Researching and teaching about the Yugoslav wars means that, for more than a decade, I’ve been coming into contact with horrific material on pretty much a weekly basis. During my PhD, when I spent months reading Croatian newspapers from the 1990s, I was confronted almost every day with photographs of dead or wounded bodies, or newspaper testimonies about people’s suffering during the 1991-95 wars. Some of the documentary sources and academic studies that I assign when I teach about my specialist area, likewise, can contain a level of horror that these days I take as part and parcel of my work but which might be unexpected to students learning about this moment in history for the first time.
Alternatively – and here’s where it gets even more difficult for teachers – it could be all too much like something from their own lives.
For this reason, I’ve been following the debates about whether and how teachers ought to warn students about uncomfortable topics with particular interest. There have been articles by university educators all year about requests that students at some US universities have made for instructors to warn them in advance about material which could be upsetting to read or watch, especially when it covers topics such as suicide or rape. (And please be aware, if this matters to you, that I will discuss those in some more depth as I go on.)
This academic year, Oberlin College introduced a resource guide advising teachers to provide content notes or ‘trigger warnings’ to make classrooms as inclusive as possible for survivors of sexual violence, then rolled it back after journalists and some of Oberlin’s own staff criticised it as an attack on academic freedom. Meanwhile, the student senate at the University of California, Santa Barbara passed a resolution asking tutors to note content on their syllabi that might have an adverse effect on students with PTSD if they encountered it without being able to adequately prepare themselves.
The thinking behind these requests is about more than students just being ‘upset’, and recognises that, after someone has experienced trauma, certain sensory reminders of what happened can (though not ‘will’) make the brain prepare to experience it all over again. The term ‘trigger warnings’ originated from online communities formed by survivors of abuse and violence, where users warning each other about the content of posts made it more possible for people in a community to have discussions with each other.
It’s existed for long enough in social media and online fandom that some students in a contemporary classroom would have known about the convention of trigger warnings in those spaces before they ever came to class – which means that in one respect the whole current discussion about trigger warnings in teaching is part of a wider context about the digital literacies and textual practices that students may be bringing to the classroom now, and there’d be a lot of scope for educationalists to think further about this.
‘Warning: this report contains flashing lights’
The Oberlin and Santa Barbara cases made national news in the USA, and commentators who already disliked trigger-warning culture online saw the Oberlin/Santa Barbara demands through the same lens. Academics who blog have been discussing them extensively online ever since: the Chronicle of Higher Education website, for instance, has featured several posts arguing that trigger warnings are a form of censorship that insulates students from having to deal with the harsh world outside, as well as posts by instructors disagreeing with them because the impact of trauma on the body deserved to be taken seriously.
However, even before this year, educators had already been confronting the problem of what to do about disturbing content: the American Philological Association, for instance, held a roundtable about teaching about rape in classical literature in 2009, and Liz Gloyn has written thoughtfully about how this has played into her teaching on Ovid. (She’s also had a teaching note on the same topic in Classical World, which has a version without subscription here.)
Gloyn makes the point that, statistically, tutors should expect that every class will contain students who have experienced sexual violence: with numbers like these, it stops being a case of ‘what if’ material like some of what I teach affects a student personally, and starts being a case of how do I anticipate and mitigate the possible impact it could have.
The idea of giving a heads-up about upsetting content isn’t even an internet-age invention. In the UK at least, broadcasters have been using warnings for years – for instance, alerting viewers to disturbing images about to come up in news footage. After programmes that have represented topics such as abuse, eating disorders or suicide, they generally provide information about resources for viewers who might need support after recalling their experiences while watching the programme.
Perhaps the most direct parallel to content notes in teaching is with warnings about flashing lights. (Indeed, I have to remember to give one of these in class every time I show excerpts from the opening ceremony of London 2012.) It’s more and more widely accepted that television/stage audiences need to be advised about flashing lights in performances because they can set off seizures in people who are photosensitive. This is literally a ‘trigger warning’ – anticipating a harmful consequence because of a known risk, and advising viewers so that they can use their awareness of how it affects them and decide how to manage it.
Some theories and practices of content warnings
The most recent long academic post on content notes and trigger warnings is Jack Halberstam’s, which I’ve seen being both praised and critiqued all weekend. (My own thoughts on it are going to be much more by way of critique, not praise.) Halberstam argues that accusations of speech being ‘triggering’ are used to shut down discussion, and as such are ‘neoliberal rhetoric’. More broadly, he argues that the contemporary left has been distracted by ‘identity politics’ which emphasise individual trauma and offence.
Halberstam posits a curious generation gap between his generation of queer activists in the academy and the students they teach, and ultimately suggests that the individual demand to be able to feel safe will lead communities into complicity with state power and oppression, although I have to say that at this point I struggled with the analogy: is every student really in the same structural position inside and outside the academy (where, let’s not forget, most of them are paying for their tuition) that gentrifying white gay activists have held in relation to US urban space?
(His article dismisses, in particular, trans women who have asked other queer people not to use the T-word. Yet, as Morgan Collado, a trans Latina poet and writer, explained in response to his post, ‘The t-slur is used to dehumanize trans women, specifically trans women in the sex trades, and is justification for our murder [...] The way Jack frames the problem as trans women being divisive by telling non-trans women to stop using the t-slur shifts the focus off the people who are actually being oppressive, namely Jack.’ It’s also worth reading Julia Serano’s response to Halberstam on the generational politics of US queer activism.)
The objection to content warnings which has given me most pause for thought is Brittney Cooper’s, which is much more attentive to the power dynamics inside and outside classrooms than many of them have been (and certainly much more than Halberstam’s has been):
[P]art of what we as educators, parents and students have to recognize is that classroom spaces in which difficult topics like trauma, rape, war, race and sexuality are discussed are already unsafe. When students of color who have endured racism have to hear racially insensitive comments from other students who are in the process of learning, the classroom is unsafe. The classroom is unsafe for trans students who are often referred to by the wrong gender pronoun by both students and teachers. The classroom is unsafe for rape survivors who encounter students in the process of learning why getting drunk at a party does not mean a woman deserves to be raped.
But learning about these topics are all necessary forms of education. [...] Overwhelmingly students let me know at the end of each semester that though the discussions were hard, they are glad we had them. Trigger warnings might have scared these students away from participating in discussions that they were absolutely capable of having. And in that regard they do more harm than good. So for the sake of my students, you won’t find them on my syllabi.
Cooper is concerned that students with ideological objections to material could use institutional mechanisms to have a reading removed or cause problems for instructors. In particular, she is anxious that students could get out of examining their own prejudices and privileges by saying they had been ‘triggered’ by material that challenged them.
All this is possible, which is why mandating them could be counter-productive. But there are still ways for content warnings to be good practice, if they’re understood not as censorship but as facilitation (or even, as Andrea Smith suggests based on her work in Indigenous social movements, as part of a collective rather than individual approach to reducing harm).
Sayantani Dasgupta, a practitioner of storytelling and medicine, takes this view in explaining why she’s used them in her classes (though she isn’t responding to Cooper, but to bloggers who have objected to trigger warnings much less thoughtfully):
[P]reventing little Johnny, José, or Jamila from getting a tad misty-eyed in a classroom is not, ideally, what trigger warnings are about. With their roots in the feminist blogosphere—where writers often want to give readers warnings before discussing explicit situations of sexual violence—trigger warnings in classrooms are about acknowledging that each student has her or his own specific life history, family context, identity, body—and that these realities have an impact on how a student understands and interacts with texts. [...]
[D]oes my use of trigger warnings in the classroom mean I think my students are weak? Not at all. Rather, it’s because I respect my students, and know that they all come with varied life experiences of which I know only a fraction. Who in my class has a brother who was killed in a homophobic attack? Who in my class survived a sexual assault last year, last month, last week? Who in my class fled their homeland as a result of ethnic cleansing? I don’t always know, but I do know that my students did not somehow hatch, fully grown, the moment they entered my class. Rather, they live complex lives outside of my classroom, lives which bring richness to our collective learning.
The day after I originally published this post, the therapist Meg Barker posted a long essay that tries to get beyond a binary of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ content notes and trigger warnings by thinking through what they can open up and close down:
Perhaps the main point of trigger warnings is to open up the possibility for people to determine what they engage with, when and how. The idea is that, if we provide people with a brief overview of the kinds of topics and issues they are going to be confronted with (in a novel, a movie, a lecture, or a workshop, for example), then they can make an informed decision about whether they wish to engage with it or not. Advocates of trigger warnings regard this as a form of consensual practice, and a good way of modelling, and enabling, a more consensual culture than we currently have. It is also a potential way of recognising the structural constraints around agency. Not all people are as free as others, and one key limit on our freedom are the scars left by experiences of discrimination and oppression. Trigger warnings are one way of giving people greater agency within the structural limits on this. [...]
However, there is also the potential – of course – for this approach to close down possibilities as well as opening them up. One risk is that, if taken too rigidly, we start to divide the world in binary ways between the powerful people who get to give trigger warnings, and the powerless victims who require them. [...] This potential alerts us again to the risks in line-drawing between traumatised and non-traumatised, oppressed and non-oppressed. Perhaps instead it points us towards recognising the inevitability of traumatic experience during a person’s life, and the complex net of intersecting oppressions in which each person is located.
I have used content notes in teaching when necessary, and would certainly encourage other teachers to think about using them, because I take the view that when they’re used as part of a holistic approach to learning they can make students more able to participate rather than less. (I don’t use the specific wording ‘trigger warnings’, because if students haven’t heard the phrase before it might distance them from thinking about what’s in the note.)
I could still put them in a more prominent place – next year, I’ll try to – and I’m still experimenting with how best to actually run the sessions on the most difficult topics.
It obviously isn’t just the Yugoslav wars where these problems arise in teaching History: anyone teaching a first-year survey course on the 20th century, for instance, will have students who are reading, hearing and seeing more detailed depictions of the Holocaust than they will have done before. Dasgupta’s reminder about bearing in mind what students and those close to them might have experienced is one that every educator needs to think about.
So what can I do?
My own starting point for thinking about disturbing material and teaching is that other people know their own personal circumstances, and the psychological and physical effects those have on them, better than I do. Yes, there could be occasions when my research and professional experience might make me aware of a piece of context around what someone has experienced that they might not have thought about already. That still doesn’t translate into me knowing better than they do about how they actually sense it affecting them.
By defending content warnings, I don’t mean to imply that certain topics are too harmful to be taught. Quite the opposite. One of the most interesting new books on post-Yugoslavia that I’ve seen this year, for instance, has been Elissa Helms’s Innocence and Victimhood: Gender, Nation, and Women’s Activism in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina. It hadn’t come out when my Yugoslavia module began last year, but in this year’s module we could potentially do more with it.
Large sections of Innocence and Victimhood are about the activism of Bosnian women who were raped during the 1992-95 war, and how war rape has been used for political point-scoring (by Bosniak nationalists, and by Western liberal feminists). I’d like students to be able to understand Helms’s argument about gender, nation and narratives about collective victimhood in contemporary Bosnia-Herzegovina. I’d also like them to appreciate an even broader point she makes, which is that in order to understand the post-Yugoslav present we need to consider the effects of wartime violence and the collapse of Yugoslav socialism. Clearly, I’m not going to say that we can’t ever use this book because it discusses rape.
Yet if students are confronted with this material unexpectedly (and Helms’s writing is much less graphic or emotive in this respect than some of the earlier scholars she critiques), is there a risk that some of them wouldn’t be able to finish the reading or even participate in the class? That would work against my objectives as an instructor, and so I ought to do the best I can to mitigate it.
(And of course Innocence and Victimhood is only one of many books on the Yugoslav wars where this would come up. Dubravka Žarkov’s book The Body of War, for instance, is a critical study of the wartime Croatian and Serbian media, examining exactly the kind of imagery that I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post; but in order to make her argument she needs to illustrate what was shown.)
The other reason I’m sympathetic to student-driven demands for content warnings is that, as teachers, we want students to be thinking deeply about what they’re learning. Being able to make serious proposals about changes to teaching means that students must have thought about what the content, structure and methods of teaching already are and how those knits together into a system of knowledge.
Last year, for instance, economics students at Manchester formed a society that called for a revised Economics syllabus with a greater and more critical range of theoretical frameworks, and SOAS students have similarly written a report asking for gender analysis to be integrated into Politics and Development teaching. To me, this is evidence of precisely the kind of critical thinking that the humanities and social sciences strive to develop, even though they’re uncomfortable situations for a department to be in.
Angus Johnston, a historian of US student activism, writes that after this year’s controversies, he’s decided to use content notes in his syllabi where appropriate – not in any way to change the way he teaches, but to clarify the approach that he already has. This is the way that I’d see content notes as well, and next year I’ll probably expand mine along his sort of lines to try and say more about what I aim for my teaching to be like. The purpose isn’t to signal to certain students that some of the module content ought to be off limits for them; rather, it’s to continue to meet the stated outcomes for everybody’s learning while making the material as accessible as I can.
 This has been continuing since I wrote the original version of this post on 6 July, so some of the links in this post now point to articles that appeared after the 6th.
 In the first version of this post I linked to Liam Bechen’s response at this point as a critique of this part of Halberstam’s argument. Collado’s post has appeared in the meantime and I’ve worked it into my text because she’s someone who has been directly harmed by the slur that Halberstam argues isn’t a problem. It’s also worth reading Tobi Hill-Meyer’s response to Halberstam which provides some more context about the specific incident Halberstam was referring to in that section.
Until September 2013, Austria hadn’t had a particularly significant place in the queer history of Eurovision – or, indeed, in the recent history of Eurovision at all. Austria’s most notable contributions to Eurovision had been in the 1960s, including Udo Jürgens‘s victory in 1966, and exemplified German-language Schlager music at a time when it still had wide European appeal. The Austrian national broadcaster ORF had also been responsible for selecting one of Eurovision’s earliest satirical entries, Schmetterlinge’s Boom boom boomerang, in 1977.
In the 1990s and 2000s, on the other hand, Austria’s part in Eurovision was marginal in numerical terms: it rarely finished in the top ten, was relegated twice on the basis of poor scores, and skipped four of the five years between 2006 and 2010 altogether, before returning to use Eurovision as a platform for new singers from Austrian franchises of talent shows.
Conchita Wurst also first reached the Austrian audience through a talent show (ORF’s 2011 revival of Die grosse Chance, which Austrians had first watched in the 1980s). ORF had first considered her for Eurovision in 2012, when she competed in the Austrian national selection and came second, before committing to selecting her for Eurovision 2014.
As a bearded drag performer, Conchita brought an extra kind of gender variance into the history of drag at Eurovision; although she received by far the most press coverage before the contest, it still seemed her persona might be too challenging to gather the mass appeal necessary to win, and a few months ago her odds had been as long as 50/1.
Conchita is the drag persona of Tom Neuwirth, who created her as ‘a statement for tolerance and acceptance': Conchita’s website describes ‘[t]he private person Tom Neuwirth and the art figure Conchita Wurst’ as ‘two individual characters with their own individual stories, but with one essential message for tolerance and against discrimination’.
In her winner’s speech at the end of the Eurovision broadcast, she brought this message on to a collective level: ‘This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom… You know who you are. We are unity, and we are unstoppable!’
This post by Elainovision captures much of the hope in Conchita’s performance and victory:
Conchita won, and that is something well worth celebrating, because overall, this is a good thing. This is a victory. This is a landmark. This is someone who directly confronts society’s rejection of gender-variance, and rejects it in turn, and yet still becomes valued, adored, and respected by a continent. And where she leads the way, others can follow.
So some will write her win off as just a political statement. That’s not true – she can really sing. But it is political, and for all the right reasons. Europe can feel proud this week, and maybe we are slightly closer to a future where gender is as much a thing as someone’s hair – individual, independent, and a statement of identity.
No Eurovision winner has been so much discussed since Dana International, though in some ways Conchita and Dana shouldn’t be too directly compared: Dana International was very clear about her own identity as a trans woman, whereas Conchita as an artistic persona has been created with a challenge in mind: to present audiences with the idea that accepting every person on their own terms is what matters most even if you find their identity hard to understand.
In the last few days, she’s been being celebrated as – in Paris Lees’s words – ‘an ambassador for diversity’ and ‘a mascot for an increasingly large section of society that has little time for other people’s ideas of who we are supposed to be’. However, readers who are cis also ought to be aware that while some trans people have welcomed Conchita’s performance enthusiastically, others have found it very upsetting that Neuwirth has taken on a bearded drag persona when it isn’t Neuwirth or any other cis person who will be most vulnerable to transphobic street harassment and violence based on it. It’s not as simple as Conchita inspiring a community.
A ‘new Cold War’?
Meanwhile, Conchita and her song were already being drawn into narratives about geopolitics and identity in Europe in the run-up to Eurovision, and even more so since she became the winner. The structure of Eurovision has probably made this inevitable: as a televised showbusiness event which is structured as a competition between different nations and their musical cultures, its organisers and many of its participants have consciously used it to communicate messages about what belonging to Europe means or could mean and where Europe’s borders are – both in terms of spatial borders and in terms of values.
Moreover, the finale of one nation being voted the winner by other nations voting in turn invites spectators to project a geopolitical imagination on to any result: ‘Europe’ has voted for this nation rather than that nation; this nation voted for the winner, that nation didn’t.
The geopolitical frame that surrounded this year’s Eurovision was the policies of Putin’s Russia and their implications for Europe. The national-level law against promoting ‘non-traditional sexual relations to minors’ that Russian parliamentarians passed last year had already become an international issue before the Sochi Winter Olympics, to the extent that Western fans, corporations and even some governments displayed rainbow flags to symbolise that their nation belonged to a community of tolerance that represented the opposite of a homophobic, backward Russia.
As reductive as this interpretation might be, its popularity as a narrative meant that much of Eurovision’s huge gay audience would likely have given the Russian Eurovision entry a hostile reception (the two 17-year-old singers representing Russia this year were loudly booed during both their performances) even before Russia’s actions towards Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Who, then, could have been a more symbolic Eurovision winner than a singer who uses performance to invite audiences to accept the gender variance they perceive in her and, through this, to accept anyone as they present themselves? Interpretations of Conchita’s victory as aimed against Putin have abounded in the West. The columnist Cristina Odone, writing in The Telegraph, described Conchita’s win as ‘one in the eye for Putin':
With her Eurovision victory, the Bearded Lady from Austria unwittingly fired the opening salvo in this culture war. Putin thinks that Westerners will prove a push-over when it comes to defending sexual freedom. I’m not so sure.
The Sun – a tabloid that continues to stigmatise queer and trans people on countless occasions – had no difficulties putting its editorial voice behind Conchita when she could be used to mark out Putin and Russia as the enemy. A bearded male reporter from The Sun dressed as Conchita to be photographed outside the Russian embassy, and the newspaper’s Twitter feed was sure to circulate the photo where he was having his details taken by police.
For politicians in Russia who had already been referring to ‘Europe’ as a threat to Russia’s right to determine its own values, Conchita has also been easy to fit into an existing framework. The discourses behind the ban on so-called ‘gay propaganda’ are not just moral or religious, but also geopolitical, as Cai Wilkinson explains when discussing previous statements by Vitaly Milonov, the politician who introduced a law against ‘gay propaganda’ in St Petersburg:
Russia has cast the adoption of anti-homo-propaganda laws as necessary to maintain the country’s “moral sovereignty”, which is perceived to be under attack from LGBTQ people and their supporters [...] Milonov went on to dismiss international criticism of the law as a violation of human rights obligations as the work of an international gay lobby that has inﬁltrated the UN and the European Council, arguing that “this is Europe’s problem; why should we copy European laws? Not everything that they have in Europe is acceptable for Russia”. The implicit message is clear: to be properly Russian is to be Orthodox Christian and against homosexuality.
Milonov has since sent a letter to the Russian national broadcaster arguing that Russia should withdraw from Eurovision because the contest promotes homosexuality. The Russian deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, meanwhile tweeted after Eurovision that Conchita had ‘showed supporters of European integration their European future: a bearded girl’.
In contrast, a Europe where Conchita Wurst can win Eurovision with a 52-point margin has the potential to present a European future where a bearded girl fits right in. Philip Bohlman, the scholar of music and nationalism, has responded to this year’s contest by suggesting that the result has helped to bring back Eurovision’s ‘moral compass’ and even that a Eurovision revitalised in this way can point a way towards ‘a nationalism of tolerance and diversity':
ESC queerness begins to demonstrate the attributes of a historical longue durée, and it is for these reasons that it elevates a music competition to a European level on which it is one of the most visible targets for official Russian homophobia and the violation of human rights elsewhere in Europe. It is a return to that history that “Rise Like a Phoenix” so powerfully signifies.
The fact that Conchita was able to win Eurovision has made her available as a symbol for denoting one side in a new – or revived? – ideological and geopolitical clash, with Russia as the opposite pole. Yet this isn’t a framework that Conchita has explicitly played into: although her winning speech addressed an audience who ‘know who you are’, who ‘are unity’ and ‘are unstoppable’, she has not put her persona into the direct opposition with Putin, homophobia and Russia that the ‘new Cold War’ narrative would claim for her.
Who is unity?
Neither has eastern Europe, or even Russia, rejected Conchita, despite the transphobic remarks that politicians and Eurovision commentators made about her in several countries during and after the contest. Filip Kirkorov, the star who composed this year’s Russian entry, supported Conchita after she had won. Just as when eastern European entries dominated the scoreboards in the mid-2000s, it isn’t possible to win Eurovision with votes from just one ‘half’ of Europe: in the end, only Armenia, Belarus, Poland and San Marino gave her no points at all, and Russia to the surprise of many Western viewers gave her five.
Comparing the jury votes and telephone voting results that each contribute 50% of a country’s points, audiences in eastern Europe supported Conchita much more than the juries of music professionals: evidence, Alan Renwick suggests, of an elite/public divide, at least where Eurovision voting is concerned. Russian televoters put Conchita in 3rd place; in Georgia, where the jury votes were thrown out, televoters placed her second.
Sinead Walsh, a researcher working on feminism and peacebuilding in Armenia and Azerbaijan, agrees that the telephone vote results give a more complex insight into post-Soviet sexual politics than many western European viewers might have expected:
It’s also a timely reminder that this story we’re being spoon-fed, the new Cold War saga (“now with gay people!”), is far from the simple tale it’s made out to be – that of civilised, tolerant Europe versus the savage Russian bear-people. Yes, there is a insidious attempt going on, as exposed here and here by Ukrainian NGO Gay Alliance, to manipulate sexual politics for the sake of nationalist agendas. Homophobic attacks, physical and verbal, do go virtually unchecked in this part of the world. Many people grow up feeling ashamed of their sexuality, eventually facing the choice between emigration or living in a kind of internal exile. Thankfully, there are also many people who see this situation for what it is, and refuse to play into the hands of the hetero-political entrepreneurs over something as silly as a song contest. Perhaps they are fighting a losing battle – but perhaps we can help by beginning to realise, and act on, the interconnectedness of all things, and the correlation between sexual freedom and freedom from injustice and corruption.
At the same time, there are good reasons to be sceptical about claims that nationalisms in Europe have become perfectly accepting of diversity – a point I discussed at more length in my last post on Eurovision and ‘LGBT’ rights, where I suggested that celebrations of LGBT equality as a national value still have the potential to mask the marginalisation of undocumented migrants, Muslims and trans people.
This year’s Eurovision included its own uncomfortable failures of inclusivity, such as a white woman wearing mehndi-inspired designs on her arms as part of her costume (cultural appropriation?), and an interval act which seemed to finish on the idea that it was completely to be expected for a white Dane to get China and South Korea confused. Conchita’s own persona, where her biography states that she was ‘born in the mountains of Colombia, and raised in Germany’, seems to play on stereotypes of Latina women immigrants that Neuwirth as a white man has not been harmed by. Liberalism based on tolerance still dismisses these kinds of exclusion too often.
Even in the domain of ‘LGBT equality’ itself, it could be seen as troubling that one of this year’s Eurovision presenters, the actor Pilou Asbaek, appears to have been told he would not be allowed to wear a rainbow symbol on stage, or so he told The Wall Street Journal in March:
Maybe, Asbæk says, he took his impression of the contest as a political event a bit too far in the preparation process. As a big part of the Eurovision fan base are homosexuals, Asbæk suggested to the organizers that he would wear a rainbow flag t-shirt onstage.
“I asked whether it would be funny if I did it,” he says, “but (the suggestion) was refused.”
The story resurfaced when he was interviewed by The Guardian before Eurovision, when he also suggested that the organisers had had the sensitivities of east European broadcasters in mind:
I offer that Eurovision’s definition of Europe is fluid enough to allow all comers, too. Everyone is welcome. “EXACTLY!” he shouts. “That’s IT! Everyone’s welcome. Hispanic lesbian woman, welcome. Little Jewish gay guy, welcome. Everybody, as long you like music and like to party, you’re welcome. I love that. You can see in the world right now that people are becoming more and more afraid of sexuality. That’s so weird. It doesn’t make sense.” He glances at my Dictaphone. “But I’m not allowed to be political. Because east Europe is such a big part of Eurovision. They just need to chill the fuck down.”
But Eurovision is inherently political, surely. He shakes his head. “I asked them if I can wear rainbows. No. We’re not allowed to be political. It’s about music, not politics. But music and politics, you can not divide them. Not in my mind. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland always give each other top points in Eurovision. If that’s not politics, I don’t know what is.”
Compared to last year’s contest – where the interval celebration of Swedish culture included a scene where the presenter played a minister at the wedding of two men – should this year’s organisers have been prepared to stand by the symbol? Or would it have had the problematic effect of reinforcing the narrative about a new cultural Cold War?
Rather than reading Conchita and her popularity as ‘one in the eye for Putin’, her performance can and should challenge viewers to question their own prejudices rather than the prejudices of others. There’s much to be said here for the environmentalist slogan of thinking globally but acting locally: even though the platform was a song contest between national broadcasters and states, the purposes that Neuwirth and Conchita have ascribed to the performance weren’t to do with constructing and reinforcing geopolitical divisions. The ethical imperative that Conchita aims to promote can’t be restated often enough: as Judith Butler stated in a recent interview, ‘[n]o matter whether one feels one’s gendered and sexed reality to be firmly fixed or less so, every person should have the right to determine the legal and linguistic terms of their embodied lives’. Ensuring that right, wherever each of us is, begins at home.
 But thanks to Juha Repo for reminding me of ORF’s support for AIDS LIFE and the Vienna Life Ball: ‘Just a thought – I have felt that Austria has had some queer elements in their Eurovision output before though. I think already 2004 the boyband Tie-Break sported red ribbons in support of the Wien AIDS charity Life Ball, if my memory does not fail me. And in Helsinki their song Get A Life, Get Alive with Eric Papilaya was definitely also the Life Ball anthem of that year and the set decoration was also in the same theme. I know it is not strictly queer only, but I for one have long felt that the Austrian broadcaster has been making statements with their entries before and them selecting Conchita was just a culmination of many years of work for awareness?‘
The Easter break from teaching gives me an opportunity to take stock of how I’m doing with my next book project – a very brief introductory text to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, which all being well should be available from one of the UK academic publishers in 2015 or 2016.
It’s aimed at students in history and social sciences who need an introductory survey of ways in which scholars have interpreted the wars, in order to prepare them for the further reading that they’re going to do (whether the course is about the wars/Yugoslavia/south/east Europe specifically, or whether the Yugoslav wars are one case study within a broader module); it’s also targeting researchers in fields such as peacebuilding and transitional justice who might be moving into a post-Yugoslav case study for the first time; and, hopefully, some of the general public. (I’m glad to say that books in this series go straight into paperback.)
There are one or two books with this kind of scope already, but nothing published in the last ten years, and I’ve always struggled to find one intro text for students that does everything I’d like it to (Laura Silber and Allan Little’s The Death of Yugoslavia, for instance, is a classic, if longer than a purpose-written intro text would be, but it appeared in 1996 and obviously doesn’t integrate the Kosovo War). Events from the past 10-15 years need integrating into the narrative, and so many new directions have emerged in the research that a good new intro text needs to be able to point readers to what’s been going on.
This is a very different kind of undertaking from the detailed research monographs I’ve written and co-written before. For one thing, books in the series are only 50,000 words (a figure that will no doubt be appearing in my dreams by midsummer), whereas my book on popular music and nationalism in Croatia was 100,000 and the book on languages and peace operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina that I co-wrote was 80,000 or so. (I’ve started thinking of this text as ‘the minibook’, in order to soften the blow when I need to take oh god I don’t even want to think about how many bits out…)
On the other hand, the teaching trajectory that I’ve had means that I’ve been planning this book for years without knowing it. Almost every year I’ve had to work out how to present the Yugoslav wars to different sets of learners, at various levels, within different kinds of module structures. What have first-year historians who are exploring the Yugoslav wars as a case study of a historical controversy struggled with? What would help social sciences postgraduates specialising in nationalism in eastern Europe? When I’ve had one or two weeks on the Yugoslav wars as part of a second- or third-year undergraduate comparative thematic module, what are the essentials I’ve needed to get across in order for them to be able to engage with the theme and appreciate what this one case adds to their broader understanding? And what kinds of readings have colleagues in anthropology, sociology, or languages and literatures asked me about? I need to draw on all these experiences in order to work out what to include, and that involves thinking about how learners are likely to build up the ‘scaffolding’ of their knowledge about the Yugoslav wars.
I’ve hesitated to talk about the book on public social media (blogging and Twitter) until I was happy with the progress of the first draft, though I did post about it on Facebook after it was under contract. I’ve now been able to write very preliminary first drafts of the first four chapters – on the long-term history of the region and Yugoslav unification; on the Yugoslav crisis in the 1980s; the war in Croatia; and the Bosnian conflict – which in many ways are also the most difficult, since these topics are precisely where the most extensive debates have been. All of them still need some tightening of phrasing, expansion of some references to the literature, and (the frightening part) some shortening of the word count, but I need to get the remaining chapters drafted before I can do that. The question I’m still asking when I go over some of these sections is: what do I still need to put in to make this an account that only I could have written, at only this time? It’ll all get there in the end – it has before – but this early in the process, not everything is jumping off the page the way I’d like it to.
(Also, people just keep writing things. One of the books I’m most looking forward to being able to discuss, Florian Bieber/Armina Galijaš/Rory Archer’s edited volume Debating the End of Yugoslavia, isn’t out until October, and that’s not the only case like that…)
Starting to draft this book has thrown up some interesting theoretical questions about how we narrate and arrange history, which I’d quite like to explore further after the book itself is done.One thing the reader needs to be able to understand is anti-essentialist approaches to nationalism and ethnicity, which in many ways inform a lot (though clearly not all) of the more recent research. It makes a difference to say that ‘the Croats’, as opposed to let’s say ‘the Croatian Democratic Union’ or ‘the President of Croatia’ or ‘the inhabitants of Dubrovnik’ or ‘the 1st Guards Brigade of the Croatian Army’, did something, perhaps especially when talking about war. I want to avoid my own writing reinforcing collectivist assumptions, but I also want the reader to be able to see why it makes a difference and what some of the implications of those different kinds of description might be. All of this takes words, and I don’t have many. It’s simply easier to say that ‘the Croats’ or ‘Croatia’ did this or that; expressing something more complex in the same level of brevity is much more difficult.
Another problem is that while I want the reader to be aware of critical and deconstructive approaches to the topic, I still need to equip a reader to be able to tell facts from fabrications – a particular issue with some aspects of the history of the Yugoslav wars, where deliberate misrepresentation has abounded. If I problematise interpretations of X, but state that Y unequivocally cannot be denied, where does my truth claim come from?
I want to try to make some of these difficulties transparent in the writing, so that I can be accountable for my own narrative choices: although it’s my responsibility to give the fairest overview of the material as well as to present an interpretation that will be innovative for this sector of the market, I am still making choices about how I organise, illustrate and retell the material. I face the same issues of narrativisation and periodisation whenever I design or redesign a module – something I discussed here last year when I blogged about two versions of my Yugoslavia module that I’ve offered final-year history undergraduates at Hull – but with a larger and more diverse readership and with the permanence of a printed book. Where, for instance, is the best place to cover the Slovenian war of independence in June-July 1991 – together with the 1980s crisis? Together with the Homeland War in Croatia, which began at the same time yet lasted until 1995? In a lecture or a chapter of its own?
If I’ve got early first drafts of these four chapters (and I do say early: one of their conclusions still has a note on which reads ‘FINISH AND LINK INTO BEGINNING OF NEXT CHAPTER’), it puts me over the halfway point for a draft of the whole volume, just. (Kristen Ghodsee, the author of several books on the anthropology of postsocialism, recently blogged about her own ten-step process for writing a book; my workflow isn’t identical, but the ‘crappy first drafts’ stage is definitely something it shares.) The plan is to finish drafting by July, use July and August for getting it ready enough to show to some colleagues, and redraft in the autumn, interweaved with editing the first draft of the edited volume on gender that I’m also working on. The manuscript needs delivering by December.
And then in about a year’s time after that, if all goes well, I’ll be able to start using it in class, and if you’re an instructor or student then so might you…
‘The Gay World Cup’?: the Eurovision Song Contest, LGBT equality and human rights after the Cold War
This is an adapted version of a talk I originally gave as part of LGBT History Month at the University of Hull in February 2014.
This post starts with thinking about a phrase that gay journalists in Britain have started to use to refer to the Eurovision Song Contest: the ‘Gay World Cup’. The comparison that Benjamin Cohen (the founder of Pink News) and Scott Mills (the BBC Radio 1 DJ who now commentates on Eurovision semi-finals) have made between Eurovision and the World Cup in recent interviews is only one of several nicknames that imagine Eurovision as a ‘gay’ version of a ritual celebration: for a German journalist quoted in Peter Rehberg’s essay on ‘queer nationality at the Eurovision Song Contest’, Eurovision is the ‘gay Christmas’ (Rehberg 2007: 60), and one of the gay men Dafna Lemish interviewed during her research on Eurovision fandom in Israel similarly called it ‘Passover for the homos’ (Lemish 2004: 51, £).
All these other events are mainstream social celebrations – heteronormative celebrations – that have traditionally contained very little space for queer people and their relationships. The predominant culture around men’s football is one of straight masculinity; the centrality of family reunion to the contemporary Christmas also makes it, for many queer people, an uncomfortable time. (The queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote that Christmas is ‘the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice’ to shape Christmas in the image of the family.) For Eurovision to be the ‘gay World Cup’ or the ‘gay Christmas’ is suggesting that it’s had a special place in some LGBT or queer cultures, at least among gay men, as an annual focus for reunion and celebration, as of course it has.
By the 1980s, Eurovision had already become the basis of a transnational fandom created largely, though not entirely, by gay men, celebrating the kitsch aesthetic to be found in many Eurovision performances as well as the diversity of European languages and musical cultures that the contest has contained. (One among dozens of possible examples, Salomé’s performance of ‘Vivo cantando’ in 1969, is below.)
In the past 15 to 20 years, however, the creators of some Eurovision entries and even the organisers themselves have begun to acknowledge Eurovision’s importance in gay culture and to use Eurovision performance to openly advocate for LGBT equality. This pulls Eurovision into a wider contemporary context: the international politics through which ‘LGBT equality’ started to become a symbol of European identity, sometimes even a matter of national pride, after the Cold War.
But to steer clear of a simplistic progress narrative, we also need to think critically about those things.
Integration and enlargement
When the European Broadcasting Union, an association of national television broadcasters, founded the Eurovision Song Contest in 1956, it showcased the new broadcasting technology that made it possible to relay TV signals live from one broadcaster’s territory to another, but also reflected other initiatives for co-operation between western European countries that were underway in the mid-1950s.
Economic and political organisations such as the European Coal and Steel Community (founded 1950), the Western European Union (founded as a mutual defence pact in 1954) and the European Economic Community (founded 1957) aimed to connect European states, especially France and Germany, so tightly together that they could not go to war. Though separate from these intergovernmental organisations, the EBU’s song contest was a cultural counterpart to them – showing that the different popular musics and languages of European nations were part of a shared European entertainment culture.
The seven founding member broadcasters at the 1956 contest were all from Western Europe (Italy, France, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland). By 1959 Sweden and the UK were participating, and by 1961 Eurovision had sixteen participants including Yugoslavia, the only Communist country to take part (one of many ways that Yugoslavia aimed to demonstrate how different its Communism was from the Soviet bloc, as Dean Vuletic has shown in book chapters which unfortunately aren’t online). The parameters for EBU membership, accepting broadcasters from any country with a Mediterranean coastline, meant Israel could join in 1973 (one North African country, Morocco, has also taken part – but only in a year, 1980, when Israel was absent).
Eurovision’s greatest expansion, however, came after the Cold War, when broadcasters in post-socialist eastern Europe wanted to participate. The disintegrations of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the USSR increased potential competitor numbers further. In 1993, seven ex-Communist countries including three of the new ex-Yugoslav states applied, pushing the total number of entries to 29 and forcing the organisers to introduce a pre-qualification round through which the new east European applicants had to pass. After experiments with relegation systems in the 1990s where the worst-performing countries would have to sit out a year, the EBU in 2004 introduced a semi-final so that every broadcaster expressing an interest would be able to take part. At this point – the same year that the European Union was adding ten new members of its own – Eurovision had 36 countries involved; further new participants, including Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, have taken the record to 43 in 2011.
Although not an identical timeline to European political integration, the expansion of Eurovision does parallel the transformation of the EU through gradual eastwards enlargement.
From subtext to text?
Many of the popular music genres that broadcasters showcased at Eurovision lent themselves well to camp – a way of seeking out and celebrating the overdone, exaggerated and extravagant in popular culture that had already inspired gay fandoms for opera (the origin of the diva) and musical theatre.
Watching Eurovision through the ‘lens’ of camp originally meant projecting new readings, hidden readings, even resistant readings, on to what was happening on screen. In the late 1990s, however, the queerness of Eurovision began to move from subcultural camp to open visibility – a development that can’t be separated from the improvements in the social and legal position of lesbian, gay and bisexual people (as long as they were cisgender) in many European countries. In a book chapter on LGBT equality and Eurovision, Robert Deam Tobin points out that the European human rights framework, especially the European Court of Human Rights but also resolutions by the European Parliament, was frequently a catalyst for this legislative change (for instance, ruling against unequal ages of consent in a case brought against the UK government in 1997).
In 1997 and 1998, queerness at Eurovision became not just implied but visible. Paul Oscar, who represented Iceland in 1997, was the first out gay man to take part in Eurovision (with the most sexually suggestive staging of any Eurovision performance until then). Iceland, which legalised homosexuality in 1940, was one of the first European countries in the 20th century to do so; the idea of Iceland as a European leader in LGBT equality is now part of the country’s national historical narrative, as is the case for other Nordic countries and the Netherlands. Oscar’s entry Minn hinsti dans (My Last Dance) only came 20th, but represented a landmark for gay visibility at Eurovision.
Dana International’s Eurovision victory in 1998 was even more significant, as a landmark for trans visibility – not just at Eurovision itself, but in many of the countries where Eurovision was broadcast. By 1998, Dana had been a well-known singer in Israel for several years, and her participation in Eurovision was the biggest news story in the run-up to the 1998 contest (though often reported in a sensationalistic way). Her song Diva – doing as much as possible to communicate with diverse linguistic audiences despite the rule at the time that most lyrics had to be in countries’ official languages – was amplified by the personal narrative of overcoming prejudice to succeed that many viewers would already have known about before the performance began.
Open acknowledgement of queer identities in Eurovision performance continued taking contested steps in the early 2000s. Sestre, a transvestite cabaret group from Slovenia, performed in drag in Eurovision 2002 but had had to face a transphobic media campaign at home, in which the European Parliament briefly intervened. Russia was represented in 2003 by its most successful pop export of the time, Tatu, whose selling point was suggesting to their audience that the two singers were lesbians in a relationship. While the group annoyed producers by turning up late to rehearsals in the week before Eurovision, the focus of media speculation was whether they would try to kiss on stage and whether the organisers would allow them to. (They didn’t.)
Simultaneously, the Eurovision format was undergoing changes: massive increase in audience sizes from theatre-size to arena-size events; larger stages with much more complex backdrops and lighting; first one and then two semi-finals, eventually extending the televised Eurovision over three nights of a week, in order to accommodate the growing number of participant broadcasters; and in the background, a change in executive supervisor, so that since 2004 the post has always been held by a male Scandinavian broadcasting executive (first Svante Stockselius from Sweden, later Jon Ola Sand from Norway).
The international politics of equality and human rights as seen from Scandinavia thus become directly relevant to how Eurovision as an institution has approached LGBT equality over the past ten years, given the framework of values and public ‘common sense’ in which Stockselius and Sand were used to working before they became responsible for an international event.
Ukraine’s 2007 entry Dancing Lasha Tumbai, by Andriy Danilko’s comic character Verka Serduchka, epitomises a contemporary mode of Eurovision camp made possible by the new technical possibilities for creating a performance there – even though, Galina Miazhevich argues (£), it would be more accurately interpreted through a lens of post-Soviet self-irony than Western kitsch.
(Verka would like you to know that she was, under absolutely no circumstances, singing ‘Russia, Goodbye’.)
Marching towards Pride?
By the mid-2000s, in many western European countries, the institution of Pride with a capital P had shifted from an oppositional event fighting for queer people’s presence in public space, towards an officially recognised event celebrating our presence there. However, a critique goes along with this institutionalisation of the Pride march or festival as a cultural form: in such circumstances, is there a risk that Pride becomes a celebration of how tolerant ‘we’ are as a nation while silencing more radical viewpoints on the relationship between queer people and the state?
At Brighton Pride in 2012 (in a city where LGBT equality has the same kind of symbolic value in Brighton’s urban identity as it does in Scandinavian nationalisms today), for instance, the march organisers forced the Queers Against Cuts group to move to the back of the march, where they had to march surrounded by police. This, and the direct participation of police forces and the military in many western European Pride marches, is a long way from the early Pride marches which were expressly protesting against the police and the state.
For some, this is a sign of true equality; for others, a sign of the state finding a way to assimilate lesbian and gay people while leaving intact as many other norms as possible.
The most successful queer performance on a Eurovision scoreboard since Diva, however, did not come from Scandinavia or the Netherlands but from Serbia, where LGBT rights have been a much more controversial question. Although Marija Šerifović had not spoken publicly about her sexual orientation when she won Eurovision in 2007 (she came out as a lesbian in 2013), the performance of her song Molitva (Prayer) clearly steered viewers towards understanding it as queer:
LGBT equality, and campaigners’ right to hold marches in Belgrade, has been one of the issues that polarises contemporary Serbian politics most – with the Serbian Orthodox Church and far right movements openly opposing campaigns, and the Serbian authorities generally preferring to ban or obstruct Pride parades rather than commit to protecting them from far-right attacks. Beneath this polarisation is a narrative about Serbian national identity that in a way both sides share: that Serbia has always been a nation faced with the choice to turn towards Europe and democracy or away from them, towards tradition and Orthodox Christianity. In this framework too, LGBT rights become a symbol of Europeanisation and modernity, as Marek Mikuš shows in his research from the last successfully held Belgrade Pride in 2010.
In the mid-2000s, Serbia’s national broadcaster had been striving to use Eurovision to promote the idea of a new, European Serbia, which had moved on from the era of nationalism and Slobodan Milošević. Molitva confirmed that this self-representation appealed to Eurovision audiences. As Šerifović continued to celebrate her victory in and for Serbia, however, she was assimilated by (and assimilated herself into) discourses of national unity rather than becoming a figure of radical subversion.
Winning Eurovision in 2007 meant that the 2008 contest would be held in Serbia. At that time, Pride campaigners in Belgrade had not been able to hold a march since 2001, when skinheads had broken up the first attempt. The hope of the organisers, and of many fans who visited Belgrade for the final (such as Monty Moncrieff in this blog post from last year), was that Eurovision would help to spotlight the issue of LGBT equality in Serbia, and in more recent host countries – Russia and Azerbaijan – where foreign media similarly placed the authorities’ repression of LGBT people on to the agenda before the contests began. (Moscow authorities had not permitted a Pride march for three years before Eurovision was held in 2009, and a small march on the day of the final was broken up by police.)
This has presented Eurovision organisers with a similar problem to that faced by the International Olympics Committee in dealing with repressive regimes – indeed, as Paul Jordan notes, the BBC commentator Graham Norton described Moscow 2009 as ‘the Beijing Olympics of Eurovision’ during the broadcast – except that the right to host Eurovision goes to whichever broadcaster has won the last contest, giving organisers far less control over where the next edition will take place.
Concentrating on the Baku contest, Milija Gluhović argues that Eurovision has come to ‘offer an arena for advancing demands for the recognition and social inclusion of LGBT people in Europe, especially countries [...] where the position of these sexual minorities remains precarious’ (2013: 200). At the same time, however, he recognises a new ‘rhetoric of sexual democracy, in the form of LGBT rights and freedoms’ in post-9/11 western Europe that amounts to ‘a new sexual nationalism’, directed particularly against Islam (2013: 196). He therefore offers a caveat for equality and human rights campaigners, including those in Eurovision:
We should remain wary of an uncritical acceptance of this language of freedom, including sexual freedom, considering the paradox that human rights and humanitarianism can be seen to operate as tools and strategies of contemporary imperialism. (2013: 198)
Ding dong! The transnational symbolism of equal marriage
For mainstream lesbian, gay and bisexual campaigns today, the primary symbol of progress is equal marriage – first introduced by the Netherlands in 2000, and now available in ten European countries, while many others recognise forms of civil partnership. (How far equal marriage benefits trans people depends on whether they are easily able to obtain gender recognition, including, in England and Wales, on the individual impact of a ‘spousal veto’ on gender recognition that was written into the new equal marriage law.)
In the USA, equal marriage was the theme of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s 2013 hit Same Love, the song that the producers of the 2014 Grammys turned into an on-stage mass wedding. (Brittney Cooper’s critical reading of Same Love and the Grammys performance argues that Macklemore has presented himself as a lone progressive voice in hip-hop in a way that erases African-American rappers who have already been pursuing similar themes.)
The Finnish representative at Eurovision 2013, Krista Siegfrids, performed a marriage-themed song, Ding Dong, which she also intended as a message to the Finnish audience before an upcoming referendum on equal marriage in Finland. Eurovision performance and Anglo-American chart music have now converged to the extent that everything on stage, including the Desperate Housewives-like Americana, could equally have involved Katy Perry. The number of Scandinavian pop composers and producers now working with US stars suggest that it isn’t a matter of Americanisation as such but a more two-way exchange, even if the amount of cultural and economic power on each side is unequal.
Unlike in 2003, nothing stood in the way of Siegfrids kissing another woman on stage during her performance in Malmo.
Equal marriage returned as a symbol of progress and tolerance in the interval, when the Swedish comedian Petra Mede performed a cabaret act poking fun at national symbols and stereotypes of Sweden. Along with the elks, meatballs, and allusions to Swedish films, her act included a moment where she played a minister marrying two grooms. (The very next lines happen to be ”follow our example, come and try a sample of our Swedish smorgasbord’.)
In 2014, when Copenhagen is hosting Eurovision, Copenhagen Pride will be heavily involved in organising activities, and the City of Copenhagen will arrange wedding ceremonies for foreign tourists during Eurovision week to promote the fact that Denmark allows lesbian, gay and bi people to marry.
With Scandinavian broadcasters very much in the forefront, over the past ten years Eurovision has found itself transformed into an institution that explicitly aims to promote human rights, including LGBT equality.
Good luck to everyone out there in Sochi
The idea of LGBT equality as a national value was in the foreground of advertising in countries such as the UK, USA or Canada during the Sochi Winter Olympics, with rainbow colours turning up in sponsors’ images where during most Olympics one would expect to see a national flag.
By using the rainbow in ads celebrating national Olympic teams, these advertisers were ostensibly challenging the state homophobia of Putin’s Russia, which passed a law banning the ‘promotion of non-traditional sexual relations to minors’ in 2013. They also reinforce the idea of LGBT equality as something that ‘we’ have and ‘they’ don’t – reducing the complex politics of queer rights in any of these countries to a simple national us/them.
In the run-up to Sochi, the UK’s Channel 4 did not miss an opportunity to make fun of Vladinir Putin: its chat show The Last Leg has been mocking Putin since last summer, when the host Adam Hills started suggesting that Putin (of camouflage pants and topless photos fame) should be taken up as a gay icon.
The day before the Sochi opening ceremony, Channel 4 started showing a new ident, Gay Mountain. With the punchline ‘Good luck to everyone out there in Sochi’, Gay Mountain operates musically as a rearrangement of the Russian (and formerly Soviet) national anthem, but in every other respects is meant to be as un-Russian as can be:
Gay Mountain invites its liberal British audience to participate in the idea that Russia is somewhere Other, with different values, which can be liberated through the power of camp and irony and rainbows and disco. There’s a problematic narrative of western rescue here, and also the same message about national identity that has come through the rainbow advertising: the reason LGBT equality is in the foreground for that team at the Sochi Olympics is because Russia doesn’t have it. (Though, ironically, Gay Mountain makes me think of nothing so much as a Verka Serduchka video.) In a way, it’s reminiscent of the superpowers’ representations of each other during the Cold War, where both blocs were anxious to prove that they were the leaders in human rights and quality of life and that the opposing bloc was failing in those things.
In contemporary Scandinavia and the Netherlands, in Canada, in the USA and the UK, advances in LGBT equality have become a matter of national pride.
On the face of things, this would be worth celebrating. In an article on queerness in Eurovision, Peter Rehberg asked in 2007: ‘Is the Eurovision Song Contest [...] a rare occasion where queer people have access to a sense of nationality?’ From the point of view of 2014, such occasions, in Europe, in Canada, even in the USA, might not even be so rare.
But these celebrations are still masking marginalisation.
For one thing, the idea of ‘LGBT’ equality, even of one common LGBT struggle against oppression, is an idea that aggregates several different forms of oppression, some of which are much more socially visible (and, in contemporary Western society, much easier to challenge) than others. I found it very difficult to recognise bi visibility properly when I prepared the talk this post is based on – there’s still been no canonical ‘first bi performer’ in the history of Eurovision, let alone a first bi performance. The specificness of being bisexual, rather than being gay with a capital G, has never had its own space in Eurovision or the subculture around it.
Moreover, mainstream lesbian and gay or even LGB campaigning today often fails to recognise the interests of trans people and sometimes actively works against them (an ongoing difficulty, for instance, with Stonewall UK, at least under its previous leadership). The Eurovision interval act from Malmo 2013 contained an unfortunate example of its own: a couple of minutes before the marriage scene, another segment included Petra Mede singing the words ‘In all of our cities, though men don’t have titties they can still stay at home to raise the kids’ – erasing at a stroke the fact that trans men do exist and some trans men do have breasts.
This matters because when state authorities take action based on the same cissexist ideas, it causes harm to trans people. Even though Sweden has made so much of LGBT equality as a national value, until 2012 the Swedish state required trans people to be sterilised before it would recognise their gender. Denmark similarly came very close to deporting Fernanda Milán, a Guatemalan trans woman seeking asylum, whom the Danish authorities had initially housed in the men’s section of a refugee camp.
Is LGBT equality more of a symbol than a commitment on the part of contemporary European states? That’s the implication of what several authors such as Sarah Bracke and Fatima El-Tayeb have written about Dutch public discourse on LGBT rights after 9/11. In the Netherlands, right-wing politicians have argued that a Dutch tradition of gay rights is now under threat from homophobic Muslim immigrants (Bracke); when the Dutch state interacts with queer Muslims, it only seems to recognise a white Dutch model of sexuality as legitimate, leaving queer Muslims in the Netherlands in a very difficult position (El Tayeb). The Netherlands, as well as the UK, regularly deports queer asylum seekers to their countries of origin where they face persecution. Racism, Islamophobia, cissexism and the politics of border control all limit the commitment to queer rights that these countries show; yet LGBT equality comes back into the foreground when the nation needs to present itself as progressive in relation to the rest of the world.
This kind of dynamic is what the theorist Jasbir Puar has called ‘homonationalism’: the transformation of LGBT equality into a Western benchmark for evaluating whether or not states or peoples are modern enough to be allowed their own sovereignty or treated as real citizens. In particular, as Sara Ahmed also notes, this involves an opposition between sexual freedom and Islam. Sarah Schulman, in the same vein, described Israel’s self-promotion as an LGBT-friendly state as ‘pinkwashing’, which she defined as ‘a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life’.
During the Sochi Olympics, the feminist blogger Flavia Dzodan, who lives in the Netherlands, wrote on Twitter: ‘Why I speak abt homonationalism? Bc while EU media is spinning wheels of gay rights in Russia, queer asylum seekers are summarily deported’.
Why I speak abt homonationalism? Bc while EU media is spinning wheels of gay rights in Russia, queer asylum seekers are summarily deported—
Flavia Dzodan (@redlightvoices) February 11, 2014
Eurovision takes place within the same global politics of competition, spectacle and celebration as the Sochi Olympics, or indeed the World Cup. As an institution, it has embraced the idea of LGBT equality much more than the organisers of any other international event, because of the history through which Eurovision became an annual celebration for a particular gay culture in the first place.
The same states that now heavily promote LGBT equality as a symbol regularly fail to back it up through policy. To make equality, let alone liberation, more than a symbol, Eurovision’s organisers will need to actively challenge homophobic, biphobic and transphobic remarks by commentators and contestants (something that will need particular vigilance this year when the drag artist Conchita Wurst competes for Austria). But they will also need to go further: to be sensitive to the international politics of equality and activism, and to recognise the separate forms of oppression that sit underneath, and sometimes operate between, the letters in the LGBT umbrella.
 Though not quite the first drag performers in Eurovision after all: Ketil Stokkan had two members of a Norwegian drag troupe as backing vocalists in 1986.
 International Relations scholars have been refining and rethinking this concept recently – for instance, Momin Rahman in his new book would rather work with an idea of ‘homocolonialism’ – but it’s still an important starting point for thinking about the global politics of LGBT rights today.
So Lord Kitchener, Jane Austen and the Latvian Maiden go into a bar… and all of them have recently won places on their countries’ new coins or banknotes, so the chances are we’re talking about the contents of a slightly disorganised wallet rather than an encounter that would be both historically impossible and probably also somewhat embarrassing for all three figures concerned.
The latest ripple of unease about how the current British government intends to commemorate the beginning of the First World War emerged when the Royal Mint revealed that its new coins for 2014 would include an £2 coin depicting Kitchener, Britain’s Secretary of State for War between 1914 and 1916.
Oh, what a lovely coin?
Kitchener’s picture, on a pre-conscription British recruiting poster, is probably the best-known British propaganda image from the war. It’s this picture, complete with the pointing finger and the slogan ‘Your country needs YOU’, that the Mint has chosen as the first of a series of commemorative WW1 coins to go into circulation between 2014 and 2019.
(I say this was ‘the latest’ ripple of unease; as I’m writing this, the education secretary Michael Gove turns out to have written an article for the Daily Mail criticising ‘Left-wing academics’ and ‘dramas such as Oh! What A Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder’ for creating a myth of WW1 as ‘a misbegotten shambles’.)
Beginning the commemoration with an image designed to inspire men to volunteer to fight in the war has chimed with existing fears that official commemorations will ‘celebrate’ or ‘glorify’ the war in a way that has more to do with stirring up patriotic sentiment in the present and winning public support for a conservative/Conservative narrative of the past than with reflecting on the past for its own sake. (The pacifist Symon Hill, who has since started a petition for the Mint to change the design, argued that the Mint should have chosen an image that invited people to ‘mourn and commemorate the dead’.)
Beyond the sensitivities of recalling the enthusiasm of government propaganda as the Mint’s initial commemoration of the First World War, Kitchener’s actions in an earlier conflict make him an even more troubling figure to commemorate uncritically. Under Kitchener’s command, British forces in the Second Boer War forced civilians into unhygienic camps in order to prevent them supporting Boer guerrillas. Kitchener’s camps, and the ‘reconcentration’ policy employed a few years earlier in Cuba by Spanish forces under Valeriano Weyler, remain a point of reference in the history of genocide. Writing in 1950, Hannah Arendt argued that ‘[c]oncentration camps made their first appearance during the Boer War’ before evolving into the Nazi extermination camp ‘within the framework of totalitarian terror’ (1950: 55, £), and arguments about the conceptual links between colonialism and genocide (such as this article by Vinay Lal) cannot ignore them.
Taken as a whole, the Mint’s strategy of commemorating the war through multiple images may do a better job of representing the multiple, complex meanings that WW1 has to the people who will be using the coins in Britain today (yet even then could never represent them all) than its first announcement has achieved – and it hasn’t yet revealed what the other images will be – but against such a background the selection of Kitchener has brought this commemoration through currency to a difficult start.
The Kitchener problem is the second contestation over currency in Britain in less than a year, after the latest stage in the Bank of England’s rolling update of paper money – withdrawing the Elizabeth Fry £5 and replacing it with Winston Churchill (himself of course a major symbol in narratives of British leadership at war) – made it likely that the resulting set of notes would depict no women except the Queen. Another campaign and petition, organised by Caroline Criado-Perez with the aim of ensuring there would always be at least one woman from history on the Bank of England notes, led the Bank to decide that the next £10 would replace Charles Darwin with Jane Austen. (The length of time it takes to develop a banknote with adequate security details suggests that Austen may already have been in the Bank’s plans, if only as a reserve design.)
After the Bank made its announcement in late July, Criado-Perez started to receive direct threats through Twitter which attracted both media interest and police action – a level of support which, regrettably, the media and authorities do not render to most other women (especially women of colour and trans women) who have been threatened online.
The ways in which this incident and responses to it developed during 2013 online has made the banknotes campaign, from some points of view, a symbol of a white, middle-class, liberal feminism that fails to take account of more complex and structural ways in which women experience oppression – to the extent that the term ‘banknote feminism’ has emerged online as a summary of that position, as in some of this discussion on how the idea of intersectionality has made it more possible for women of colour to speak up online. This has related only partly to the campaign itself, but equally to the suggestions that some of its supporters then offered for tackling online abuse (my personal perspective is that those suggestions were indeed flawed because their consequences for more marginalised women could well have been harmful) and to their reactions to the content and tone of the critiques they started to receive. A few days ago, a review of the year in feminism on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour reopened this when Criado-Perez challenged Reni Eddo-Lodge about women who had ‘abused’ intersectionality in online debate (Eddo-Lodge has reflected on the programme and Criado-Perez’s apology here, and Ally Fogg has commented on the baffling accusation of ‘bullying’ that Louise Mensch went on to make against Eddo-Lodge last night.)
The main impact of these discussions for me has been to make me go back over a position I’ve often expressed when writing about nationalism: that symbols of the nation are politically significant, important to study, and to critique if necessary. (Should it really matter, for instance, whose face is on the banknotes when rising living costs and social security cuts in the UK mean that not enough of any money is getting into women’s hands?)
Milda makes her way to Europe
The third new piece of currency I want to include here seems – as far as I can tell – to have been received with much less contestation: the new Latvian euro coin, which on the side reserved for a national design revives the image of the ‘Latvian Maiden’ from the 5 lat coin minted by the first Latvian republic in 1929. National identity in interwar Latvia emphasised folk customs and the forest landscape, and the maiden (nicknamed ‘Milda’) with her traditional headdress personified an idealised and symbolic womanhood that stood for the origins of the Latvian people. Soviet authorities, after occupying Latvia, removed the coin from circulation in 1941, but part of the Latvian narrative of resistance to Soviet rule is that Latvians held on to the coins and used them as decorations and gifts, making them ‘the most popular symbol of once independent Latvia’. Independent again in 1992, the Latvian state restored Milda to its currency, placing her on the 500-lat note until 1998 and using her as the standard watermark until the time came to replace the lat with the euro in 2014.
(Importantly, I don’t know how Russian-speakers in post-Soviet Latvia view the ‘Latvian Maiden’ symbol, and haven’t been able to find any research that addresses this specifically – though if the right former colleagues of mine are reading this, they may be able to help…)
A couple of years ago, the scale of the Greek debt crisis was making the idea that the eurozone would be adding rather than shedding members by 2014 seem counter-intuitive; but here Latvia is. As Latvia made its preparations to join the single European currency last year, The Economist‘s ‘Charlemagne’ column framed the choice as ‘between Europa or Milda’ – in other words, to abandon the national symbolism of Latvia’s own currency for the vaguer, impersonal designs of euro notes. Latvia’s national bank has solved the problem by adding Milda to the euro coin instead, in the space where every eurozone member puts a national symbol of its own, be it the Maltese or Slovakian cross, an Austrian pacifist or the Spanish king.
Questioning the pine marten
It was examples like the Latvian Maiden that made me start to notice how national identity was being represented in currency, when I first started to read about nationalism as a student. The most influential argument about currency I’ve read has been Michael Billig’s in Banal Nationalism (1995), a book about national symbols that has done a lot to shape how I think about cultural artefacts and the material world. What Billig suggests is that nationalism is at its most powerful when it goes unnoticed and becomes embedded into people’s everyday lives – and something that almost everyone has to do, day in day out, is handle money.
Billig illustrates this argument with an example from Croatia, which like Latvia changed its currency in the early 1990s after separating from a larger state. Croatia’s currency became the kuna, a name that originated with the use of pine marten skins as a medieval form of exchange but had also belonged in 1941-45 to the currency of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), an entity which had persecuted Serbs, Jews, Roma, homosexuals and political opponents under the supervision of the Axis powers. The NDH’s adoption of symbols from Croatian history has caused serious problems of representation for today’s Croatian state. Billig reads the introduction of the kuna as an attempt to embed the history of the NDH, as well as Croatian tradition and sovereignty in general, into Croatian public consciousness: ‘In this way, the tradition, including the Nazi heritage, would be neither consciously remembered, or forgotten: it would be preserved in daily life’ (p. 42).
This account of Croatian intentions in designing the kuna is open to critique. Alex Bellamy in The Formation of Croatian National Identity (2003), for instance, points out that the name had also been used by the communist Partisans in WW2 Croatia in so far as they had issued ‘dinar-kuna’ notes (p. 107), and reads the naming of the kuna as a tactic supporting President Tudjman’s (still problematic) strategy of national unification (urging former Communists and former NDH supporters to forgive and be silent about the past and join together in building a sovereign Croatian state).
I incline towards Bellamy rather than Billig in my reading of the kuna, but Billig’s overall message is still something I find valuable: asking why post-Yugoslav Croatia named its currency the kuna rather than the kruna or crown (a common name for currency elsewhere in the central European region that the state aspired to be recognised as belonging to), let alone choosing to retain the Yugoslav name of dinar, surely has something to tell us about how Croatia’s first president and its national bank wanted the state and nation to be represented. Who and what is depicted on Croatian banknotes, similarly, is as revealing of official narratives about the nation as it would be anywhere else. (One thing I find striking is the effort to choose a range of historical monuments that stretch across the entire reach of the state’s territory, in a country where deep regional distinctiveness can often get in the way of the homogeneity that nations are supposed to have.)
Currency and the age of revolutions
Even before the emergence of modern nationalism, the design of coinage has always communicated something about sovereignty and authority – a practice stemming from the ruler’s mark that guaranteed the weight and composition of a coin. The shift from metal currency to paper money for the more valuable denominations, Josh Lauer suggests in a history of banknotes in the USA (£), made it all the more important for US currency to symbolise the nation: if it hardly weighs anything, why should it be worth something? The answer, Lauer thinks, is because the nation and its elected representatives agrees it is; and it’s the symbolism of the images on the paper that reassures them of that.
Before the American Revolution, British colonies in North America that issued paper money already used ‘images of ships, anchors, indigenous flora and fauna, and buildings [...] to invoke a sense of common identity and affiliation with local industry and commerce’ (p. 115-6); during the Revolutionary War, their symbols became warlike and patriotic. Even before 1861, when the US government began federally printing notes, the private banks that issued banknotes on a state-by-state basis often included symbols of the American Revolution and its values, though often also events from the locality’s recent history that would not go on to acquire national significance.
The chief clerk of the US Treasury in 1863 offered reasons for placing national imagery on the banknotes that resonate with Billig’s arguments about nationalism in the everyday:
[They] would tend to teach the masses the prominent periods in our country’s history. [...] they would soon be familiar to those who would never read them in books, teaching them history and imbuing them with a National feeling. (Helleiner 1998: 1412, £)
Eric Helleiner, who gives the quote above, also points out that the French revolutionary regime replaced the Latin language on Old Regime currency with French and printed symbols of Liberty and republicanism on its first paper currency, the assignats. By the late 19th century – a decisive phase in many ways for the uptake of nationalism by states – the convention of designing currency with symbols of the nation rather than simply of the head of state was becoming a general practice, something taken for granted in the present day.
(In the interests of centring Haiti as well as the USA and France in narratives of the age of revolutions, I’m aware that the account above also ought to talk about currency in Haiti during its independence from French rule between 1791 and 1804. I’ve failed to find this out as yet, and I’m not satisfied.)
Does currency matter?
Given this intellectual background, I’d have trouble arguing that the design of currency is something that it isn’t worth researching (or, in that case, campaigning about), or what what a state’s institutions choose to depict or not depict as representations of the nation isn’t significant. But at the same time, I’m aware that the kind of scholarship I most naturally turn to is deconstructive, or as I put it during a talk I gave last year (about representations of the Balkans in a recent film), ‘picking things apart until they fall over’. At the end of the talk, a senior feminist in International Relations prodded me to reflect further on what this kind of research is for.
I came back to that thought two or three months later when I started to see critical discussions of the English banknotes campaign (after all, writing a research article on currency is exactly the kind of thing that I might do). I suppose the only way I can reconcile these points of view is to say: the politics of representation are important, but they’re not enough, and it’s incumbent on me not to get in the way of the arguments about the other things, indeed to amplify them when I can.
I’ve hesitated several times in planning this post, which I originally meant to write several days ago after reading about the Kitchener coin, before the aftermath of the Woman’s Hour debate overtook anything I might have been able to say. White writers in particular have to be careful about ‘derailing‘ – changing the course of an argument in a way that diverts attention from the marginalisation it was meant to be about. My argument here isn’t as simple as trying to say that the symbolism of currency is important, which feels like it would be the wrong thing at this point in time. Rather, I’m trying to think through why I still believe it is important even though I’m coming to believe that a framework that was only focused on the politics of representation wouldn’t go far enough.
But then, I’m really not a disinterested party. I write and teach about nationalism, and being able to do that has helped me get the financial and intellectual security of an academic post, a job that I enjoy and which is in very short supply. In the classroom, I suppose I use illustrations like these to encourage students to think critically and analytically about more than just nationalism, to pay attention to the details of things, and to see perspectives they might not initially have thought of – and all of these are skills that have a role to play in the humanities and social sciences. Yet the challenge of seeing beyond representation still remains.
Edit: as I was finishing this post, Sara Ahmed posted the second of two excellent posts on the limitations of ‘criticality’ as a stance in research and activism. In the first of them, she made the point that:
Assuming one’s criticality can be a way of not admitting one’s complicity. I think complicity is a starting point. We are implicated in the worlds that we critique; being critical does not suspend any such implication.
We need to keep this in mind when doing ‘deconstructive’ research.
 Recently, historians such as Liz Stanley have suggested that Afrikaner nationalists during the 20th century over-emphasised the level of British brutality in the camps in order to strengthen a narrative of suffering within Afrikaner national identity, though they do not dispute the level of starvation, disease and death. Here, my account of the historiography relies on Elizabeth Van Heyningen’s (paywalled) 2009 article in History Compass, particularly the discussion on pp. 27-9.
 I believe @WassailingGirl, on Twitter, came up with this first, but please correct me if I’ve miscredited it.
 I’m conscious that this paragraph is summarising six months and thousands of words from many people, of which I can only have read a fragment. I hope the account I’ve given here does enough to outline it for readers who haven’t been part of these discussions. There’s a wider structural context here of unequal access to the mainstream media for feminists who are white and middle-class on one hand, and those who are speaking from more marginalised positions on the other, which has been reflected in another painful controversy that emerged from the Women’s Hour debate over what came across as an inappropriate attempt by white feminists to ‘reclaim’ intersectionality, a concept developed by and for black women (Kimberlé Crenshaw building on the work of the Combahee River Collective) in the 1970s and 1980s.
Earlier this month I was asked to be the closing speaker at the Huddersfield History Postgraduate Conference, an annual event where postgraduate history researchers from Huddersfield and elsewhere give presentations about their research. This is an adapted version of the talk about learning and the research process that I gave at the end of the day (based on my original notes, plus marginalia, plus recollections of things I added on the spur of the moment and responses to some of the Q&A, so it’s far from being an accurate transcript of everything I said, but gives an idea of what I was talking about…
This isn’t the sort of talk that I usually give, but when the postgraduates organising this conference asked me to be the closing speaker, they asked me to talk about the satisfactions and challenges of research, thinking about my own experiences and the climate today. So I needed to make remarks that would be as relevant to someone researching, for instance, late medieval culture as they would be to someone researching the late 20th century, like I do.
At one point earlier in the afternoon I heard myself being referred to as the ‘main’ speaker, but I wouldn’t like to think of myself as that. I don’t feel like the main speaker at an event like this – you’re the main speakers. So my first act probably ought to be to abolish myself – but then it’s the same kind of problem as with the Marxist doctrine that on the road to Communism the state ought to wither away, but in practice Communist officials turned out to be quite reluctant to make themselves wither away…
Anyway: the point of a conference like this isn’t to sit around listening to lecturers talking at you, but for you to present your research to each other and to the rest of the department who are there to support you, and for you to hear about and comment on what everybody else is doing. It’s a way for you all to mutually support each other as researchers, and to build up the History community in and around Huddersfield. Hull and Huddersfield historians are building up more and more links themselves – I sometimes hear people referring (like John Prescott) to an ‘M62 corridor’ – and rather than thinking primarily in terms of departmental communities or even university communities, I want to encourage you to see yourself as part of a much wider network of postgraduate and early career researchers in the North, of historians and others with similar interests, of people with interests in the past whether or not they’re studying academically – all of these are networks where you belong and you have a place. And you’re going to need each other.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend all of the conference [I'd been teaching a class at Hull that morning], which makes it harder to carry out the closing speaker role of tying everything together and hopefully leaving you going away thinking: all this different work we’re doing is actually contributing to the same thing. Whereas what you may well be thinking is: ‘I hope she’s going to finish quickly so we can get away to the pub’ – or, ‘I hope she’s going to finish quickly so that I can get home and sort out dinner for the rest of the family’, or ‘so that I won’t be late for the job I need to go to after this conference is over today’. And all of those are valid responses.
But the reason for explaining about my timetable is because when I thought about the different things I had to get done today it brought home to me how, over time, the activities you find difficult sometimes become less so. So I’m going to start thinking about this as an example of the learning process, which I’ll then tie more closely into the process of research, and ramp up towards thinking about sharing authority, co-production, and some of the ideas that were coming up in the discussion at the end of the panel I was able to attend.
The spiral of competence
The first year that I was teaching was in 2007–08, in the last year of my PhD [at UCL SSEES]. I was teaching two seminars, one after each other, on a module called the History of Eastern Europe since 1856. I remember being so drained after those two seminars one after each other that I knew that was it, the only thing I was going to be able to get done on Fridays was to go in and listen to that lecture and teach those two seminars. I could get some reading done on automatic pilot in the afternoon and evening, but in terms of anything more active, let alone producing words or delivering more words, that wasn’t going to happen.
After a couple of years off from teaching during my postdoc [at Southampton], during the last year of my postdoc the history department there asked me to design a new first-year option on one of my research interests because they needed to offer some more options at that level. And the year after that was almost entirely a teaching year – I had a teaching contract in London for half the week replacing someone who was on research leave, plus another module became vacant at Southampton for the same reason, then at the last minute Southampton also asked me to put my first year option on again. In terms of the range of teaching I was doing, not just in terms of topics but actual subjects, I felt like I was teaching across the full range of what I was capable of, which is a challenge that I wanted… and if I’d have been able to teleport between London and Southampton it would have been great.
If my circumstances had been different, if I’d had more people depending on the money I was earning with my time, I wouldn’t have been able to do that, and anything I’ve gained from that combination of experiences, I’ve got to acknowledge that it was circumstances like not being a carer which made it possible to even have them. As a structure for getting the best people into the jobs they’re best qualified for, this isn’t good enough.
But at that time in 2011-12 where the amount of teaching I was doing had expanded so much compared to the first year when I was teaching, and the amount of different things I had to get done in the same day was also much greater, I would think – ‘wow, there used to be a time when two hours of teaching would knock me out, and that was it?’ I’d gone through a spiral of competence. The things I used to struggle with, I now had a routine for preparing for, and I was used to. And that creates space to struggle with new things.
At an early stage it might be – ‘I’ve actually got to design my own seminar tasks, how do I do that?’ And then later on – ‘I haven’t just got to mark assessments, I’ve got to work out what the assessments should be, and what skills I actually want this module to develop, so that I can use the assessments to test how well students have achieved them.’ And you go along the spiral of competence. The tasks you used to worry about become more manageable, and new space opens up. This is why people talk about ‘continuous professional development’. It’s how we get more experienced. Knowledge that was new becomes familiar, and that makes us ready to start learning and practising something else that is new now.
That doesn’t mean that the things you’ve done many times before suddenly take no effort. I still very frequently find myself in front of a blank screen thinking I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to put in here. That’s part of the process, I’m not sure it ever goes away. But what changes, with time, is that you’re able to have more of a sense of: ‘yeah, that’s how I felt the last time too, and then I did it.’
This is something that you’ll probably start noticing too, in some or other aspect of what you do. In fact you’re already further along the spiral when it comes to writing and researching than you were in the past. If you had to write an undergraduate dissertation, for instance, for many people that’s the longest single piece of writing that they’ve ever had to write. ‘How the hell do I write an undergraduate dissertation, at 10,000 words?’ It felt like everything you’d done over the last however many years of your degree was meant to get you up to that point. And now, if you’re writing a PhD, something that length would only be a chapter in a much longer piece of work.
So that’s the first thing I wanted to say, and for all of you there’s probably something in your practice as history researchers where you can recognise that. ‘I don’t struggle with that as much as I used to in the past’. Everyone will have something like that, because this is how learning works. Whether it’s learning details and information, or learning in a much broader sense, how to actually do something.
[During the Q&A, somebody asked me whether this meant we were always in a state of 'conscious incompetence']. The thing you want to get towards is ‘conscious competence’. And you can break this down into many kinds of things you do. [Helpfully, the conference venue had a copy of the Vitae 'Researcher Development Framework' - a breakdown of the many skills that researchers use - painted on the wall...]
What I like about the Researcher Development Framework is that it distinguishes all these different things that researchers do, and also gives a progression of what they can look like at different stages, whether you’re a postgraduate researcher or somebody who just won a grant worth millions of pounds from one of the research councils, so there are always ‘aspiration points’ that help you answer the question of ‘what should I be working towards next’. (I could also have used the analogy of a ‘skill tree‘ in video games where you develop a character over the course of a game – the point is that you build competence in a certain skill to a threshold level and that opens up new things that you can then go on to learn, but advanced skills won’t open up until you’ve developed the prerequisites enough.)
How we know what we know
The week before the conference, I told the organisers that my title for the talk was going to be ‘The problem of knowing what you don’t know’. And I wanted to talk about learning and training, because this is what all of you are doing.
You’ve had very different experiences before now and the paths you each take after your current research projects will also go in different directions; also, your circumstances are different from each other right now. But one thing you have in common is that all of you are at a stage where you’re becoming independent researchers, with one or more universities and maybe another kind of cultural institution supporting you to help you become that.
You’re in charge of making the case for why your project matters. You already started to do that just by applying to the programme of study that you applied to, and as part of your research you’re in charge of making that case in a deeper and more detailed way.
You’re in charge of planning how this research is going to be done: seeing what methods other researchers have tried, which work, but also, what methods other people researching that topic haven’t tried yet, which might then tell us something new.
You’re in charge of making sense of the results you find out, and then putting those into context by reflecting back on what other people have written about that topic before.
And you’re in charge of delivering all this within the agreed parameters – the word limit – and on time – which you don’t need me reminding you about…
You know better than I do, as well, what you want to do with yourself after having gone through this process, or what you want this process to have done for you. Some of you – but I don’t want to assume that’s what everybody wants – will be seeing it as another step towards working in higher education, though I don’t want to assume that is what everybody wants. In the past, universities tended to assume that the only reason anyone does a PhD is to become an academic, but if you still encounter that attitude today, it’s out of date. Postgraduate research prepares you for a much wider set of careers than that.
But probably what all of you have got in some shape or form is the aspiration to do more with the topic of your research than you were able to do before you started researching it. To do more with the content of your research, or to do more with the skills you’ve used and learned while you’ve been researching.
One of the things you learn as you go through this process is about how we know what we know. In historiography, or in introductory training for teaching, you’ll probably encounter thoughts about this. How for instance do historians know that what they’ve found out in their research and what they write about has the status of ‘historical knowledge’? The answer to that may be: they’ve gone through all the sources that are still available, they have discovered the historical facts through the evidence available, and the weight of that evidence provides the most justified interpretation of that aspect of the past. A postmodern or deconstructionist historian might say that actually all of us are involved in ‘authoring’ the past just through the practice of producing a narrative about it, even when we frame the narrative as ‘the’ truth about our topic in the past.
Each of those positions leads to a very different opinion about what historians actually do when they study history, but both of them are positions about ‘how we know what we know’, and what counts as ‘knowledge’ for historians.
So it’s useful to be aware of what your assumptions are about how we know what we know. But something else is also very important for researchers, if not anyone – and that’s trying to have a sense of what you don’t know. Because that actually has a lot to do with how we learn and understand.
If we go back to those examples of learning how to teach, or learning how to put together progressively longer pieces of written work based on independent research.
These are gradual processes, and teaching and learning researchers like to say that they depend on ‘scaffolding’ – to be able to learn at the top of the scaffolding, you’ve first got to have grasped whatever was underneath it. But then in order to move up the scaffolding, towards more advanced knowledge and competence, you have to know that there are new things to find out that flow from whatever you’ve already learned.
In the framework of a university module or a programme of study this is easy, a lot of that pathway is already visible because it’s already been designed.
In independent research this is much more difficult. A PhD topic is something that no one has ever explored in the same way as you, and this is why it looks so daunting at the beginning: how are you going to map a pathway through making sense of these sources, towards the comprehensive understanding that you want to finish with? You want to know as much as possible.
But at the same time, as part of that process, you also need to be open to what you didn’t know was there. What you will find from the sources that makes you rethink what you thought you knew about the topic, the categories you use to think about the topic with, or even the framework that you want to bring to the task of representing this topic as a whole, because suddenly the sources are challenging what you had expected it might be possible to say.
This is part of the research process for almost everyone. It should be part of the research process. Although the trouble is that when it happens, we usually experience it as a crisis. Something doesn’t work. And then it’s a stressful moment. But often it’s also one that turns out to be transformative – the eventual piece of writing that you end up with wouldn’t have looked the same way if not for that moment. Your initial framework changed, to accommodate that thing that originally you didn’t know. On a much larger scale it’s like that blank-piece-of-paper, what-am-I-going-to-put-into-these-lecture-notes moment. When you do encounter a research crisis like that, that may be what it’s trying to tell you, but your mind might process it first as confusion.
So if that’s an important stage in the research process, then another challenge comes from that: what can be done, methodologically, to create space for those ‘knowing what you don’t know’ moments to happen? Those moments where you become aware that how you’ve understood and experienced the material up until that point doesn’t actually give you a full account of what’s been going on?
Towards an ethics of listening
For me, this is one of the things that’s attracted me to oral history interviewing as a methodology. I used it when I was researching foreign languages and peacekeeping in Bosnia as part of the project I was involved in after my PhD. There simply weren’t enough documents about what we were interested in, so I was going to have to do something more active anyway in terms of finding out about the topic, but what also appealed to me about interviewing was that with interviewing you cannot get away from the fact that the researcher is implicated in producing knowledge and narrative, it’s more complex than accessing a repository of information that is already there. What you ask, who you and the interviewee are, who each of those people is in relation to the other, and even when you do the interview and what else might be going on at the time, all has an influence on what comes to you as ‘the’ source or ‘the’ narrative from that person. You have to come to terms with this in order to interview, you can’t hide from it.
Interviewing can be a powerful tool in opening up new topics that haven’t been researched before, because you select what to ask about. My colleague Simona Tobia, another researcher involved with the project, listened to interviews in the Imperial War Museum sound archive with British Army soldiers from the Second World War whose job had been to interrogate German prisoners, and then did new interviews with some of the same people, to ask them about languages and translation. And the original interviews hadn’t had much to say about languages at all, even though, English speaking army, German speaking prisoners, someone at some stage must have not been using their army’s first language. When Simona went back to these people and specifically asked about languages, they came out with whole new narratives. Because someone had asked.
But that isn’t even the most exciting thing about interviews as a source for those historians who are able to use them. As an interviewer, it wouldn’t be worth me doing it if I already knew exactly what I was going to hear. This means I need to find out, through that interview, that there was something I didn’t know, or perhaps couldn’t even have comprehended before, because I didn’t have the ‘scaffolding’ to appreciate it. I didn’t know that it was possible to perceive that topic or that experience in that particular way. What that means is that the most important thing I do in an interview isn’t how I choose the questions or ask the questions, it’s actually how I listen. And to be able to do that, I have to appreciate that there is a vast amount I don’t know, and vast dimensions I don’t know about.
This is an important thing to recognise not just in terms of research, but I think in every dimension of the lives we lead. The wisdom that it takes to recognise what you might be unaware of, and perhaps even to recognise that there are things you might never be able to be fully aware of. This is a more difficult one for researchers, because we want to find out everything there is to know. But in an interview, for instance, can I ever know the experience of the narrator as intimately as the narrator knows it? All the more, perhaps, if there are ways that I’m in a position of power compared to that other person which makes it more difficult for me to perceive the full weight of what they’re saying. (During a previous Q&A, referring to public engagement, a member of the audience had mentioned ‘the nature of how we intimidate in events like this’ and ‘moments that prevent the co-production of language’ when talking about problems in getting the public to come to events at universities.) Could I, as a white interviewer, ever understand what it means to experience racism, as intimately as the person of colour who was narrating it to me? I can’t. So, then, how best should I listen, and after listening, what is it my responsibility to do?
What this might lead us towards is something that society’s in need of, which is an ethics of listening, and in particular an ethics of listening across these axes of power relations and privilege that we are all in some way or another embedded in. The greater responsibility in this has to come from those who are higher up on any of those axes, when we are higher up on them, to accept that our own perceptions and experiences are not universal – there are things that we will miss.
And if that’s the case then perhaps there’s also a responsibility for, not just speaking over someone or even representing them, but making space for them to be as much at the centre as you are, in the cases where you perceive yourself to be at the centre. Maybe these are some of the implications of an ethics of deep, active listening. And although whereas I’ve said earlier we can and need to know what we don’t know, this is more ‘sometimes we’re not able to learn everything we don’t know’. But the two things still have common roots in the problem of recognising what we don’t know yet.
And this brings us back to the idea of sharing authority that was mentioned in the previous session. This might be a frightening prospect. In order to share authority, does that mean letting go of some of yours? Is authority as zero-sum as that: you can’t have more of it unless I have less? Or is it more about creating extra authority by recognising someone else’s authority – the authority of an interviewee or a community member – where it wasn’t being recognised before? Though in that more optimistic model we still face the ethical problem of ways in which the researcher ultimately has more power than the participant. In the traditional model of historical research, you the researcher write the thesis or the article – a written textual document with a single author. What would need to change about our requirements for assessment and doctoral training in order for us to be able to share the authority of research as far as we possibly can?
 Obviously we should also be asking critical questions about how any kind of framework like this orders people’s knowledge about what being a competent researcher looks like – what’s being left out? what’s being covered up with euphemisms? what’s being made to look like just one person’s responsibility when actually it should be being supported in a much more structural way? Let’s not forget that competence is often collective, nor that the pressure to be ‘hard-working, self-motivating and enterprising subjects’ in the corporate university is, as Rosalind Gill puts it in her excellent essay on this topic, a huge part of the stress that contemporary academia makes researchers feel.
 I’ve written more about this in a blog post last year called ‘Starting to think about teaching about privilege‘, although it still needs a lot of firming up.
Call for papers, edited volume
Gender in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union
Edited by Catherine Baker
This call for papers seeks contributors to an edited volume (c. 80,000 words) on the gendered histories of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union during the twentieth century, aimed primarily at an undergraduate/taught postgraduate readership. Drawing on current research into a broad range of societies and experiences within the scope of the volume, it aims to explore whether or how far the course of the twentieth century has made it possible to speak of a common history of gender in this part of the world. Since the early 1900s, the region has witnessed the collapse of multinational empires into nation-states; the human devastation and divided legacies left by the Second World War and the Holocaust; the transformation of society and the economy under Communist power, and the divided legacies that this too has left behind; the break-up of the Warsaw Pact bloc and the remaining federations into nation-states that were to be remade in the image of a democratic, free-market ideal. Yet these grand narratives of transformation and transition risk obscuring divergences and specificities that historians of gender may also need to take into account.
Contributions may focus on one country or may have a broader comparative scope, but all proposals should indicate how the material can contribute to an understanding of the region as a whole. The coverage of the volume will be balanced across the time frame of the twentieth century and the region under consideration. Proposals are welcome regarding any part of the east European region or the former USSR. A major UK publisher has expressed interest in publishing the volume as a paperback, subject to successful completion of their review process.
Aspects that might be discussed within essays include, but are not limited to:
- Borderlands and the question of ‘national indifference’
- Childhood and youth
- The Communist revolutions and takeovers
- Communist parties in power
- Consumption, the home and everyday life under state socialism
- Feminism and other activist movements
- Interactions between the region and the rest of the world, including the Global South
- Labour, postsocialism and neoliberalism
- Oral history and memory
- Popular culture and the media
- Refugees and humanitarian relief
- Reproductive and sexual politics
- Queer and trans* histories
- Security and surveillance
- Socialist approaches to gender in theory and practice
- War and the military, including female participation on the front line
- War memory and commemoration
- Intersections of gender with other power relationships
Please send an abstract of 300–500 words to Catherine Baker (University of Hull) at email@example.com by Sunday 13 October 2013. Proposals will be reviewed immediately and notification will be made by the end of October 2013. Draft papers are likely to be due in July 2014. As part of preparing the book I hope to organise related conference panels e.g. at ASEEES in November 2014, although being able to attend a conference is not a requirement for taking part.