I nearly always forget to write these, most years, but here are the academic publications I’ve had come out in 2017:
I edited a volume on Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR which came off the presses in November 2016, but has a 2017 cover date, and I never did a proper 2016 round-up so I’m counting it again. As well as the introduction, I have a chapter in here on transnational LGBT politics in the region since the end of the Cold War, and had the pleasure of helping out with Olga Dimitrijević’s chapter on British-Yugoslav lesbian networks during and after WW1.
I have a handbook chapter on ‘Emotions’ in the Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbook on Gender‘s volume on War (ed. Andrea Pető: pp. 153-67). Most of it’s about how institutions and representations of war have turned emotions into a gendered division of labour, and what military historians and feminist security scholars have made of emotion.
I have a short essay in Critical Studies on Security called ‘The filter is so much more fragile when you are queer’, on the embodied knowledge of understanding how quickly even the rights and recognition queer people have won could be torn away again, and how insecurity creates political identities, which has gone through a couple of rounds on my personal blog, starting with the only thing I could write the day last year after the US election.
I’m going to add my blog post on how to write conference abstracts, since more people who read or write about research have read it since I wrote it in March (upwards of 6,500 at last count) than will ever read anything of mine an academic journal prints.
Two things I know will have 2018 publication dates: another piece for Critical Studies on Security about identification, stardom, embodiment and the military in Wonder Woman, and the book I’ve mentioned here before, Race and the Yugoslav Region: Postsocialist, Post-Conflict, Postcolonial?, which shows how phenomena from the Rijeka carnival to the refugee crisis (and many things in between) prove how deeply and how long the Yugoslav region has been embedded in global politics of ‘race’ which have often been thought to pass it by. You can pre-order it already from Manchester University Press.
Also filtering through may be one or two pieces on reassessing the micropolitics of international intervention in the Yugoslav region in view of politics today, one or two articles that spun out of Race and the Yugoslav Region, and more of my work on queer identifications and the aesthetics of militarism, in the various forms that’s going to take…
From the ranks of past, present and future soldiers on toyshop shelves to the ubiquitous red Remembrance poppy, war and the military permeate everyday life in ways we often take for granted. Yet these everyday traces of militarism in popular culture, and the histories behind how they were produced or how people talked about them, can give us insights into what a society thought the relationship between the military and the public might be, what stories it told about the nation’s past, or what it meant to be a woman or a man. Historians studying ‘militarisation’ and the everyday imagination of war in previous centuries might use material objects, song sheets or recordings, paintings and photographs, or the popular press, depending on the technology of the time; future historians of our present will find social media just as rich a source.
For the last four years, a research team at Stockholm University with partners in Germany (University of Siegen), the Netherlands (Radboud University) and the UK (Leeds) has had funding from the Swedish Research Council to investigate how ‘militarisation’ works through social media. In late October, they invited some other researchers who study militarism, media and gender to a workshop in Stockholm where we’d discuss our own research and join in a public engagement day at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, helping the ‘Militarisation 2.0’ team pilot-test a toolkit peace activists can use for critically analysing social media clips that make war and the arms trade seem ‘good, natural and necessary’ (to coincide with the team’s new policy brief for SIPRI).
Because I often research popular music and am especially interested in music video, the shift from television to YouTube as the main communications channel for music video means that the ecosystem of social media has had to become part of my research. This time, however, I was exploring how Croatia’s first female president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, has constructed her public persona through the photo-opportunities she has created for news and social media since her election in 2015, including a striking number of her wearing Croatian military uniform or posing with rifles while visiting arms fairs and bases in Croatia, Afghanistan and the USA: in a Croatian context, these help to cast her presidency and Croatia’s 2009 accession to NATO as a fulfilment of what Croats are supposed to have struggled for during the 1991–5 war of independence from Yugoslavia. Indeed, they even seem to present her as a symbolic daughter of the 1990s president, Franjo Tuđman, whose own public persona was as a symbolic father of the nation.
During the rest of the workshop, at the Swedish Army Museum, I was giving feedback on other colleagues’ papers (which covered everything from how users interact with photos on the British Army’s Facebook page to how the Nigerian military has communicated through social media in its operations against the militant group Boko Haram) and taking some time to look around the museum – where the gift shop was as interesting as the collections in the invitations it was making for visitors to take home pieces of the Swedish military past. I’ll be able to teach about some of these topics later this year, when I contribute to our Masters module on ‘Memory, Meaning and History’ – and in the meantime will have even more ideas about what to look out for in the social media I see…
I’ve been researching the 1990s since the beginning of my academic career, when I wrote my PhD on popular music and national identity in Croatia after the break-up of Yugoslavia. (This was published in 2010 as my first book, Sounds of the Borderland.) As a queer writer and academic who was born in the early 1980s, I’m also someone whose consciousness and identity were shaped by the queer cultural politics of the 1990s – or by the lengths I went to in trying to distance myself from them.
Some queer historians become historians to investigate a personal past. My experience was the opposite, or so I thought: sometimes, while reading archived Croatian newspapers and magazines from 1990 to what was then the present during my PhD, I’d note abstractly that an issue’s cover date in 1996 or 1997 coincided with a personally significant day, or realise that, if I’d been the same age and Croatian, this or that pop video instead of this or that performance on Top of the Pops might have played a part in the protracted process of me trying to prove that, even though I kept noticing androgynous-looking women, I wasn’t queer.
At the same time, on a macro level, I’ve always believed that the histories of the Yugoslav region and the society where I live are much more connected than most British public discourse in the 1990s about the former Yugoslavia would suggest. During the Yugoslav wars, Cold War east–west geopolitics overhung older, semi-orientalised tropes about ‘the Balkans’ in the minds of many commentators who implied that Britain and the Balkans travelled at two separate historical speeds.
The more expansive and transnational view of the 1990s as cultural history that I take now has as much to do with Britain as the Balkans, and sometimes more. The period we can now name as ‘the post-Cold-War’ was defined by changing ideas about conflict and security, and how gender might determine who participates in conflict in what ways, who ought to protect whom, and who threatens whom. Also important were narratives of capitalism and progress that held out the hope of prosperity to many more young (and older) people than felt it in the 1980s or feel it today; rapid changes in the technologies through which people experienced popular culture and communicated with each other (it is already an imaginative leap for a student in their late teens to put themselves in the trainers of a young person the same age organising a night out in 1991); and also by the visibility and ambiguous position of queer identities in media and society. This, it turns out, is where I come in.
The project I conceived a year or two ago on how representations of the Yugoslav wars fed back into Western cultural imaginations of conflict, and how Western cultural imaginations of conflict also circulated through the Yugoslav region, needed me to start defining what did distinguish the 1990s or the ‘post-Cold-War’ as a period.
Meanwhile, the conceptual contribution I wanted it to make – what can cultural historians and scholars interested in the aesthetics of international politics learn from feminist and queer media studies? – sent me back to scholarship in feminist film theory and in cultural memory that was being written during the 1990s and was being produced within the very historical context I was trying to understand. Meanwhile, as a researcher embedded in 2016, I was becoming ever more conscious of how easily queer visibilities in the past and present can be erased, and starting to explore the 1990s’ and 2000s’ interlinked transformations of media technology, imaginations of conflict, and queer politics creatively in ways that even began pointing to new linkages in my academic work.)
Jackie Stacey’s Star Gazing (on women’s identification with Forties and Fifties women film stars) or equally Graham Dawson’s Soldier Heroes (on boys’ identification with military and imperial heroes through adventure play) both came out in 1994. Both books have passages that read like darts of recognition; both books have passages that my own embodied knowledge leaves me annotating, ‘What about masculinities?’ or ‘Can’t this happen with women?’
Together, they help me pursue a hunch that the dynamics of identification that can make people so invested in the characters and narratives of popular culture and the dynamics of emotional attachment to the nation that states and militaries depend on, have a lot in common with each other.
A thread of articles and book chapters in feminist and lesbian ‘gaze’ theory (which inform how I understand identification with the nation and with militarism) came out between 1994 and 1997: work by scholars like Caroline Evans and Reina Lewis on identification, desire and spectatorship (theorising things like what the pleasures of looking at fashion spreads in the British lesbian magazine Diva might have been for lesbians in the mid-90s).
In other words, in the mid 1990s, people were already writing about and answering questions that had been confusing me for years at exactly the same time – when I still had no idea they could even be spoken, let alone asked with academic authority. (I still wouldn’t even have dared touch a copy of Diva at the newsagent, in 1997, in case it meant I was a lesbian…)
And yet the first encounter with Croatian popular music that I remember, through the Eurovision Song Contest, is already entangled with my own history of queer spectatorship and not-coming-out. I would have seen Croatian entries in the 1994 and 1995 Eurovisions, but the first one I remember seeing is Maja Blagdan’s performance of ‘Sveta ljubav’ in 1996, for reasons that would have been quite obvious to me at the time.
(Not having had the foresight to press ‘record’ at the start of the song on the video tape where I used to collect highlights of Top of the Pops, I expected with disappointment never to see again, until a viewer who had written to the BBC about Terry Wogan speaking over the singing meant they played thirty seconds of it a few weeks later on Points of View.)
Blagdan went on to be one of the first Croatian singers I wanted to find out more about, and so the trajectory towards me becoming able to write a book that a BASEES prize panel judged ‘exceptional in both its originality and its careful research’, a book which has helped to inspire younger researchers to develop their own projects on post-Yugoslav nationalism, music, media, or sport, doesn’t just involve me as a historical subject trying to understand how a new nation like Croatia could suddenly appear out of what had seemed to be an old one like Yugoslavia. It also involves me as a queer viewer and teenager at a very specific moment, when lesbian visibility coexisted with an intense cultural anxiety over women as agents of the gaze towards other women.
Historicising the theoretical work I wanted to use for one project, in other words, has already pointed me towards another: what was the relationship between queer women and popular culture in the 1990s? This feels all the more urgent, not just because it belongs to a Very Contemporary History that’s already different from the present, but also because it denotes a past I managed to simultaneously live through and push aside.
Thanks to the feminist researcher and artist Saara Särmä, the blogging platform Tumblr, and some carefully-placed roundels of David Hasselhoff, the all-too-common sight of a panel or table of contents consisting entirely of male experts has had a convenient rejoinder since Särmä’s digital activism went viral in 2015: ‘Congrats – you have an all male panel!’
Särmä’s companion project, ‘Congrats – you have an all white panel!’, uses another legend of Eighties action cinema, Mr T, to call out events where – even on topics such as how to build a more democratic Europe – the picture of intellectual authority and expertise that organisers have created through their choice of speakers does not include any speakers of colour.
(Curiously – or not – the ‘All White Panels’ Tumblr gained much less traction with mainstream media such as the BBC, Time and The Guardian that helped #allmalepanels become a meme, even though Särmä had been speaking about both projects at once.)
As an academic who strives to put my first area specialism (the Yugoslav region) in a transnational and global context, and to understand how cultural imaginations of ideas like ‘conflict’ or ‘Europe’ are translated across national borders, I am frequently in the position of organising conference panels, selecting contributors for workshops, or choosing chapters for edited collections – including the volume on Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR I published in 2017 – so that a team of researchers can offer more perspectives on a problem than any one expert could alone.
In fact, this is part of the work of academia I enjoy most: creating dialogues between people working on different disciplines or areas who might not have met each other, and being able to work with junior scholars launching exciting new research at the same time as senior scholars whose thinking has helped to shape mine.
But when editors operate entirely according to the shape of the field that they already take for granted, we are at risk of perpetuating the same structural inequalities that anyone with a commitment to diversity in their field would say that they are fighting against – as the journalist Stephanie Boland recently explained in comments that are as relevant to workshop organisers and volume editors as they are to editors commissioning for the press.
Boland, the Head of Digital at Prospect magazine in the UK, points out that even when editors are keen in theory to diversify their pool of contributors, unconscious bias in the heat of the moment – compounded by the factors that make the media a disproportionately middle-class and white industry – often makes them fail to live up to their own aspirations:
In the past, I’ve been in commissioning meetings where there is every good intention to end up with a diverse table of contents.
Nobody really WANTS an all-male features list – usually, there’s a bit of hand-wringing if one goes to press
But most places commission by topic more than by writer. If there’s a feature idea floating about, they go through their mental phone book
And because white people/men are more prominent in the media, and most people have some unconscious bias, the names that come up… well, you get the picture.
Waiting until the editorial meeting to correct bias doesn’t work. You’ve got to sort out our inner Rolodex.
Once you’re looking at your flatplan/book chapters/speakers list/conference program and going ‘argh, we need a woman’—you’ve already lost
Putting together a table of contents for an edited volume, or choosing who to invite to a conference panel submission, very often starts with the same kind of mental phone book.
On specialist topics, such as the work on the aesthetic and embodied practices of ‘militarization’ that is emerging as a research area in feminist security studies and International Relations, I could easily ask myself ‘Who do I know that studies X?’ and write down five or ten names that, in this case, would all belong to white women.
I would at least have avoided an #allmalepanel – but would have created yet another all white one, moreover on a topic (the normalization of ideologies behind state violence) where the situated knowledge of people who experience racism and Islamophobia is essential for understanding the politics of emotion (as Sara Ahmed names them) behind nationalism and state power.
As my own career progresses, and as I become someone with the capacity to propose and publish collections of academic work – so that I am starting to shape and define fields of inquiry, rather than just participating in them – there are topics where I start to feel as if I know ‘everyone’ in a field: we have met at conferences or shared tables of contents in other volumes, we belong to the same mailing lists or Facebook groups.
For a new volume or panel now, even where I am close enough to the centre of a topic’s academic network that I might ‘know everyone’, I want to commit myself to at least 20 per cent of the participants I choose – the equivalent of at least one panellist on a panel of five – being people I have never worked with before (and that target figure should go up, not down).
This is all the more important when the opportunity is part of an ongoing collaboration, where many participants will already have presented to each other before: diversifying the range of who is involved helps to ensure that the conversation emerging through the panel or volume will move beyond its past iterations, along new directions – thus advancing the quality of the research.
The unfortunate but necessary cost, of course, is that an editor or panel organiser cannot involve every participant from their immediate, instinctive ‘mental phone book’ every time.
Even with strategies like these, however, too many of the contributor lists for panels, volumes and issues I have organised have been all white. The two annual conventions I am most likely to attend are the Association for Slavonic, East European and Eurasian Studies and the International Studies Association. An ISA member could feasibly pledge not to appear on or organise an all-white panel in the same way that thousands of speakers in academia, business and technology have pledged not to appear on all-male panels. At ASEEES, the discipline contains so few people of colour – a situation that the Association for Diversity in Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies is working to change – that, if participants made a similar pledge, far fewer panels could even be organised.
Beyond the levels of racial diversity in particular academic disciplines, moreover, other factors affect all my networks and have led to me organising all-white panels when I had tried to commit not to do so (including two panels at the ISA convention this year): the high costs of conference travel disproportionately affect people of colour, who – as a result of structural racism in academia – are more likely to be in low-paid and precarious work, and less likely to have the funds or time to travel.
The current US administration’s Islamophobic travel ban, which (first announced in January 2017) directly impedes scholars from the affected countries entering the USA and has persuaded many others, especially Muslims, not to travel, also contributed to the whiteness of our ISA panels, since after the ban was announced one participant (a South Asian woman) made the difficult decision not to attend.
At call-for-papers stage, at least, I could have chosen not to submit a panel I had organised if it turned out all white. So as not to disappoint other panellists, and because I have been excited about the opportunity to meet my colleagues, I have not yet made this choice: but, as a result, an all-white panel of mine has been selected when another panel, which might have contained more scholars of colour, therefore was not. I am still complicit in the panels’ whiteness even though I am pleased they went ahead.
Fewer structural constraints affect participation in edited volumes. Four years after beginning to plan Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR, there are still contributors I have never met, and while we did organise some related panels based on the volume (including at ASEEES 2016), developing the chapters never required the participants to gather together.
Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR involved authors based in Serbia, Germany, Britain, the USA, Canada and Hungary, and contributors who grew up in several other countries but now work abroad: and yet its table of contents, like almost every volume in Slavic and east European studies, is still all white.
If I were inviting and selecting chapters for a similar volume now, rather than in 2013, not only would there be more active researchers from underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities to approach, but I would have the benefit of four more years expanding my own mental phone book by reading outside what I initially thought of as ‘my area’ to try to answer how topics I had previously worked on (such as post-Yugoslav popular music, or the micropolitics of peacekeeping in Bosnia) had been structured by the global dynamics of race.
The effects of racism and unexamined whiteness in Slavic and East European Studies affect who chooses to enter or remain in this discipline in the first place: one panel or volume will not resolve this inequality on its own, but every panel or volume will make its contribution to the picture of diversity in the discipline that a researcher of colour forms, as they decide through their own impressions of the discipline whether it is likely to welcome them.
Editors and panel organisers in Slavic and East European studies are more likely to be conscious of ethnicity and nationality as an element of diversity than they are of race. Many specialist readers will already mentally note the balance of eastern European and non-eastern European contributors in a project, above all in gender studies, where east European scholars have often used analogies with postcolonial feminism to show how the Anglophone West has made ‘postsocialist’ Europe a periphery. Even the location where an author currently works – in the centre or the periphery of the global economy of academic knowledge production? – has a bearing, as Madina Tlostanova shows, on the politics of where intellectual authority is perceived as travelling ‘from’ and ‘to’.
(The idea of ‘coming from’ or ‘not coming from’ the region someone studies is of course a spectrum not a fence, complicated by infinite degrees of diasporic, familial and social entanglement – although some researchers, like me, are definitely not from eastern Europe no matter how one defines belonging.)
Without planning well in advance how to widen the pool of contributors I might involve in a project – and being open to the possibility that the boundaries of my theme might change as a more diverse group of contributors brings more diverse worldviews and politics to the original line of inquiry I perceived – I am much more likely as an editor to fall back on ‘unconscious’ bias and miss an opportunity to reach a better understanding of my topic as well as supporting the diversity of my field.
But the discipline will need as strong an institutional commitment to racial diversity as it has made to gender equality, and far more understanding from white scholars of all nationalities of the obstacles that scholars of colour face in Slavic and East European Studies research, to make the all white panel as uncommon as the all male panel at ASEEES.
Until the middle of last year I wasn’t expecting to be announcing this as my next academic book project, but now it is: Race and the Yugoslav Region: Postsocialist, Post-Conflict, Postcolonial? is under contract with Manchester University Press’s ‘Theory for a Global Age‘ series, will be going into copy-editing in the next few months, and ought to be due out at some point in 2018.
Six months after publication, as things stand, MUP will also make the book Open Access – like the others in the series – which will make it more accessible than anything I’ve published before to students, activists and scholars in and from the region (and elsewhere).
Race and the Yugoslav Region is the first of the projects I was working on during 2016 – a year that often felt as if, in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s words, I was ‘writing like you’re running out of time – to see print, but not I hope the last. Ultimately, it’s the outcome of my own confusion at my first home discipline of south-east European studies not seeming to offer a script for understanding the representations of race, blackness and whiteness I encountered during my PhD on popular music and national identity in Croatia in the same way that constructions of ‘westernness’ versus ‘easternness’, or ‘Europe’ versus ‘the Balkans’, did have an entire framework of academic literature to explain them.
Moreover, that framework had come from postcolonial studies in the first place, through the foundational work of Milica Bakić-Hayden and Maria Todorova and their engagements with (and against) Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism (producing the idea of ‘balkanism’) – and yet I could get away with bracketing race and the global legacies of colonialism to one side when writing about collective identity, in a way I’m deeply dissatisfied with after coming to understand that whiteness let me bracket them off and not have to engage with them, because ‘the Yugoslav region hadn’t had its own empire, after all…’
It didn’t: but many imperial projects have passed through it, and people from the region as travellers or settlers have been implicated in yet more, though their positions in structures of imperial and colonial power have often been as contingent and ambiguous as the global structural position of this peripheralised region of Europe itself.
Yet if the international marginalisation of the Balkans and the fact that the Yugoslav region did not become a destination for mass postcolonial migration of people of colour meant that ‘race’ – in contrast to ‘ethnicity’ or ‘religion’ – didn’t have to be on the agenda for understanding the region’s experiences, studies of the global legacies of race or ‘race in translation’ (the title of an inspiring book by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam) also tend to leave surprising gaps when it comes to incorporating state socialist and postsocialist Europe into their globe.
Without these connections, however, we don’t have the transnational and global historical context that we need in order to think ‘between the posts’, as Sharad Chari and Katherine Verdery put it in an essential article for Comparative Studies in Society and History that demonstrated postsocialism and postcoloniality needed to be drawn together as ways of thinking about the recent past, present and future, not kept apart.
Neither postsocialism or postcolonialism, Chari and Verdery argued, are just themes for understanding a certain region of the world: we should be asking about the effects of the collapse of state socialism as a ruling ideology in Europe beyond the places that were state socialist; we should be asking about the consequences of colonialism and decolonisation beyond the countries that had empires or were colonised by them.
But to do that requires understanding how – and simply talking about how – the Yugoslav region and its people have fitted into the global history of race, and of the colonial projects which spread ‘race’ as a structure of oppression around the globe so that it could be translated into many racisms through the filter of different societies’ own cultural narratives and social divides.
(I’ve blogged about this before in articles like this one on the politics of race behind post-Yugoslav states’ and citizens’ responses to the refugee crisis in 2015, or this one on reconciling the themes of south-east European studies with the premises of postcolonial history and international relations, not to mention on Eurovision and European multiculturalism here…)
Scholars of Black history in Germany, of postcoloniality and whiteness in the Nordic region, and of the meanings of ‘race’ or transnational connections with Africa in socialist and postsocialist Russia and Ukraine have all been able to put ‘race’ at the centre of their enquiry in a way that is also possible for the Yugoslav region – and would have been possible even during my PhD if the work of authors who were already writing on global ‘raciality’ and whiteness in eastern Europe (like Anikó Imre on ‘postcolonial whiteness‘ and media representations of Roma, or Miglena Todorova on translations of American, European and Soviet formations of ‘race’ through Bulgaria) had changed the course of debate in south-east European studies like the ‘balkanism’ studies had in the 1990s.
By the time I was teaching for a year at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, where I’d done my PhD, in 2011-12, I was starting to express my sense of what was missing from south-east European studies as ‘What would this field look like if its formative theory had been based on Gilroy’ – author of The Black Atlantic – ‘as well as Said?’
As a researcher, meanwhile, the point I could no longer avoid thinking about where the Yugoslav region belonged in the global politics of ‘race’ and whiteness was when researching the micropolitics of international/local encounters in peacekeeping needed me to contend with the idea – expressed by authors like Sherene Razack – that peacekeeping itself is a racialised project, showing far more continuity with colonialism than liberals like to think.
Razack, in her work on Canadian peacekeeping in Somalia, argued that peacekeeping ‘maintains a colour line between a family of white nations constructed as civilized and a third world constructed as a dark threat’ – but here, too, where would the Yugoslav region fit, in a part of the world which has traditionally seemed (as Maria Todorova, author of Imagining the Balkans, put it) ‘historically white’?
I wrote what I now realise was the very first outline for Race and the Yugoslav Region in June 2013, on the back of a programme at a workshop on ‘The Europeanisation of Citizenship in the Successor States of the Former Yugoslavia’, during a presentation by Julija Sardelić on Romani minorities and post-Yugoslav citizenship. The bullet-pointed list began:
Socialist/Communist ideas about race – what were they? What legacies? Did practice match theory?
Histories of thought about race in south-east Europe generally
Histories of people of colour in SEE – settlement, travel etc
Race and the Non Aligned Movement
Where do the Roma fit in
and carried on thinking about the region in the kinds of contexts that feminist and postcolonial security studies scholars had been using throughout the International Studies Association and International Feminist Journal of Politics conferences in April and May:
Border security and (regular and irregular) migration
[…] Portability of postcolonial theory – if SEE or part of it is being thought of / has been thought of as the subaltern, can it actually get away with that?
Was there SEE complicity in the racial oppression of European colonialism
And what about SEE participation in the slave trade
SEE complicity in racialised narratives of the War on Terror; participation in detention and rendition of Muslims suspected of terrorism
How far is SEE as a site of international intervention, humanitarian relief, peacebuilding etc actually comparable to sites in the Global South? Did the whiteness of Croatians, Bosnians and Kosovars actually make these interventions and their politics of rescue fundamentally different in some way from interventions in (above all) Africa?
Peacekeepers and interveners of colour in SEE
It wove through questions from current politics and my own previous research that I still didn’t feel equipped to answer, even though I was beginning to know how to ask them:
Race and the far right (especially in light of those transnational Islamophobic European right-wing groups that keep going on about the ‘Gates of Vienna’…)
Position of BiH in post-9/11 discourses about the West and Islam
Popular culture/popular music
Production, appreciation and reception of ‘world music’
Do we need to talk about cultural appropriation? By whom? Of whose culture(s)?
and finished with the politics of knowledge in south-east European studies itself:
Methods issues: encounters with race and racism in field research
The politics of race within research and teaching on SEE
I wasn’t able to found the research network I wanted to bring together to start answering these questions from multiple perspectives at the same time, but I did use an invitation to a Russian and Slavonic Studies research seminar at Nottingham two years later to pose some of these problems together in a presentation that, to jar the audience into seeing the region differently, I titled ‘The Black Adriatic?’ in allusion to Gilroy’s Black Atlantic.
(I haven’t carried that title over to the book, for two reasons: most importantly, as the title of a book that could have a direct impact on my personal and financial success, I felt it would be an appropriation of Gilroy’s scholarship and the Black intellectual traditions he rests on for a white woman to take it up from him; and secondly, by the time I was proposing Race and the Yugoslav Region, the series it would join had already published Robbie Shilliam’s excellent The Black Pacific, on how the African diaspora’s struggles for liberation have resonated through the South Pacific.)
By the time I led a workshop based on it at Central European University a year after that – and because of the insight, sensitivity and solidarity with which the CEU graduate students and faculty talked from the perspective of their own research – my working document had become around 20,000 words of notes – and the single article I thought I could write to get my main point across would have had to be at least three articles for three different journals to keep everything I wanted to include together.
At the same time, I knew that I didn’t have either the source material or, really, the right intellectual and personal position to write a long historical monograph on race and the Yugoslav region that would become the authoritative work. Race and the Yugoslav Region is a short book, like the others in its series, which I hoped was achieving similar aims to what the series editor Gurminder Bhambra had called for in her own Connected Sociologies: in this case, to move beyond analogies of how the marginalisation of the Balkans might be similar to marginalisations based on ‘race’, into a mode of connection where the Yugoslav region, as well as the rest of the globe, is demonstrably part of the world that colonialism, slavery and racisms made, not outside it.
Race and the Yugoslav Region has one author’s name on the cover, but if not for other people’s writing – especially the scholarship of east European women and women of colour – would not have existed at all. The two largest intellectual debts I owe are to Flavia Dzodan and Zara Bain, both of whom I got to know as writers because of online feminism and activism – I would have encountered their work differently, or more likely not at all, in a less networked world.
Whereas ‘Europe’, in the study of postsocialism, represents the longed-for symbol of modernity and progress, the ‘Europe’ of Dzodan’s writing was and is a system of whiteness and ongoing colonial violence that, through the militarisation of the European Union’s land and sea borders, was directly implicating the ‘Western Balkans’ even if it had not done so before.
Bain, meanwhile, is a philosopher and disability activist whose research on the critical race theory of Charles Mills, once we started talking about it on Twitter, made me understand one of Mills’s key arguments and made me begin to see a hinge for joining south-east European studies’ translation of postcolonial thought with the global history of ‘race’ and racisms.
Mills argues, in The Racial Contract, that ‘race’ is a ‘moral cartography’ that divides the world into civilised and modern spaces, populated by and belonging to people of white European descent, and the ‘wild and racialized’ rest of the world, where people, territory, histories, cultures and knowledges are marked as permanently subordinated, exploitable and disposable.
Mills is talking about spatialised hierarchies of modernity and primitivism – and so is south-east European studies, where Imagining the Balkans or Bakić-Hayden’s work on ‘symbolic geographies’ and ‘nesting Orientalisms’ are among the core texts every postgraduate will read.
Alongside Mills and the literature on ‘global formations of race’ (Michael Omi and Howard Winant) or ‘race in translation’ (Shohat and Stam) I had already expected the article(s) that became Race and the Yugoslav Region to be based on, one of the books I direct readers to most often appeared early in 2016: Gloria Wekker’s White Innocence.
White Innocence, Wekker’s challenge to Dutch racial ‘exceptionalism’ and the comforting myths most white Dutch people hold about their nation having one of the most liberal and tolerant traditions in the world, has a critical drive behind it that is simultaneously deeply grounded in the political struggles of feminists of colour in the Netherlands and deserves to carry well beyond the Dutch context.
In the course of refuting the exceptionalist excuse that white Dutch people ‘did not know’ about race until large numbers of postcolonial migrants and guest workers started arriving after the Second World War, however, Wekker uses the critical tools of Black feminism and Afro-European Studies to show, as scholars of Germany and the Nordic region have done, that ample evidence of public consciousness of race, racism and whiteness can be found even in societies with no history of mass migration of people of colour.
Part of the ‘cultural archive’ of colonialism, a term Wekker brings over from Said, is the ephemera of advertising and commerce, of school textbooks and medical discourse, of popular culture and entertainment, that were already revealing whiteness as a core part of national identity – with racialised notions of primitivism, hypersexuality and Africanity on the other side of this symbolic boundary – at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
As well as a challenge to racial exceptionalism itself, Wekker offers a model for tracing race, racism and whiteness through the everyday consciousness of predominantly white societies which overcomes one of the obstacles to putting race alongside other social identities at the centre of south-east European studies: does race really matter if there have been so few people of colour living there?
Starting with the everyday, and with the embodied cultural politics that we become able to see when we take apparently ephemeral sources like popular music seriously, shows that it does: and besides, ‘few’, of course, is not the same as ‘none’.
Many of the examples I discuss for a paragraph or two in Race and the Yugoslav Region could be books of their own, and I hope this book will help others to conceive them and many other books like it: how has the Venetian figure of the Moor lived on in the Yugoslav region (where Rijeka has its own blackface carnival character, the morčić), and what traces did traditions of colonial spectacle that radiated out from the German-speaking cultural area through the Habsburg lands leave behind? What was it about the small shore of Martinska, near Šibenik, that inspired Aimé Césaire to begin writing his Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land) – and what ties of anti-colonial friendship and solidarity brought him there? What histories of migration, pushed to the sidelines when the region’s history is written solely as the history of majority ethnic groups, reveal the region’s transnational connections to their full extent? And what could myths of South Slav nations standing at the ‘bulwark of Europe’ against the Ottoman Empire, or Venetian-Ottoman warfare in the early modern Adriatic, have to do with the emergence of ‘race’ through colonialism and slavery across and around the Atlantic itself? Historians of other periods will be able to take this further than a specialist in the post-Cold-War: this book will at least suggest some of what is at stake when they do.
Even as I was writing the book, the amount of new research on race as well as postcoloniality in state socialist Yugoslavia seemed to be increasing month by month – Peter Wright, Nemanja Radonjić, Aida Hozić, Radina Vučetić, Jelena Subotić and Srđan Vučetić all presented new work at conferences in 2016 on issues such as the experiences of African students in Yugoslavia, or Tito’s visits to Africa – to say nothing of the amount of research starting to reassess the politics of post-Yugoslav national identity or public space in view of the refugee crisis.
For all these reasons, and in acknowledgement of authors like Dušan Bjelić, Tomislav Longinović and Konstantin Kilibarda who have already brought critical race scholarship to bear on understanding the Yugoslav region, plus the vein of ‘postsocialist/postcolonial’ research that has already started to extend so many of the connecting branches that made this book possible, I also hope that this book will not become the last word on race and the Yugoslav region – indeed, I urge the reader at the end to make sure through their own citational practices that it does not.
This is a book that responded to the challenges issued by campaigns such as ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?‘, rather than drove them, and is by an author who benefits from the assumed objectivity of whiteness and of not being from the region they are writing about: there is an even greater responsibility on me to create opportunities for the knowledge of marginalised scholars to be elevated, valued and remunerated than there would have been if I had not written this book.
In showing that the global legacies of colonialism have passed and do pass through the Yugoslav region, however, it also contributes to showing that Britain and the former Yugoslavia do not exist in separate spheres of history – and that if, for instance, recognition of historic wrongs (as so much scholarship on the Yugoslav region argues) is a precondition for social peace after ethnopolitical conflict, then for a society as implicated in and structured by the history of racism, slavery and colonialism as Britain, this must be even more the case.
The real impact of Race and the Yugoslav Region, I hope, will lie in how others extend, transform and criticise its suggestions in producing new knowledge and theory from their own situated perspectives – but, if nothing else, it will help to demonstrate that the Yugoslav region is not, and has never been, ‘outside’ the global politics of race.
Eurovision 2017 was a contest with politics much further in the background than many viewers would have expected at the end of last year’s show: the 2016 contest saw Jamala win Ukraine the right to host the following Eurovision with a song that commemorated Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944.
Russia’s last-minute selection of a contestant, Yuliya Samoilova, who had visited Crimea in 2015 without crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border and would therefore be ineligible for entry under Ukrainian law, generated almost a month-long stand-off before Russian television decided in mid-April not to accept any compromise solution or broadcast the show. This meant the greatest reverberations of the Russia–Ukraine conflict for Kyiv 2017 had subsided before they could preoccupy the bubble of journalists, bloggers and fans that generates many of the framing narratives for every Eurovision during a fortnight of rehearsals in the host city.
While visitors to Kyiv were surrounded by architectural and visual reminders of Ukraine’s increasing cultural separation from Russia and the memory of coexistence in the USSR, Ukrainian nationhood in the broadcasts themselves came across largely through citations of folk tradition. There was no equivalent of the moment in Eurovision 2005 where President Viktor Yushchenko, presenting the winner’s trophy, reminded viewers that the Orange Revolution had only ended four months before. Even the Ukrainian entry by rock band O.Torvald had abandoned the ticking countdowns, flame and rubble concept of its early performances – calling to mind iconic photographs of the Euromaidan – for an abstract, utilitarian design.
The European Broadcasting Union, for its part, contributed to the politics-free atmosphere by preventing Portugal’s Salvador Sobral, who had been urging European governments throughout the week to accept more refugees, from wearing an ‘SOS Refugees’ sweatshirt in his last press conferences on the grounds that it broke Eurovision rules against ‘political or commercial’ messages. This was despite the fact that last year’s Eurovision had contained a segment, the acclaimed ‘Grey People’, which was no more and no less political in its depiction of the dangers refugees subject themselves to in order to reach the very ‘Europe’ that Eurovision viewers are celebrating.
The nature of live television nevertheless creates occasional ruptures in this increasingly tightly regulated ideological space. Israel’s spokesperson Ofer Nachshon’s farewell to Eurovision from the soon-to-be-closed Israel Broadcasting Authority left many viewers wondering if he was also announcing the departure of Israel itself. Perhaps the most alarming moment I can remember on a Eurovision screen occurred during the interval, when a man wearing an Australian flag climbed on stage and dropped his trousers in front of Jamala as she performed her new single, ‘I Believe In U’.
While no-one was readier than the internet’s Australians to take self-deprecating credit for the display, the man was a Ukrainian ‘prankster’, Vitalii Sediuk, with a long track record of confronting and assaulting mostly female celebrities in public. With Ukraine in direct conflict with another country where opposition politicians and journalists are liable to become targets of attacks in the street – and with tennis fans in the Yugoslav region especially likely to remember a spectator’s attack on Monica Seles in Hamburg 24 years ago – the fact that a member of the public could get this close to any performer on stage, let alone as politically symbolic a figure as Jamala, overshadowed a contest where in many respects the politics remained off screen.
In May 2007, just before Helsinki was about to host its first ever Eurovision Song Contest, a group of media and performance researchers gathered at the University of Helsinki for a symposium on ‘Queer Eurovision!’, later written up as a special issue of the Finnish queer studies journal SQS.
The aim of the symposium, wrote its co-organiser, Mikko Tuhkanen, was to take stock of the ten years since the ‘open secret’ of gay and queer presence at Eurovision had moved from a private subtext behind the show to an inescapable part of the text, starting with the first performance by an out gay man (Páll Óskar from Iceland) in 1997 and written into Eurovision history when Dana International won in 1998.
Many young, and some older, trans viewers of Eurovision were able to see in Dana International’s confidence and glamour the first aspirational representation of trans femininity that film and television had ever offered them. To Eurovision’s much larger number of cis viewers, meanwhile, her identity as a trans woman and her roots in the Tel Aviv’s gay nightlife – at a historical moment where LGBT activists were starting to win limited but important victories by lobbying European institutions – seemed to confirm: yes, Eurovision was gay.
Or as Tuhkanen wrote: ‘With Dana International, the disclosure was complete.’
A few days later, Marija Šerifović would win Eurovision 2007 for Serbia with a performance that the symposium’s other co-organiser, Annamari Vänskä, would persuasively read as an example of ‘lesbian camp‘. Šerifović’s victory took Eurovision 2008 to a country where the government’s failure to provide sufficient security for Belgrade Pride marches to take place had become a symbol, both at home and in European politics, of how far ‘European values’ were or were not embedded in Serbia.
Eurovision 2008 would open up a new chapter of the international politics of queerness and LGBT rights at Eurovision – one where queer people’s equality and security in host states would be heavily scrutinised when the contest took place in postsocialist, eastern European countries (but taken for granted during contests that were held in ‘the West’), and one where sexual orientation and gender identity were becoming matters of foreign policy for many countries in the global North and some (like Brazil and Argentina) in the South.
Šerifović’s victory, in other words, marked the start of another new phase in the queer politics and history of Eurovision – one where, increasingly outside Eurovision as well as inside, tolerance and respect for LGBT rights were about to become a new symbolic boundary in the imaginative geography of ‘East/West’ divisions of Europe that dated back even further than the Cold War.
Of all the contributions to ‘Queer Eurovision!’, the one most often cited in the subfield of ‘Eurovision research’ that itself started growing like a snowball after around 2007 and 2008 is Peter Rehberg’s article ‘Winning failure: queer nationality at the Eurovision Song Contest‘. Rehberg had noticed that the celebrations of queer (above all, gay) identities at Eurovision were an almost unparalleled occasion where fans and viewers did not have to choose between their queerness and their nationhood in order to experience belonging – a rare thing when nationalism, as an ideology, had historically been so hostile to homosexuality and transgressions of traditional gender roles.
(That past tense matters: by the mid-2000s, ‘LGBT-friendliness’ was itself becoming a symbolic value in some accounts of national identity, helping to define nations such as the Netherlands, Sweden or Britain in terms of cultural differences from supposedly ‘more homophobic’ parts of the world – a new way of expressing Europe’s imaginary east/west divide, and sometimes even of creating a troubling, simplistic hierarchy setting ‘the West’ above ‘Islam’ or ‘Africa’.)
Rather than fans celebrating their membership of a transnational gay or queer community instead of nationhood, Rehberg argued that Eurovision allowed them to celebrate as people with queer identities and as members of nations – ‘a rare occasion,’ in his most-quoted line, ‘for simultaneously celebrating both queerness and national identity’ (p. 60).
Ten years on from ‘Queer Eurovision!’, the song contest and queer geopolitics have become even more tied together.
As I’ve writtenherebefore, the years between 2008 and 2014 enmeshed Eurovision in the same political struggles over international events, LGBT rights and human rights that are most familiar from controversies over the Beijing and Sochi Olympics (which themselves book-end 2008 and 2014): Belgrade’s hosting of Eurovision in 2008 followed by Moscow in 2009, where the mayor of Moscow sent in police to break up a ‘Slavic Pride’ march on Eurovision final afternoon; the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organises Eurovision, again accused of complicity with a repressive and homophobic regime when Baku hosted in 2012; London’s attempt to distance itself from Beijing through how it performed national identity at the 2012 Olympics echoed at Eurovision by Malmö 2013’s self-presentation as the antithesis of Baku 2012, with equal marriage among the many symbols of Swedishness celebrated in the interval; moments of celebrity activism like Krista Siegfrids’s on-stage kiss with another woman, beamed out across Europe while sending a more specific message to Finns before a parliamentary vote on an equal marriage referendum; and, after the Russian parliament criminalised the promotion of ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ to under-18s in June 2013, the cycle of Europe-versus-Russia representations around that symbolic boundary of LGBT rights that ran organically from the human rights campaigns before the Sochi Olympics into the meanings of ‘Europe’ and Eurovision when Conchita Wurst took part.
The hinge between queerness and nationhood that Rehberg found at Eurovision would widen in some countries, at least conditionally, with expansions of marriage and family rights and even – after much more struggle – tentative improvements in mechanisms for trans people’s gender recognition: provisions that add up to a greater sense of ‘citizenship’, or the ability to actually exercise the same rights as other citizens, for queer people, or at least those queer people whose race, ethnicity, nationality or religion don’t remove them from that sense of citizenship in other ways.
And yet frictions between the celebration of queerness and the sovereignty of nationhood would persist at Eurovision itself. In 2016, the EBU embroiled itself in unnecessarily awkward dialogues with LGBT fans over whether or not rainbow flags would be allowed in the Eurovision arena (if they were being used in a ‘political’ way, leaked instructions to security staff at the arena suggested, they shouldn’t be allowed – and yet the rainbow flag’s origins in political protest are still, for many but not all LGBT people, inseparable from its meanings in the present), and expected the more specific identities symbolised by the wider family of pride flags (like the bi and trans flags) to be accommodated in the all-encompassing rainbow.
Meanwhile, it had to be aware both that its Russian member broadcasters were under LGBT-phobic pressure to withdraw from Eurovision – so that Russian families wouldn’t have to watch examples of ‘Western decadence’ like Conchita Wurst – and that the very celebrations of queerness many viewers would expect from Eurovision, indeed be disappointed if the contest didn’t show, might now be ruled illegal to broadcast in Russia under the laws that a coalition of neo-traditional politicians and the Russian Orthodox Church had steered through parliament with Putin’s approval in 2013.
Since 2007, in other words, that hinge between queerness and national belonging that Rehberg had found one expression of at Eurovision had acquired three new dimensions: its vulnerability to being instrumentalised as a way of constructing tolerant and progressive Western and European national identities against backward cultural ‘others’; the hardening of a symbolic boundary between ‘Europe’ and ‘Russia’; and the realisation, as Russian queers saw in 2013 and Western queers themselves have had to come to terms with after seeing the Obama presidency’s steps towards LGBT equality reversed in a matter of weeks, that the greater sense of national citizenship and belonging that some LGBT people have been able to win can always be assaulted and lost again.
Come into me from within, we can be as one in the sin
The vagaries of Eurovision qualification – where almost 40 entries will take part in two semi-finals and only 20 go through to the grand final on Saturday – mean that this year’s most interesting example of how queerness and nationhood can combine at Eurovision, Slavko Kalezić’s ‘Space’, has already gone out of contention. Hidden away in the Tuesday semi-final, the 2017 entry most conscious of, and most adapted to, the homoerotic male gaze of gay spectatorship didn’t come from any self-imagined north-west European stronghold of gay rights, but from Montenegro – and depended on specifically post-Yugoslav ways of reinventing masculinity rather than any denationalised model of the ‘global gay’.
The presentation of Kalezić’s preview video for ‘Space’ in March left no doubt this was a song and performance aimed at the gay and bisexual male viewer in the sense that their likely pleasures are more embedded in the song than any other. Entering through a neon galaxy (with echoes perhaps of Lady Gaga’s ‘Mother Monster’ phase), the camera takes viewers to a dark disco and a dramatic rocky landscape where Kalezić is dancing shirtless, often singing directly to the viewer in extreme close up, as we hear lines like ‘Wet dreams, wild nightmares, I surrender / Come into me from within / We can be as one in the sin’.
The rest of the lyrics are filled with callouts to ejaculation and orgasm, mixed with a fluidity of gender roles (‘I’m Venus and Mars of the hour’), and fans were quick to interpret a line about ‘I’ve got my suit on, no need to worry’ – ostensibly, of course, about a space suit – as standing for using a condom during safe sex.
Even as Eurovision entries go, ‘Space’ is remarkable in its commitment to the codes of double entendre. Moreover, the lyrics put Kalezić in a receptive role, the riskier and queerer position for a man who has sex with men to take in many binaries of male sexuality that view receiving penetration, as opposed to giving penetration, as a much more threatening act for masculinity (thus feminising and stigmatising passive sexual role): it’s the thought that men can enjoy being penetrated that really unsettles many homophobes.
While Kalezić’s unabashed enthusiasm for male/male sexuality has rough Western equivalents – a Frankie Goes To Hollywood or, especially, a George Michael – ‘Space’ is far from an import of Western gay aesthetics – and that needs saying all the more loudly when so much public and state homophobia, the ideology behind the Russian ‘gay propaganda’ laws or the far-right and Church mobilisation against LGBT activism and Pride marches in Serbia, Ukraine, and many other countries, is grounded in imagining that the authentic masculinity of the nation can never accommodate being gay or taking pleasure in sexual acts performed by other men.
Throughout the introduction of LGBT-phobic legislation in Russia, the current persecution of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya, or the ongoing harassment and violence of LGBT activist movements and Pride campaigns, discourses of nationalism and sexuality hold that – supposedly – it’s against the authentic morals of the nation for men to behave like this. Opposing moves to recognise LGBT rights as human rights as the United Nations, the Russian government has argued that the West has sought to impose LGBT equality on Russia in the face of Russia’s authority to determine its own moral code: in the Russian nation as Putin imagines it, ‘non-traditional’ sexual relations should stay out of sight.
The hostile comments Kalezić received from Montenegrin social media users after his video was published similarly included references to ‘Western decadence’ or the remark that ‘Njegoš would be ashamed.’ The epics of Njegoš, the 19th-century prince-bishop and national poet of Montenegro who wrote (with graphic violence) about the heroism of Montenegrin highland clans fighting the Ottoman Turks, are at the core of Montenegrin myths of national masculinity.
In response, Kalezić told the Montenegrin web portal CDM: ‘if Njegoš were alive, he’d actually support me. Those of you who are mentioning him, if you’ve read The Mountain Wreath or A Night Worth A Century [his two major works] should know that in fact he was an exceptional thinker and empath. Full of symbolic energy and the energy of life.’
Beyond queering Eurovision or queering the nation, Kalezić was doing something even more threatening to Montenegrin heteronormativity: queering Njegoš.
Moreover, the way Kalezić – in his video more than his Eurovision performance – embodies genderfluidity and male/male sexual desire reflects a tension for queer people across most of the globe: how to find modes of sexual difference and gender non-conformity that don’t require total separation from national tradition, that is, how to situate oneself in the linguistic and cultural material of a nation to which one should be able to belong.
The questions are the very stuff of global queer politics – including in Montenegro, where (as Danijel Kalezić writes in his contribution to Bojan Bilić’s recent volume on post-Yugoslav LGBT activism) non-heterosexual and gender non-conforming people question whether their activism and organisation necessarily needs to follow the Western European and North American model of Pride, why anyone should expect queer identities to develop with the same categories or timescale they have in the West, and where there might be Montenegrin queer histories to reclaim.
‘Space’, on video, contains visual nods to Byzantine iconography and also, in the whirling of Kalezić’s robe and hair, something of Sufi tradition: a reference which, at least to me as a spectator, brings to mind another gender-non-conforming post-Yugoslav singer from Bosnia, Božo Vrećo.
Vrećo, seen here in his own enrobed whirling through a dramatic landscape, has succeeded in what Tea Hadžiristić described in an article for Balkanist as ‘queering sevdah’. In singing and writing this form of traditional Bosnian folk music, Vrećo speaks both as a woman and as a man. His gender expression, both in and out of performance, actively reuses Bosnian traditions across gender boundaries: among his tattoos, for instance, are symbols on his hands that Bosnian Catholic women used to tattoo as protective bridal charms. Vrećo neither uses nor needs Western or Anglophone categories of sexual and gender variance to present himself. As a result, Hadžiristić writes:
Vrećo eschews ascribing Western-style identity categories to himself that allows him to be celebrated by Bosnians as a star and emblem of Bosnian talent, while at the same time enacting his own brand of queer gender presentation. Outside of a context where LGBT rights are seen as part of a modernization package leading to EU accession, his queerness is accepted because it is seen as Bosnian rather than a threat coming from the ‘outside’. In itself, this has radical potential because it demonstrates that queerness is not a Western import and that it can and does exist naturally in Bosnia and jive with ‘Bosnianness’. A Bosnian queer is possible.
So, Kalezić shows, is a Montenegrin queer. So is a Serbian queer: Marija Šerifović, Serbia’s Eurovision winner in 2007, came out in 2013 (after years of public speculation about her sexuality during which she was only photographed with one boyfriend, Slavko Kalezić), and in gender expression is indistinguishable from male stars in the same field of Serbian pop – though doesn’t subvert dominant ideologies of Serbian nationhood in other ways (after all, Serbian women, or women anywhere else, are not necessarily left-wing committed anti-nationalists just because they’re queer).
The aesthetic codes that ‘Space’ as a video depend on are already well-established in Belgrade-based popular music production for the post-Yugoslav linguistic and cultural area: in fact, its director, Dejan Milićević, is none other than the foremost video director for Serbian pop-folk music or what’s still sometimes called ‘turbofolk’.
Milićević’s videos employ what Balkanist‘s pop blogger Eurovicious (in his ‘Queer as Turbofolk’ series) calls a ‘tricky balancing act’ in which ‘the queer subtext must be subtle enough to pass over the heads of the straight audience, but explicit enough to maintain the interest of the gay male audience’. This example, for a Danijel Djokić video in 2012, is as good as any:
Milićević’s signature devices of lingering on the exposed male body and visualising the male singer’s inviting gaze back at the viewer – all filtered through the conventions of fashion photography – are an established aesthetic in post-Yugoslav music. For Marko Dumančić and Krešimir Krolo, in fact, they help to suggest that the Belgrade school of pop-folk music has produced a – however commodified and objectified masculinity that differs importantly from how the same music used to celebrate the masculinities of paramilitarism and organised crime.
The Milićević aesthetic taken into Eurovision sees a localised homoerotics, in which queer men in and around Serbia and Montenegro are already taking pleasure, meshing with other queer, and straight, gazes situated elsewhere. Indeed, Macedonia’s preview video for Tijana Dapčević’s entry in 2014 relied on the same presentation of the male body and the same scopic pleasure of looking at the male body even though it was directed by a different director, Mert Arslani:
For better or worse, the Macedonian team didn’t bring the video’s homoerotics of the Macedonian Air Force into the live performance (or even get Tijana to wear the white glasses that she’d showed to every journalist who met her during Eurovision week) – and Eurovision viewers didn’t get to see half as Montenegrin a setting for ‘Space’ as Kalezić’s preview had been able to conjure.
The braid stays, but the robe is off within less than fifty seconds (Kalezić is wearing sparkly jeans underneath), and the high-resolution video backdrop is showing galactic patterns or blow-ups of Kalezić’s body rather than the mountain landscapes that Montenegro’s preview videos can be guaranteed to show off: I do wonder whether the more localised elements from the video (even if many viewers elsewhere in Europe would just view them as ‘more Balkan’) might have helped the song stand out better in a semi-final that contained at least one other south-east European pop song based on astrophysics and the return of Moldova’s Epic Sax Guy.
Once the EBU releases the semi-final results and the breakdown of how expert juries and the public voted in each country, it’ll be interesting to see whether Kalezić’s points were simply relatively low all round or whether he encountered the obstacle that made even Conchita Wurst’s scores not as high as they might have been: that five music professionals per country have more influence than a member of the public, by a magnitude of thousands, over whether a performance that plays on queerness as much as Kalezić or Conchita is going to get any points. Both homophobia, biphobia and transphobia on the part of a juror, or pressure from the broadcaster or elsewhere, can have a disproportionately high impact on the votes a jury gives.
Indeed, this isn’t just a problem of the 2010s: Páll Óskar’s ‘Minn hinsti dans’, in 1997, scored only 18 points and came 20th out of 25th – but 16 of the 18 points came from countries that were experimenting for the first time with a public televote, Austria, Sweden and the UK.
Conchita, in 2014, didn’t suffer a mass rejection among public voters even in Russia, but expert juries ranked her noticeably lower than the public, leading to eastern Europe countries appearing to have given her relatively fewer points than the West.
With Kalezić out of the running for the grand final, however, the most significant hinges of queerness and nationhood at Eurovision 2017 are likely to be behind the scenes rather than on stage.
Repainting the rainbow arch
Ukraine’s public diplomacy, since 2014, has striven not only to inform the world that Ukraine still has sovereignty over Crimea and eastern Ukraine but also to show that Ukraine belongs to a different, European community of values than Putin’s Russia – a political and cultural separation not unlike the move with which Croatia in 1990-5, before and during its war of independence, sought to separate itself (sometimes coercively) from Yugoslavia.
One of several important differences between the Croatian case and Ukraine’s, however, is that there was no incentive for the 1990s Croatian regime not to double down on homophobia in its political compact with the Catholic Church. For Ukraine, on the other hand, being able to demonstrate progress on what diplomats take as the benchmarks of LGBT rights (such as whether Pride marches are being held safely) could – at least when LGBT rights were the foreign policy issue that they were under Obama and still are to some governments – help to create a clear moral boundary in Western eyes between Ukraine and Putin’s Russia.
If Russia had not withdrawn from Eurovision after Ukrainian security services banned the Russian contestant Yuliya Samoilova from entering the country (in 2015 she had visited Crimea without first legally entering Ukraine), public awareness of the organised disappearances, torture and killing of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya could well have elicited more hostile reactions from viewers than Russian competitors faced even in 2014, the first Eurovision since the ‘gay propaganda’ law went into force, or 2015 – perhaps not even a contestant able to win as much goodwill from fans as Sergey Lazarev would have been able to do much to hold it off.
The potential diplomatic value of publicly performing support for LGBT equality sits uneasily with the patriarchal homophobia of the Ukrainian far right and paramilitary movement – a potential insurgent force that continues to overshadow the Ukrainian government.
The impasse was symbolised by the outcome of an initiative to repaint the Arch of the Friendship of Peoples, a Soviet monument built in a large Kyiv park in 1982. The Arch is among the monuments that the Ukrainian government now plans to remove under a ‘decommunisation’ law introduced in May 2016 (bringing Ukraine, two and a half decades after the collapse of the USSR, closer to the memory politics of early post-Yugoslav Croatia).
First, however, Kyiv city council decided to repaint it in rainbow colours as a temporary Arch of Diversity in time for Eurovision and Kyiv Pride – as if taking up the street-art aesthetic that since 2011 has regularly been seeing Sofia’s Monument to the Soviet Army repainted so that the soldiers are wearing American superhero costumes, bright pink uniforms or even Ukrainian flags.
The rainbow symbol, and ‘diversity’ itself, contain a non-specificity and deniability which often frustrates queer and LGBT people who want their identities and experiences to be named as such; ‘Celebrate Diversity’, the slogan of Eurovision 2017, is so broad it could be celebrating nothing at all (while performing a celebration of diversity, as Sara Ahmed writes, is so often a substitute for institutions actually making the difficult structural changes necessary for their workforce to be meaningfully diverse). That very slipperiness, however, also creates the space of manoeuvre in which the painting of the Arch of Diversity could take place without the city council having to openly name the rainbow as queer.
The arch was in a half-painted state last week when members of far-right groups including Right Sector and Svoboda threatened municipal workers and ordered the painting to stop – calling the rainbow ‘gay propaganda’, in the same terms as LGBT-phobia in Russia. On 4 May the mayor of Kyiv, Vitaliy Klitschko, announced, in what was widely seen as a symbolic concession, that the rest of the arch would be filled in with ‘a Ukrainian decorative pattern.’
The bands of orange, yellow, green, blue and purple that currently rise from the base of the arch, leaving blunt interruptions of grey metal near the top, could as an aesthetic choice have captured the viewer’s gaze and forced them to think about why the progress was incomplete, better than the full rainbow would have done: in that sense, designing such a rupture into the arch might have expressed the contingency of queer politics better.
Enforcing the rupture from outside, however, means that the unpainted metal of the present arch and the traditional national pattern of its future – likely based on the same handicrafts that have given Eurovision 2017 much of its visual identity – also represent the material power that the far right in Ukraine can exert over what degree of LGBT equality, visibility or public presence they are prepared to allow.
The half-rainbowed arch under which many Eurovision fans, of different genders and sexualities, are photographing themselves this weekend in Kyiv is not only, therefore, a symbol of transnational ‘rainbow’ politics or an instrument of national public diplomacy. It is a sign of the contingency and insecurity of queer existence: the knowledge, as immediate or distant as it seems, that even official commitments towards equality can still be met with violence and still bargained away.
The idea that time’s imaginary arrow can go backwards – that even if you can belong more to your nation than you used to do, the time may still come when the nation and its state turns on you again – is not just an experience of queerness in Russia or Ukraine: it is one that queer people in the West are also confronting, after only a few years where it started to feel possible to forget.
There’s a moment, or many moments, in Belgium’s performance at Eurovision this year where, even though the singer Blanche as far as anyone knows isn’t queer, the song captures a mood of insecurity and doubt that queer, and feminist, politics in 2017 knows very well.
In a voice so uncomfortable that a lot of viewers – including myself the first time – initially heard it as stage fright, yet selling the song to enough voters for it to qualify from the semi-final, Blanche keeps returning to the same refrain: ‘All alone in the danger zone / are you ready to take my hand? / All alone in a flame of doubt / are we going to lose it all?’
Rather than fulfilling the same storytelling momentum that recent Eurovision winners have increasingly been able to convey through digital staging that sometimes seems to tell an almost mythological story of command over nature or technology, ‘City Lights’ is caught in indecision. It doesn’t offer the climax of the young-adult dystopian narratives it seems to draw from, where we know that sooner or later the young heroes will make their break, escape the city and join hands; instead, it cycles back to hesitation.
Its last seconds, where Blanche repeats the same line three times before the lights and music suddenly drop out as she crosses her arms, would be an even bleaker winner’s reprise than the end of Jamala’s ‘1944’ – and yet, for some viewers, the words are already on their minds: