It may not seem this way once the first few pyrotechnic effects have gone off, but this year’s Eurovision Song Contest has been significantly reduced in scale. Since the early 2000s, a competition that used to take place in a theatre as a one-off on a Saturday night has become an event that showcases a host city and country for up to a fortnight, with a calendar of rehearsals and receptions filling up the time between the three live broadcasts – two semi-finals and a final over the course of a week – that make up the televised competition.
The feel of recent Eurovisions, including the contest in Athens that I visited in 2006, has had more and more in common with international sports tournaments. Indeed, both kinds of event are now sharing the same infrastructure: since 2000, when Eurovision was held at Globen in Stockholm, Eurovision has become an arena- rather than a theatre-based show, with obvious implications for the size of the audience, the amount of technical equipment needed to deliver a satisfying experience in person, and the scale of performance often thought to be necessary to get a strong reaction from the crowd. Athens 2006 took place in the Olympic basketball arena; the Baku Crystal Hall, built by Azerbaijan as the venue for the 2012 contest, would form part of the Olympic complex if a future hosting bid by Baku were to succeed.
Sociologists call these internationally-broadcast, nation-spotlighting moments ‘mega-events’. They’re opportunities for governments to engage in ‘nation-branding’ strategies: two classic cases, as Paul Jordan argues, being Estonia, which used its hosting of Eurovision in 2002 to reinforce its desired brand as a forward-thinking, democratic, European, technologically accomplished state, and Ukraine, where the theme for Kiev 2005 (‘Awakening’) evoked the narrative of the new Yushchenko government. The possible underside of international celebratory events – forced evictions and repressive policing of protest – has also come into play: notably, Moscow police broke up a Pride demonstration on the day of the Eurovision final in 2009, and several hundred households in Baku were reportedly forcibly evicted from the site where authorities planned to build the Crystal Hall.
Branding the nation for a fortnight, however, comes at a cost, and so does even sending and equipping a delegation to participate and compete in an event of the size that Eurovision has become. It’s a cost that broadcasters and cities find increasingly hard to justify. With public spending on essential services being cut so harshly and quickly that citizens are left in misery, can sending a song to represent the nation at a Europe-wide party really be justified?
Three regularly participating countries – Bosnia-Herzegovina, Portugal and Turkey – as well as the more intermittent Slovakia declined to enter a song in this year’s contest, and for some time the participation of Greece and Cyprus was also in understandable doubt. This year, the visual production costs incurred by the organisers have been cut in half, with hope that it will also reduce costs to future hosts. The multi-national promotional tours that serious Eurovision contenders have felt the need to engage in since Ruslana’s pre-victory campaign in 2004 (after all, why design a warrior princess extravaganza if you’re not going to tell anyone?) are meanwhile becoming a thing of the past, replaced with one-0ff appearances at strategically-chosen preview events such as this year’s promotional concert in Amsterdam.
Baku 2012 may go on to appear like an unmatchable peak – financed by an Azerbaijani government with oil wealth at hand, insulated from the financial crisis that has affected so many other national broadcasters and municipal authorities since 2008, and with an aggressive strategy to promote its capital as a world city.
Butterflies in the stomach?
With Eurovision leaking participants, and the idea of Europe as a political community becoming ever more battered in the aftermath of bailouts of southern European banks, it might seem ironic that the design of this year’s contest in Malmo foregrounds an image of European unity, based on the slogan ‘We Are One’.
Any risk of a fragmenting Europe is far away from what this branding asks the viewer to imagine. Instead, as the designers explain, the Malmo butterfly stands for unity in diversity:
Eurovision Song Contest is a shared project. It unites millions of people. In the East, West, North and South. Beyond all the glitter, there is a big idea. It’s about togetherness, diversity and happiness. [...] Butterflies have one common name, but exist in thousands of different shapes and colours. Just like the Eurovision Song Contest, one strong identity with a rich national diversities. Working together, we can achieve anything. – We are one.
Neither is it primarily putting Sweden in the spotlight. On the face of it, that couldn’t be further from the concept: the executive producer of this year’s contest, Martin Österdahl from the Swedish broadcaster SVT, has explicitly presented his approach to Malmo as a deliberate attempt to move away from the ‘nation-branding’ emphases of recent years. For Österdahl, quoted in a feature on the Eurovision website last October, using Eurovision to promote the nation in the way that has almost become customary appears to be no less than an undermining of the contest’s authentic values:
When Sweden hosts the Eurovision Song Contest, broadcaster SVT wants to direct a large part of the attention at the participating artists and countries. “Making Eurovision into something that just shows off Sweden doesn’t feel right, nor is it in line with the original idea of Eurovision”, says executive producer Martin Österdahl.
The Swedish organisational group aims to renew the Eurovision Song Contest and go back to the competition’s founding values: to bridge over cultural differences and emanate a message that all people are equal.
Martin Österdahl believes that there are a number of ways to put the core values into practice.
“To start off with, you can turn the focus away from using the program to market your own country at any cost, instead highlighting the diversity and wealth of all nationalities and cultures”, he says.
“We are going to be in Sweden and of course we need to explain this and show ourselves off. But it should not just be about our country, and we should not pat ourselves on the back and say that Sweden is best. We need to focus on all the countries taking part”.
Setting a precedent for lowering the costs to participating delegations, through measures such as reducing the length of the rehearsal period (thus cutting down delegations’ accommodation costs), supports SVT’s approach to Eurovision by ensuring that as many countries as possible are able to take part. Uniquely among mega-events – not even a one-off event like the UEFA Champions’ League final goes to last year’s victor – Eurovision presents the winner with not only an honour but a liability, since the right to host is automatically awarded to the previous winner rather than being awarded through a bidding process.
Apocryphal stories of broadcasters deliberately trying not to win so as not to have to bear the costs of hosting are common (and, after Ireland’s three victories in a row in the mid-1990s, provided the plot engine for one of the best-known episodes of Father Ted). As financial constraints on public broadcasters have increased yet the number of broadcasters interested in participation has grown, Eurovision organisers are increasingly facing a stark choice: a premium contest with few entrants, or a cheaper contest with more? It’s a decision that needs to be consciously made if the Eurovision concept isn’t to fall apart.
There are strong practical reasons, then, for Österdahl’s reorientation of the purpose. Yet at the same time, rejecting the emphasis on promoting the nation itself gives a certain impression of the nation: that it’s a country where overt, state-stimulated nation-branding isn’t necessary. In short, perhaps, that Sweden isn’t Russia, or (another potential headache for the Eurovision organisers) Belarus. Or Azerbaijan. Especially not that.
The importance of not being Azerbaijan
In 2012, when Sweden won Eurovision in Azerbaijan, it would have been hard to find two more opposed approaches to the relationship between the media, the state and the public within the Eurovision area. The Swedish representative, Loreen, was the only Eurovision contestant to have visited human rights activists in Baku during the rehearsal period, and commented: ‘These are people who have been through a lot and they should get to tell their stories [...] It will be the other side of the front that is being shown. It is a strong front, it is as beautiful as anything, but what happens in the cracks?’
İctimai Televiziya’s staging of the contest in Baku was about magnificence, the conspicuous consumption of energy and space. For a brief moment during the final, however, SVT managed to subvert the grandeur by having the Swedish votes read out by Sarah Dawn Finer’s comedy character Lynda Woodruff – a stereotypical ‘little Englander’ who has somehow become a European Broadcasting Union official despite not wanting to know anything about Europe, least of all (as the presenters would find out) how to pronounce ‘Azerbaijan’.
Distancing SVT’s organisation of Eurovision from the self-promotion of an authoritarian regime is perhaps only to be expected. Several moments in the run-up to this year’s contest would have been highly unlikely , to say the least, last year in Baku: the local police explicitly informing visiting delegations that Sweden permits the right to demonstrate, or the moderator of an official press conference challenging the representative from Belarus about her home government’s attitude to freedom of expression.
Yet the very lack of overt branding around one central narrative is a branding statement, and one that Sweden is uniquely skilled at putting across. Democracy and plurality are core values in Sweden’s highly successful strategy of promoting the nation through social media, where since 2011 an assortment of Swedish residents have been adding their perspectives to a multi-layered depiction of Sweden through the world’s most-followed ‘rotation curation’ Twitter account. The @sweden phenomenon presents the nation as the sum of many individualistic and often contradictory voices; its organisers have kept faith even when curators have taken the account into what many communications officers would regard as high-risk territory, such as commenting on Sweden’s attempts to extradite Julian Assange (different curators have spoken both for and against) or Sonja Abrahamsson’s decidedly off-message comments about Jews.
A recent study by Christian Christensen (£) suggests there are limits to the image of diversity that @sweden puts forward. Curators must already have access to the internet, be active Twitter users and be able to post in English; they must then be nominated by a third party and approved by the Curators of Sweden panel. A copy of the @sweden guidelines Christensen has obtained suggest to him that the project encourages – even if it does not always get – ‘polite, nonaggressive, nonpolitical, uncontroversial views which help to give a certain image of Sweden’ (p. 42). For Christensen, @sweden is in fact ‘an illuminating example of the carefully planned and managed promotion and nation-branding of Sweden, presented under the guise of a “transparent” and “democratic” selection and editorial processes’ (p. 31). Nation-branding, then, would not be so absent from Swedish values after all, even though in comparison to Azerbaijan, Russia or Belarus it would be manifested in a very different way.
Crisis? What crisis?
Malmo 2013′s proclamation that ‘we are one’ addresses a continent where the concept of Europe as a ‘shared project’ reaching ‘millions of people’ appears even more tattered than it did twelve months ago when Sweden won the right to host. Reactions in the German media to the southern European bank bailouts have re-activated stereotypes of Mediterranean ‘laziness’ and ‘indolence’; the mid-2000s utopianism of EU enlargement – which reached its high point in 2004, the same year that Eurovision added a semi-final to accommodate all interested participants, including the growing number from eastern Europe – has stalled and is at risk of being rolled back; the idea of leaving the EU has accelerated into mainstream public discourse in the UK so quickly that resident EU citizens now sense rights they had taken for granted coming under attack. Eurovision as a technical organisation is distinct from the EU as a political institution, but has drawn from a common reservoir of language about unity and integration in order to make its flagship annual event make sense.
Altering the scale of the Eurovision Song Contest to celebrate diversity on the grounds that ‘we are one’ might seem like an attempt to ‘invent’ a tradition in Eric Hobsbawm’s sense – that new traditions are invented to ‘establish continuity with a suitable historic past’, when in fact there has been severe rupture between then and now. At the same time, however, Eurovision has been living with the political and economic impact of the financial crisis on Europe for some years, and what television viewers see represented during the songs themselves may not be all too different from previous years: while I was writing this post, a photo caption posted by the BBC Eurovision page on Facebook promised that tonight’s semi-final would contain ‘[a] real life giant, glitterball spaceships, topless bodhrán-wielding drummers and a dress that bursts into flames’ (this last does so at approximately two minutes into the song by Aliona Moon, with unfortunate overtones of one of Katniss Everdeen’s entrances during The Hunger Games).
Whether next year’s Eurovision develops the Malmo approach, repeats the Baku model or hovers somewhere in between will depend on which country’s entry wins on Saturday, the political relationship of its broadcaster with the state, the priorities of its government, and the amount of money the broadcaster, host city and country is prepared to commit or borrow in order to realise its plan – a level of uncertainty which is ironed out of any other mega-event where hosting rights are awarded years in advance. For the European Broadcasting Union, and for millions of viewers, the chief concern is likely to be continuity: does anything more need to be changed to ensure the sustainability of Eurovision, year on year?
It’s a wonder that nobody so far has been discussing legacy…
The end of my last ‘Nationalism and Intervention in Former Yugoslavia’ seminar on Wednesday meant that I’m not going to be teaching again until the autumn. (I can’t quite say that I won’t be ‘in the classroom’ again until then, as there’s a round of presentations for another module to be assessed before that.) This doesn’t mean that teaching goes to the back of my mind for the next few months, then; far from it. There’s another new module to launch (on nations and nationalism in the contemporary world), and the former Yugoslavia module is being extended into a two-semester Special Subject, which has been on my mind more and more as the shorter version has been coming to an end.
Reflecting on my classes has been a very different experience this year because I’ve known that they’ll be running in some shape or form again next time. Now, thinking through what worked and what didn’t isn’t just about assessing my personal effectiveness as a teacher, but also part of planning for the next cycle: what worked well, and what can’t I face ever basing a discussion around again? What activities really brought home the underlying themes of the session and what discussion questions just need to be taken outside and put out of their misery? What ideas did students unexpectedly bring up that would be good to add to the content so that future students can benefit from their insights too? Why did a certain fresh new topic in the literature spark no student interest at all? What new research has come out in the last year that I’d like to incorporate into the module, and will it change any of the activities I’m carrying over?
(For instance, at the top of my to-be-read pile in the office is Hariz Halilovich’s Places of Pain: Popular Memory and Trans-Local Identities in Bosnian War-Torn Communities, which has been very well-received in south-east European studies since it came out last year. I’ve already seen that it includes a chapter on the aftermath of ethnic cleansing in Prijedor, which would give extra context to a document exercise we used this year based on the Hague Tribunal testimony of Minka Čehajić, a woman whose husband was disappeared after Bosnian Serb forces took over Prijedor in 1992: will reading Halilovich change what I want the outcomes of that activity to be?)
It’s only recently that I’ve been able to think about modules in cyclical terms like this. Long-term thinking is a luxury of stable employment: before this year, I’d never taught on a module and known that I’d be doing it again next year. (The ‘Yugoslav wars of the 1990s’ module that I designed at Southampton did run twice, but I didn’t know that was going to happen when I taught the first iteration.) As a short-term impact, this ability to plan means that sessions that don’t go well are less upsetting , since I can at least use them as a starting point for planning what to do differently next time. Moreover, there’s the reduction in stress that has come from knowing where and how I can expect to be working and living next year, and from not having to devote an extra day per week to job applications on top of whatever my current work demands; it’s only now that I can recognise how much these kinds of uncertainty affected my teaching quality in 2010-11.
Once the next month of marking is out of the way, then, my teaching focus will be on turning the current ‘former Yugoslavia’ module into a Special Subject. ‘Specials’ are a type of advanced module for final-year history undergraduates (the North American equivalent would be what’s known as a capstone course or senior seminar). Unlike most modules, they run over both semesters of the teaching year, and at Hull a student on a Special Subject will also write their dissertation on a linked topic of their choice that the module tutor is able to supervise. Firstly, then, the new module will be twice as long, and its natural break points will fall differently; secondly, the activities with first-hand sources need to be even more in-depth and extensive, so that students are ready to write a 10,000-word dissertation of their own.
Why study the 1990s three times?
The existing ‘former Yugoslavia’ module has an unusual structure. Knowing that it would take place in semester 2, and realising that the title concepts, ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Intervention’, lend themselves to a ‘part 1′ and ‘part 2′, I planned the first section on the politics and society of former Yugoslavia throughout the 20th century to last up until the Easter break, and the second section on foreign intervention and (former) Yugoslavia to kick in after Easter. Although I’ve used ‘intervention’ in the title, this second part actually concerns foreign contacts with the region in a much wider sense – military, humanitarian and diplomatic intervention, but also other less collective forms of travel, enabling me to bring in the literature on travel writing and ‘imagining the Balkans’ that has been so influential in the historiography.
This means that students go over the 20th-century chronology twice. I haven’t done this before, and when I started the module I was anxious over whether it would work or whether it was just innovation for innovation’s sake. There’s a good reason for it, though: the post-Yugoslav wars in the 1990s have naturally had a huge impact on how researchers write about the region, even when their own focus is an earlier moment in time. The 1990s wars, and the Yugoslav background as a whole, are complex settings that students are unlikely to have studied before. If the module wasn’t going to cover the 1990s until April, how well would students be able to integrate them into their ‘scaffolding’ of what they know about the subject matter? Even though they come last chronologically, the conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are still ‘threshold concepts’ that belong at an early point in the module – not at the end of the module when I want students to be synthesising the main points of a semester’s worth of learning.
And so we’ve ended up approaching the 1990s three times, to make sure that the threshold does get crossed. The introductory week to this module gives a sense of the main themes of the historiography, with strong signals from me that they’ll be able to understand it in more depth as they go on. The key readings for seminar discussion are a chapter from Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia about an early stage of the Croatian war of independence in Krajina and a chapter of V. P. Gagnon, Jr’s The Myth of Ethnic War on Croat/Serb relations – two authors who conceive of ethno-nationalist conflict in very different terms. (I could push the contrast further by switching Glenny out for a chapter of Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, but I’d rather use Kaplan in a ‘Balkanism’ seminar, all things considered.) Awareness of these two perspectives helps students fit later readings into the ‘ethnic war’ debate, and the example of Krajina, or Gagnon’s work, have both recurred in later seminars – evidence that this first week has had some effect.
Then the pre-Easter and post-Easter blocks each finish with the 1990s and their aftermath. Maybe I was never going to be satisfied with my 1990s coverage in a one-semester module – after all, I’ve taught an entire module about the 1990s in the past – but throughout the end of the first block, I was conscious of how much I was leaving out. The Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo conflicts need to be handled separately for their specificities to be appreciated, and B-H has got referred to in seminars much more than either of the others, no doubt partly because that week’s document exercise concerned a Bosnian town. The final session of the block, rounding up literature on the socio-cultural effects of the war, also pulled in two very different directions; I’d have liked to have one seminar for both topics that emerged, but this has implications for the timetable in an option that has two seminar groups.
Spreading the module over two semesters will let me expand the obvious ‘problem’ topics. Croatia, B-H and Kosovo in the 1990s can all have a week to themselves, and the moment in the ‘intervention’ block where I did have two different topics for the seminars (one on the Hague Tribunal and one on motivations for foreign intervention in the 90s) can give each topic its full weight without students needing to attend two different seminars if they want to engage with them both.
My experience with the final week of this module – another experiment – has also been encouraging and is giving me ideas for things that I can do next year. There isn’t a final exam, because the module is assessed by two different types of essays (one focused on a topic from a particular period and session, and one ‘synoptic’ essay where students must pursue a particular theme across the full sweep of the c20 – this avoids ‘cherry-picking’ a favourite period within the module). The traditional end-of-module revision session, then, would be a waste of time. Instead, I asked students to read one of a selection of theoretical or comparative articles that make a significant contribution about one of the concepts we often explore during the module but that aren’t primarily about former Yugoslavia: in seminar discussion they had to summarise its main points to students who hadn’t read it and offer suggestions for how the article’s findings might apply to (or sometimes, not be relevant to) the former Yugoslav case. I offered a selection of eight articles, all of which had some relation to one or more of the synoptic topics, and trailed the session as an exercise in lateral thinking that would help students identify ideas they could develop further in their synoptic essays.
This ‘breakout’ session is the one that most worried me before I delivered it, especially as attendance had dropped in the previous couple of weeks: would anyone come? And would they see the point? As it happened, attendance was better than it had been for several weeks, and everyone had something to say about their chosen article – for instance, being able to relate Rogers Brubaker’s argument in his ‘Ethnicity without groups’ article (pdf) to Gagnon’s constructivist perspective on the idea of ‘ethnic war’.
A brief run-through of how it looked this time
- Week 1: introduction to the historiography
- Week 2: Yugoslav unification and the politics of the first Yugoslavia
- Week 3: the Second World War and establishment of Communist power
- Week 4: Tito’s Yugoslavia, including the new ‘socialist consumerism’ research (documents: three Yugoslav pop songs)
- Week 5: the constitutional and economic crisis, 1980-91 (document: the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences memorandum)
- Week 6: the wars in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo (document: the Minka Čehajić testimony)
- Week 7: the socio-cultural impact of the conflicts
- Week 8: foreign contacts with the Balkans up to 1919 (document: a chapter of Edith Durham’s Twenty Years of Balkan Tangle)
- Week 9: foreign intervention during the Second World War and early Cold War (document: extract from Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches)
- Week 10: foreign intervention in the 1990s, part 1 (one workshop on the Hague Tribunal using tribunal statistics and defendants’ ‘statement of guilt’, with thanks to Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik who designed the exercise; another seminar comparing a Douglas Hurd speech on Bosnia from 1992 and Tony Blair’s Chicago speech on the Kosovo War)
- Week 11: foreign intervention in the 1990s, part 2 (looking at the ‘on-the-ground’ aspects of intervention, including the success or otherwise of peacekeeping; I’d have liked to use a peacekeeper memoir here, but didn’t have the right ones in the library yet)
- Week 12: theoretical/comparative ‘breakout’
And now what?
My experience with the final week of this module gives me confidence in using that material in the Special Subject. I could include a week on competing academic approaches to nationalism, cover the idea of ‘Balkanism’ and its relationship to ‘Orientalism’ in more depth, or look at the so-called ‘liberal peace’ in a wider context than we were able to do this time. But then I also need to create space for ‘sources and methods’ work to support the dissertation, and to work out where this would be best placed in order for students to be prepared for what they need to do.
Showing that dissertations on the module topic were feasible was an important part of justifying a module on this topic at this level, especially since the Special Subject and dissertation supervision are linked (which isn’t the case everywhere). I’m not in a language-based area studies department, so there need to be enough primary sources available in English to make a good range of dissertation topics feasible. The sources also need to be accessible from Hull: I don’t want to design a module theme that forces students to travel to London archives if they want to do well, since it would be an unfair requirement to impose.These considerations, plus the fact that I’ve researched international intervention in Bosnia, were why I designed the module from the outset around the foreign intervention aspect as well as the internal history of Yugoslavia: it makes a much wider range of English-language sources relevant, as well as tying one of the most important developments in post-Cold War south-east European studies (the ‘Balkanism’ debate) into the module.
Luckily, digitised document collections make the possibilities for non-London-dependent student research much greater than they would have been when I was an undergraduate: besides digital access to records of UK and US parliamentary debates, the Hague Tribunal has placed transcripts of its hearings online; the Open Society Archives have digitised thousands of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty situation reports; there are the declassified documents from the CIA; through JISC, we have access to the US Foreign Broadcasts Information Service and – something I’m particularly excited about – the JISC MediaHub, with relevant news footage from sources including Gaumont, ITN, Channel 4 News and Reuters; there’s a large video archive of oral history interviews about the siege of Sarajevo, which I need to have a look at; Project Gutenberg‘s collection of out-of-US-copyright works helps with access to travel writing and memoirs from the 1920s and earlier; on the off-chance a student wanted to explore the historiography around music and politics in former Yugoslavia (one of my own research areas), there’d even be my own collection of 300+ lyrics in translation – if I can ever improve the usability. Our university library turned out to have a surprising number of Yugoslav pamphlets from the Tito era translated into English, I have enough in my library budget to substantially increase its collection of memoirs, and the Hull History Centre has papers belonging to British socialists who were interested in Tito’s Yugoslavia which could provide a basis for dissertations on Yugoslav Communism and the British Left. All of these need methodological support, advice on search strategies, and opportunities for practice if students are going to be able to use them in a historically informed way.
Planning the week-by-week shape of the module and then fleshing the weeks out with their key readings and primary documents is going to be my main task once marking has finished, and I’m looking forward to it – even though I’m already conscious of how much will still have to be left out…
It isn’t every day you see a pin-up photo of the young Stalin in his swimming trunks. Nevertheless, that’s what the creator of the Cosmarxpolitan tumblr has mocked up in the centre of what’s become the most widely-shared image from the blog, with its strapline ‘Stalin strips down: we bet you’ve never seen him like THIS!’: a collection of fake magazine covers that imagine how a publication like Cosmopolitan might look if it talked about Marxist ideology with the same language it uses to talk about diets, fashion and sex.
Among the absurd (‘Your va-jay-jay called! It wants to talk about anarcho-syndicalism’) and the chilling (’8 steps to make extra pounds (and enemies) disappear!’), there’s sometimes a grain of truth. The idea of using the format of a magazine directed at women to communicate Communist ideology amongst features on the lives that women led or might aspire to isn’t as far-fetched as a glance at contemporary women’s magazines might suggest; on the contrary, women’s magazines in state socialist societies including the USSR and Yugoslavia were an important medium for communicating ideologically-driven ideas of what the new socialist woman was supposed to be.
Even before the Russian Revolution, women workers had been one of the social groups on whom the Bolsheviks focused their attention. The growing number of female factory workers in Russia – 584,000 by 1907 – were a group the Bolsheviks strove to address from 1913-14 onwards, reversing their early disinterest in ‘the woman question’ within Marxism. Decisive in this strategic shift was the theoretical writing of Alexandra Kollontai, the most prominent female Bolshevik activist, whose 1909 pamphlet The Social Bases of the Woman Question helped to convince Lenin that organising among women workers should be a priority. In 1914, a group of Bolshevik women including Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaya founded the magazine Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker) to support their agitation; in 1917 it was placed under the control of the Zhenotdel, the Bolsheviks’ committee for women, with input from Kollontai, and would remain in print throughout and even after the lifetime of Soviet Communism.
Rabotnitsa and similar magazines, including the sister publication Krest’ianka (Peasant Woman) aimed at women in agriculture, have become important sources for historians interested in Communist policy towards women and in women’s experiences during the Revolution or under Soviet Communism. The women’s press urged Soviet women ‘to think of themselves, their work, and their family responsibilities in terms of the larger goal of building socialism’ (Bucher 2000: 137, £); it exposed, but did not overturn, the ‘double burden’ in which women were an integral part of the Soviet workforce yet had not been liberated from domestic care. The utopian post-revolutionary visions of the Zhenotdel in which childcare and cookery might be managed on an entirely communal basis never came about, and Kollontai herself became marginalised within the Party in 1923 for reasons that seem to have included her writings on women’s sexuality.
As the Party’s demands on the Soviet people changed, so did the content of its women’s magazines. Stalin’s preparations for total war required the mobilisation of ‘all elements of the population, even those not typically thought of by military planners, and that included Soviet women’ (Rowley 2008: 54, £); women’s magazines, alongside other media such as films and postcards, popularised the figure of the female aviator, and a new magazine Obshchestvennitsa (Socially-Active Woman), launched in 1936, frequently ran articles on women preparing for military defence. With the outbreak of war, many thousands of women were mobilised to fill these roles for real, including but not limited to the celebrated female fighter pilots of the USSR.
Women’s magazines under Khrushchev served a different but no less ideological purpose: to communicate promises of increased consumption and better living through technology, a sign that the mistakes of Stalinism were a thing of the past. A 1954 issue of Sovetskaia zhenshchina (Soviet Woman) informed its readers about the machines that would eventually free them from ‘women’s domestic labour’, a promise that Khrushchev himself would make in speeches later in the decade (Reid 2002, £). Simultaneously, the press urged women to put every effort into a feminine appearance, including the use of perfumes that were now supposed to be reliably available thanks to the Party’s development of the chemical industry under the Seven-Year Plan. The ‘double burden’ of this version of the new socialist woman was greater yet: as Susan Reid observes, ‘this was not instead of, but in addition to the requirement that women play an active role in production and public life’ (Reid 2002: 232).
Khrushchev’s promises towards women were not fulfilled. By the 1980s, the pages of Rabotnitsa – now with a print run of 24 million – and Krest’ianka were still filled with women’s difficulties at home and at work, such as this letter written to Rabotnitsa by one N. Sharkova in 1989:
I have five children to feed. We live in an apartment with a wood stove. Firewood is a problem. You can only buy it from speculators, who ask 70 to 100 rubles for a carload. I receive 60 rubles (12 rubles for each child) from the family assistance program and a 50 ruble allowance to care for my youngest. If I buy the fuel, how can I feed five mouths? Winter is coming – I will freeze together with my children. (Hyer 1989: 15)
After the collapse of the Communist Party, mass-circulation women’s magazines lost their ideological function. Though Rabotnitsa continued to be published, its circulation had dropped to 228,000 by 2001 and was sold on a subscription-only basis; the space it had once occupied had been filled by franchises of Western magazines such as Elle and Cosmopolitan itself, which arrived in Russia in 1994-96.
Post-socialist women’s magazines depicted women as hyper-commercialised consumers, romantic partners and businesswomen who at the same time exerted power in the market and devoted themselves to cultivating feminine beauty. The Communist magazines were quite literally of a different era, as suggested in this interview with a Russian Elle reader by the anthropologist Olga Kalacheva:
I regularly read ELLE. I believe that it is one of the quality magazines. I always buy it when I go shopping for new clothes or cosmetics. There is enough information there about commodities and shops where the cosmetics are sold. COSMOPOLITAN I read also. But not so often. I never buy it. I read it only if I can borrow it from a friend. I think I have grown out of COSMO.
Interviewer: What about Rabotnitsa?
(Laughing) It used to be my favorite magazine when I was a teenager. Yes, it really was. But I haven’t seen it for about ten years. I am not sure that it sells now. (Kalacheva 2002: 77)
Women’s activism in post-socialist countries cannot be understood without keeping in mind this public discrediting of the ‘socialist woman’ and the ideology behind it, as Agata Pyzik and Mariya Petkova have pointed out in their articles on the naked protests of Femen.
In socialist societies outside the Soviet bloc, meanwhile, magazines aimed at women and girls had also had an ideological part to play. The quickly-modernising Yugoslavia, which had been ejected from the Cominform in 1948 and subsequently elaborated an alternative Marxism-Leninism distinct from Stalinism and the Warsaw Pact, accommodated consumerism in a more sustained way than the post-Stalinist USSR and with more success in delivering consumer goods at least to the urban population. Women’s magazines such as Svijet (World) reported on the glamorous lives of Yugoslav and foreign celebrities, but also on the everyday realities of Yugoslav working women, and with a vision of celebrity where Marxist theorists might coexist with Elizabeth Taylor or John Wayne:
[An] interview with Marcuse – of whom Svijet reported that the young anarchists of the 1968 generation were proclaiming the slogan ‘Marx is our prophet, Marcuse is his interpreter, and Mao is his sword’ – ran as part of the magazine’s regular series titled ‘Conversations with the Stars’, although here at least both the journalist and Marcuse himself acknowledged that the notion that this particular political philosopher had now become a ‘star’ was more than a little discomfiting. (Patterson 2011: 176, £)
Determining how far the regime should acquiesce in market culture before it would lead to Yugoslav consumers detaching from participation in socialist society would be a constant difficulty for Yugoslav Communists, and the Yugoslav fashion and advertising industries existed in an uneasy balance between the two. The feminist Maca Jogan attacked advertising in a 1980s article for a Slovenian sociological journal:
In the advertising messages of consumerist capitalist society, there prevails a model of woman stripped of most human qualities, that is, a beautiful puppet, a being of sexual passions, something enchanting and something that can be dominated, and interesting to society as a stimulator of consumerism and as a direct participant in consumption [...] It seems that this example, like others, is also progressive, and that our obligation is simply to model and adapt ourselves to the most developed countries and, at the same time, to dismiss everything that does not carry the label ‘made in the good Free World’. (Patterson 2011: 227-28)
Yet Patterson observes that this view coexisted with ‘interpretations that defended and even celebrated women’s activities in the marketplace’:
Amplifying an image that would be sustained in the country’s market culture and the popular media from the 1960s on, the cultural commentary of women’s magazines often proceeded in this register, offering up a vision of the modern Jugoslovenka [Yugoslav woman] as a talented shopper who recognized (and demanded) quality and, in the process, maximized value for herself and her family. Across the country, in widely circulated periodicals such as Svijet, Naša žena [Our Woman], and Jana, this sort of representation was standard fare. (Patterson 2011: 228)
Magazines for teenage girls, too, existed in this contradictory ideological space. The anthropologist Reana Senjković’s most recent book, Izgubljeno u prijenosu: pop iskustvo soc kulture (Lost in Translation: the Pop Experience of Soc Culture, 2008) is a study of the girls’ magazine Tina, which was published in Zagreb between 1971 and 1976. Senjković’s research provides the data for a broader theoretical project of assessing how far the conclusions of Angela McRobbie, who famously studied the British teen magazine Jackie, could be applied to socialist Yugoslavia. (The book itself is one of a frustratingly large number of cultural studies books from post-Yugoslav countries that haven’t been translated into English, restricting the audiences I can discuss them with, though an English summary recently appeared as an article (£) in International Journal of Cultural Studies.)
The Zagreb Tina had been franchised from a British magazine of the same name that was first published in 1967 and intended for foreign syndication, with comic strips, horoscopes and quizzes that could be translated into many languages. Significantly, however, Senjković finds that Tina ‘started to depart from its model’, and that its sales and popularity increased as it became more reflective of specifically Yugoslav situations. Tina, like McRobbie’s Jackie, gave fashion and beauty tips to its adolescent readers and counselled them on the personal problems readers submitted to its agony column. Both magazines advised their readers to be patient with their parents and boyfriends and do well in school. In Tina, however, ‘[t]he advice to have the necessary patience applied unless the girls were faced with a situation that would contradict the basic principle of survival of the Yugoslav socialist community’, such as when a girl had been forbidden to talk to a boy she liked in her apartment block because his ethnicity was Hungarian:
In a community like our Yugoslav community, where the principle of brotherhood and unity are the basic and most important social tenets, ethnic difference should certainly pose no obstacle to close and friendly relations between people. (Senjković 2011: 488)
Explicitly ideological material, such as reports from youth brigades’ work actions or interviews with female Partisans who had fought with Tito during the Second World War, was included in Tina but ‘relatively infrequently, typically only on special occasions’ (Senjković 2011: 489): most likely one or other of the Yugoslav commemorative days, when popular culture in general would be put to the end of praising Tito and celebrating Yugoslav ‘brotherhood and unity’.
The combination of women’s magazines and Marxism, then, isn’t as absurd as it might seem. There’s no way of knowing whether the anonymous author of Cosmarxpolitan knows about or might even have seen Rabotnitsa or its equivalents from other states, but behind its surrealism there’s a fascinating history of ideology, activism and consumption.
We bet you’ve never seen Marcuse like THIS…?
Every researcher collects more data than they know what to do with, especially during a PhD, and especially if they’re the sort of person who never throws anything away. In my case, it was thousands of articles to do with music and entertainment from the Croatian press between 1990 and 2007 – which occasionally resurface when I search my hard drive and make me realise how much more there is that I didn’t use in my PhD and book – but also hundreds of Croatian song lyrics, mainly to do with national and regional identity, some of which have been hanging around ever since my Masters dissertation in 2004.
I’ve never really known what to do with these. Some extracts made it into the PhD thesis, got taken out again for the still-almost-over-its-contractual-length book, and got reinserted for the translated version, where they wouldn’t affect the word count so badly. But mostly, they’ve just been knocking about.
When I started creating my own content for a module on ‘music and resistance’ at Southampton (the origin of my deciding to develop a module called ‘Music, Politics and Violence’ at Hull), I assembled and translated a smaller set of lyrics, this time mainly from Serbia and Bosnia, for use in two of the sessions I was introducing. Some of these have carried over into Music, Politics and Violence, plus some of the material from Croatia. Even so, I still have an awful lot of material just knocking about.
For some time I’ve been wondering about making the whole lot available as a resource. What pushed this up the agenda was a lecture visit I made to Munich and Halle last month (expertly organised by Isabel Ströhle at Munich and Eckehard Pistrick at Halle, with support from the Schroubek Fonds östliches Europa), to give two talks on music and ethnopolitical conflict. In Munich I was talking to an audience of students, researchers and members of the public interested in south-east European culture and politics, whereas in Halle my talk had been fitted into the programme of an ethnomusicology module on south-east Europe. Hearing what the rest of the module had covered made me look again at these collected songs and think about how I could present it in a way that would be useful to other people who teach about or study these matters, as well as myself and my own students.
I don’t have experience of creating databases or hosting sites, so as a pilot project this month I decided to set up a WordPress.com site for the collection using whatever searching and browsing tools could be built into it. Each song is presented on a separate WordPress post, with a video embedded from YouTube, a note about the year of the song and the source of the video, its original lyrics, and a translation. At this stage there are approximately 300 songs in the collection, although the sample is still full of gaps and couldn’t be described as systematic in any way. The site is also accompanied with a bibliography (also incomplete…) and an index of topics, which compensates for some – but perhaps not many – of the limitations that using a blog structure rather than a database structure has imposed.
What I suppose I had in mind was something like an online version of James von Geldern and Richard Stites’s anthology Mass Culture in Soviet Russia. This makes it possible to incorporate popular-culture sources from Lenin’s/Stalin’s Soviet Union into teaching where neither the tutor nor the students necessarily know the original language (for instance, I’ve been able to provide lyrics to a terribly popular 1920s pop song about workers’ control of the brick factory, which I can then use as one of the examples in a lecture on music and the USSR).
I soft-launched the site, Music and Politics in South-East Europe, yesterday by posting about it on Facebook, where I’m connected to dozens of other people who teach in the same field, and asked for feedback. If you’re somebody who might use this material in teaching, might be or have been in a class that could use it, or are any other kind of user who might find the site useful, I’d be grateful for your feedback too: the site is still very much in a test phase (although realistically there are some problems that I may not be able to fix, at least not without re-hosting and re-designing the site, which is beyond my capacity as things stand).
There are many limitations I’m already aware of:
- The test version of the site contains no contextual information (e.g. on the background of musicians, on political and historical allusions in the lyrics, and so on). In my own teaching, this would be provided through other material; I still need to know what contextual information others would need for it to be useful to them.
- Limitations in regional coverage. There’s no reason why the site couldn’t expand to cover south-east Europe more generally, but I can only translate from Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, Serbian and Serbo-Croat. (They’re mutually intelligible, so that’s less impressive than it sounds.) Even as former Yugoslavia goes, there’s next to no coverage of Slovenia, Macedonia or Albanian-language music from Kosovo within the collection, and there’s also very little on Montenegro. Material from Croatia and/or relating to my own research interests is over-represented. With extra contributors, this could be changed, and I hope it will be, but the deeper structural problems of the site need resolving first.
- Limitations in coverage of content. This relates to the non-systematic way in which I was stocking up initial content to get it ready for testing. In particular, there’s not enough hip hop as there needs to be, for the pragmatic reason that the texts are longer and my focus last week was on broadening the range of the collection so that I could get a better feel for how the navigation could work. There’s also not enough coverage of material in dialect as there should be (to do this properly, I’d need dictionaries that I don’t have).
- I don’t have exact dates for many of the songs. The dating is much better with the Croatia material (where sometimes I even know the release day) than the rest of it. There are a number of songs from the Bosnian War that I can’t as yet find precise origin years for at all.
- Consistency of translation seems good to my eye, but then that’s my eye. Others will probably spot inconsistencies or even errors.
- Attrition of videos will be a problem over time. Sometimes users close their accounts; more often, YouTube closes them for them after copyright complaints. I’ve tried to provide official video sources or videos from channels that have been around and stable for several years wherever possible, but this is still going to be a risk. This in itself probably means the site wouldn’t be a fundable project, which means that I couldn’t for instance hire a research assistant to expand the collection into other languages, and I don’t want to develop this further if it would only be feasible through unpaid labour.
- There are difficulties with search. Many south-east European words and names contain diacritical marks, so the site is full of these. The sidebar search box only works if the right diacriticals are typed in, and users may not know how to or be able to do this. This becomes an obstacle to looking up many places and personal names.
- It would be nice to add custom text to the search box widget to remind people of this, and perhaps even provide buttons they can click to enter a diacritical character, but I can’t.
- The site architecture is fundamentally that of a blog, not a database (which I wouldn’t have been able to create on my own). It’s not possible, for instance, to create advanced search options that would depend on querying a database, and on each post having suitable metadata. If you want to see ‘all songs that mention Kosovo and came out in 1999′, a database would be able to show you; this architecture can’t.
- Content instead has to be organised through tags. Each post has a number of tags for themes, references, artists, years, places (place tags combine place of origin and place discussed – this may cause confusion). Clicking on a tag brings up a page of all posts tagged with that tag, in reverse chronological order. The problem is that these lists can’t be sorted, so a significant source that went into the collection early will be at the bottom of the list, and something more marginal will be on top. This currently worst affects the ‘Croatia’ tag, which has more than 150 items, but would get worse with other tags as the database scaled up.
- WordPress’s default settings cause some problems. The header image is currently WordPress stock and needs replacing with something original. (It does vaguely resemble a south-east European river or lake, but probably isn’t one.) Also, the ‘older posts’ link at the bottom of the front page is currently infinite-scrolling rather than loading a separate ‘page 2′. I turned infinite scrolling off on the morning of the launch, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. This is a problem because eventually the page it generates becomes unmanageable.
And there must be more things I don’t know about. Have a go with it. Think of something you could do with it. See if you can do it. If not, tell me about it (leave a comment here or email catherine.baker at hull.ac.uk). I don’t know if everything is fixable, but I still want to see where this could go.
This blog hit a small milestone in January: the first time it received more than 1,000 visits in a month. Compared to much more frequent bloggers, institutional group blogs, or bloggers on the platform of a publication with its own audience, that doesn’t account for very much, but for an individual blog that still contains only thirty posts I’m still quite happy with it.
A lot of the hits this month came from a post on feminism and academic language that I wrote during the Suzanne Moore/Julie Burchill transphobia controversy. I’ve never had a post be shared so widely or for so long as this was, even though the posting time (early evening on a Sunday) broke all the rules I generally go by about the optimum time for posting blogs so that they get read (lunchtime or early afternoon on a weekday, with a follow-up on Twitter to catch evening and transatlantic readers).
This post had 400 readers in its first two days, was shared on some blogs and forums that I’d never heard of as well as by more Twitter followers than any other post of mine, and can still bring in a ‘long tail’ of 10-20 users on one day or another. It almost broke my record for hits in a day, and might have done if I’d posted it earlier. That record (353) still belongs to my post on the Olympic opening ceremony, which I wrote the very next morning and which benefited from lots of internet searches for elements of the ceremony from people trying to work out just what had been going on. The blog had 982 visits in July 2012, a record until last month. More interestingly, something started happening in July that has led to a long-term increase in reader and visitor numbers: before July 2012, I’d only had one month when the blog had had more than 500 hits (May 2012, when I’d written a series of posts on the politics of the Eurovision Song Contest), whereas since July 2012 every single month has had 600 hits (all right, 591) or up.
Maybe my Olympics posts in July brought in an audience who hadn’t been reading about cultural politics, languages and the military, or teaching practice, but who stayed around. (I did have a big bounce in Twitter followers and retweets after the opening ceremony post.) Also, though, I think the responses I had to my blogging in July must have started altering my sense of what I could use a blog for. Many of my posts in the rest of 2012 were about aspects of British public memory, national identity and remembrance. I’ve never researched these in the sense of having written academic articles or research proposals about them, but I have a lot of experience writing about the same themes in another society, and blogging has made me feel as if I do have something interesting to say.
(I used the Olympic opening ceremony as the basis for a taster seminar on national identity and public events during an Excellence Hub event that we organised at Hull last year for local sixth-formers who are doing History A level. Afterwards, one of their teachers asked me whether this was something they could do a module on. And, well, I’m working on it…)
In the long term, this may even end up adding to my academic publication strategy, as well as the ways that I engage with people through other forms of communication. In the Research Excellence Framework (the national evaluation of university research in the UK), 20% of a department’s score is based on ‘impact‘, or ways in which research has changed or benefited the economy, society, culture, policy or quality of life, in sectors outside academia. To get credit for ‘impact’, there must be a demonstrable link between the effect achieved and an academic publication. It’s not enough to have talked generally about the Eurovision Song Contest, let’s say; I’d also have to demonstrate that a research article or book of mine on the Eurovision Song Contest had an identifiable, impact-y effect. (In this case, luckily, I have one, but I would still need evidence that somebody referred to it and it then inspired or altered their actions.) So if there are topics I have the potential to be influential on, I ought to make sure – at least for the purposes of this evaluation exercise – that I have a piece of academic research published about them too. I might not have identified some of these possibilities if not for blogging.
The Journal of Victorian Culture‘s online arm recently ran an excellent blog post by Naomi Lloyd-Jones on ‘how to be a #socialmediahistorian’. (I don’t research the Victorian era, but I consistently find JoVC‘s posts engaging, which is a sign they’re doing it well.) I can only agree with her conclusions about why historians and other researchers can find social media platforms so useful:
Being a #twitterstorian is a brilliant springboard for wider work as a #socialmediahistorian. And, in an era when ‘presence’ is about far more than just attendance at conferences, being a #socialmediahistorian is becoming increasingly vital in constructing a well-rounded persona, and visibility, for oneself.
An essay in Roland Barthes’s book Mythologies (1957), a landmark in the study of myths and symbols in Western industrial societies, uses the image of a black soldier in French military uniform saluting, probably towards the national tricolour, on the cover of Paris-Match. Barthes interpreted the image as signifying something of much more social and collective significance beyond the photograph of the individual man: ‘that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors’ (p. 115, 1972 trans.).
I was reminded of Barthes’s discussion of the black soldier’s photograph recently on reading a new book by Vron Ware, Military Migrants: Fighting for YOUR Country (2012), on the recruitment of thousands of Commonwealth soldiers, mostly people of colour, into the British military since 1998. Her book, which has much to say about British nationalism and war memory as well as the cultures of the military itself, begins with a vignette from 2010′s public commemoration of the Armistice Day silence in Trafalgar Square (a new commemorative ritual instituted by the Royal British Legion in 2006). At this ceremony, the end of the two minutes’ silence was signalled by a video reel containing images of politicians, celebrities and wounded soldiers. Among them was the Royal Marine Commando veteran Ram Patten, who had founded a fundraising march after being diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: ‘But for the vast majority, he was likely to be a symbolic figure performing another role [...] He appeared to be an ordinary serviceman doing his job, but he was also black’ (p. xiii).
Ware’s argument weaves together official understandings of British national identity in recent years – covering the defence reforms of the first New Labour government, the requirement on the military to fight wars of counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the drive for national ‘cohesion’ after the 7/7 bombings in 2005 – with an in-depth account of soldiers’ experiences through recruitment, selection and service. Governmental multiculturalism and the practices of equality and diversity management produced a demand that the composition of the military should reflect the ethnic balance of the country that it was supposed to defend. In practice, however, a significant amount of this visible diversity seems to have been provided by troops recruited from other countries in the Commonwealth, who became eligible to join the British military after a review of nationality issues for armed forces employment early in 1998.
Over the next ten years, until recruitment was curtailed by the 2008 financial crisis, the British Army would send dozens of Overseas Pre-Selection Teams to Commonwealth countries, concentrating on Fiji and the Caribbean. Soldiers’ motivations for joining up had much to do with their economic prospects at home and the opportunities to qualify in a trade during their Army contract, though a number found themselves re-routed to infantry regiments in need of extra troops before their foreign deployments – at a greater rate, Ware suggests, than UK recruits who had also expressed preferences for a different corps. Ware’s interviews and focus groups with soldiers from UK and Commonwealth backgrounds and a range of ranks explore how the military’s new diversity policies were implemented, or sometimes undermined, in practice – and how immigration policies coming from a different part of the state could seriously affect the lives of migrant soldiers and their families.
Reading the book, I rather wished Military Migrants had existed when I began working for the Languages at War project in 2008. During this project, I developed the interest in language intermediaries’ work which has since developed into a longer-term interest in the socio-economic impact of international intervention and peacebuilding, and also interviewed approximately 15 British soldiers about their experiences of language support during the UN/NATO peace operations in 1990s Bosnia. (Some of this material has appeared in my articles, and is rounded up in a new co-authored book, Interpreting the Peace.) There are several more research questions and interview questions we could have taken further with the help of this book.
Some of them relate to the military’s understandings of ‘culture’, which we did explore, particularly in the first edited volume that came out of the project, also called Languages at War. As Ware describes, the so-called ‘cultural turn’ in response to counter-insurgency turned ‘awareness’ of the culture of foreign populations into a military asset, supported through training exercises in simulated Iraqi/Afghan villages, through information cards and apps, and in the US case with the controversial incorporation of social scientists into military ‘human terrain’ teams:
Cultural knowledge was seen as something that could be learned and preferably kept in the pocket in the event of face-to-face encounters with local people. These measures were replicated in some of the NATO forces which began systematically to acquire linguistic and cultural expertise. (Ware, p. 117)
Language, in the words of a new article (£) by Vicente Rafael, was ‘weaponized’ in order to fulfil military objectives. There are precedents for this ‘cultural turn’ in the – initially rushed and improvised – training for troops deploying to Bosnia and Kosovo that several interviewees for Languages at War retold, and in the handbooks and phrase books developed by the Allies in preparation for the liberation of Western Europe in 1944, discussed in this (currently free) article by Hilary Footitt. ‘Heritage speakers’ – troops whose ethnic background has given them knowledge of languages required by the military (in this case Arabic, Pashtu and Dari) – have experienced even greater difficulties during the War on Terror than in previous operations, yet simultaneously have never been so valuable to their commanders.
Military Migrants, however, prompts me to ask more about ‘the concept of culture as something that had to be “managed”‘ (p. 114). I’d like now to have pursued it in more depth during my interviews with British soldiers. Was the concept as it manifested in the 2000s one of the ‘lessons learned’ through peacekeeping deployments in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo? Did it go back further still – perhaps, as Brendan Simms suggested in Unfinest Hour (2002), to the military’s explanation for the conflict in Northern Ireland – and structure the way in which the military made sense of ethnopolitics in the former Yugoslavia? Should I be looking to ‘the dubious theory of martial races’ (Ware, p. 121), that is, the colonial belief that certain groups such as the Gurkhas, the Zulus and the Ashanti had inherent racial characteristics that made them suitable as soldiers, as a direct antecedent of contemporary cultural essentialism in the military? Although I’ve discussed foreign understandings of ethnic identities in Bosnia in some depth during one chapter of Interpreting the Peace, I feel now I could have said more about the history of British military culture.
Military Migrants also makes me wish I had more data on hand about my own interviewees’ experiences of immigration procedures and border control. Ware achieves something that I also appreciated in Thomas Carter’s book In Foreign Fields: to ask what happens when we think about people such as sports professionals or soldiers as migrant workers, as well as thinking about the symbolic functions that the people in these occupational groups necessarily take on. ‘Foreign travel,’ she observes (p. 235), ‘is a basic premise of military work’ (a perspective I’ve tried to bear in mind when writing about soldiers’ interviews as the narratives of military travellers). In the case of Britain’s military migrants, the Ministry of Defence seems not to have thought through the visa implications that would arise when, for instance, non-UK soldiers were posted to Germany (where visits by a non-EU spouse would require a Schengen visa) or sent with a training team to a country with different entry regulations for citizens of their state. Tighter regulations for UK residency and citizenship caused the families of Commonwealth soldiers great anxiety. I didn’t ask systematically about migration experiences like these in my interviews, although sometimes they appeared (one Bosnian interpreter, visiting the UK as part of a group who were to participate in pre-deployment field exercises for soldiers, related problems at Heathrow because the MOD had not obtained the type of visa that the Home Office expected them to have). I’d like now to have asked much more about interpreters’ experiences and aspirations with migration and how far their jobs might have provided resources and contacts for settlement abroad.
The cuts to military recruitment after 2008 mean that the wave of Commonwealth recruitment may turn only into a statistical bulge, rather than an institutionalised practice on the scale and length of the recruitment of Gurkhas from Nepal. By the time Ware was interviewing successful recruits, the Overseas Pre-Selection Teams had already been wound down and potential recruits were now asked to travel to the UK for selection at their own risk. Military Migrants nonetheless illuminates a significant factor in contemporary British military history, and opens up new questions for thinking about the UK’s military past.
Like everyone else with half an interest in history or revolution, I seem to have been at the cinema this weekend watching Les Miserables. I have to say one incentive to get there early was to join in the conversations that the virtual communities I’m part of were having, while they were still going on: yes, with high-speed broadband we can access almost anything any time we want to, but there’s still an appealing simultaneity in discussing the same new and interesting thing at the same time, which social media amplifies.
Alongside the incisive reviews of Les Miserables and historical representation that I’ve been able to read, I originally wanted to write about it from the point of view of ways to incorporate music into teaching about history on film (my department has a module called Representing the Past in Film that I teach seminars for, so this is often in the forefront of my mind). When I started trying to interpret it, on the other hand, I found I couldn’t begin making sense of it except in relation to another historical musical, the 1996 version of Evita that came out when I was at school.
Evita made a huge impression on me when I was 14, and even this far on I find that I can still remember a shocking amount of the words. I didn’t even see Les Mis or have much of an idea what went on in it until I was 28 (maybe the problem was that it wasn’t about the French Revolution, which I studied in exhaustive and enjoyable detail at A level), but in many ways I suppose it could be described as the anti-Evita: two historical epics in stage musical form, written and produced at around the same time in different European countries, but structured very differently in terms of how they present power and justice, social action, and the function of the individual in history.
The film versions of both musicals contain significant public funeral scenes. The opening of Evita segues from the funeral of Eva Perón’s father in 1926, where her father’s wife throws Eva, her mother and siblings out of the ceremony, to her own state funeral in Buenos Aires in 1952. The funeral theme, which recurs as the film’s inevitable end, is a requiem of collective mourning and grandeur, accompanying images of a well-drilled, orderly parade and leading to a musical climax. As critical as other sections of the musical can be of Eva Perón’s power (expressed through the character of Ché, an abstraction originally supposed to have been based on Ché Guevara), the requiem asks the viewer to take pleasure in power and the acquisition of it, and in the taking of revenge against those who had previously excluded you.
Les Miserables‘ funeral is the funeral in Paris of General Lamarque, the leading critic of the re-installed French monarchy. In the musical, the group of revolutionary students led by Enjolras have chosen Lamarque’s death as the signal to begin their insurrection. The funeral parade and military march in this film is disrupted, when the students jump into the crowd; the climax is not delivered, and the funeral is instead a transition to raising the barricades, where the climax of the story arcs for several characters will come. Here, the viewer is being invited to feel their emotions about a struggle that is collective rather than individual, and that aims to cause change through challenging power rather than to take power in order to hold personally on to it. (As poorly-supported as the students’ insurrection may be, and as simplistic a depiction of revolution as it is.)
On a personal level, the two songs that appeal to me most from each musical – Another Suitcase In Another Hall from Evita, and On My Own from Les Miserables – are also, or rather can be made into, counterpoints of each other. Another Suitcase In Another Hall, sung by the young Evita on first moving to Buenos Aires, expresses temporary despair but with the hope, which becomes the expectation, of fulfilment. On My Own, sung by Eponine after she has seen proof that the person she loves is promised to another woman, is also about despair, but a statement of fantasy and denial without any chance of hopeful resolution. (Its arrangement works against its lyrics in an interesting way. If in the show-tune genre there’s triumph in the soaring climax, Eponine receives hers at the moment of acknowledging ‘All my life I’ve only been pretending [...] The world is full of happiness that I have never known’.)
As a viewer, I want Les Mis to be the anti-Evita, but of course that’s not all it is. What seems to me to be an incredible amount of time is taken up on stage and screen by Valjean’s ward and the female romantic lead, Cosette. The two characters who interest me most, Enjolras and Eponine, don’t even get to interact with each other. (I’m always drawn to narratives like Eponine’s, while Enjolras reminds me of the figures I spent so much time reading about when I studied the French and Russian Revolutions; in the novel, Hugo explicitly compares Enjolras with Saint-Just.) My frustration that the text isn’t about Enjolras and Eponine ends up as an annoyance with Cosette. (I later learned I wasn’t alone in this. I’m sure that with time somebody will remix a Cosette-less version of the musical in the same way that YouTube has or had a remix of Breakfast at Tiffany’s including only the scenes that have the cat.) I respond very differently to the musical than to the novel, which I read some months after seeing the show. In the novel I want to read about Valjean’s redemption through saving Marius and Cosette, to which France’s early 19th-century history can happily (or less happily) be a backdrop; on screen I find their plotline the least interesting.
A few days before I went to see Les Mis, I’d been reading a blog post by Jem Bloomfield on ‘resistant readings’, an important idea in the study of texts and their fans, and obviously what I’m bringing to Les Miserables when I’m drumming my fingers and waiting for Cosette to go away. As Bloomfield explains:
This process, codified most famously by Judith Fetterley’s work The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction, involves deliberately reading a text against the grain. The resistant reader recognises what the text claims to be saying, and then rereads it through their own agenda, opposing the ideology of the text itself. It’s not simply reinterpreting a work, but directly confronting it: identifying the surface meaning and proposing an alternative (using the text’s own words and images) which runs against the grain. Though we don’t necessarily call it resistant reading, it’s a process many of us are very familiar with.
If the types of narratives you enjoy are incredibly well represented in the texts available to you, resistant readings might not be such a big part of your experience (though of course they may). If they’re not – for instance, if you want to see queer desire on screen but are in a predominantly straight (or ‘heteronormative’) media space – they’re likely to be more important to you than they might be otherwise, perhaps even the only way to bring about a reading/listening/viewing experience that somebody who doesn’t face that obstacle is likely to take for granted that they can access wherever they want. If convention says that Ripley always lives but Vasquez Always Dies, it takes a lot more imagination on the part of the viewer to imagine the potential of Vasquez alive.
Yet the original text never, or hardly ever, provides enough material to make a resistant reading truly satisfying. Enjolras in Les Miserables manifests fully-formed with no personal history. Eponine’s entire narrative function is to save Marius so that he can be available to serve his own narrative functions in later scenes (although the character as we see her would probably be quite happy with that description of her life’s purpose), and it really isn’t clear how her spoiled seven-year-old self as the daughter of the gruesome Thenardiers changes into the woman we see by 1832. This is the sort of material that fan fiction, as studied by Henry Jenkins for more than twenty years, and including but not limited to the ‘shipping’ of alternative romantic relationships between characters, tries to supply. The Les Mis fandom is so well established, and growing in size now that the movie has expanded the audience for the story, that I’m sure I could find all this somewhere if I wanted to. There must surely be queer readings of Eponine – who after her big solo dresses as a man (and in the movie is seen binding her chest) and joins the otherwise all-male group of revolutionaries on the front line of the barricades – out there as well.
(What space was there for resistant readings in Evita? Probably far less. At the time I saw it I didn’t even know that wanting to identify with both Ché and Eva could be a thing.)
For most of my life, readings that were at least somewhat resistant were the only way to find fictional narratives that would be maximally meaningful. I wish that novels like Malinda Lo’s Ash – a young-adult queer retelling of Cinderella, where the kitchen maid ends up with the king’s huntress instead – had existed when I was 14; maybe they might have stopped me making the misinterpretations of who I was and what I wanted that I went on to make for some time after that. Instead, it took until my mid-twenties for me to start encountering narratives that felt as if they were meant to be about people like me and the ways that they could relate to others, and that were written by people who in that dimension of identity at least were positioned in a similar way to me. Would Ash have been published twenty years ago, or stocked in British school libraries that were still subject to the ‘Section 28′ prohibition on ‘promoting homosexuality in schools’? I’m not sure it would. But I also know that for a long time I didn’t even think to demand better than the possibility of making resistant readings from texts that weren’t designed to contain them. Which is why when I first read about them during the cultural studies reading for my PhD the idea of them made so much sense, and why I notice them so much in my responses to popular culture even now.
Apologies, Cosette. It isn’t really your fault.