Postcommunist Cartography: Agata Pyzik’s “Poor but Sexy”

By Ross WolfeOctober 10, 2014

Postcommunist Cartography: Agata Pyzik’s “Poor but Sexy”

Poor but Sexy by Agata Pyzik

POOR BUT SEXY takes its title from a slogan introduced over a decade ago by Klaus Wowereit, then as now mayor of Berlin, in an effort to rebrand the city as a low-rent metropolis rich in history and brimming with creative potential. For the Polish émigré writer Agata Pyzik, however, Wowereit’s catchphrase extends to the rest of the former Soviet Bloc as well. Much of the appeal of Eastern Europe today derives from its not-so-distant political past, but as Pyzik argues, this may obscure more than it clarifies. The traumas left over by the great ideological divide of the 20th century are vaguely acknowledged, ritualistically invoked, but in the same breath repressed, buried beneath the debris of a discredited social order.

What Pyzik undertakes in Poor but Sexy, her book-length debut, is thus nothing short of a continental psychogeography, an excavation of the ruins of communism. Scattered among these ruins, in the amnesiac aftermath of the new Europe, remain traces of the Cold War. One of the book’s central contentions is that the geopolitical divisions of this previous era, though officially abolished, persist within the precarious territorial entity known as the Eurozone. The old line separating the nations belonging to the Warsaw Pact from those aligned with NATO — a line simultaneously real and imaginary, both Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall — still orients the cultural cartography of the continent. Hence the subtitle, Culture Clashes in Europe East and West. Pyzik pieces together the historical narrative using music, art, film, and literature as a lens.

Immediately, the reader is plunged into the contemporary European scene. Surveying the postcommunist landscape, Pyzik identifies the numerous tensions that come along with social and economic reintegration into a world market. She describes the uneven process of normalization experienced by the countries of the Bloc. It is important to Eastern Europeans that they be considered “normal Europeans,” both in terms of how they perceive themselves, their national self-consciousness, and how they are perceived by others, their international prestige. Poland led the way in this respect, as Pyzik recounts, regarded by many Western economists and policymakers as a miracle of sorts. Like other nations of the East, it was subjected to capitalist “shock therapy” in the 1990s. Unlike its neighbors, however, Polish society eagerly embraced Western commodity culture, lapping up the latest trends from Britain and the United States. All the clothes and trinkets ordinary Poles read about in Barbara Hoff’s weekly Przekój fashion column were now available in superabundance. By the turn of the millennium, Poland appeared in the eyes of some to have emerged from communism’s collapse more or less unscathed. That is, it emerged as normal, European.

None of this is to say that the transition was actually painless, of course. Relaxed price controls and abrupt currency deregulation gave rise to catastrophic hyperinflation, devaluing pensions and other fixed income streams. Meanwhile, welfare programs were gutted and state industries privatized, resulting in massive layoffs. To make matters worse, notes Pyzik, it was the union leadership in Solidarność that gave these measures the go-ahead. Despite high unemployment and an overall decline in the standard of living, Poland’s recovery was hastened with the help of foreign subsidies and the annulment of its debts. In the West, the so-called Polnische Wunder was held up as a model of successful liberalization — a blueprint to be applied throughout the region.

And its example clearly has been followed. Pyzik’s description of the changed aesthetics of everyday life in Poland after ’89 is strikingly reminiscent of transformations undergone by other Eastern European countries:

Buildings became mere canvases for gigantic bottles of Coca-Cola, Snickers or West cigarettes, […] the familiar grey newspapers started to have tons of very bright colors applied to them, and the marble of old Stalinist buildings was covered by big stickers.

Observers were willing to turn a blind eye, though, toward some of the decidedly illiberal developments taking place at the same time. For instance, there was scarcely a word in the Western press about the Polish government’s gradual curtailing of liberal social rights, such as free access to contraception or affordable abortions. No one seemed to notice when erstwhile heroes of the Polish working class like Lech Wałęsa turned out to be full-blown reactionaries, spewing homophobic rhetoric at every turn. (Pyzik caustically remarks that “[Wałęsa’s] public pronouncements are now reduced to advocating that police [beat] up strikers and [that homosexuals be excluded] from parliament.”) Many westerners were perplexed when prominent ex-communists were popularly reelected in countries such as Hungary, Romania, Lithuania, and Bulgaria a few years after the fall. But to Pyzik it made perfect sense. People no longer bought the liberal slogan of “free markets for free people.” They’d grown tired of reassurances that things would get better soon, of the kind offered by former dissidents in the middlebrow publication Gazeta Wyborcza. Like many who grew up in the East during the 1990s, Pyzik rejects the facile “happily ever after” story where history ends with “Václav Havel and Adam Michnik [saving] the world.”

Despite its relative prosperity compared to the rest of the Bloc, lingering feelings of inadequacy plague Poland vis-à-vis the West. How can a country whose borders formally fall within Europe nevertheless seem so alien to it? Borrowing a concept from Edward W. Said’s famous study of the same name, Pyzik posits a kind of Orientalism endogenous to the Occident which mirrors (and possibly even prefigures) its broader civilizational conceit. In other words, she locates a tendency to create an outside inside the European mainland itself. A space of freedom, progress, democracy, and reason is carved out of the greater whole, against which is set an opposite realm, lying just nearby. This other realm to the east conjures up quite different associations: servility, backwardness, despotism, and emotion. Napoleon’s lieutenant during the Russian campaign, Philippe-Paul, comte de Ségur, casually referred to populations beyond the Neman as “Scythians” and “demi-savages” in his 1824 memoirs. To call this Orientalism is hardly an exaggeration.

Pyzik explores this Orientalizing theme in the third chapter of Poor but Sexy, “O Mystical East,” sampling texts from a diverse array of Polish and Romanian authors. Often her juxtapositions — her decision to discuss certain individuals in close proximity to one another — can seem a bit odd, but they are clearly deliberate. Emil Cioran, a onetime fascist sympathizer, is placed alongside his countryman Paul Celan, a Holocaust survivor. For all their differences, the essayist and philosopher Cioran and the poet Celan shared an outsider status as expatriates in Western Europe. Like Cioran, Celan, “living at the very same time in Paris,” writes Pyzik, “had similar thoughts and anxieties, feeling trapped within a world that was meaningless to him.” Both men were forced to seek universality in a tongue other than their native Romanian. Celan wrote mostly in German, Cioran almost exclusively in French. Had they insisted on writing in their own language, they would have likely remained marginal figures within the literary canon. Still, for Pyzik it’s precisely this outsider perspective that makes them so interesting: “Cioran creates a tension between the center […] and the periphery.”

Simply being from the East doesn’t guarantee this outlook, however. Easterners are just as susceptible to Orientalist thinking as westerners, the difference is simply that their Orientalism tends to be more internalized. Aspirational magazines in postwar Poland, for example, saw it as their mission to civilize the nation. “Yet, if this was a ‘civilization,’” Pyzik points out, “it had to be according to Norbert Elias’s definition, something created in the West.” Mainstream serials for the most part concurred with the Occident’s exalted view of itself, accepting its claims to superiority. Pyzik diagnoses this deflated sense of self-worth as a form of regional “inferiority complex,” invoking the psychoanalytic category to account for Eastern Europe’s perennial love-hate relationship with Eliasian Zivilisation. It both emulates and resents its western antipode, leading to an acute cultural schizophrenia — a condition Pyzik finds embodied in sculptures and paintings by Stanisław Szukalski and artworks by the Polish polymath Witkacy. One recurring obsession of Slavic intellectuals in the modern age has been a belief in their historic destiny as “mediator between East and West.” Usually this belief gives way to profound melancholy, however, as they feel torn between “assimilated Westernness” and a romantic desire to return to their roots.

This intra-European Orientalism has become so pervasive, Pyzik contends, that today Poles regard the dreary Russian outpost of Kaliningrad in much the same way that urban explorers (“urbexers”) from the West regard Chernobyl. Both cities look as if they could be the potential setting of a Tarkovsky movie, fitting the “universal image of decaying, post-industrial civilization.” Reviewing the 2012 art exhibition Enclave, which ran concurrently in Warsaw and Kaliningrad, Pyzik faults the Polish artists who organized it for replicating this lazy caricature of what communist society was like. “Kaliningrad easily becomes a mystified ‘other’ for the Poles,” she writes. “Visitors speak of its ‘genius loci,’ the specificity of the place, but fail to see it through anything other than Soviet clichés.”

Whether the situation of postcommunist countries is analogous to that of postcolonial countries, as some have alleged, is somewhat harder to determine. In the case of Poland or the Balkans, the analogy is perhaps more apt. The former was successively partitioned three times by the Habsburgs, Romanovs, and Hohenzollerns in the last quarter of the 18th century, while parts of the latter fell under either Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman suzerainty. Only with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles did these countries gain independence. But this newfound autonomy proved short-lived, as war again descended upon the continent in 1939. Hitler’s armies, propelled forward by an expansionary Drang nach Osten, overran the fledgling nation-states of Eastern Europe. Pyzik shows how the Nazis’ overwhelming dread of the East — the land of vampires and shabbily-dressed Jews — informed their genocidal Generalplan Ost, a program of mass extermination to be followed by eugenic repopulation. Nevertheless, when Soviet troops finally pushed the fascists back in 1945, many saw them as occupiers rather than liberators. East European nationalists have sometimes likened the forced integration of sovereign states into the Communist Bloc after the Yalta conference to colonialism elsewhere. Following its dissolution in 1991, however, Pyzik wonders: “Will there be new quasi-colonial relations in capitalist Europe?”

Maria Janion, a Polish academic known for portraying her country in this postcolonial light, serves as Pyzik’s primary interlocutor here. Janion sees Poland as alternating between the role of subject and object of colonization at different points in its history, occasionally playing both parts at once. Pyzik is cautious on this score, since “who was the colonizer and who was the colonized is not always as obvious as it would seem.” She asks Lenin’s well-known query early in the opening chapter: “Who of whom?” [Кто кого?] Aware that the discourse of colonial victimhood frequently functions as an alibi for political conservatism, Pyzik hesitates to depict the decades of communist rule as a time of pure subjugation — national tragedies like the Katyń massacre are all too easily mythologized by the Polish far Right. Likewise, anti-Soviet sentiment in the Baltic states often attests to their own citizens’ past complicity with Nazism. Many enthusiastically collaborated as Schutzmannschaften, carrying out atrocities against local gypsies and Jews. Better to unearth “the ‘red,’ unwanted history,” the thesis of Poor but Sexy, “instead of relishing in the most reactionary elements of [the] interwar period, with all its xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and nationalism.”

Far more troubling than any injury to national pride, in Pyzik’s view, was the failure of the socialist project itself — the botched, chauvinistic manner in which it was implemented. In the case of Poland, “[the communist regime] was imposed from the outside, set up initially as a Soviet colony, and it committed many crimes,” not least of which, she hastens to add, was the “mass murder of the first Polish Communist Party … in the late 1930s.” More broadly, there was Stalin’s disastrous stance on the nationalities question, which favored demographic homogenization and the expulsion of minorities. “From what was historically a multiethnic territory,” Pyzik writes, “Eastern Europe has become divided into several strange, homogenized wholes.” Racist attitudes toward Vietnamese, Roma, Turks, and Chechens are common in postcommunist countries as a result of this artificial division. Conversely, Eastern Europeans themselves suffer intense discrimination in nations like the United Kingdom, where many fled on Wizz Air jets during the 1990s in search of jobs, and yet they seem unwilling to fight back in this deracinated context. With the withering away of the welfare state in the ex-communist East, cruelty and callousness have become the norm. Here, and throughout Poor but Sexy, Pyzik examines the enduring legacy of the past by analyzing the “traumatized subjectivity” she encounters in the present.

Her discussion of Berlin provides perhaps the most exhilarating section of the book. All the antagonisms built up between East and West in Europe over the centuries now concentrate in Germany’s capital. Here each side dreamt the other, imagining what lay beyond its narrow purview. Pyzik dubs this phenomenon “Berlinism,” as the city came to represent “a dreamland for both easterners and westerners.” She dates its appearance to roughly the beginning of Weimar Republic, after armistice was announced and an abortive revolutionary sequence commenced. Overnight the city was transformed from seat of empire into premier hub of the European avant-garde, hosting galleries that featured works by German Expressionists, Russian Constructivists, and Dadaists John Heartfield and George Grosz. The English novelist Christopher Isherwood stayed there during the 1920s, drawn to its decadent nightlife and reputation for permissive sexuality. “I wish we went to Paris,” he lamented, “but Berlin had the boys.” Needless to say, the founding of the Third Reich in 1933 brought this chapter in the city’s history to a close. When armies from the capitalist West and communist East met atop the rubble in 1945, this Berlin had been all but erased. Later, musicians from Western Europe like David Bowie and Kraftwerk would look back on interbellum political ideologies and art movements with a distinct nostalgia. Modernist motifs were revived. Bowie favored futurist aesthetics, while Kraftwerk borrowed their trademark color scheme from “de Stijl, Bauhaus, … and the Nazi flag.” Fascism fascinated Bowie and his post-punk successors: Joy Division, New Order, and Siouxsie and the Banshees drew heavily on totalitarian tropes.

“An etching by Churchill based on an idea by Hitler” — this was Bertolt Brecht’s first impression of Berlin upon returning after years of exile. Pyzik quotes the Marxist playwright while shifting to the immediate postwar period, when the city was split into separate quadrants and placed under military command. Over the next four decades Berlin would become the frontline [Frontstadt] in the Cold War between East and West, invested with great symbolic and strategic significance, culminating in the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

During the ’70s and ’80s, Pyzik explains, the image of the Bloc dominated the popular imagination of the West. “Youth culture” may have been a capitalist innovation, as she openly admits, but crisis in economics and capitulation in politics reversed this state of affairs. The wide-eyed student radicalism of ’68 gradually turned to listless nihilism. Against the “political dysphoria” and malaise of West Berlin, however, another modernity loomed. Communism, with its seemingly endless tower-blocks [Plattenbauten] and sinister Stalinist skyscrapers [высотки], beckoned from the other side of the Wall. This was the colorless world of Bowie’s Heroes”, the second album in his Berlin Trilogy, as well as groups like Ultravox, Xex, and Einstürzende Neubauten. It spawned a whole subgenre of creative writing: dystopian sci-fi, which grew out of classics like Zamyatin’s We and Orwell’s 1984 and later produced such masters as Burroughs, Burgess, and Ballard. Synthpop arrived not long thereafter, in the early 1980s, capturing the decade’s futuristic zeitgeist. Pyzik tells us “the cold sound of synthesizer was the most straightforwardly identified as the sound of the future.” Oddly, though, the future envisioned by pioneering synth bands was more spatial than temporal. Further on, she pinpoints its precise coordinates: “Electronic music evoked a reality, that was gritty, grey and concrete, scary, an uncontrollable modernity … Geographically, that was Eastern Europe.”

These trends were also reflected in films of the day. Pyzik’s analysis of western cinema from the ’70s and ’80s brilliantly reveals the younger generation’s unconscious drift toward the Bloc. Eastern Europe’s peculiar magnetism was often expressed through the metaphor of addiction, like the drug addiction dramatized in the semi-biographical 1979 novel Wir sind Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, which dealt with teens living in Gropiusstadt on the outskirts of West Berlin. It was adapted as a screenplay two years later and retitled Christiane F., after the story’s female protagonist. Crowds flocked to movie theaters to view the sordid tale of glam rock, heroin, and awkward adolescent sex. Here again Bowie factors into the mix, this time as background, his gaunt face appearing on posters alongside newsprint cutouts of the martyred Rote Armee Fraktionmilitant Ulrike Meinhof. Most of the action takes place at “the DDR-owned and operated Zoo Station … in the filthiest, most brutalized part of West Berlin.”

Sexual addiction is at the core of the other Berlin film Pyzik analyzes, Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981), a misogynistic horror story about a young woman named Anna, who succumbs to nymphomania as her marriage falls apart. A spatial logic structures the film’s entire mise-en-scène: Anna is slowly “sucked into the miasma of the East”; she gravitates toward the wall. Żuławski uses the figure of suffocating encroachment to visualize Anna’s drive to reach the uncanny [Unheimlich] space around the Mauerszene, where her lover lives. This is visible in “the characteristic claustrophobia of all the interiors, as if the closeness of the eastern border and the restriction by the wall, especially felt in Kreuzberg district, caused a specific Island Fever mentality (Inselkoller).” Watching Possession or Christiane F., one aches for an alternative to the grim reality of late capitalism.

If anything, Pyzik maintains, this process of derealization has only accelerated since then. “Between gifs, the hideous layout of social networks and tumblr, rots the corpse of reality,” she apocalyptically asserts. The fourth chapter of Poor but Sexy is devoted to an interrogation of “the real in the new reality” — i.e., the facticity of daily life since the fall of communism. For two decades, despite technologies that promise unmediated access to the world as a raw datum beyond mere semblance, the fabric connecting persons, objects, and events to one another has steadily decayed. Essence and appearance, reality and simulation, have become all but indistinguishable. Channeling the French media theorist Jean Baudrillard, Pyzik writes that “the mass of depictions of current wars, revolutions, riots, protests, show trials doesn’t seem to make them real enough … We still behave as if we don’t believe what’s going on.” One is reminded of Robert Musil’s saying: Seinesgleichen geschieht [pseudo-reality prevails]. Something like reality is happening, but it isn’t really real. Artists like Bowie, Siouxsie, and Ian Curtis yearned after “the necessary frisson of the real” they’d found in Moscow, Warszawa, and Berlin — the metropoles of the communist East, where “the burden of history […] could be tracked on the gigantic spaces of consuming emptiness and morbid austerity.”

Reality for Pyzik is not just a historical category. It is also the basis of literary and artistic realism, and by extension, the much-maligned style of socialist realism [соцреализм]. Though her sympathies probably lie more with modernism, Pyzik nevertheless pursues “a theoretical redemption of realism.” She consults a number of eminent authorities on the topic: Fredric Jameson, Boris Groys, Clement Greenberg, and György Lukács. Greenberg famously counterposed avant-garde and kitsch in a 1939 essay, arguing that sotsrealism was the byproduct of bureaucratic philistinism, which of course it was. Yet modern art likewise failed to deliver the kind of revolutionary transformation its supporters had predicted, as Groys subsequently demonstrated. Whatever else one might say, sotsrealism did manage to achieve the ubiquity modernists so desperately sought. “[L]et’s remember sotsrealism wasn’t only, although it was in huge part, monumental paintings cherishing agriculture and heroic labor,” writes Pyzik. “Sotsrealism was supposed to encompass the totality of human life.” Projects of totality were largely abandoned after the 1970s, dismissed as inherently totalitarian, and thus nothing in recent memory has come anywhere close to sotsrealism’s grandeur or ambition. Nevertheless, Pyzik is unsure whether socialist realism truly uplifted the working masses it purported to represent. “The solemnity, heaviness, seriousness and scariness of the new sotsrealist art must have been […] a deterrent,” she writes. “Especially during the Stalinist period, it was designed to discipline and intimidate people.” But if socialist realist art was scary kitsch, at least it was distinct from life. Avant-gardists tore down the barrier separating art and life; sotsrealism restored it, but in so doing was rendered utterly banal. Capitalist realism, under the banner of “postcommunist, twenty-first century Americanized reality,” might be more banal still: not the fusion of art with life, but the fusion of life with kitsch.

Although the “idea” of communism — ever the ens realissimum of politics — has enjoyed a comeback of late, Pyzik is wary of such optimism. Professors are eager to reclaim the term, but it exists in a practical void. Francis Fukuyama controversially interpreted the breakup of the Eastern Bloc as the end of history, a judgment Pyzik sees vindicated by the “retrograde aesthetics and heritage culture” of the present. Talk of a rebirth of history, in light of the global riots and uprisings of 2011, is as yet premature. Conferences are held on the subject of the communist horizon, or disposition, or hypothesis, featuring speakers such as Jodi Dean, Antonio Negri, and Alain Badiou, but these occur “without any real movement” to warrant them. Nor do they seem willing to grapple with the ghost of communism past, the problems posed by the disintegration of the USSR and its satellites. Still, the opposite approach, that of uncritical Ostalgie, is equally problematic. “[I]t suggests the death or lack of the politics which made certain positive elements of this reality possible,” writes Pyzik.

Poor but Sexy concludes on this slightly more somber note, summarizing the main lines of argument, sketching their possible implications, and tying together some loose ends. Pyzik readily concedes her overnarrow focus on Poland and other nations of the Bloc at the expense of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, countries that have seen a greater degree of turmoil since her book first hit the shelves. Regardless, she is completely justified in calling attention to the way most Western leftists “prefer to cite Latin American rather than East European communists.” Ironically, this preference itself indicates the continuing relevance of the Cold War political paradigm, namely the survival of Third Worldism. New Left radicals, disillusioned with the First World after Algeria and Vietnam, as well as the Second World after Hungary and Czechoslovakia, looked to Third World national liberation fronts as the vanguard of social change. “When it arose in the ’60s,” Pyzik explains, “[the New Left] had abandoned looking to us as a source of inspiration a long time ago already — they preferred to look at Asia and Latin America’s revolutionary communism instead.”

On the whole the book succeeds in its aim, “addressing the contemporary history of former East countries in a dialectical way, so that the reshaping of the past by the present and the present by the past can be seen.” As a critic and journalist based in London, Pyzik is perfectly positioned to document the symmetries and asymmetries of East and West. She discerns not only obvious points of contrast, which might be expected, but surprising moments of congruence as well: the “devastated cities” on either side, sotsrealism in the East paralleling WPA-style murals in the West.

Her range of references never ceases to impress, too. Though Pyzik is well versed in contemporary theory, she displays effortless command over more traditional sources like Harold Rosenberg, Isaac Deutscher, and Herbert Read (not to mention a number of Polish authors whose writings have not yet been translated). Poor but Sexy benefits immeasurably from the breadth and depth of her knowledge.

A couple quibbles and afterthoughts. Pyzik’s emphasis on “proletarian culture” seems misplaced. Without revisiting the 1920s debate between Trotsky, Lenin, Bogdanov, and Lunacharsky over whether such a thing is even possible — that is, a specifically proletarian art, theater, or music — one still might ask whether the evaluation of political formations on this basis is advisable. For instance, Pyzik reconsiders the 1980s Solidarność movement in terms of cultural criteria, wondering if actually existing socialism ever cultivated a set of values that was genuinely working class. She maintains that it did, within certain limits, but suffered setbacks and reversals along the way. In her view, Solidarność marked an attempt to revive lost workerist ideals in the face of Soviet authoritarianism and stagnation. Despite its “ideological discrepancies and disagreements,” composed as it was of “multiple currents and factions, [both] right and left-wing,” Pyzik upholds its working class credentials. “On one level, [Solidarność] may have been traditionalist, wedded to patriotism and Catholicism,” she admits, “but it was also based on premises of equality and self-organization, and was really proletarian in its political outlook […] collective, civic-minded, and disciplined.” This appraisal, based mostly on culture, neglects the crucial dimension of politics. By 1981, the Solidarność movement had already been drastically reconfigured, and now included rural smallholders, clergymen, and members of the liberal intelligentsia. Calls to “democratize” were often just thinly veiled overtures toward capitalist restoration.

Ultimately, Poor but Sexy reopens the debate about the broader trajectory of human historical development. A century ago, socialism seemed almost an inevitability in Europe. Even with the outbreak of war and the unraveling of the Second International, many still believed that the steady march of progress would soon resume its normal course. Today the notion that society might be radically reordered, that relations could be realized that are substantially different from those which presently obtain, appears absurd. “History has made a strange circle,” Pyzik writes. In retrospect, the whole rivalry between Eastern and Western Europe in the 20th century stems from this weirdly amputated post-1917 condition: the October Revolution was never meant to be limited to Russia; the fact that it’s remembered as the “Russian” Revolution is a testament to its failure to spread. Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky hoped that by creating a crisis in the periphery, at the “weakest link” in the imperialist chain, they’d trigger a crisis in the core. Isolated and encircled, the lines were redrawn only after 1945. Communism enveloped the remainder of Eastern Europe, and legitimately challenged the capitalist West, but it was too little, too late. By then it had already developed the bureaucratic deformities that eventually felled it. The West emerged triumphant in a world where everyone loses.


Ross Wolfe is a writer, historian, and architecture critic living in New York.

LARB Contributor

Ross Wolfe is a writer, historian, and architecture critic living in New York. His work has appeared in publications such as Metropolis, Mute, e-flux, Radical Philosophy, Cambridge Literary Review, The Advocate, and Platypus Review.


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