” By 1948, it was replaced by the Stalinist vision of “spectacular, gigantic and even pompous plans and investments” (p. 215).

The chapter’s particular strength lies in how it weaves local press discussions into the postwar history of adjusting to and inventing new political and rhetorical regimes. There is something tragic in the short moment of Łódź’s history that the authors outline, when a vision of modernity strove to be hopeful yet seemingly realistic (thus “modest” given the scarcity of resources). The silence around the Holocaust only emphasizes a sense of tragedy as this absence paradoxically reveals the very real trauma that Łódź lived through yet that the postwar press refused to acknowledge. Zysiak and Piskała’s chapter is also an important contribution to the scholarship that unveils the complexity of Polish socialism/communism, which, as the authors show, in the postwar years not only did not fit the clear-cut Soviet/Stalinist model but also developed local varieties that attempted to echo local concerns.

Chapter 4 (1989-94) documents Łódź’s newly gained status of “the post-industrial orphan.” Śmiechowski and Burski focus on another crisis in Łódź’s chronicles, when with the near death of textile industry, the city became “a residue of a bygone order, a backward textile colossus with feet of clay” (p. 218). Even in the overall landscape of Polish towns and cities hit hard by the post-1989 transition, Łódź stands out as a particularly injured victim of “the shock of transformation” (p. 230). With no support from the state, in stark contrast to regions whose economies run on heavy industries (for example, coalmining), Łódź’s once again restructured press put its trust in foreign capital and complete privatization. The city’s poor image pushed local journalists to create a counternarrative that would convince the rest of the country as much as many local residents that Łódź was more than ready to forge a new capitalist identity. The great industrialists of the pre-World War I era, who embodied predatory capitalism during the socialist rule, became now the spirits of the city, its “capitalist forefathers,” who presumably proved Łódź was the historical hub of entrepreneurial invention (p. 252). Simultaneously, all the very real issues, including high unemployment, poverty, and no apparent plan to shake off the city’s working-class identity, which was now a liability, were “framed as the unavoidable costs of modernization” (p. 253). Presenting the decline and underdevelopment as components of modernity was perhaps a more honest vision of modernity than those proposed in the three earlier periods. However, the narrative of trust in capitalism allowed the press to make sure that while evidence of the current predicament was irrefutable, it was also only a transitionary path to a better future. The press aspired to turn “the city of female textile workers” into “the city of great businessmen” (p. 252).

This takes us to the book’s most glaring absence. For a history of a city that was once the hub of textile industry, the lack of a serious analysis of the place of women and gender is an unfortunate shortage. When a more substantial discussion on women finally appears in chapter 4, it is problematic to say the least. In the 1970s, the authors note, a debate on future challenges that Łódź could face became linked to an overreliance on textiles, which, among other problems, created a labor force with low wages, “limited professional skills,” and particularly low levels of education. The authors cite an expert, who suggested that the development of “the electro-mechanical industry” would “neutralize the over-employment of women” (p. 220). However, they ignore the inherent gendered nature of low wages and poor access to education that the 1970s commentator determined. Building on Małgorzata Mazurek’s work on female textile workers, Śmiechowski and Burski expand their discussion on Łódź as “the city of women” where “87% of the city’s female work force was employed in local factories.” They argue that “this situation” enabled local authorities to “neglect the needs of the city but also triggered negative social consequences such as a low fertility rate” (p. 222). They do not explain what they mean by “a low fertility rate.” Neither do they elaborate on why that would be a “negative social consequence,” particularly in a country where rural and urban working-class women bore disproportionately large numbers of children during their lifetimes all the way into the twentieth century. Do the authors suggest that it would have been a “positive” development if instead of working in factories the women of Łódź had more children? While this remains ambiguous, they certainly disregard the question of reproductive rights and access to birth control, which must have been at least part of the story behind the lower birth rates.

As Śmiechowski and Burski continue their debate on how the large numbers of women in the workforce were somehow linked to the city’s decline or at least its stunted growth, they conclude, “The negative coincidence of the city’s economic, gender and social situations slowly turned in Łódź into a real time bomb” (p. 222). If the authors had considered gender to be a critical tool of analysis, they would have had to conclude that there was nothing “coincidental” about it. Neither would they have been surprised that the planned increased price of meat triggered a 1971 women-led strike, or in the words of the authors, “the 1971 unrest was actually composed of striking women” (emphasis added). They continue, “For them [the striking women], appalling living and working conditions and ever-deepening poverty were much more important than the explicitly political aspects” (p. 222; see also further discussion on pp. 226-27). The question that immediately emerges here is in what ways opposing higher prices of food is not political? Especially if those who strike are also the ones who are paid low wages and forced to make sure their families are fed? By labeling a protest led by women workers as of “an economic character without a political impact,” the authors take on the perspective of the communist authorities that, they note, did not quite know how to negotiate with women workers whom they labeled “hysterical” (pp. 226, 223). Śmiechowski and Burski leave this comment unanalyzed although we can only assume that their mention of the term suggests their awareness of how gendered it is. Finally, the authors conclude that the strike, which at one point brought together fifty-five thousand workers and ended with the government backing off, “was actually the greatest working-class success in challenging the state authorities in postwar Poland prior to 1980” (p. 223, emphasis added). If this is the case, do the authors still maintain that the striking women of Łódź in the early 1970s were not “explicitly political”? When poverty, insufficient wages, and appalling conditions are ever not political? Should we really take “the system” (the communist regime) at their word when it claimed the women’s actions were not political if the same “system” succumbed to their demands (p. 227)? Isn’t the government’s capitulation the first piece of evidence for the political power of the women-led Łódź protests?

As Śmiechowski and Burski move on to a discussion on the post-unrest years, they write, “Łódź’s local politicians, still reeling from the 1971 strike, wanted to minimize the chance of further female contention” (p. 224, emphasis added). To refer to what the authors themselves note was the most successful labor unrest in Poland before 1980 as “female contention” demonstrates no understanding of gender as a category of analysis. Would the authors refer to men-led strikes as “male contention” or do they imply that when men protest it is political, but when women oppose a decision of an authoritarian government it is presumably a demonstration of apolitical “female contention”? And what about the phrase “feminized working class” (pp. 222, 226)? Should we conclude that there is the working class consisting of politically motivated men and then there is a “feminized working class” whose protests were “parochial” because they focused on food supplies? This kind of language not only reveals the authors’ limited fluency in gender and women’s history but also seems especially troubling in a historical analysis that focuses on discourse and that, as a result, provides an excellent opportunity to reexamine the earlier narratives of the women-led protests in Łódź.

From Cotton and Smoke is a noteworthy, even if uneven, book that introduces Łódź at four critical junctions of its history. The work’s potential rests in its ambitious and mostly successful goal to show that the local, the national, and the global are never disconnected and play out in the same spaces. The book’s biggest weakness, however, is the premise of “asynchronous modernity.” First, it is not clear what the authors mean by modernity. Particularly in the introduction, they use the terms “modernity” and “modernism” as if they were interchangeable. Confusion only increases when terms “modern,” “modernization,” and “modernist” appear in the discussion. As the authors reflect on what modernity is, what it meant in Łódź’s press, and how it “happen[ed] in the world” they never explain what modernity is for them (p. 21). Not only do they use sources on modernism to support their claims on modernity (perhaps justifiable but that would need further clarification), but they also replace one term with another (for example, discussion around a quote from Harsha Ram’s book on p. 23; a similar turn on p. 209). Because “modernity” and “modern” are different from “modernism” and “modernist” (a similar distinction exists in the Polish language, where nowoczesność is not the same as modernizm), the question of how the authors see a connection between the two if they suggest otherwise remains unanswered. A diverse body of cited scholarship (especially in the introduction) only contributes to the confusion. An interdisciplinary variety can be powerful but as works representing history, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, literary studies, and cultural studies populate the footnotes of From Cotton and Smoke, the authors remain on their surfaces. This superficial use of theories and tools proposed by representatives of different disciplines is evident in the absence of a coherent theoretical proposal. If the authors suggest, as they seem to, an equation of modernity with modernism, this requires an explanation for those readers for whom a sharp distinction between “modernity” and “modernism” is uncontentious and taken for granted.

This leads us to “asynchronous.” The authors ask, “Where did modernity take shape day to day?” Their answer (“as paradoxical as it may seem”): “it was happening elsewhere” (p. 21). The statement might be rhetorically catchy but historians have reached much more specific answers to the same question. The authors of From Cotton and Smoke allude to some of them, only to gloss over their findings, presumably because Zysiak, Śmiechowski, Piskała, Marzec, Kaźmierska, and Burski appear to operate from within the discourses of modernity rather than from within the history of modernity. Understandably, modernity is for the authors connected to urbanization. Yet, as they themselves point out, “a growing awareness of global entanglements” signaled departure from metropoles and showed at some point “that metropolitan modernity has an evil twin in the seemingly backwater of slave-holding plantations” (p. 22). Herein lies the answer to the question “Where did modernity take shape day to day?” It was not, as the authors suggest, “happening elsewhere.” As cohorts of scholars of slavery, modern imperialism, and capitalism have shown time and again (including Paul Gilroy, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, or Robin Blackburn, to mention only those cited in From Cotton and Smoke), modernity “was happening” simultaneously (or synchronously) in all the spaces of “the global entanglements.” Already in 1944, Eric Williams famously argued that there was no British industrial and political imperial power without slavery in Britain’s Caribbean colonies (Capitalism and Slavery). In other words, there is no modern metropolis (in the sense of a city but also in the sense of an empire) without the wealth produced at “slave-holding plantations,” which in the form in which they existed in the Americas were themselves the powerful mark of modernity (as Blackburn, among others, demonstrated). The Braudelian-Wallersteinian language of centers and peripheries (or margins), which the authors of From Cotton and Smoke embrace, have turned out useful in conceptualizing modernity as inseparable from capitalism and emerging long before full-blown industrialization. However, as the authors themselves point out, scholars have demonstrated that what we often see as peripheries or margins have been absolutely central. The authors of From Cotton and Smoke note, “all those entangled places [also “slave-holding plantations”], peripheral, but globally connected industrial centers among them, reveal more about global modernity than the centers of popular imagination such as London, Paris, or New York. They were the global history” (p. 22). And here is a problem with “asynchronous modernity.” If that is the case, if conventionally “peripheral” places reveal so much about modernity, why do we need “asynchronous” modernity at all? Isn’t the unequal development driven by some historical actors in some places exploiting other historical actors in the same or other places the essential feature of modernity, impossible to disconnect from capitalism? Isn’t thus slow, uneven, or even lack of development in one place inescapably connected with growth in others? In other words, isn’t “asynchronicity” the defining feature of modernity? If in the case of Łódź, “asynchronous modernity” is a concept that describes a clash between an idealized vision of a modern metropolis created by and in discourses and a much less ideal reality, isn’t that simply a clear demonstration of how modernity works? “Asynchronous modernity” as a term appears simply redundant because modernity has historically implied a promise of progress that is by definition “asynchronous” and paradoxically means the absence of what we conventionally think of as progress for some across geographical locations. To put it simply, the early squalor, industrial failures, or post-socialist chaos of Łódź are the building blocks of modernity because the modernity of even or consistent progress was never more than a discourse, as the authors’ own reflections on “a harmonious modernity” as a “forever ... unfulfilled promise” confirm (p. 31).

To be sure, while the authors do not present a compelling argument that “asynchronous modernity” is a concept we need, they largely succeed at showing the inherent conflicts of modernity. It is an important contribution in the context of the city like Łódź, which, as this book illustrates, never lived up to expectations imposed on it by the local press, residents, and national observers. Even in the midst of rapid industrial development, as the authors show, ordinary lower-class city residents were hardly beneficiaries of progress. The book is at its weakest when it alludes to and combines yet does not engage with various theoretical approaches coming from different disciplines, which at times leads to a superficial discussion of concepts and phenomena that have been more clearly and empirically explained before or sound catchy but introduce nothing new to our understanding of modernity (in addition to “asynchronous modernity,” for example, “exceptional normality” on page 24 or “translocal modernity” on page 21). Conversely, From Cotton and Smoke is the strongest when it is specific, when it engages with its fascinating primary sources and paints a picture of a troubled city that longs to fulfill the modern promise that From Cotton and Smoke has at its foundations. I do not know what personal connections the authors have to the city but something tells me that they love Łódź as much as the multitude of its fiercest admirers and defenders, including my father, for whom the ugly-beautiful urban spaces reflecting both the fulfilled and broken promises of modernity are what makes Łódź a never-ending but always special and much-loved work in progress.

Citation: Marta Cieślak. Review of Zysiak, Agata; Śmiechowski, Kamil; Piskała, Kamil; Marzec, Wiktor; Kaźmierska, Kaja; Burski, Jacek, From Cotton and Smoke: Łódź - Industrial City and Discourses of Asynchronous Modernity, 1897-1994. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. September, 2020.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.