Call for papers (panel proposal for BISA 2016 conference): Popular Culture and International Politics: South-Eastern Europe and the Globe
This panel organised by the British International Studies Association’s South East Europe Working Group for the 2016 BISA Conference in Edinburgh (15-17 June 2016) asks how popular culture research about/from south-east Europe can contribute to a wider research agenda in International Studies. How far can popular culture be said to have shaped, as well as reflected, the politics of south-east Europe, and what insights might current research questions in south-east European cultural studies be able to offer the research agendas around Popular Culture and World Politics, Visual International Relations and related areas?
Contributions to the panel might focus on any of the following areas, or other relevant topics:
- Construction and contestation of national identities and other layers of collective/geopolitical identity
- The politics of war memory and collective victimhood
- ‘Banal nationalism’ and ‘banal militarism’
- Post-conflict/post-socialist political economies of cultural production
- International politics of sexuality/gender and popular culture
- Popular culture and the ‘affective atmospheres’ of politics
- Celebrity activism and humanitarianism
- Post-9/11 narratives of international security
- Transnational processes of racialisation
- Popular culture, digital media and diaspora as political actors
- Virality and visuality on social media
- The global movement of people, capital, technologies and texts
- Popular culture and the emotions in IR
- Producing popular-cultural artefacts as an innovative methodology in IR
Please send paper proposals (including a title, a 250-word abstract, a 100-word biography and a contact email to Catherine Baker (email@example.com), with ‘BISA SEE WG popular culture panel’ in the subject line, by Fri 20 November.
How trans and non-binary inclusive was your teaching? Why I’m collecting student perceptions of what their curriculum was like
How often could people who have studied humanities or social sciences say their curriculum had integrated trans and non-binary people and their experiences into the teaching? And how often do educators make sure that students have the opportunity to read work by trans and non-binary authors?
I’m collecting perceptions of trans and non-binary inclusive teaching from people who studied (or are still studying) humanities and/or social sciences in the UK at any point since 2005, in order to inform the teaching I help to develop at my own university and also to help demonstrate to other universities why it matters to have a trans and non-binary inclusive curriculum, and what things in particular people who responded to the survey have seen to work well – or think need to be improved.
The opportunity to do this came up when the last stage of a teaching qualification I’m working towards at Hull (the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice) required us all to do an individual and independent research project. Although the first thing I have to write for the project is an interim report in order to get the PCAP qualification, I wanted to work towards something that could help me test some hypotheses I already had about student perceptions of trans- and non-binary-inclusive teaching, and which could inform work I want to do on helping to improve this in future.
I’m launching an online survey today which will be open until 31 October 2015 for people to respond if they’ve studied humanities and/or social sciences in the UK at any time since 2005. Its focus is on what a trans- and non-binary-inclusive curriculum might be like in practice and how well UK higher education has been providing this so far (in the view of people who respond to the survey). It won’t ask you to identify your university, the subject you studied, or whether you are cis or trans. (And please don’t respond if you’re a current Hull student who I have assessment or pastoral responsibilities over in 2015-16.)
My starting point is that a trans and non-binary curriculum is important, both so that trans and non-binary students aren’t left feeling invalidated by their curriculum and also so that all students finish university better equipped to act in solidarity with trans and non-binary people.
As well as collecting accounts of how trans- and non-binary-inclusive the teaching that people remember might or might not have been – which will be the basis for making recommendations after the survey has finished – there are some more things that I hope the research will test:
- The Equalities Act 2010 obliged universities and other public organisations not to discriminate against people on the grounds of gender reassignment (though much work against transphobia still needs to be done to eradicate the barriers that trans students face in accessing and progressing through UK higher education – see the work of the NUS LGBT campaign and the ongoing campaign for a full-time, paid NUS trans officer), and the government Equalities Challenge Unit recommended universities should make sure curricula did not reinforce transphobic stereotypes – but will there be any significant difference in perceptions from people who were in higher education before 2010 and people who were/are studying more recently?
- Is updating the curriculum enough on its own to create teaching that students perceive as trans- and non-binary-inclusive – and if not, what else will respondents think needed to be done?
- Even if teaching has become more trans-inclusive in general since 2005, what has coverage of non-binary identities and experiences been like?
(I recognise ‘inclusion’ and ‘inclusivity’ are words that don’t in themselves change anything about where the power to include or exclude lies – but I’ve used them in the title of the survey so that what I’m asking about will make sense in a brief way)
The teaching curriculum is only part of a student’s experience at university (and if you take the survey you’ll have an opportunity to express how relatively important you think it is compared to other areas) – but it’s the one that academic staff have the most power to change, so I hope this will complement work against transphobia in other areas of higher education that I try to contribute to as a lecturer and as the current chair of my university’s LGBT network for staff.
After the survey closes, the first thing I’ll do is to write up the project report for my qualification (this will be based on the first 30 responses if the total is higher than that), but then I want to take more action based on what the findings turn out to be:
- At my own university, I’ll discuss them with the Staff LGBT Network, the Hull University Union LGBT+ group and the University’s Equality and Diversity Office
- I’ll write them up for a peer-reviewed article which I’ll submit to an academic journal in the field of higher education, to help support other academics and students who are advocating for trans and non-binary inclusivity in teaching (when academic citations can be useful backup sometimes). If it’s accepted, this will be available through the Hull digital repository and my own academia.edu page
- I’ll liaise with some young people’s trans organisations and the NUS LGBT campaign on whether I can help work that they do, and what ways of presenting the recommendations would be most useful for them
- I’ll use my position to approach academics who might not normally think about trans and non-binary issues, for instance by giving presentations in teaching and learning streams of my subject associations.
If you’d like to be kept informed about reports or articles that I write as a result of the survey, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org (whether or not you’re also taking the survey) and I’ll update you as and when they happen.
The survey itself is available at https://hull.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/transandnonbinaryhss and will be open for responses until the end of 31 October 2015 (GMT). There’s more information for potential participants on the first page of the survey so please read it carefully before deciding whether you want to take part.
In case this post reaches people who don’t usually read this blog
I’m a lecturer in 20th century history at the University of Hull and I’m also currently the chair of the university’s staff LGBT network. Most of my research is on the Yugoslav wars and their aftermath, though I also have wider interests in the politics of popular culture and nationalism and in overcoming structural exclusions that make higher education less accessible that it should be. I’m not quite sure of the best way to describe my gender identity even though it deserves to be mentioned in a post like this (I don’t feel detached from female pronouns but I don’t like people feminising my name too much), but the most accurate way for me to describe the social position my gender gives me would be to say that I’m a cis woman. Most of the research articles I’ve published are available online and I also write about my research interests semi-regularly on this blog (including a collection of posts on feminism and gender). I’m also active on Twitter as @richmondbridge.
In the early 2000s, as Slovenia prepared to join the EU and Croatia waited for its relations with the ICTY to be judged acceptable, post-Yugoslav film-makers became fascinated with the figure of the undocumented Chinese migrant. The plots of films such as Varuh meje (Guardian of the Frontier, 2002), Rezervne deli (Spare Parts, 2003), Kajmak i marmelada (Cream Cheese and Jam, 2003) and Put lubenica (The Melon Route, 2006) turned on the organised smuggling of Chinese migrants into the EU, enabling the ‘Balkan’ criminal networks that facilitated Chinese movement through this intermediate territory (or in one case the police who tried to apprehend Chinese migrants travelling into Slovenia from Croatia upriver) to become settings for their directors’ tales of fragmented post-Yugoslav society. Sunnie Rucker-Chang, in a book chapter on post-Yugoslav films about Chinese migration that deserves to be more widely read, argues that the films ‘us[ed] the Chinese as a proxy for unrecognizable change’, connecting ‘some problematic aspect of [post-Yugoslav] transition – usually crime or social deviance – to the Chinese’ (p. 201).
These were not films about the experiences of undocumented Chinese people trying to reach the EU, but about dislocations the directors wanted to use them to symbolise – the same narrative technique that Kevin Moss and Mima Simic critically argue characterised post-Yugoslav directors’ representations of gays and lesbians in the same period. (Indeed, Varuh meje places both the silent Chinese migrants and its lesbian and bisexual white Slovene protagonists as targets of the mysterious small-town nationalist politician that the Ljubljana students encounter on their canoeing trip.)
Human trafficking is not the only context in which post-Yugoslav film-makers represented Chinese migration – Rucker-Chang also discusses Oprosti za kung fu (Sorry About the Kung Fu, 2004), where a returning Croatian refugee gives birth to a half-Chinese baby, and a group of Serbian films depicting Chinese migrants who have settled to open restaurants and markets – but is probably the single most common form of depicting Chinese presence, notably in the films from Slovenia. Released one or two years before Slovenia would join the European Union and enter the space of the Schengen Agreement, they implied that one facet of post-Yugoslav modernity was the novel visibility of racialised difference in everyday Slovenian life, and Slovenia’s participation in the pan-European project of regulating who should or should not have the right to enter and settle in European space.
Rucker-Chang’s book chapter, and the volume it comes from (Chinese Migrants in Russia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, edited by Rucker-Chang and Felix Chang in 2011), is remarkable for placing these questions at the centre of how it understands the post-Yugoslav region’s international position – the kind of agenda that will need to be embedded much more widely in south-east European studies in order to contextualise scenes such as those of Macedonian police confronting thousands of migrants this weekend after Macedonia temporarily closed its border with Greece.
The early 2000s trafficking films depicted undocumented migration as a flow that goes unnoticed to citizens except those who (themselves socially marginal – yet still belonging to national society in a way that is unavailable to the migrants) participate in the underworld activity of moving them on, with small groups concealed in vehicles or led across rivers at a time. In contrast, the routes of migrants/refugees – many fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan – attempting to travel through the Western Balkans this summer en route to the EU have created not just domestic political disputes but an international spectacle. Media attention has turned from Lampedusa, Kos and Calais to places such as Gevgelija, where last weekend migrants trying to board trains and travel further north took direct action against the Macedonian police lines.
Schengen and the ‘Balkan corridor’
Gevgelija’s railway station makes it a node on the so-called ‘Balkan route‘ or ‘Balkan corridor’ which migrants who have managed to reach Greece (by boat across the Mediterranean, or by crossing from Turkey) follow to reach their intended destinations in the EU. Until June, they had to walk clandestinely through Macedonia and were vulnerable to robbery and even kidnap. A new Macedonian asylum law in June created a temporary asylum status where migrants had 72 hours to transit the country and get to Serbia – where Belgrade has become another waystation before they travel on to Hungary. The fastest way, if someone can find space to board, is using south-east Europe’s international trains.
On 20 August, however, the Macedonian government closed the Greek/Macedonian border and declared that it could no longer manage the 1,000 or more people per day who were coming to Gevgelija seeking onward travel. Scenes of Macedonian police firing stun grenades and tear gas at refugees – desperate to travel on to Hungary before the Hungarian government could finish fencing off its own border with Serbia – amplified a humanitarian crisis where the most visible agents of the violence are the Macedonian police officers dressed in camouflage uniforms and riot gear, but where more complex structures of power, finance and ideology need to be recognised in order to understand the politics of migration, racism and solidarity along the ‘Balkan corridor’.
Hungary’s own closing of its border, which Dario Cepo called ‘a cynical twist in history’ after the flight of Hungarian refugees in 1956 and the consequences of Hungary’s opening its border to East Germans in 1989, was announced in June and follows months of anti-immigration rhetoric by the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban. The spotlight of the European refugee crisis, now the continent’s largest since the aftermath of the Second World War (and with a death toll far exceeding the numbers shot at the Berlin Wall by East German border guards), has shifted to the ‘Balkan corridor’ as people hurry to complete the part of their journeys through the Balkans before having to access the Schengen area another way.
Schengen, the space within the EU where states have agreed to mutually lift their national border controls (enabling travel from, say, Hungary to Germany, or Italy to France, though not from any Schengen member state into the UK), is much more than an ‘area’. It is a political compact, where, as Ruben Zaiotti writes, the ease of movement within the Schengen Area once admitted is exchanged for the ‘exclusionary underpinnings’ (2007: 554) of a strict and frequently humiliating visa regime which explicitly or practically prevents all but the wealthier non-EU citizens from legally entering the EU, and for a racialised system of profiling that states depend on in determining who should be allowed; it is a symbolic obstacle, which exacerbated eastern Europeans’ (perhaps especially post-Yugoslavs’) feelings of marginalisation within Europe as the visa application process reminded them of the unequal terms on which they belonged; it is an system of physical power, intelligence-sharing and surveillance technology that shifts responsibility for regulating overland border-crossing to the states on Schengen’s external borders, organised through the EU border management agency known as Frontex. It is a network that does not defend states and the EU from other states, but from ‘a host of transnational, social threats, […] often personified in the racialized figure of Islamic and nonwhite people’ (Walters 2002 [£]: 570) – individuals, but people whom border management ideology strips of their individuality.
In south-east Europe, however, the Schengen borders and the EU’s own external borders are a moving wall, with complex implications for narratives of national identity. The ‘visa liberalisation‘ agreements of 2009-10, incentives for post-Yugoslav states to progress through the EU’s stabilisation and association road-maps, removed Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania from the list of states whose citizens require visas to enter the Schengen Area (though did not extend to the non-Schengen UK); from being targeted as Schengen’s presumed undesirables, Western Balkan states were now expected to participate in guarding it from outside, after a certain liminal period (when they were ‘harmonising’ their border management practices with the EU but visa requirements had not yet been lifted) when they would have been in both relationships with Schengen at the same time.
Moreover, gaps still remain: Kosovo’s passport-holders still require visas for Schengen and, in Vjosa Musliu’s words, ‘pretty much anywhere’; the EU’s safe-listing of Western Balkan states for asylum purposes has impeded Roma asylum-seekers who still face persecution from their home states.
Standing at the bulwark of Europe
Schengen members Slovenia and Hungary, plus Croatia which began applying for Schengen membership this year, are among the states required to manage the EU’s external borders – a role that lends itself well to contemporary incarnations of the ‘bulwark of Europe’ or ‘bulwark of Christendom’ narratives, well-known for instance from Croatia or Poland, where a certain nation can imagine itself as having historically defended Europe or Christendom against threats from the East. (Other narratives of standing at the ‘gates of Europe’, meanwhile, have inspired the contemporary far right’s narrative of itself as Europe’s last defence against Islamisation.)
Sabina Mihelj suggests that ‘the symbolic position of Slovenia as a devoted guard of Europe’s borders’ (2005 [£]: 122) was institutionalised in the amendments to Slovenia’s asylum laws made in 2000-01 after unexpected rises in asylum applications (from 776 in 1999 to 12,943 in 2000) and undocumented migration from the Middle East and Asia – the same context in which the Slovenian human trafficking films were being conceived.
For Mihelj, ‘Europe’ appeared to represent a ‘wishful projection’ (p. 110) in the national identities of Slovenia and other central and eastern European states – an ‘affective’, almost emotional investment in belonging to simultaneously a community of imagined values and a set of structures which bring pooled state power to bear on determining who can enter, and participate in the social and political life of, the territory linked to that community.
The emotions behind such a longing for belonging are those which, following Sara Ahmed, bind individual subjects to the nation in a way that depends on the exclusion of others – above all ‘the figure of the asylum seeker and the international terrorist’ (Ahmed 2004: 119), Ahmed considered, in contemporary constructions of the West and Europe.
Indeed, post-Yugoslav states have been implicated in guarding not just against the asylum seeker but against the terrorist. In 2003, for instance, Macedonian police arrested Khaled El-Masri during a cross-border bus journey, mistaking him for a suspected terrorist, and interrogated him for three weeks before handing him over to the CIA for the unaccountable process of ‘extraordinary rendition’. El-Masri spent four months at a secret CIA detention facility in Afghanistan. His case against Macedonia at the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in his favour in 2012, was the first time a court had found that extraordinary rendition constituted torture.The UN Human Rights Council secret detention report of 2010 alleged that Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo and Eagle Base (near Tuzla) in Bosnia had both been used as secret CIA detention sites, as had facilities in Poland, Lithuania and Romania.
US forces had also been able to arrest suspects directly in post-Yugoslav states, as in the ‘Algerian Six’ case in Bosnia, where six Algerians were arrested the day after 9/11 (on suspicion of conspiring to bomb the US Embassy in Sarajevo) and taken to Guantanamo Bay. This too resulted in legal proceedings, with the US Supreme Court ruling in 2008 that the US constitutional right to habeas corpus did extend to prisoners at Guantanamo. Meanwhile, in the public face of the War on Terror, Western Balkan states aspiring to join NATO have been able to demonstrate their readiness and to gain their operational experience by sending contingents to the coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The project of integrating Western Balkan states into the ‘Euro-Atlantic institutions’, chiefly the EU and NATO, links border security practices and participation in the War on Terror materially as well as discursively – yet in a way that depends on narratives about what ‘Europe’ is there to provide security against.
The weekend’s scenes at the Macedonian border, therefore, present much more than a story about Macedonian police tactics – even though the government of Nikola Gruevski is no stranger to turning a crisis into a spectacle, and, as Ivana Jordanovska writes, ‘[t]he ordeal of hundreds of children crying at the border of our country, afraid of the stun grenades and tear gas, forever bearing the imagery of a Macedonian police uniform as one of the scariest figures of their childhood’ will remain a legacy of the crossing for the refugees at Gevgelija that day.
Police and border guards on the EU’s external borders are trained and coordinated through European institutions, including the Frontex programme on which almost a billion euros have now been spent; the contemporary form of police paramilitarisation which can be read from the Gevgelija photographs is a global configuration of technology, capital and power.
Yet there are also many potential narratives of solidarity between citizens of post-Yugoslav states and today’s refugees: based on memories of displacement and hospitality in the 1990s; based on anti-nationalist activism against immigration controls; based on a universalist humanitarian ethic; perhaps even some based on connections between Yugoslavia and countries like Syria during the Non-Aligned Movement, a period where quite a few Yugoslavs’ life courses crossed into Syria and some Syrians’ vice versa.
Energies of solidarity
As in Greece (where residents of Thessaloniki have been organising to feed and support refugees for months), Hungary (where the immigrant/refugee/Hungarian coalition Migszol formed in Szeged, and Migration Aid in Budapest, to assist refugees at ‘transit zones’) or France (where Calais Migrant Solidarity is monitoring police violence against migrants at the improvised camps near the Channel Tunnel), self-organised solidarity groups have formed at all the nodes along the ‘Balkan corridor’ – from the Help the Migrants in Macedonia group (which has appealed for donations from inside and outside Macedonia) and Legis (helping to deliver food, water and supplies to migrants camped outside Macedonian stations), to groups collecting and delivering support from Croatia and Bosnia, to initiatives in Belgrade that the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies has helped to coordinate (including appeals for volunteers to deliver essential goods to refugees at Belgrade station in person, and an online map of resources for refugees which is now being crowd-translated into Arabic). Indeed, the CEAS map has extended into a Balkan Refugee Map which, at the time of writing, was starting to cover Skopje, Budapest, Sofia and Thessaloniki as well as Belgrade – and continued to be in need of content and translators.
The energy of these solidarity groups recalls responses to the floods of 2014, which again mobilised pan-regional self-organised expressions of solidarity in the face of ineffective governmental reactions. As with the floods, the practical question once the moment of crisis has passed is what kinds of structures can sustain these solidarities between such moments when national political systems – conveniently for the political and financial interests of existing elites – leave very little space for them to be expressed.
At the same time, there may and should be implications for the questions that researchers ask about the region. Just as the global financial crisis of 2008 seems to have helped questions of social inequalities and economic precarity return to the agenda for explaining the break-up of Yugoslavia and its consequences, the 2015 refugee crisis may yet accelerate the momentum to ask how the region’s national identities have been embedded in ideologies of race and whiteness that have so often given meaning to ideas of European belonging. This is a different kind of postcolonial lens to the one that is most commonly applied to the Balkans, and sometimes an uncomfortable one to apply. The tension between them is there in the silences that, Stef Jansen noted, ran simultaneously with Bosnians’ and Serbians’ anger at their own exclusion from ‘Europe’ through the visa regime:
Almost nobody compared EU visa restrictions for BiH or Serbian passport holders to that of people from, say, Asia or Africa. And if anyone did, it was often precisely to prove the point of humiliation. Some expressed exasperation at being ‘in the same newspaper reports with Rwanda,’ and others made rueful comments to me about having become the object of anthropological research, a discipline considered to be about ‘primitive tribes’.
In a post-Cold War context where capitalist liberal democracy was projected as the only possible route of development, this resonated with the Eurocentrism so central to the EU-project itself. The relentless calls by EU politicians that ‘BiH and Serbia prove their commitment to Europe’ implied that they distance themselves from non-Europeans who might or might not share some of their predicaments. At every step on the ‘road to Europe’ – built around the progressive fulfilment of conditions and a presumably known destination – EU officials exhorted local politicians to raise the outer European fence in order to be allowed within it.
The Yugoslav lands, lest we forget, have the historical experience not of colonizers but of colonies, having been parts of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Moreover, through the Non-Aligned Movement, they have been central to a non-Eurocentric, anti-imperialist global alliance. Yet that engagement is part of the region’s socialist history, which has been declared illegitimate as a foundation for its future by both local and EU elites. When anti-Eurocentrism might be a luxury that those on its margins can only afford at the price of their own exclusion, in this geopolitical moment Eurocentrism is the channel through which they can prove their European-ness in terms acceptable to the EU.
Jansen’s final question looked into a future when Bosnia and Serbia themselves might have joined the Schengen regime, asking how their citizens’ own experiences of exclusion from Europe might shape their relationships towards the contemporary EU bordering project:
If and when BiH and Serbia join the Schengen zone – or some successor of it – what will be the legacy of the furious resentment of the first two post-Yugoslav decades? Will their citizens prove to be exemplary Europeans, approaching migration matters with selfishness and inhospitality? Or will there be a hopeful residue of the anger? As rows of other people, seeking to travel to Europe, are being treated as ‘idiots’ in the queues under the EU flags in front of some BiH or Serbian embassy, will anyone be able to turn the memory of their own humiliation into a source of solidarity?
Some hint of Jansen’s speculation is already becoming visible in Gevgelija, in Belgrade, and indeed in Thessaloniki and Szeged and Budapest.
Groups currently supporting migrants in the areas discussed here include:
- Podrška za izbjeglice i migrante, BiH (including groups in Bihac, Sarajevo, Zenica and Zavidovici at the time of writing)
- Bosanci, pomozimo izbjeglicama u Beogradu (taking goods to refugees in Belgrade)
- Pomozi.ba (appealing for donations)
- Red Cross BiH appeal
- Help the Migrants Macedonia – with this appeal for donations
- Otvorena Porta/Open Gate – La Strada Macedonia
- UNICEF Macedonia
- Refugee Aid Serbia (assisting refugees at transit point in Belgrade)
- Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies (list of goods currently needed in Belgrade)
- Podrška i solidarnost za izbeglice sa Bliskog istoka i severa Afrike
- No Border Serbia
- Belgrade refugee resources map (translators into Arabic needed; being extended into Balkan Refugee Map)
- Balkan Refugee Map Translation Project
- Nijedan čovek nije ilegalan (sharing information in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian)
Many initiatives are small, and this won’t be an exhaustive list. Thanks to Elissa Helms, Kole Kilibarda, Nidzara Ahmetasevic and Isabel Stroehle for advice on links to include here.
 While her chapter doesn’t mention Varuh meje, its representations are very much in the same vein as the other Slovenian films.
 Moss and Simic’s article isn’t open access, but this book chapter by Moss covers similar problems of ‘queer as metaphor’ in central and eastern European film.
 At the time of writing, also available online here.
After a little bit more than two years of preparation, my introduction to The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s is about to be available (at least in Europe, where it’s being published on 7 August; North America has a publication date of 21 August) – much more quickly than I’d originally expected when I submitted the manuscript in December 2014, but Palgrave were keen to make it available in time for the new academic year and with hard work from their editors and typesetters that’s what’s happened.
I’ve written before on this blog about how I went about planning the book and what it contains, but now readers are about to be able to use it for themselves I ought to say something about what I hope the book will make it possible for people to do.
It might be counter-intuitive in an introductory text, but for me the most important rationale of writing the book has been: make it a book that encourages people to read more books. I really hope this won’t be the one and only thing somebody reads – and I hope I’ve conveyed the importance of following up books that sound as if you’ll disagree with them, as well as books that sound as if they’ll confirm your point of view or your way of looking at the past.
That said, there are people for whom it might be the first book on the Yugoslav wars that they read, or for whom it’ll be the first one with academic authority that they turn to in order to fill in the context behind what they’ve heard about the wars through news, entertainment or travel. This is a huge responsibility, but it’s the same one that I face multiple times a year along with anyone else who finds themselves structuring a course of learning: defining a subject of knowledge (what is there to be known about? what is and isn’t relevant?), ordering that into a coherent structure so that readers or learners are progressing through something, and doing that in such a way that they’re able to articulate their concepts of the topic and what kinds of questions they can ask about it. Only this time, it’s scaled up.
There’s also the question of who the hell am I to write this book – someone whose own specialist research has been on potentially tangential aspects of the wars and their aftermath (like national identity in popular music, or the international politics of the Eurovision Song Contest, or how peacekeeping forces get their translation and interpreting done). My research monographs haven’t been on questions of hard political and military fact that have to be established in determining individual guilt and responsibility, and I’m still earlier in my career than many of the people whose books are in the bibliography. (Yet I’ve been able to have the confidence that this book came about because the series asked me if I either knew anyone who could write the book or could do it myself, and I’d spent too long (ever since my first academic year of teaching in 2007-8) thinking about ‘what I’d want an intro text on the Yugoslav wars to do that no available book actually did’ to pass up the opportunity to try and tailor one to all the potential kinds of users that I was aware of.
And in a way, maybe it’s a strength of the book that it isn’t written from a position where the author takes ultimate academic authority about all aspects of the topic on themselves (even though the book still has to have the authority of organising this knowledge, which is a profound form of power to be exercising). I’m at the start of my career, not the end; I can’t take that position anyway. On most topics I need to cover, the experts are someone else more than me; I’m actively participating in taking research in south-east European studies forward (so I’ve been able to write the book with a feel for what’s happening in the subject area right now), but so are most of the people who are cited in the 400+ entries of the bibliography. And moreover, I don’t want a reader’s answer to ‘How do I know this?’ to just be ‘Because she said so.’
(Even if that’s still a novelty compared to ‘Because he said so.’ There are 35 other books in this series listed on the inside front cover of Yugoslav Wars, including people whose books were set texts for me when I was studying (Jeremy Black, William Doyle) or whose modules I took (David Stevenson), and apart from Karin Friedrich and Mary Fulbrook the authors of all the other books are male. It’s an eminent and almost disconcerting set of names to look at, especially when your surname is Baker and until the series commissions a book by someone whose name begins with A you’re going to be alphabetically top of the list – directly above Black, T C W Blanning, John Breuilly and Peter Burke, to make the list of contributors even more dizzying.)
But then, the most difficult parts of the book have been where I need to steer the reader towards evidence about what can be stated as fact – for instance, the horrific forensic evidence from mass graves around Srebrenica, as painstakingly collected since 1996 by the International Commission on Missing Persons (and despite the efforts there have been to interfere with their work by trying to argue down the number of casualties or even disturbing the graves). There’s an awful lot of misinformation around: being able to understand how narratives and interpretations are made to compete with each other is one thing, but will the reader be better equipped to see through deliberate attempts to mislead after they’ve read this book?
And another strength of the book is maybe that, of course, I don’t think the topics I’ve researched are marginal to understanding the Yugoslav wars at all – or rather, that I’ve been able to demonstrate they all have something to say about the much wider question of what is relevant to know about war, conflict and identity. Understanding how musicians, journalists and the public dealt with issues of national identity in popular music helps to show how far the struggles to redefine Croatian national identity during and after the Yugoslav wars reached into everyday life as well as the more obvious communicative sites of political speechmaking and the news. Suggesting why the national broadcaster of newly-independent Croatia was so intent on participating in the Eurovision Song Contest can help in understanding how people actually apply and create discourses of national and European identity and how these might have been transforming after the Cold War. Emphasising how dependent peacekeeping forces were on locally-recruited language intermediaries and how interpreters negotiated the aftermaths of war and the collapse of Yugoslav socialism reveals power relationships in wartime and post-conflict society that had been taken for granted even in earlier peacekeeping research.
So the book has a chapter on ‘Culture and Languages During and After the Wars’ not just because rounding up the key debates on this topic automatically makes the book more useful in languages and literature departments (it does, though!) but because my position as a researcher has always been we can’t understand the full reach of the wartime politics of nationalism without going into these areas. There’s a chapter on ‘The Past on Trial’ not just so that the book might appeal more to scholars who are planning a comparative research project on transitional justice and need a quick introduction to the Yugoslav Wars (although that’s still a need I hope it meets), but because as someone who wants to understand the political lives of narratives, I can see (along with the historians whose very recent publications on the ICTY made this chapter possible) the contested findings and processes of the ICTY and national courts raise profound questions about the production of historical knowledge itself.
I could fall back here on many historians (in social history, cultural history, gender history, global history…) who have striven to take the study of war beyond the battlefield and the negotiating table, or (to take one very recent statement of a position like this) on Christine Sylvester’s position in War and Experience that ‘war should be studied as a social institution’, the kind of thing that ’emerge[s] over time and dominate[s] alternative ways of living to such a degree that they seem normal and natural, or at least unavoidable’ (p.4): to paraphrase Sylvester’s list, it’s the myths and the narratives and the peacetime practices and the weapons research and the religious teachings and the popular cultural representations, as well as the troop movements and the consequences of combat. All this would be part of a whole layer of texts that space prevented me fitting into the introduction yet that have shaped how I wanted to approach writing the book – in other words, works that have shaped my understanding of what things are worth knowing about war.
Nevertheless, the book has limitations, beyond the ones that I can re-cast as perverse strengths, such as the restricted word count – books in the series have a limit of 50,000 words, but then knowing I wouldn’t be able give an exhaustive account of any single aspect of the conflicts was counter-intuitively what made it feasible for me to think about writing it at all. I can’t cover the minutiae of any of the many disputes in the literature that there have been; the best I can do on that score is try to indicate where works have been in direct conflict with each other.
In order to make the word count, I also cut back the long-term historical background by almost a half at a late stage, and compressed the complexity of a lot of my discussion of interpretations of the past before 1918, so that the rest of the chapters would fit. So there’s exciting new work on, for instance, nationalism, ethnicity, language and religion in the late Ottoman/late Habsburg period; or the politics of the first Yugoslav state between the World Wars; or on the history of socialist Yugoslav feminism and its implications for understanding women’s movements worldwide; that the reader isn’t going to get to hear about or where I haven’t been able to let the writing slow down and ask the reader to think about what these historians might be trying to do.
No doubt it’s also going to dissatisfy specialists in other ways. Almost every sentence of the book relates to something that there are whole books about; I’ve had to condense arguments and pick out details while striking a balance between what existing publications have collectively constructed as important and what I can add in order to suggest how frameworks for understanding the wars could still expand. None of this is innocent or value-free work. I go back, again, to David Campbell’s 1998 review article ‘MetaBosnia‘, which compared how many of 32 events between 1990 and 1992 a number of published books on the Bosnian conflict had mentioned or left out. (And those 32 events were themselves the active selection of an author, of course.) Campbell suggested the deepest understanding of the past would have to come from reading multiple accounts, and I tend to agree even though it’s always possible to say (within the framework of the political and intellectual standards anyone has acquired) that some accounts are more comprehensive or rigorous than others. Nevertheless, part of understanding the past is seeing how disagreement about interpreting it works, and one has to look at multiple accounts in order to be able to do that.
There’s a politics of knowledge behind everything I choose to mention or omit – when I say to myself ‘that has to be in there’ because the account would be incomprehensible without it, or it would simply feel unethical (except that ethics aren’t ‘simple’) to leave it out; when I say to myself ‘put this in because most accounts wouldn’t think to mention it and it will help to make this my book’; when I choose to take one recent publication as a worked example of how researchers try to create new historical interpretations from fresh evidence, rather than another; when I don’t even view something as relevant enough to add it to my notes at planning stage, or when I reluctantly decide one week from deadline that it’s just going to have to go. I’ve at least tried to be transparent about where and how I have simplified – though I could drill down into almost every sentence and show that something more ought to be there.
The limitation I’m most conscious of, and where I still don’t think I’ve done a good enough job, comes from the politics of translation that have structured what work I was able to cite for an anglophone reader. If the reader can only be expected to have access to sources written in English, there are too many occasions where I could only cite an article or book chapter by someone whose book-length research published in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian has been agenda-setting, and one or two occasions where the citation I needed wasn’t available in English translation yet at all. This isn’t good enough. In future I need to see what I can do to help make more research from the post-Yugoslav region available in translation – I’ve brought this up as a problem for years when writing book reviews, but maybe I’m getting to be in a structural position where I could help change that. I didn’t centre the untranslated work enough in this one, and I think I got it wrong.
All that said, it still offers something that other books don’t – beyond, hopefully, what comes simply from having been written now, rather than in the late 1990s or immediately after the Kosovo War. (Although there is that too.) It shows how the contestation involved in historical research and representation is woven together with the very act of trying to be able to say something of what happened in the past; and using an authorial voice which is sometimes openly uncertain with the reader about how best to approach something still feels relatively unusual for an intro text, which I think is something distinctive about the book as well. For instance, how radically can or should one try to ‘deconstruct’ the idea of ethnicity or ‘denationalise’ history when people who have been persecuted as ethnic subjects demand to be recognised on that same basis? I don’t think it has a simple answer – indeed in different publications I’ve gone about it different ways myself – and the book certainly hasn’t found one, but I hope it’s something that the reader will be able to close the book and think about.
This ought to be leading up to a promotional message of ‘read the book’. But what I want to say is: read the book, and then read other books, and do things with the book, and recognise where limits of the book are (both the ones I’ve told you about and the ones that I was still too close to it to see). Don’t let me have the final word for you.
All right. Now read the book.
The 60th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest has probably seen more academic involvement in real time around Eurovision than any other contest – including a live-streamed conference sponsored by the European Broadcasting Union last month which put researchers and broadcasters in dialogue with each other (which I unfortunately wasn’t able to go and listen to because of a full day of teaching here at Hull – but the recording of the event is still online, and I hope there’ll be publications based on some of the talks in future).
There’s been a Eurovision Research Network since 2009, and indeed academics with interests in cultural studies, European identities and the politics of representation were already networking around Eurovision before that – the first full conference on Eurovision I remember took place in Volos in 2008 (I was there talking about what participating in Eurovision had used to mean in Croatia), and before that in 2006 I’d contributed to a panel on Eurovision at an International Communications Association conference with what I thought was a sideline (on ‘ethno-pop’ and simulated folklore at Eurovision) from my PhD research but which would end up as my most-cited publication by some way.
More recently, universities in Eurovision host cities or countries have organised conferences during or very close to the contest itself (beginning with a conference in Oslo in 2010) – including the conference last year in Copenhagen which invited me as one of their keynote speakers and gave me an opportunity to reassess my own frameworks for thinking about the cultural politics of what turned out to be a very specific European historical moment in the mid-2000s before the global financial crisis of 2008.
I haven’t been involved in media commentary on the same scale as the people who have really developed Eurovision research as a visible field in the last 5-6 years (Paul Jordan, who’s researched nation-branding and Eurovision in Estonia and Ukraine, has even become part of BBC Eurovision semi-final coverage – as in this extract from a semi-final interval last year where he and Tijana Dapcevic are giving the BBC’s Scott Mills a crash course in Macedonian pronounciation), but this year I did find myself talking to journalists about Eurovision much more than usual – and if it’s the one time of year that you can get the British (or French or Australian) public interested in the politics of popular culture in former Yugoslavia or how that has fitted into wider processes of narrating collective identities in Europe since the end of the Cold War, why not?
This year I was also coordinating a special issue of an academic journal on Eurovision, so one way or another it’s been something I’ve been much more involved with as a researcher – and a good opportunity to try and become more confident as an interviewee than I have been.
For the sake of rounding everything up, this is what I’ve contributed to this year:
- ABC’s Rear Vision radio documentary on the history of Eurovision (which the Rear Vision team wrote up here)
- A France 24 feature on Eurovision and gay rights (also in English here)
- A Buzzfeed report on the prospects for Kosovo joining Eurovision
- The first live radio interview I’ve ever done – on Phil White’s daytime show for BBC Radio Humberside (at 40 minutes in)
- And a video interview for Contemporary Southeastern Europe to accompany my introduction to our Eurovision special issue – which we were able to publish online (as a set of open access papers) on the day of the second semi-final
Eurovision focuses public attention on a lot of issues that are part of my wider research, so for some years I’ve also been using it as an opportunity to communicate that on social media at a time when people are maybe more likely than usual to be open to thinking about them. Since 2011, every year before Eurovision I try to write up a long blog post on the politics of Eurovision from one angle or another – in previous years these have covered discourses about ‘eastern European bloc voting’, the impossibility of keeping Eurovision non-political, national promotion and the European financial crisis, and this year looking at some narratives of multiculturalism. Last year, building on a talk I’d originally given for LGBT History Month at Hull) I blogged about Eurovision and narratives of LGBT equality a few weeks before Eurovision happened to be won by Conchita Wurst – in a year when the major geopolitical framework viewers and journalists were projecting on to Eurovision was the relationship between Europe and Russia and the place of LGBT rights within it. (Which meant quickly writing up a second, just as extensive blog post.)
The LGBT/Conchita posts have probably been one of the reasons there’s been wider interest in my Eurovision-related work than usual. They’ve been popping up in academic citations already as well, and they continue to bring new readers to this blog – even outside the peak period of interest in Eurovision, most weeks WordPress shows me a handful of search results like ‘eurovision gay audience’, ‘eurovision history queer’, or the current front-runner in the list of search terms this month, ‘why is eurovision so gay’. (There are also a few more left-field ones: ‘eurovision presenter with one breast lower than the other’ is currently the most baffling one this year; and I don’t know the background to why someone was searching for ‘syldavian language eurovision’, but don’t blame me if that’s the next Belgian entry – after all, Belgium has sung in an imaginary language before…)
The other thing I’ve been doing with social media and Eurovision is livetweeting during the broadcasts (which I’ve also done during some opening ceremonies for international sports competitions, including London 2012 and Sochi/Glasgow 2014). That makes me plus what can feel like almost everyone else on Twitter, then (and in fact it’s even been suggested that the ‘second-screen experience’ of being able to tweet along with Eurovision is one of the reasons Eurovision viewing figures have been so healthy in recent years); but enjoying the contest and thinking about how to understand it blurs together (as it so often does – if you research popular culture, in some ways you never really stop being at work). I collected up my Eurovision tweets this morning while I was writing this blog post up and am a little bit alarmed that Storify has chosen a header image of the rainbow flags seen in the audience during Russia’s semi-final performance all on its own.
The main Eurovision-related things I’ve been thinking about since the final – both of which have something to do with digital media themselves – are the narratives around a potential Russian win this year and the question of how or whether Eurovision might start admitting Kosovo – which will probably win the race to be the next Eurovision debutant within Europe, assuming Radio Television of Kosovo stays interested and (the bigger question) whether the European Broadcasting Union wants Kosovo to be represented as a participating state.
First of all, the first half of the Eurovision voting – where Russia’s Polina Gagarina seemed to be building up a lead before points suddenly started flowing towards Sweden.
(Look out for the rainbow flags in these crowd shots from the semi-final – which in the final (with different people probably sitting in the seats) were various national flags instead)
The spectacle of participating countries reading out their votes is part of the ritual of Eurovision, and the source of most of Eurovision’s symbolic phrases, such as ‘douze points‘, which we hear every time the presenters read back votes in French; ‘nul points‘, which is equally part of viewers’ common knowledge about Eurovision although it’s never actually heard; not to mention ‘Hello, [City], can we have your votes please?‘, and the expectation that at least one satellite link will go completely wrong (this year, there were three). Voting is also where spontaneous moments are most likely to break into the ritual, and supposedly this part of the show can even have higher viewing figures than the songs.
Since 2011, the EBU has accelerated the tension of the voting by basing the voting order on an algorithm ‘to try and make the voting as exciting as possible’ – where feasible, arranging the order to delay the announcement of the winner until as close to the end as they can. (The juries who now award 50% of a country’s points total have already voted during a live dress rehearsal or ‘jury final’ the night before, meaning organisers can calculate the voting order for the televised final overnight.)
During the first third of the voting, the highest points tended to be going to Gagarina – a sign, pre-algorithm, that she’d have a good chance of hanging on to her lead throughout. One of the things the Eurovision structure of a competition between nations does is invites viewers to construct geopolitical narratives around what they see and hear, and indeed usually that’s one of the pleasures of watching it. Over this quarter of an hour, however, the prospect of Russia winning Eurovision 2015 and therefore hosting Eurovision 2016 was also provoking reactions ranging from apprehension to outrage on social media – and also in the live audience, where the crowd was booing loudly enough for the presenters to intervene but sound engineers replaced the sound with cheers.
The editing of the crowd reaction has been controversial enough, but another point worth making is that the emotional reactions produced by this concentration of Gagarina’s highest scores into a short space of time were a result of the organisers’ narrative intervention in the voting order – and wouldn’t necessarily have happened in a randomly allocated order where Gagarina, Sweden’s Mans Zelmerlow (the winner) and Italy’s Il Volo (who came third) might have been exchanging a lead more gradually or Zelmerlow leading throughout.
Of all the format changes that Eurovision organisers have made since 1998-2000, when the development of Eurovision into a contemporary arena spectacle began, this is the one that most deeply alters their role from the arbiters of a competition to the authorial position of guiding audience’s expectations in a particular direction. (Eurovision producers can now also exercise control over the running order of songs on stage, which has been more controversial among fans, but arguably doesn’t have the same concentrated impact as narrative intervention in the voting order.)
The algorithm has existed in previous years too, but never produced an outcome that’s played on audience emotions to the same extent, in the light of everything that’s currently at stake around perceptions of Russia and around the experience of those whom Putin’s policies have put at risk. This year, at least, felt as if the algorithm had placed Eurovision producers more in the role of a pro wrestling promoter than a sports referee – deliberately crafting a narrative that will mobilise the audience’s emotional investment in the fate of a hero or villain before turning the outcome around at a climactic point. Perhaps this was the inevitable result of the algorithm – we don’t know enough about it to say whether it could have arranged the points given in any other order, given what it’s been programmed to do – but the spectacle of Eurovision voting, as viewers in future years will need to remember, is something much more scripted than it used to be.
(And let’s not forget that the homophobic/biphobic/transphobic Russian right wing itself actually wants Russia to leave Eurovision – Vitaly Milonov, the architect of the Russian ‘anti-homopropaganda’ legislation, is also one of the loudest voices calling for Russia to withdraw.)
Hello, Priština, can we have your votes please?
The second thing to pick up is whether, or when, Kosovo is going to make its Eurovision debut – a question that was already being asked even before Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008. This year, representatives of Radio Television of Kosovo (RTK) were apparently in Vienna during Eurovision week, and Kosovo’s deputy foreign minister, Petrit Selimi, suggested while he was livetweeting the Eurovision final that Kosovo might participate next year:
The obstacle, so far, has been that Kosovo’s independence still isn’t recognised by the United Nations or a number of states inside and outside Europe (including Serbia and Russia, but also for instance Spain). It isn’t a member state of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and, as such, RTK doesn’t count as the public broadcaster of a country in the European Broadcasting Area – the criterion for Active Membership of the European Broadcasting Union, which until very recently used to be a prerequisite for participating in the Eurovision Song Contest.
This year, however, Eurovision saw its first entry by an ‘Associate Member’ broadcaster – Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service, ostensibly as a one-off to celebrate the 60th edition of Eurovision and the long-standing interest in Eurovision among Australian viewers. The Australian entry, Guy Sebastian’s ‘Tonight Again’, came fifth – an excellent result for a new participant, but not the victory Australia would have needed to return next year (when, even then, Australia wouldn’t have been allowed to host).
Relaxing the link between Eurovision participation and active membership of the EBU suggests that, even if RTK can’t become an EBU active member for some time, there could be a way for Eurovision to include an entry from Kosovo – in the event that its organisers wanted to include Kosovo as a participant, which politically is the most important question. Could RTK be admitted either as an associate member of the EBU (although this is a category for public broadcasters of ITU member states outside the European Broadcasting Area), or in the EBU’s third category of ‘approved participant’ (defined as containing ‘[o]rganisations from an ITU country with an activity in the field of broadcasting which for any reason do not qualify for active or associate membership but whose participation in certain EBU activities is considered useful for the Union’ – in practice it contains some broadcasters based in particular countries, some transnational television networks such as Arte and Euronews, and a telecoms infrastructure firm)?
In the meantime, Kosovo will already have participated at the Rio Olympics after being recognised by the International Olympic Committee in 2014 – itself potentially a triumph for Selimi’s strategy of ‘digital diplomacy‘. After starting to be admitted into the ‘world of nations’ that international sports events make up, could the objective of Eurovision recognition be next?
Celebrating a multicultural Europe?: stories and silences of multiculturalism in the Eurovision Song Contest
The Europe celebrated in today’s Eurovision Song Contest is a multicultural Europe. And so it seemed when the three Austrian presenters of this year’s contest stood next to each other for the first time in the broadcast of the semi-final: Alice Tumler, whose mother is from Martinique, Mirjam Weichselbraun, whose parents are white, and Arabella Kiesbauer, whose father is from Ghana, are all well-known light-entertainment presenters in Austria. Together, they also help to personify an Austria and a Europe which, a narrative of multiculturalism would suggest, has incorporated the 20th century’s migrants of colour and their descendants into what it means to be Austrian or European in the early 21st century.
Eurovision researchers tend to agree that Eurovision is an event where performers, broadcasters and viewers all use and express ideas about the cultural identity of Europe, and ideas about how a particular nation might relate to Europe. Sometimes, what happens in Eurovision might even feed into how people think about the meaning of Europe in a wider sense.
As well as thinking about Eurovision from the point of view of lesbian, gay, bi and trans equality, or of the idea of European ‘enlargement’ after the Cold War, both of which I’ve tried to do before, another question that researchers of Eurovision have started to explore is: how well has Eurovision reflected the multicultural reshaping of national and European identities that took place in the late 20th and early 21st century, and is Eurovision – or Europe – always as inclusive as even that tale of progress might suggest?
When I put these questions to a European Studies class at the University of Cincinnati who I spoke to over Skype a few months ago (with thanks to their teacher, Sunnie Rucker-Chang, for inviting me to talk to her students), I didn’t begin by talking about something that had happened in Eurovision, but about one of many reactions to a Eurovision performance – indeed, as extreme a reaction against multiculturalism in Europe as it would be possible to find.
Norway from 2011 to 2012
The 1,500-page manifesto of Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in Oslo and Utøya in July 2011, not only explained his ideology – a fantasy of defending Norway and Europe from Islamification, which targeted the Left because he believed that contemporary Europe’s accommodation of feminism and multiculturalism had left Europe vulnerable to an Islamic takeover from within – but also contained a day-by-day account of his preparation for the attacks.
On one day in May 2011, Breivik commented on that year’s Eurovision Song Contest, where Norway was represented by the Kenyan-Norwegian singer Stella Mwangi. Mwangi’s song Haba haba told the story of the life lessons she had learned from her Kenyan grandmother, with lyrics in English and Swahili – the first time any East African language had been heard on stage at Eurovision.
Breivik filled his commentary with racist slurs against Mwangi and the complaint that ‘my country has a crap, politically correct contribution’. Elsewhere, meanwhile, he wrote about the music that he himself intended to listen to as he motivated himself for the attacks: particularly songs by the Swedish far-right singer Saga; the epic soundtrack composition ‘Requiem for a Tower’; and a song from the Age of Conan video game soundtrack by another Norwegian vocalist, Helene Bøksle. Bøksle is white, fair-haired, and usually performs in Norwegian, her vocals well-matched with the epic style of music that Breivik admired. Coincidentally, Bøksle had also competed to represent Norway at Eurovision in 2011, with the song Vardlokk (Calling the soul).
The divergent way that Breivik’s extremist ideology made sense of two musicians, Mwangi and Bøksle, who were both deeply embedded in contemporary Norwegian culture shouldn’t suggest that there’s a simplistic binary tension between tradition and multiculturalism – and indeed, the fact that Breivik operated with a binary like that is itself a good reason to oppose one.
Rather, it illustrates an observation that can also be made about Eurovision in much more mundane ways: performances in Eurovision, and discussions about Eurovision, take place within a wide field of narratives about the idea of Europe, the cultural values Europe might have, and the relationship that any nation or person might have with those.
These narratives are always political; they are affected by politics, and they shape politics. And because Eurovision is set up as a competition between countries (just think how much you see the countries’ names on screen during Eurovision, compared to the performers’ or broadcasters’ names, after all), it invites its audiences to make sense of what they see and hear with reference to what they know about national and European identities.
The year after the Oslo and Utøya attacks, Norway’s participation again gives us an illustration of how Eurovision invites viewers to ‘narrativise’ what they see even if the narratives aren’t made explicit. The Norwegian contestant in 2012, Tooji, is an Iranian-Norwegian singer and trained social worker who has worked with young refugees (and his song, like many Eurovision entries since the early 2000s from countries such as Turkey, Greece, Armenia and Azerbaijan, worked ‘eastern’-sounding instrumental flourishes into its pop-R&B arrangement).
A Norwegian expression of defiance against Breivik’s racist, exclusionary concept of Norway and Europe and the terror he had planned to sow in Norwegian society? It was certainly there for a viewer to read if they wanted to, as was a demonstration of Norway as being fully up-to-date with contemporary transnational pop trends – although the song (while qualifying for the final night) still ended up coming last in the Eurovision final.
Watching any Eurovision Song Contest in recent years would demonstrate that the contemporary contest represents European multiculturalism and does so through a narrative of progress – that European nations, and Europe, have been successful in becoming multicultural, and that multiculturalism is one of Europe’s values.
Yet this has taken time: although Eurovision began in the very period when the largest scale of postcolonial migration into western Europe was taking place, it took many years for Eurovision to reflect this social change in any substantial way.
Danse, balance sur le white and black blues
Until 1964, Eurovision remained in the words of the Dutch musicologist and cultural historian Lutgard Mutsaers, ‘an all-white environment’ (2007: 164) – a monoracial track record first interrupted when the Netherlands selected an Indonesian-Dutch singer, Anneke Gronloh. Two years later, another Dutch representative, Milly Scott, became the first black musician to sing at Eurovision when she performed Fernando en Filippo (Fernando And Filippo) in 1966.
Yet, including Scott, there would be only five black participants in Eurovision between 1967 (when Eduardo Nascimento represented Portugal) and 1990, when Joelle Ursull (a former member of the trio Zouk Machine) represented France with the song White and Black Blues (based on Afro-Caribbean percussion and dance, though written by a white composer, Serge Gainsbourg).
France, indeed, stood out in early-1990s Eurovision for entries that represented France first as a multicultural nation and later as a nation of diverse regions (with songs in the mid-1990s reflecting Corsica and Brittany). The next French entrant after Ursull, Amina Annabi, was French-Tunisian, sang with North African vocal ornamentation, and very nearly won; France’s singer in 1992, Kali, was Haitian and sang in French and Antillean Creole.
In her book on Corsican choirs and the ‘world music’ market, Transported by Song, the musicologist Caroline Bithell connects this run of French entries to the policy of the 1988-93 French culture minister, Jack Lang. Lang wanted to reshape French national identity around the image of a ‘champion of cultural diversity’, evident in state support for ‘world music’ production but also in how the French national broadcaster represented France at Eurovision.
(Redirected towards the French regions, something of Lang’s diversity strategy remained after 1993, when French Eurovision entries tended to reflect the linguistic diversity of regions including Corsica and Brittany.)
Ursull was the first of 14 black singers who would perform in Eurovision during the 1990s, especially for France, the Netherlands and Portugal but also for Austria, Britain, Israel and Bosnia-Herzegovina (where Béatrice Poulot, from Réunion, joined Dino Merlin’s multilingual Bosnian entry in 1999). France and the Netherlands especially might have the potential to go down in Eurovision history as multicultural pioneers; though Mutsaers also points out that, as of 2007 when she wrote her book chapter, no Dutch Eurovision representative had had Moroccan or Turkish heritage even though these were the two largest immigrant communities in the Netherlands. (The Moroccan-Dutch singer Hind Laroussi subsequently represented the Netherlands in 2008.)
Come on everybody, let’s sing along and feel the power of a song
Eurovision’s first – and still its only – black winner, Dave Benton, competed alongside Tanel Padar in 2001 as part of an interracial duo representing a country not widely thought of as racially diverse: Estonia. When Estonia won Eurovision and hosted the contest in 2002, as Paul Jordan argued in his research on nation-branding in Estonia and Ukraine, the Estonian government acquired an even larger platform for its strategy to promote Estonia as a prosperous, technologically advanced democracy than it could ever have imagined when it first launched the so-called ‘Brand Estonia’ campaign. Through Benton’s participation, ‘Brand Estonia’ also became the image of an Estonia at the multicultural forefront of Europe.
Benton, who had moved to Estonian from Aruba in 1997, could be celebrated nationally for winning and could help to show that Estonia was multicultural. At the same time, he represented integration into the nation through language, the same expectation that the Estonian political elite had towards Estonian Russians (the background, incidentally or not, of Benton and Padar’s backing vocalists in 2001).
Jordan’s interviews with elites and the Estonian public about Eurovision and Estonian national identity found that politicians were very keen to talk about the successes Benton exemplified, and indeed Benton himself saw his own story as a success of integration; yet members of the public were also liable to point out evidence of everyday racism that the elite narratives did not contain.
(Some of Jordan’s research about his other case study, Ukraine, will appear in our forthcoming Eurovision issue of Contemporary Southeastern Europe, including attitudes to the participation of Gaitana, a mixed-race Ukrainian singer, in Eurovision 2012 when Ukraine was about to co-host the European football championships. The articles are still a day or two from going online, but this Time article from 2012 describes some of the cultural politics in the meantime, including the reaction of Svoboda’s Yuriy Syrotyuk, who stated that Gaitana was ‘not an organic representative of the Ukrainian culture’ and would lead Europeans to think that Ukraine was ‘a country of a different continent’.)
This disconnect, and many others, reminds us that understanding multiculturalism, European identities and Eurovision needs us to do more than simply enumerate who’s been represented when (which this post hasn’t set out to do) and describe what narratives of multicultural progress can tell us; beyond that, we need to be aware of what stories of successful inclusivity might actually conceal.
People of colour are still underrepresented at Eurovision, and even more so in the backstage organisation of the contest than on stage – in other words, in the areas where the most power to shape the structure and direction of the contest is to be had. Even on stage, the performance scholar Ioana Szeman reminds us that Roma, ‘the largest transnational [ethnic] minority in Europe’ (2013: 126), have rarely been present on the Eurovision stage with Romani music or language, even as music that audiences interpret as ‘Romani’ or ‘Gypsy’ became fashionable during the pop-folk wave of the 2000s.
Exceptions, notably the Romani hip-hop group Gipsy.cz (who represented the Czech Republic in 2009), Sofi Marinova (whose song for Bulgaria in 2012 contained lines in 10 languages including Romani) and Esma Redzepova (part of the Macedonian entry in 2013), have failed to qualify through the semi-finals.
Commenting on Romania’s entry in 2012 (Zaleilah, which was performed by a group of Romanian and Afro-Cuban musicians called Mandinga and written by the Romanian pop-folk producer Costi Ioniţă), Szeman suggests that a simplified multiculturalism has emerged at Eurovision that smooths over the complexity of racism (in Romania or elsewhere) in practice. Gipsy.cz might have been able to reclaim stereotypes of the Roma musician and, in the context of Eurovision, suggest that Czech national identity could accommodate Romani ethnicity and language when this had been a matter of xenophobic dispute at home – yet the problem of whether (as Aniko Imre writes), in order to succeed, Roma musicians must ‘sell back to the […] majority’ an ‘exoticising, touristic vision’ of themselves which that majority had produced in the first place (Imre 2008: 336) is even more salient in Eurovision, with its extra pressures towards self-exoticism, than in the marketing of Romani hip-hop scenes in general which Imre was originally discussing.
The politics of exoticism, indeed, are an important corrective to any narrative about multiculturalism which is based solely on counting representation; we also need to account for what kinds of representation have more or less capacity to be seen and heard.
Come on closer and tell me what you don’t find here
Exoticification – depicting a place or people as attractive because they are different, reducing them to a handful of simplified characteristics ascribed to ideas about gender, ethnicity and race – depends on ideas of ‘self’ and ‘other’, ‘us’ and ‘them’ in order to be intelligible – and is always dependent on some kind of unequal power relations. Indeed, it helps legitimise unequal power relations, as Edward Said’s Orientalism or Ella Shohat and Jack Stam’s Unthinking Eurocentrism demonstrated for many kinds of Western representations of the Middle East (including visual art, travel and historical writing, and popular film).
Eurovision, as a platform for representing nations and cultures while aiming to win votes from an international European audience you want to vote for you, has ended up lending itself to strategies of exotification very well – all the more so since the public, rather than expert juries, became responsible for Eurovision voting from 2000 onwards (and solely responsible for Eurovision voting in almost all countries between 1998 and 2008). The classic example – for the producers of many Eurovision entries in the mid-2000s, as well as for viewers and researchers – is Sertab Erener’s Every Way That I Can, which won Eurovision for Turkey in 2003.
By performing in Eurovision, and by winning and hosting Eurovision, Turkey could position itself as part of Europe (at a time when the Turkish government was interested in pursuing the objective of EU accession) and contest the discourse from many European states that Turkey should not belong to Europe at all. Yet the song did so by appealing to precisely the tropes through which orientalising representations have constructed the Balkans and the Middle East as opposites of ‘Europe’, combining up-to-date musical production with musical connotations of ‘easternness’ (itself fashionable in Western pop and hip-hop at the time) and the supreme orientalised stereotype of the harem.
(As far as its staging went, Every Way That I Can was firmly up-to-date in the early 2000s and indeed still wouldn’t look out of place in an MTV Music Awards-type setting today. Except the chances are it would belong to Katy Perry and, well, would bring with that a whole extra set of problems.)
‘World music’ production, cinema and literature are all subject to similar pressures, and indeed the marketing of these other cultural genres helps to shape the taste cultures that viewers might bring to Eurovision. Writing about tropes of war and ethnic violence in a range of 1990s films from south-east Europe, the film scholar Dina Iordanova described the position that cultural creators from the region often found themselves in as ‘self-exoticism’, and raised a valid concern: what kinds of representations are we less likely to see and hear when commercial pressures towards self-exoticism are so great?
Similar issues emerge from approaching the history of German-language Schlager music (one of Eurovision’s foundational pop genres, which has influenced Eurovision entries beyond Germany, Austria and Switzerland) in a postcolonial context. The German literature scholar Sunka Simon argues that Schlager lyrics ever since the 1950s have consistently expressed a fascination with an imaginary East and a hot South. This, for Simon, is colonialist imagery, abstracted from the places it purports to be about, sexualised and racialised.
Milly Scott’s Fernando en Filippo, indeed, was itself an example of abstracting names, music and symbols into a more abstract, exotic-but-different-from-here, exotic-because-different space: the ponchos and guitars of Scott’s backing vocalists suggested the song referred to Mexico, the geography in the lyrics might place the action in Chile, and ‘Filippo’ (unless he had Italian-speaking heritage as well) would have been more likely to be called ‘Felipe’ in either case.
Problems like these lead Katrin Sieg to the critique of ‘performing race in neo-liberal Europe’ that she develops on the basis of the Eurovision 2010 interval act, a collection of flashmob dances in European cities leading into a live performance of Glow by the Afro-Norwegian duo Madcon.
The image of a pan-European party with black African immigrant communities successfully integrated into the centre of the show and European citizens of colour (sometimes) dotted throughout the city crowds created a compelling picture of technologically-enhanced ‘unity in diversity’ yet, Sieg suggests, would fail to communicate how racialised structures of oppression in the past and present have created structural inequalities in Europe (or even the full scope of who has been affected by social hierarchies based on concepts of race):
It positions black Europeans as engines of the creative economy, but elides ever more urgent questions about race as a social formation governing social exclusions, exploitative divisions of labour and resource distribution. […] While the situation of indigenous or immigrant minorities that remain largely invisible at the ESC is often made more precarious by their lack of citizenship, the high cultural visibility that Afro-European entertainers enjoy compared to other minorities does not ensure stronger political representation, nor does citizenship status eliminate other (cultural, economic or social) forms of racialization, as the situation of Afro-German citizens demonstrates. (Sieg 2013: 28)
A narrative of perfect multicultural integration, then, would fall into the same kinds of silences that Alana Lentin and Sara Ahmed both point out exist in celebrations of a ‘post-racial’ Europe or a post-racial world – the idea that a world where a mixed-race man can be elected US President, or a Europe where a black man from Aruba can be part of the winning Eurovision entry from a post-socialist country, has overcome racism and that ‘race’ as a category of oppression no longer matters.
A narrative of inclusivity?
The contemporary Eurovision Song Contest displays a narrative of inclusivity which may be something to aim for – and far preferable, certainly, to the xenophobic alternative concepts of European identity that a Breivik or Syrotyuk would offer – but has dangers when seen as a self-congratulatory statement of simply how Europe is. One way to test the limits of Eurovision’s progress narrative might be to ask what aspects of multiculturalism or expressions of multiculturalism Eurovision could, or could not, incorporate easily.
What scope, if any, might there ever be for staging the kind of critique that queer and trans people of colour in Europe have made of contemporary sexually-diverse nationalisms that, while incorporating gays and lesbians into the nation, put immigrants and Muslims under collective suspicion of not sharing the new national values – the kind of challenge to contemporary narratives of national identity that Jin Haritaworn and Fatima El-Tayeb have made?
Could a Eurovision entry – in a contest where the space of ‘Europe’, based on the International Telecommunications Union’s European Broadcasting Area, extends around the Mediterranean’s whole coastline, north and south – ever be used to oppose the fortification and militarisation of the EU’s external borders (including those at sea) in the same way that previous entries have advocated for environmental justice, nuclear disarmament or international peace?
And what obstacles might stand in the way of such critiques reaching a Eurovision stage?
Special issue of Contemporary Southeastern Europe on ‘The Eurovision Song Contest at 60: Gender and Geopolitics in Contemporary Europe‘
UPDATE (21 May): the articles are online! Links to all the articles (where you can also find Skype interviews with the authors, classroom discussion questions, and further reading suggestions) now below…
Last November, the editors of Contemporary Southeastern Europe (an open-access journal based at the University of Graz’s Centre for Southeast European Studies) asked me to coordinate a special issue on ‘The Eurovision Song Contest at 60: Gender and Geopolitics in Contemporary Europe’ to coincide with Eurovision 2015, which – thanks to Conchita Wurst – is going to be held in Vienna.
Six months isn’t a very long time at all to plan, write and edit a set of academic research articles but – with a lot of hard work and commitment from the contributors – the articles are now online just in time for Eurovision week. (Which, even if not quite as demanding as organising a Eurovision entry in the same period of time, still gives you some appreciation of what it’s like having to work towards the date of Eurovision as a fixed point…)
Issues of CSE are relatively small – four papers and an introduction – but the contributors have still been able to introduce several different perspectives and approaches for understanding the position of Eurovision in the geopolitics of national and European identity since the Cold War.
I’m contributing an introduction which updates some of my previous work on Eurovision and representations of national identity in south-east Europe, as well as bringing together some of the perspectives on Eurovision, the global financial crisis and the politics of multiculturalism that I’ve been developing in talks recently (complementing some other work I’m doing on Eurovision and the international politics of LGBT rights).
Neven Andjelic, the author of Bosnia-Herzegovina: the End of a Legacy (2003) – an in-depth study of Bosnian politics in the years leading up to the outbreak of war in 1992 – will contribute a study of one of the best-known moments in south-east Europe’s Eurovision history, the selection and performance of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s first entry as an independent state in 1993 while Sarajevo was still under siege. His interviews with members of the delegation set the entry in the context of the Yugoslav and Bosnian music industries and the geopolitics of early 1990s Eurovision.
Paul Jordan, also known to viewers of the BBC’s Eurovision semi-final coverage as ‘Dr Eurovision‘, documents the complexities of national identification in four Eurovision entries from one of the countries that most exemplified the geopolitical dynamics of Eurovision in the 2000s: Ukraine. His interviews with broadcasting officials, participants and members of the Ukrainian public demonstrate how far representations of the nation are actively produced – and how much they are contested – as Eurovision delegations decide what to present.
Jessica Carniel – a cultural studies scholar from what happens to be Eurovision’s newest participant, Australia – moves the issue even closer to the present day by exploring some of the routes through which Eurovision has contributed to contemporary geopolitical visions that hierarchically re-imagine a ‘West’ and ‘East’ that are supposedly divided by attitudes to sexuality and gender identity. Her case studies include two Eurovision kisses between women (or rather one that took place and another that eventually did not) and the politics of state homophobia in Azerbaijan.
And finally, Alexej Ulbricht, Indraneel Sircar and Koen Slootmaeckers combine their expertise in political science and human rights to compare voting patterns and media discourses in the 2007 and 2014 song contests, both of whose winners – Marija Šerifović in 2007 and Conchita in 2014 – departed from heteronormative conventions of gender expression. If in 2007 the mainstream tabloid press of Germany and the UK attributed Šerifović’s victory to eastern European ‘bloc voting’ rather than the triumph of tolerance that they projected on to Conchita’s victory in 2014, what might this suggest about developments in geopolitical imaginaries of sexual and gender diversity between then and now?
Or visit the Contemporary Southeastern Europe webpage here…