In parade and protest: athletes’ bodies as national symbols at the Tokyo Olympic Games

In an opening without most of the mass spectacle that has become such a ritual of the modern Olympics, and marred by last-minute resignations over previous abusive behaviour from several core members of its creative team, one element in the opening ceremony of the ‘2020’ Games gave viewers much-needed continuity with fondly-remembered ceremonies of the past – the Parade of Nations, where each competing country’s athletes march behind their flag.

Every Summer and Winter Games since London’s first Olympics in 1908 has opened with a flag parade, though the tradition actually dates back two years further to an oddity of the Olympic calendar – the Intercalated Games held in Athens in 1906, during the brief period when the early Olympic movement planned to hold an extra Games in Greece halfway through every regular Olympiad, and now no longer recognised as an Olympics by the International Olympic Committee.

(The first Athens Games in 1896 did see standard-bearers lead athletes into the stadium before a rendition of the Olympic anthem and a short speech from the King of Greece – but since the 100m dash began immediately afterwards, perhaps that doesn’t count now as a proper ‘parade’.)

The ritual of each team parading behind an athlete carrying their national flag, carrying over the practice of military and uniformed organisations’ parades, could hardly be a more effective symbol of an idea the sociologist Michael Billig called ‘banal nationalism’ in his 1995 book of that name, which scholars have been using to think about international competitions ever since – the idea that the surface of the world and the whole of human culture are perfectly, cleanly and naturally divided into nations, bounded pieces of territory where national cultures are handed down.

So expressive of international competition as a format are flag parades that they have been adopted by other multi-sports events (like the British Empire Games, first held in 1930, which became the Commonwealth Games after the Second World War when the decolonisation of the British Empire began), and even Eurovision – the producers of the 2013 Malmö contest staged one for the first time in what might well have been a nod to the London 2012 Olympics, and the tradition has stuck.

Some past parades have enabled national Olympic committees to take stands on international political issues, such as North and South Korea marching under a unified flag when PyeongChang in South Korea hosted the Winter Games in 2018, or the British Olympic Association’s secretary Dick Palmer marching alone in 1980 to express British displeasure at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – an act of compromise with several sports bodies (and Margaret Thatcher) who had wanted to join the US in boycotting the Moscow Games.

Yet the parade has also started to reveal ways in which the fiction of banal nationalism breaks down. Since the Rio 2016 Games, the IOC has operated a Refugee Olympic Team for athletes who have had to flee their country of citizenship and could not otherwise compete because they are not yet eligible for citizenship of any other country. (Among their 29 members in Tokyo is the former Iranian taekwondoka Kimia Alizadeh, a bronze medallist in Rio, who fled Iran for Germany just before the pandemic began and had not formally competed since 2018; her unusually low seeding meant she met and eliminated the defending champion in her weight class, Great Britain’s double gold medallist Jade Jones, in the last 16.)

Eligible Russian athletes, meanwhile, currently parade and compete under neutral colours as the ‘Russian Olympic Committee’ as a result of IOC and World Anti-Doping Agency sanctions against Russia: punishing the Russian state for sponsoring its extensive doping programme but not athletes who have proven themselves to be drug-free, the exclusion of Russia’s flag and anthem will last through the 2020 and 2022 Games. (The many Russian gold medallists we can expect in the meantime, including shooter Vitalina Batsarashkina who’s already won hers, will hear Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 during their medal ceremonies instead.)

Then, of course, there’s the ongoing fudge that means Taiwan has to take part under the name, anthem and insignia of a nominal ‘Chinese Taipei’ so as not to invite protests from China, which has been in place since the IOC recognised the People’s Republic of China in 1979.

Flags are the universally recognised symbols of nations in the Olympic-style parade – but the bodies of athletes, and teams’ choices about how to style them, do just as much symbolic work under the Olympic gaze.

Performance on parade

Even in everyday life, dress and style are imbued with meaning: both consciously and less consciously, we signal aspects of our identity through at least some of our choices about what we wear and our responses to who we expect to see us; other people draw conclusions about aspects of our identity from what they notice about the choices we’ve made, whether or not those are the conclusions we meant. Uniforms, designed to signal a collective identity to insiders and outsiders as well as to create a sense of conformity and discipline within a team, bring with them an extra level of deliberateness altogether.

As dress historian Geraldine Biddle-Perry writes in her study of very early British Olympic teams’ opening ceremony uniforms, ‘[t]here is a need to examine what is at stake when bodies participate in the spectacular culture of nationalism’ – which, in modern Olympic opening ceremonies, they now do in front of some of the largest simultaneous television audiences in the world.

Creating a team uniform for an Olympic ceremony, especially outfitting the flagbearers who will be the focus of the audience’s collective gaze, puts teams and their designers in the position of deciding how to embody the nation on a spectrum from traditional to modern, and how to signal the team’s relationship towards the social institution of world sport. All these considerations influence design as well as the practical factors of cost, climate, and the multitude of body shapes that Olympic uniform designers need to clothe.

For the majority of countries in the Olympics, the spectrum from traditional to modern is also a spectrum from national authenticity to the aesthetics of the homogenising West (even if, in many of their cases, the idea that certain traditions were national emerged from anti-colonial resistance once the Western colonisers had already come) – and, designers will be aware, is simultaneously yet another balancing beam for the nation to perform on in the endless test of how well it has ‘kept up’ with the West.

‘Western’ styles of opening ceremony outfit – the kind that go unmarked as ‘normal’ by most viewers in the West – run on their own spectrum, linked to ideas of modernity and class. Classic ensembles with blazers, pocket handkerchiefs and sometimes even boaters stem from the summer wear of the white British and North American upper classes at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the fashion of the elites who founded world sport’s institutions for themselves – and the ideal that outsiders would have to match impeccably in order to assimilate.

(Back in that era during the first few Games, the idea of team uniforms for the opening parade was only starting to bed in: according to Biddle-Perry, even though the US team in 1908 had been issued with matching suits in national colours on the voyage to London, most of the athletes who marched in the parade turned out in ‘everyday leisure attire of tweed knickerbockers or dark lounge suits’ topped with a stars-and-stripes cap, while the British team’s vests were each edged in their own club or college colours, with a Union Flag cricket cap again the only completely homogenous piece of uniform.)

Modern, casual performance wear might suggest the opposite: a technologically advanced and forward-looking nation, secure enough about how the world sees its modernity to be confident in its meritocracy. The simple business suit probably falls somewhere in the middle, while Team USA has defaulted to Ralph Lauren’s country club aesthetic every Games since 2008 (and counting). Opening ceremony outfits have lent themselves to instant nation-branding since before the word ‘nation-branding’ was invented: a famous image from the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid shows the US team in shearling jackets and Stetsons and the Soviet team in equally iconic fur coats and hats, with the smaller Yugoslav team in chic alpine winter wear directly between them on the field, exactly where socialist Yugoslavia’s geopolitical identity would have wanted it to be.

Yugoslavia: between East and West

Tradition has its own spectrum too. At one end is full-on reproduction of ‘authenticity’, concealing any adaptations out of plain sight; at the other is showing off the nation’s modernity through how skilfully its designers have been able to incorporate traditional elements into creativity recognisable by global standards – that is, by a Western gaze – as fashionable and contemporary. (‘Folk music’ and ‘world music’ work exactly the same way; at Eurovision, it’s the difference between ‘Hora din Moldova’ and Ruslana).

Post-Soviet states in the Caucasus and Central Asia, with national folklore infrastructures shaped by decades of Soviet cultural policy that aimed to construct national cultures for each of the USSR’s titular republics, might be some of the most likely to bring traditional dress to the Olympic opening ceremony. Budget constraints and the extreme heat of Tokyo in July/August probably explain why that’s been slightly less in evidence this year (the ‘2020’ Games are likely to see the highest temperatures of any Olympics to date, though who knows how long that record will stand) – certainly compared to 2016, when the Georgian team offered a perfect illustration of the gender politics of tradition, modernity and nationhood by outfitting the men in charcoal suits with folk details and the women in full-on folk-style dresses, reportedly inspired by the medieval Georgian past.

This year’s Georgian team opted for white suits with red arm stripes matching the national flag; Kyrgyzstan carried the metaphorical flag for post-Soviet neotraditional fashion at the Olympics by dressing its athletes in long white embroidered jackets and having its men wear kalpaks, the Kyrgyz national hat, which was added to UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list in 2019.

Athletes and designers from island states in the Global South, meanwhile, know very well that their countries’ costume traditions exist within a complex web of coloniality and exoticism on the global stage. Under colonial rule, these were among the very practices Western missionaries and educators sought to stamp out. Despite that – or equally, in the erotics of colonialism, because of it – both the Caribbean and Oceania have seen their folk costumes relentlessly sexualised for Western gazes and Western profit.

No Olympic flagbearer has created as much anticipation around themselves as a flagbearer as Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua has done since 2016 when he first carried the Tongan flag wearing a traditional ta’ovala around his waist and a bare, oiled chest.

In Rio, Taufatofua had to craft his entrance behind the back of team officials, who reportedly asked him to ‘please just wear the suit’ – suggesting how sensitive they might have been over the risk of being seen as conforming to stereotype rather than reclaiming tradition. (‘I was representing 1,000 years of history,’ Taufatofua told The Guardian in 2019; ‘we didn’t have suits and ties when we traversed the Pacific Ocean.’)

Since then, his flag parade appearances (including the 2018 Winter Games, where he competed in cross-country skiing) might just have made him the most famous Tongan on the planet – though more people probably know him as ‘the topless Tongan flagbearer’ than by his name.

Taufatofua, formerly a youth counsellor in Australia, has used his fame to become a UNICEF Pacific Ambassador and work with the Tongan government on sport in schools – and seems to have inspired Vanuatuan rower Riilio Rii to make a shirtless entrance in Tokyo as well (serendipitously accompanied by an orchestral version of the Final Fantasy theme, no less – as part of the parade’s medley of famous soundtracks from Japanese video games).

The only country in the Global North to incorporate Indigenous dress into its flagbearer outfits is New Zealand, whose flagbearers since the last Athens Games have worn Te Māhutonga, the kākahu or feathered cloak that Māori master weavers spent thousands of hours creating for the team’s future heritage in 2004. As the weaver who keeps it safe between Olympics, Rānui Ngārimu, explains:

For me it is about telling the story of New Zealand and our team from Aotearoa … Many hands went into the making of the kākahu, Māhutonga. Whether it was by the gathering and preparing of the fibres and feathers, and the weaving itself. And many hands went into helping those athletes to become Olympians. That’s what I think about when I see it.

The entrance of flagbearers wearing Te Māhutonga – this year David Nyika, a boxer of Ugandan and European descent (a last-minute switch for rower Hamish Bond), alongside women’s rugby sevens captain Sarah Hirini, who has Māori heritage – also symbolised the extent to which New Zealand has incorporated Māori symbols, tradition and language into its state identity, decentring European primacy more than any other settler colonial nation has attempted. (Nyika wore Te Māhutonga itself, Hirini was presented with another kākahu before the team travelled to the Games.)

Outfitting a pair of flagbearers wasn’t a prospect Ngārimu and her fellow weavers had to think about in 2004 – but the Tokyo Games are the first where flagbearers of both genders recognised at the Games have been allowed and encouraged, though not required. In May 2021 the IOC hailed Tokyo as ‘the first gender-equal Olympic Games ever’, with at least one female and one male athlete on each team, though the United Arab Emirates chose not to act on its invitation to enter a woman in the 100m sprint. (The UAE and Oman both fielded all-male delegations in the flag parade, though Oman’s Mazoon al-Alawi is due to compete in the women’s 100m later this Games.)

Only some 10 per cent of Olympic committees chose not to select two flagbearers (the UAE, Ethiopia, Oman, Samoa, Djibouti, Suriname, Tajikistan, Nigeria, Niger, Nepal, Vanuatu, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Brunei, Mali and Libya only had men; Congo, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Bermuda and Bulgaria only had women), leaving 90 per cent of the parading countries (including Afghanistan and Iraq, the training grounds for NATO’s implementation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda) appearing as gender-equal as the IOC is able to imagine.

These 400-odd athletes all carried the weight and honour of representing and symbolising their nations – while, in Olympic ritual, the host nation’s chosen torchlighter carries the extra prize and burden of symbolising the Olympic community’s hopes for the entire Games, and thus the world.

Carrying the torch

The Olympic torch relay, notoriously, dates back to 1936, when the Nazi regime which had inherited Germany’s right to stage the next Summer and Winter Olympics used the Games to attempt to tie together their myth of Aryan racial origin and superiority – which grafted smoothly on to the Eurocentrism of Baron de Coubertin’s vision for the Olympic movement itself.

Though Amsterdam’s organising committee in 1928 had instituted the convention of lighting the Olympic flame at the opening of the Games, in homage to the ancient Games’ tradition, lighting the torch at Olympia and transporting it overland to the host stadium was the invention of the Berlin organisers, who realised they could use the symbolism of flame to cast the Third Reich as the inheritor of classical Greek virtue. Such was its propaganda value that the flame-kindling ceremony at Olympia was even restaged by Leni Riefenstahl for her film of the Games, because she considered the organisers had staged it in an unphotogenic setting. 

Fritz Schilgen, the final torchbearer in the relay, was chosen as what the Olympic Museum euphemistically describes as a ‘symbol of German sporting youth’ – or rather, as any photo of the ceremony makes clear, an embodiment of the Nazis’ Aryan athletic ideal from head to toe.

Post-war Olympics have kept the torch relay but made various efforts to democratise the figure of the torchbearer, partly perhaps to distance the ritual from its Nazi past. A surprising number of final torchbearers have not even been athletes: Norway’s two Olympic cauldrons have been lit by Fridtjof Nansen’s grandson (at Oslo in 1952) and Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, in honour of his father and grandfather who had been Olympic sailors (at Lillehammer in 1994).

Montreal’s cauldron in 1976 was lit by two teenagers representing the confederation of Anglophone and Francophone Canada; several other Games have given the honour to young people, and the London 2012 Games, performing (in Olympic terms) a radically cosmopolitan and democratic identity for Britain after the ultra-regimented Olympics of Beijing, split the symbolic role of torchbearer up altogether among seven teenage athletes and sports volunteers.

Tokyo’s first Olympic cauldron, in 1964, was lit by Yoshinori Sakai, an emerging sprinter who had been born in Hiroshima on the day of the US atomic bomb in 1945. For the ‘2020’ Games, held in 2021, Tokyo’s organisers chose a Japanese sporting celebrity like no other – Naomi Osaka, the Japanese-Haitian tennis star and winner of double Australian and US Opens whose family have lived in the US since she was three years old.

In 2020, moreover, Osaka had become an icon of athlete activism through her support of Black Lives Matter. After Kenosha police shot Jacob Blake in August 2020 she temporarily withdrew from the Western and Southern Open to join a strike called by NBA, WNBA and MLS players, and a few weeks later at the US Open came out for each round in a mask honouring the name of a different African American who had lost their life to police or vigilante racism (Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice) – harnessing all the attention that sports spectatorship draws towards the athlete’s body and dress through a compulsory accessory that had not even existed a year ago.

(For Tokyo, Osaka had her hair put into red box braids with white accents echoing the colours of the Japanese flag – another way of affirming her Black and Japanese identities at once.)

Though no other Japanese athlete has a profile like Osaka’s, choosing her as torchbearer also made the Tokyo Games appear to stand on the side of global racial justice, in a country where anti-Black racism is widespread and until recently almost unquestioned (Tokyo witnessed its own Black Lives Matter protests last summer, and Osaka’s activism has had ripples in Japan as well). Indeed, even the opening ceremony reportedly failed to live up to its own ideals behind the scenes – as a Senegalese percussionist who lives in Japan, Latyr Sy, claimed he had been cut from the ceremony with only weeks to go because an official had thought he would look out of place in the drumming display.

Osaka’s stand against the exploitative infrastructure of contemporary sport this year, protecting her mental health by refusing to take part in confrontational press conferences even at the expense of her French Open and Wimbledon places, meanwhile reminds us that behind athletes’ bodily performances there are choices and costs.

Until very shortly before Tokyo, athletes whose teams had become accustomed to taking the knee in collective commitment to the struggle against racism could not be certain whether or not they would fall foul of the Olympic Charter’s Rule 50, which bans any ‘kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda’ across Olympic sites.

After a ten-month review – that is, a review that must have started in autumn 2020 after the summer’s unprecedented displays of athlete anti-racist activism – the IOC relaxed Rule 50 to allow peaceful gestures on the field of play before the start of competition, though podium protests like Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black Power salute in 1968 would still be banned. (The British Olympic Association, for its part, had confirmed as early as last October that it would support any GB athletes who chose to protest at the Games.)

Reportedly, the IOC has also prevented its own social media channels from relaying images of athletes taking the knee. With media organisations, national team accounts and athletes themselves all sharing content into the same digital space, that ban’s impact might be limited in the digital publics where Black Lives Matter activism is already being debated (and already showing signs of how national identities like England’s could refresh) – suggesting it might instead have been a containment measure against its further transnational spread.

Coming back full circle to the question of dress, a parallel focus of athlete activism this summer has been the revealing nature of women’s traditional competition outfits in many sports (the German women’s gymnastics team started wearing full-length bodysuits in this year’s European championships to feel ‘the most confident and comfortable’, and have brought them to Tokyo; the Norwegian women’s beach handball team, who aren’t in the Olympics, were fined during their European championships for defying their international federation’s imposition of bikini bottoms; while Paralympic long jumper Olivia Breen was told by an official at the British championships that her Adidas competition briefs were too short).

These cases have predominantly involved white women (though Kim Bui, on the German gymnastics team, has Vietnamese and Lao heritage) – but taken in parallel with the racism athletes like Osaka have been exposed to through social media and the press, and the anti-trans, anti-intersex measures that have prevented some women of colour like Caster Semenya taking part in the Games at all, they hint at how racism and sexism have intersected to produce double standards for women in sport that athletes are starting to name openly but sports institutions are yet to properly address.

Whatever meanings viewers make from athletes’ bodily performances, in parade or protest, the choices that athletes make about how to enact them in the instant of a live broadcast are ultimately their own – and in this second year of the pandemic, they, plus everyone else who has made the Games in person, are the ones who have put their own bodies’ health of the line so that athletes can gather to achieve the feats they trained for and the IOC can deliver its spectacle with only a year’s delay.

If you don’t get it, if you, if you don’t get it: Eurovision 2021 and the struggle for racial justice (part 2)

Eurovision 2021 saw a record number of Black performers, from backgrounds that represented a wider range of Afro-European histories than ever, and offered a home entry that made a more direct reckoning with the legacies of racism and colonialism in the host country than the contest has ever witnessed before – and yet the voting results brought the uncomfortable evidence that every single Black entrant appeared to have underperformed on pre-contest predictions, especially on the public televote.

Benny Cristo didn’t qualify from his semi-final (and neither did Australia’s Montaigne or Austria’s Vincent Bueno, this year’s two entrants of Filipino descent), and apart from Tusse, who got a relatively mid-table 63 points from the public, every Black contestant would have finished near the bottom of the Eurovision scoreboard if results had been televote-only as per most of the 2000s: Senhit and Flo Rida only scored 13, Eden Alene 20, Destiny 47 (despite ranking third in the jury votes), and for all the creative power and virtuosity Jeangu Macrooy brought to ‘Birth of a New Age’, the public vote awarded him no points at all.

No Black entrants placed on the left-hand side of the final scoreboard except for Destiny, who finished 7th, but the announcement of such a low televote total for what had been one of the pre-contest favourites was a crushing moment in what should have been the high-energy lead-up to Måneskin’s thrilling win.

We could point to reasons why each individual act underperformed: Cristo has given better vocal performances of his song than he did in the semi-final; the government of Alene’s country had just been at the centre of international condemnation; expensive American guest acts have flopped at Eurovision before (ladies and gentlemen, Miss Dita von Teese?); Tusse suffered from arguably the worst spot in the whole grand final running order by having to follow Måneskin; Destiny’s kiss-off hook might have relied too much on French slang (‘je me casse’ – ‘I’m out of here’) and a humorous English idiom (‘excuse my French!’) to connect with voters who are mostly second- or third-language speakers of both; the concept of Jeangu’s staging, breaking through a backdrop of oppressive concrete to reveal the joyous colour of his Sranan Tongo words, was slow to build and left him surrounded by a cold, bare background for those all-important first thirty seconds and more. (Imagine the same performance surrounded by a digital version of his video’s backdrops in the Rijksmuseum?)

Yet if every single Black artist in 2021 struggled in the public vote, including the one who jurors voted third best overall, is that evidence of something more unsettling in how voting audiences react to Black singers representing countries at Eurovision?

The 2021 scoreboard makes it most glaring because the final contained so many Black performers in the first place, but in fact since the current voting system was introduced in 2016, Black finalists have received an average of 123.4 points from juries but only 46.6 points from the public vote – and the contest has still never had a solo Black winner.

Accordingly, the contest’s communities do need to confront the likelihood that racism is having an effect on how audiences react to Black performers at Eurovision, and even in more subtle ways than viewers deciding not to vote for a Black singer because they are overtly prejudiced – modern Eurovision’s cardinal sin.

As well as conscious prejudice, which the majority of viewers interested enough in Eurovision to vote would probably distance themselves from, racism also manifests in less conscious forms of assumptions and bias.

Along with the beliefs about their backgrounds, attitude and appearance that Black creators and professionals have to fight against in essentially every sphere of public life, the context of Eurovision brings with it the idea that the show is celebrating European cultural traditions – and this is a ‘Europe’ commonly, though wrongly, thought of as a historically white place, where people of African descent have only recently started living and so are not part of its cultural traditions. Their own cultural traditions, in the same way, seem less ‘European’.

Applied to voters’ tastes at Eurovision, where viewers are being asked to make emotional connections with 26 different songs one after the other, this might invisibly contribute to viewers sensing that Black musicians’ entries are less what they enjoy in a Eurovision context even if they’d never come close to putting that thinking into words, or finding Black sound or dance too confrontational to connect to.

It likely has an impact, too, on how people react to particular Black performers – especially Destiny, who’s been being criticised since the final as overconfident even though her whole delegation was promoting her so heavily before the contest that they bought ads on social media campaigning for her to win. As a Black woman with a larger body shape, Destiny has borne the brunt of diverging from European beauty standards, and celebrates her ability to enjoy her body in her own song – yet a groundswell of remarks about the very same thing was going on behind her back at the very contest where she was supposed to be getting her message across.

Moreover, the conventions of beauty that Destiny stands out from are products of both racism and sexism at once – since the standard of preferring women to be thin dates right back to the era when being thin demonstrated white women’s ‘European’ level of self-control and distinguished them from curvier Black women, a trope we still see in hostile reactions to fat Black women performers like Lizzo today.

This would make Eurovision yet another context where Black people have to work ‘twice as hard’ as their white counterparts to achieve the same success, and where straying away from a white norm to pursue Black traditions of cultural expression is an extra creative risk.

(Without taking away from the example of representation that Tusse wanted to set on stage as a Black soloist with all-Black dancers, which he’s spoken about never having had when he was growing up in Sweden as a child refugee from the DRC, what he’s achieved in breaking through in Swedish pop, or how more accessible his message of liberation seemed to be on grand final night, it’s notable when we’re talking about how Black entrants’ songs resonated with the voting public that, musically and lyrically, ‘Voices’ hits all the beats of typical Swedish Eurovision production, to the point that it shares its hook line with Russia’s partly-Swedish-written runner-up from 2015.)

Another, even more subtle, way that racism in its structural sense influences how viewers connect with Black music and musicians at Eurovision is through something that philosophers of racism call ‘epistemic ignorance’ – or, very simply, what we’ve been trained not to know about our own society and our own history when it has to do with racism, slavery and empire.

Until Black historians and campaigners, and their counterparts from other racial minorities, started challenging it, the status quo in predominantly white societies was for schools, museums, media and other institutions that deal with the past not even to mention the violence that European colonisers inflicted on people of African descent and the inhabitants of other territories they colonised – and certainly not to deal with the material and psychological consequences for their descendants in society today.

How far that is being challenged in each country, and from what starting point, is a complex matter – and it’s far less on the agenda in countries that didn’t have their own overseas colonial projects, or where national history between the 16th century and the First World War was mostly a matter of being ruled by other empires themselves.

In countries which did have their own systems of colonial exploitation, but perhaps also when it comes to thinking about ‘Europe’ as a whole, we have to set that past and its consequences aside to be able to feel proud of our shared history – but the privilege of not having to know about racism or the history behind it doesn’t extend to Black Europeans or members of other racial minorities, who experience the disadvantage from it every day.

In my last post on Eurovision and the struggle for racial justice this year, I talked about how ‘Birth of a New Age’ could be compared to Jamala’s ‘1944’ in the way they both express their singers’ emotions about violence against their ancestors and what that means in the present. But compared to how ‘1944’ played out in 2016, where Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was common knowledge, many viewers had strong feelings of injustice about it, and most viewers would have heard Eurovision commentators explaining that her grandparents were Crimean Tatars, colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade don’t figure as a living history to most white Europeans – nor, therefore, does the full resonance of how ‘Birth of a New Age’ calls into being its resistance to injustice.

Jamala enjoyed a wall of press coverage before her Eurovision in which she could explain Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944, describe how her own grandparents were suffering in occupied Crimea, and invite viewers to make the historical connections for themselves (all to the benefit of Ukraine’s public diplomacy, even before she’d won).

Although pre-contest media coverage was more limited this year due to Covid restrictions, the pandemic can take only some of the blame for how few viewers would have approached the grand final knowing and feeling as much about the history behind Jeangu’s song as they would have known about Jamala’s – and, with the Netherlands going through its own reckoning with the legacies of its colonial past (including what may at last be the phasing out of blackface Zwarte Piet, and the Rijksmuseum acknowledging the significance of the Atlantic slave trade to Dutch history in an exhibition that opened in the very same week as Eurovision), it’s not as if there wasn’t an epic scale of story to tell.

(Many more viewers will now know at least a small amount about Dutch colonial oppression against enslaved Africans and their descendants in Suriname thanks to Jeangu’s performance in the final, which shouldn’t be underestimated – but even in countries where commentators were linking the song to Black Lives Matter, how many viewers even now know the basic lowdown of what happened when?)

With more racial diversity behind the scenes in how Eurovision is covered – including, as Alesia Michelle has been pointing out, in fan media accreditation and the online press room – we might have seen more journalists asking the questions that would have let Jeangu and his delegation draw the nuances of his story out… and fewer of the unpleasant, disproportionately critical comments about Destiny’s rehearsals that reportedly marred the atmosphere of the online chat there.

What would it take, then, to improve awareness of the historical, institutional and structural dimensions of racism – or increase what’s sometimes called ‘racial literacy’) – across the Eurovision world in general? A priority would surely be strengthening racial literacy, and indeed sheer racial diversity, in Eurovision’s reference group itself, where incorporating more invited members with relevant lived and professional experience could compensate for the other pools of potential members still being wholly or predominantly white.

Besides a stronger ability to spot potentially problematic song concepts before they reached the televised stage, we could expect stronger support for other initiatives as well:

  • What more could Eurovision as an organisation do to spotlight the histories of racial and ethnic minorities in host cities, working against the misperception that Europe and its constituent nations have only ever been historically white?
  • How can it ensure that Black contestants and Black music are fairly served in the narratives that build up around the contest and help viewers connect with entries every year?
  • What can Eurovision do to see that cleaning, hospitality and security staff at its venues, who in many countries are more likely to belong to racial minorities, are being fairly treated?
  • What leverage could Eurovision use to support other struggles for racial justice in European television, such as the tide of resistance to blackface performance in many countries that may finally be turning?
  • And how can Eurovision ensure that its physical and digital spaces are as welcoming to fans, workers and participants of African and Asian descent as they are to anyone else?

It’s when organisations don’t get it that those most affected, and their allies, end up saying: je me casse.

Your rhythm is rebellious: the struggle for racial justice and Eurovision 2021 (part 1)

Alongside the grief and isolation of 2020, which hit the communities that gather around Eurovision in its own way when the contest was cancelled, and the solidarity and creativity of inventing new forms of digital togetherness – which Eurovision knows something about as well – 2020 was also a year of protest.

Historians of that first pandemic year will surely ask why George Floyd’s murder on 25 May, out of all the police killings of Black people there have been, sparked such a global mobilisation for racial justice, just as the first wave of Covid-19 was subsiding in many places, and why these protests were the ones to make many institutions around the world take sudden action towards the cause of racial equality. As the first Eurovision since the beginning of the pandemic opens in Rotterdam, we might ask: would this legacy of 2020 change Eurovision in any way?

In a contest which has still never had a solo Black winner, Eurovision 2020 would have involved a record number of contestants of African descent, and the contest’s most diverse set of Afro-European histories as well. Benny Cristo from the Czech Republic was the son of an Angolan who moved to what was then Czechoslovakia; Destiny Chukunyere was the daughter of a Nigerian footballer who moved to play in Malta; Eden Alene belonged to the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel; Senhit, making her second appearance for San Marino, came from an Eritrean family in Italy; The Mamas, from African-American and Afro-Swedish backgrounds, had won Sweden’s Melodifestivalen after supporting John Lundvik on backing vocals in 2019; and the singer-songwriter Jeangu Macrooy, hotly tipped for his introspective song ‘Grow’, was born in Paramaribo, embodying the history of colonial oppression linking West Africa, Suriname and the Netherlands.

Almost all these contestants have returned for 2021 (and, as of the semi-finals, Senhit has even been joined by Flo Rida): while The Mamas didn’t repeat their Melodifestivalen victory, this year’s Swedish entrant, Tusse, came to Sweden as an unaccompanied child refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, part of a very recent and still continuing episode in Europe’s Black history. (For the first time ever, Eurovision 2021 also has two contestants of Filipino heritage, Australia’s Montaigne and Austria’s Vincent Bueno; unfortunately for the Filipino diaspora as well as all their fans around the world, neither made it past the semi-finals this week.)

Performance scholars looking at Eurovision critically, like Katrin Sieg, have sometimes questioned wondered whether even its famed moments of multi-racial inclusion actually offer audiences an illusory, comforting moment of thinking about Europe as post-racial – somewhere that has overcome racism, or that has never known racism in the same way as the US. When we watch Dave Benton singing with Tanel Padar in Estonia’s winning song from 2001, or Madcon leading their flashmob in the interval of Oslo 2010, are we actually being offered a fantasy of inclusion that distracts us from seeing ongoing racial injustice in Europe – and is there space within the traditions, rules and constraints of Eurovision for Black music to represent at least some of the critique, anticolonial resistance, and radical thought that thinkers like Paul Gilroy see in the Black diaspora’s musical creativity?

While the format of a commercialised and televised international song contest will always constrain the radical and political potential of performance to some extent (if only through the threat of financial sanction for breaking the rules, as Iceland’s Hatari found out in 2019), Jeangu’s return entry, ‘Birth of a New Age’, might have come closer than ever before to using Eurovision to advance the cause of racial justice in a material way.

As singer, lyricist and main composer of ‘Birth of a New Age’, Jeangu both celebrates the struggle of the Surinamese people and their Sranan Tongo language, and appeals to a collective Black history, remembering the violence that European enslavers wrought against the bodies, languages, cultures and religions of the ancestors of millions of Black Europeans – with a video asserting that Black style, dance, hair, customs and worship, and Surinamese traditions of them more specifically, all belong inside the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Jeangu’s very first line, ‘Skin as rich as a starlit night’, speaks a promise to recover Blackness as the centre of beauty, and his chorus in Sranan Tongo – ‘Yu no man broko mi, yu no man broko mi, yu no man broko, broko mi (mi na afu sensi)’, carries into Eurovision a traditional Surinamese odo, or saying of wisdom, translated as ‘You can’t break me, I’m half a cent’ – the smallest Surinamese coin, but the hardest to break.

As a creole language, with elements of English, Dutch, Portuguese and West African languages, Sranan Tongo has its origins in how enslaved Africans in Suriname, torn from many parts of West Africa and banned from learning Dutch, learned to communicate with each other and hide thoughts from their enslavers; when the Dutch authorities abolished slavery in Suriname in 1863, they forced children in compulsory education to learn only Dutch, hoping to stamp Sranan Tongo out. Even in contemporary Suriname the creole has a stigmatised history, and the official language is still the colonisers’ Dutch.

For those who want to see it, this year’s Dutch entry and the amount of creative input Jeangu has been able to exercise over its presentation do stand as an assertion of Black aesthetics in a mass entertainment context, albeit with all the tensions and limitations that implies. In the context of Eurovision, it might play the same creative role Black Panther does within the Marvel Cinematic Universe; its video’s high-fashion dialogue of resistance with how Black people were represented in Dutch and European art at the time the Rijksmuseum was built and filled simultaneously, also seems in conversation with how Beyoncé and Jay-Z staged their ‘Apeshit’ video in the Louvre in 2018 – following on from Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’, a project that inspired an entire Black feminist syllabus. (The choreographer for ‘Apeshit’, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, is Flemish-Moroccan and directed the interval act of Thursday’s Eurovision semi-final featuring ballet dancer Ahmad Joudeh and BMX rider Dez Maarsen, ‘Close Encounters of a Special Kind’.)

In Eurovision press conferences, Jeangu has also spoken of how important it is to be on the Eurovision stage as a queer black man (and one with Billy Porter levels of red-carpet style):

The song itself started out as a poem Jeangu wrote in the aftermath of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, which he has said he couldn’t have written if he hadn’t lived through 2020; even on a technical note, it couldn’t have sounded the same in any other Eurovision year to date, since the rule against more than six people performing (relaxed this year for Covid reasons so that delegations could send pre-recorded vocals and limit the number of people they’d needed to bring to Rotterdam) has always prevented soul, gospel and other collective Black musical traditions from being fully heard on the Eurovision stage. This year, Jeangu can be backed by the sound of a full choir (in fact laid down by Jeangu and his backing performers singing the vocals many times – among them Jeangu’s brother and ex-bandmate Xillan).

Put all this together, and Jeangu stands as one of the Afro-Europeans of his generation who, as Olivette Otele writes in African Europeans: an Untold History:

have shown an appetite for reviving the empowering stories of their ancestors. They are actively seeking these pockets of knowledge by engaging with virtual learning, online debates, social media […] They are also generating new narratives of resilience and diving into activism, from pushing for action on climate change, gender equality, and LGBTQ rights, to dismantling racism, islamophobia, antisemitism and other forms of discrimination.

Jeangu’s poetry communicates – to listeners who have felt the pressure of colonial legacies on their own bodies and to listeners who might have thought empire was just in the past – the violence that colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade inflicted on the minds and cultures of future generations, as well as on the bodies of those enslaved:

They buried your gods, they imprisoned your thoughts
Your rhythm is rebellion, your rhythm is rebellion
They tried to drain you of your faith, but you’re the rage that melts the chains
This ain’t the end, no, it’s the birth of a new age

Where narrating histories of violence and their legacies in the present at Eurovision are concerned, ‘Birth of a New Age’ deserves comparison to Jamala’s ‘1944’, which – two years after Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 – narrated Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars.

Both are narratives of historic oppression against their performers’ ancestors, the legacies of that violence for their communities, and how those communities have fought for their identities to survive – both, indeed, reassert that survival by switching into the oppressed language in their chorus. A response to Black Lives Matter at Eurovision could just have remediated images of Black American protest; here, instead, is a distinctly African European narrative, representing a nation which is undertaking its own reckoning with its colonial past and its legacies of racism today.

All this, indeed, has come from a delegation that (not necessarily with the same team involved) wasn’t equipped in 2018 to recognise that raising Waylon above four black breakdancers who might have been dressed like farmworkers looked incredibly like it was evoking racist tropes from the American South.

Even before 2020, the struggle for public reckoning with racism and the colonial past in the Netherlands had been putting more and more pressure on Dutch institutions: organisations including city councils and the broadcaster NTR have finally stepped away from the traditional Advent blackface character Zwarte Piet, and even the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said two weeks after Floyd’s murder that he had been persuaded Zwarte Piet was not just an innocent tradition.

In the very same week as Rotterdam hosted Eurovision, the Rijksmuseum opened its new ‘Slavery’ exhibition, in development since 2017, which affirms that ‘the history of slavery and the history of the Netherlands are bound together’ – chipping away at the myth of ‘white innocence’ that, Gloria Wekker writes, has characterised the prevailing responses of the white Dutch public when challenged to consider Dutch colonial history and racism in the Netherlands today.

Much more still needs to change (not least at the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn, which mocked Jeangu’s chorus and deflected its message by running an online advertisement for broccoli) – yet this degree of critical reflection on Europe’s colonial past and its links to racism today has never been as present at Eurovision as Jeangu has made it in 2021.

What making #EurovisionAgain videos taught me about recording online lectures

One of the most rewarding things I found myself doing during lockdown in the UK was joining in with the #EurovisionAgain team to make quick videos explaining the historical contexts of past Eurovision contests that fans were gathering to rewatch online every weekend – with thanks to Rob Holley for coming up with the idea when originally I’d only been planning to livetweet.

It turns out making one-minute videos about Dana International, Conchita Wurst and that time a Eurovision song was meant to have been the signal for the Portuguese revolution was the perfect practice for recording online lectures this autumn (as someone who’s had relatively little opportunities to develop my online pedagogy until Covid-19 forced it on the whole sector). Who knew?

It’s surprising what you can script in a minute

As a spontaneous speaker, I’m prone to so much hedging that my words get tangled up as I think about how to get it right in real time – a problem that’s got worse the older I get, the more academic fields I step into, and the more theoretical perspectives I become aware of.

In the space of a minute (or sometimes more like 1 minute 30 seconds – sorry, Rob) I’ve still been able to explain the essentials of topics as complex as the politics of remembering the Atlantic slave trade in Portugal and the rest of Europe or why the 1991 Yugoslav national final gave the impression of being rigged in the same way that Slobodan Milošević had rigged the Yugoslav constitutional system.

Scripting shorter sentences makes me less likely to stumble over my words (as I found out in the many takes for my first video) – which obviously I should have known, but the difference wasn’t so dramatic until having to do it.

Bodies in motion

Recording online videos is a very different embodied experience from giving them in person – where I pace around the front of the room and use hands for emphasis (so much so that colleagues trying to photograph me speak on more than one occasion have just ended up capturing blurs at the end of my arms).

For online videos I’m sitting in one place, with my eyes fixed on the camera rather than needing to make eye contact with listeners sitting at all the different points of a large room – more like an intimate ‘fireside chat’ with one person at a time. (Which of course is how YouTubers and anyone else communicating with an audience through online video create a ‘parasocial’ sense of closeness with the people they’re speaking to.) To make the best of the light in my usual workspace, I’ve ended up sitting with one leg crossed over the other and my hands resting on top – more like the stance I’d have during a video call than giving a ‘lecture’ as such.

When students are going to be having less face-to-face contact with lecturers than any of us used to take for granted (and there’s a strong case at the time of writing that to stop universities becoming superspreader incubators we ought to be holding all our classes online unless they’re directly practice-based or need to be in a laboratory), this is an extra opportunity to let them see and hear how I sound, as well as the live online sessions we’ll be having and the face-to-face seminars where (assuming they have them) I’ll have to be wearing a mask.

The importance of intimacy, closeness and connection when students are learning largely online during a pandemic was something Aimée Morrison was tweeting about as well yesterday:

Ironically for someone who spends much of their time arguing that scholars of international politics need to pay more attention to the emotions behind how watching things audiovisually works, I’d spent very little time until this year communicating publicly through video myself – partly because having to watch myself on screen (why is my head that shape?! why do I always do that with my eyes?!) gives me such a disconcerting feeling that it’s been hard to feel invested in my digital presence there, much as I’ve wanted to do more with blended and asychronous learning than our degree programmes have offered until now. Having what turned out to be thousands of people watch my #EurovisionAgain videos (and even look forward to them) has helped made video communication feel part of my actual persona for the first time.

Light up the dark

The first major improvement in my recording kit was a desktop ring light – which I bought after seeing people talk about them in the comments of one of James Sumner’s Twitter threads about lecture recording tech and wondering if I needed one. (My usual workspace has overhead lighting with a window behind me and so, spoiler: I did.)

After a backorder delay because everyone else had had the same idea, it turned up in between my videos for Copenhagen 2014 and Jerusalem 1999 and made an immediate difference. (I’m reliably informed I’d have known this earlier if I watched more YouTube beauty vloggers’ videos.)

Here’s what two test videos I recorded with and without it on the same morning on Panopto (the app my institution needs us to use for online teaching videos, and yes it’s called that) look like:

With ring light.
Without ring light.

For calls and recordings when the room I usually work from is otherwise occupied, I also ended up buying a second-hand portable green screen (since my PC isn’t high spec enough to be able to create virtual backgrounds on apps like Zoom without one) – though with a background this full of house plants I need to be extra careful to switch it off again once I move back in.

(One afternoon I noticed lines of strange brown and yellow blobs in the background of a Zoom call on either side of me – I assumed it was a Deep Dream-style glitch in how Zoom was rendering the image until I realised I’d had a virtual background of David Tennant’s TARDIS control room on a call that morning and Zoom was now trying to green-screen it on to the palm fronds…)

Teleprompter teleprompt-ah

Besides improving how my videos look, the single biggest improvement to my actual workflow was working out how to automate my script using a teleprompter – so that I didn’t have to rely on memory (most of the blooper reels from my first few videos would be unbroadcastable given how often the moments where I lost my place and cursed about it involved a place name or other sensitive phrase) or notes on a tablet by the side of the laptop screen. (I read the first few videos’ scripts from a tablet propped up on a laptop stand, resulting in having to delete several sonically perfect takes because my eyeballs kept drifting over to the side of the screen; at least one video after that was read from a tablet propped up on an experimentally-adjusted pile of volumes of Richard J Evans’s Third Reich trilogy.)

My laptop’s webcam is built in above the screen, so where I need to be looking is just above that (conveniently towards a bookshelf where we happen to have put an anniversary card known as Rainbow Cat).

Rainbow Cat sees all.

After the umpteenth incident of accidentally insulting a poor unsuspecting European capital and having to start again, I speculatively googled ‘teleprompter app’ (originally to use it on the tablet – but where it really needs to be is in a window taking up half my laptop screen, with the camera window on the other half).

This is the most helpful thing that I have done all year.

The teleprompter app I use now is ZaCue (there are others), which runs for free in a web browser and has adjustable scroll speed, font size, and colour settings. The defaults work well and stop me squinting at the screen, an improvement on every lecture with paper notes I’ve ever given.

To match my speech patterns and minimise the number of times I need to stop and start, I need to prepare my scripts with line breaks whenever there’d be a pause in my speech patterns – something I started doing for the one-minute #EurovisionAgain videos but that worked just as well for the ten-minute lectures I’ve been recording for our new first-year module on freedom, or the twenty-minute talk I pre-recorded for the Wonder Women and Rebel Girls workshop a few weeks ago.

I move the teleprompter app tab into a new browser window, set the camera and teleprompter windows alongside each other, start recording in the camera, make the teleprompter window active, start talking, and trim off the dead start time at the end (or with the Eurovision videos let James from #EurovisionAgain kindly do it for me).

Most talks I’ve recorded since I started using the teleprompter app have just needed one take, at least once I got hold of the last piece of kit I needed to stop myself flailing for the keyboard every time the teleprompter got ahead of me – a mini remote keyboard for the laptop (or air mouse – available from your chosen hegemonic panoptical tech retailer for less than £15).

The ZaCue teleprompter window has built-in keyboard and mouse controls, so as soon as I notice myself speaking faster than the autocue, I can use the remote to press the button linked to ‘pause’ to stop the scrolling until I catch up, then press the ‘forward’ button to keep going. This ought to be imperceptible – at least as long as my hands are just below the camera’s field of vision.

Why universities across the sector haven’t equipped staff who are going to be recording from home with this kit as a baseline is another question, of course…

Sitting with ‘Yugosplaining’: explaining political experience I have and haven’t lived

A tale of two bars in 2016:

It’s the Saturday night of the Millennium journal’s conference on race and racism in International Relations, and four of us from our panel on race, Yugoslavia, India and Non-Alignment have walked up the back ways of Holborn in the October night looking for a place where we can sit and drink; a cramped, semi-underground Indo-Chinese cocktail bar has its back door open (I later found out it was called ‘Bollywood Stories’), and we settle around a small cellar table under the stairs, Srđan, Jelena, Aida and I, one candle flickering between us, contemplating what we don’t have to say out loud about the vote there’s just been in this country and the vote there’s about to be in the USA, and where what we know about what we don’t have to say comes from;

Four months earlier, it’s the day after that referendum, I’ve been away in Newcastle at a feminist international relations conference, up till 4.30 am until I couldn’t take any more of Nigel Farage grinning about bullets ten days after a white nationalist had shot Jo Cox dead in the middle of the street, and the group of us from my department who sometimes go for a drink after work have mutually agreed we need one tonight. We’re all white men and women from various parts of England, two from Hull, one from Derbyshire, me from the South (or maybe there are five of us, and our colleague who’s Australian is there as well); and soon after I’ve dropped my bag at home and found them in the large back room of one of the pubs near work, we’ve got on to constitutional implications, and I’ve said ‘Scotland’s gone’ without missing a beat; and someone or everyone says ‘Really?!’ because my consciousness has made a leap theirs hasn’t yet. (A few days later I think through all the resonances of constitutional fragmentation and ethnicised polarisation from the break-up of Yugoslavia that the atmosphere before and after the referendum is evoking, in an essay for LSE’s European Politics and Policy blog that comes out in one sitting about fourteen hours long: it comes to about 7,000 words.)

The astonishingly wise, frank, raw, and honest series of daily blog posts that Aida, Jelena and Srđan have edited all month at The Disorder of Things calls a foreknowledge based on living through the disintegration and destruction of Yugoslavia ‘Yugosplaining’:

At the time, the Yugoslav wars and their extreme violence were viewed by the West as idiosyncratic, isolated events, unrelated to broader process of political and economic transformation in the world – the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of communism. Indeed, they were just outright inconvenient for the world that celebrated the end of history. Yugoslavia, once deeply entangled with both the East and the West and even more so with the Global South, was all of a sudden isolated from history – including its own.

Yet now, as the West (and the allegedly democratized East) unravel under the weight of their own unresolved histories – and not just of the successive lost wars, financial crises or the pandemics – it seems that the ghosts of the 1990s are back to haunt us. Nationalism, ethnic and racial violence, populism, militias, lies and conspiracies can no longer be viewed as “the Balkan” phenomena. Instead, “the Balkans” now appears as the vanguard of a common catastrophe (Subotić, Hemon).

Concluding the series, they wrote yesterday:

The aim was twofold: first, to use the authors’ lived personal experience of Yugoslavia as a way of explaining our lived political experience elsewhere. Second, to reclaim the narrative of our own lives rather than be made subject to outsiders’ accounts.

Decades after its demise, Yugoslavia continues to act as an open wound. We live what Saida Hodžić wrote in her essay – “if home is a wound that splits open the world, the world neither stays open nor heals over.” Therefore, this series was not designed to explain what Yugoslavia was, what it meant to whom, who it included or excluded, or how it came apart or why. It was, instead, designed to explain our current moment – that world split open – through the experience of our past.

These are knowledges that, working in the Western academy, the contributors have seen painfully silenced again and again by Western presumptions about what happened in ‘the Balkans’ and what ‘the Balkans’ must have been like for it to happen there, as Aida, Azra Hromadžić and Saida Hodžić all painfully record.

I felt none of Yugoslavia’s break-up on my body. My experiences of the wars were mediatised backdrops to everyday pre-teen routine, as a racial- and ethnic-majority subject of a nation that was setting itself up as a humanitarian donor, diplomatic negotiator and conditional peacekeeper (which measured its contributions by the risk to British, not Bosnian, lives): a newsreader on my mother’s radio in the kitchen saying tanks had crossed the Slovenian border; the War Child appeal and ‘Miss Sarajevo’ on Top of the Pops; an Evening Standard headline about Srebrenica at the station, and footage of disarmed Dutch soldiers on the six o’clock news by the time I came home from school.

And yet the ways I’ve tried to understand how the wars became possible and what they did to everyday life have done something to my subjectivity, to the deep premises I know about how societies and international politics work, about how people come to see others as enemies, and the myths they tell about the future and the past.

As a PhD student, I wanted to understand how a music industry like Croatia’s could have separated itself from Yugoslavia so quickly, and how it had been part of transforming everyday public consciousness in the ways that the Croatian anthropologists and ethnomusicologists I’d started reading during my Masters had documented at the very beginning of the war. Stitching together the Croatian war of independence and its aftermath, day by day, over one long spring and two long summers in Croatia’s national library (year by year in reverse, so 1990 came last every time, and then it was back to the then-present with another newspaper or showbusiness magazine), the slippage of political deadlock into armed clashes into something ever worse was not the sudden blaze of Western book covers and documentary title screens; how would I know if this were only a few months away?

More of what I know about living through those years comes from deep listening. In my postdoctoral work, I interviewed thirty-odd Bosnians and other ex-Yugoslavs about the work they’d done as interpreters and translators for foreign peacekeeping forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, during and after the war. Some would have been direct contemporaries of Danijela Majstorović, who wrote about her own and her research participants’ migration in another of the Yugosplaining essays; we somehow missed each other during my research visits (we’re still not sure how). I must have been in Priština, where I’d gone to interview a former British military linguist for another strand of the project, just as former Bosnian interpreters were responding to a post I’d made in a Facebook reunion group about setting up interviews later in the year, when I was coming back from meeting an ex-KFOR interpreter someone had connected me to and the thought came to me: many of the people I’d been meeting had been languages students or languages graduates when the war came; so were most of my friends at the time; if something like this had happened where we lived [in a completely different global configuration of languages, statehood and power, of course; but that only came later], is this what we’d have done?

These are acts of imagination, just as everything I know about the region that used to be Yugoslavia is in some way a construction. It only sits inside my mind through scholarship; it does not sit in my bones. What do sit in my bones are the experiences and sensations of the scholarship itself – the work, the research, the presentations, the listening, the conversations, and all the imaginative backchannels that run while my frontstage does those things. Among the authors are friends, contemporaries, authorities, table-of-contents mates and tablemates, people to whom I strive to make my representations of Yugoslavia and its aftermath authentic and accountable, to whom I owe a responsibility to depict as much complexity as they can see.

In essays such as the piece by Dženeta Karabegović, Slađana Lazić, Vjosa Musliu, Julija Sardelić, Elena B Stavrevska and Jelena Obradović-Wochnik, writing as the Yugoslawomen+ Collective and using their own experiences as knowledge-producers and subjects who have waited to cross borders to think through how rhetoric about ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ migrants has changed since the 1990s, I hear echoes of dialogues that I’ve joined in as well in conference corridors and email exchanges, working through this last decade’s reckoning with racism and the global legacies of colonialism from where we each are:

The post-Yugoslav space from which people once fled, and from which they still continue to migrate, is now also known as a ‘transit’ zone for those fleeing ongoing violence elsewhere. The region once known for ‘the Yugoslav wars’ is now ‘the Balkan Route’, the EU’s imagined ‘Badlands’, the outer periphery where border security funds are channelled to prevent the onward migration of racialised ‘others.’ The so-called ‘Balkan route’ became an alternative once the sea crossings were deemed too dangerous; today, it has become so entrenched in the violence of EU’s border-keeping that just one monitoring group in the region has recorded more than 700 reports of police brutality and asylum denials, with 70% of incidents reportedly taking place in Croatia.

Countries of the former Yugoslavia, most notably Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, whose ‘good migrants’ have often managed to leave the region and arrive in relative safety to countries of the Global North, are now implicated in the EU’s border-keeping to the extent that they regularly participate in the violent ‘push backs’ of men, women and children from the EU’s external border. Their aspirations to ‘Europeanness’, understood primarily as EU membership, are exercised through the protection and legitimization of the European superiority, even though their own citizens’ mobility within the EU is limited. […] The region is, thus, simultaneously othered and implicated in further othering in migration discourses. These racialised and classed hierarchies of people on the move are perpetuated, despite thousands of people from the post-Yugoslav space continuously lining up in front of EU and other Global North countries’ embassies or looking for ways to get EU citizenship so they can migrate more easily.

Something has, or somethings have, committed all of us to perceiving Yugoslavia and the violence of its collapse, and the systemic violence emanating in all its global forms from Europeans’ enslavement of Africans and colonisation of Indigenous lands, as part of the same world.

(The very question of who feels able to write themselves into a ‘Yugoslav’ past is shaped by such power relations, as Vjosa noted at the beginning of the series when explaining why she had participated in it as an ethnic Albanian from Kosovo, and as Jelena, Srđan and Aida acknowledged in their conclusion: almost all its contributors came from South Slav backgrounds, and Yugoslavia’s failure to confront ‘the longer history of anti-Albanian bigotry’ in the region undercut its aspirations to ‘brotherhood and unity’ even before we weigh up how well it balanced the rights and interests of different South Slavs.)

Later in Azra’s essay, she writes of discussing her wartime experiences of being labelled as a Bosnian Muslim with inner-city Philadelphia schools, and trying to comfort disoriented students on her ‘Peace and Conflict in the Balkans’ class immediately after Trump’s election, as ‘openings’ that defy the ‘closings’ that have pressed on her in prestigious academic spaces: these openings are ‘transactions in sociopolitical life when “structures of feeling” were somehow transmitted and felt, almost understood, across the sociopolitical, geographic, and historical spectrum’. My own knowledge and I are the outcomes of many such openings, and are measured by them as well.

Three weeks after Srđan, Aida, Jelena and I sat together in Holborn, the US election result came in: overnight for them, first thing in the morning for me. Whatever else I’d been meant to do that day, the only thing I could do was write, a messy 3,000 words on coming to terms with how quickly queer people’s newborn rights could be taken away overnight, and why the result filled me as a queer woman with dread even an ocean away. (I re-used part of it when Cai Wilkinson was editing a special section of Critical Studies on Security and invited me to rework it as an essay I ended up calling ‘The filter is so much more fragile when you are queer’.

(One line I added to the piece for Cai has kept coming back into my head, this pandemic year: ‘There are people I know or used to know who will be dead in four years’ time.’)

My consciousness of my own nation and its past would not be what it is without learning about post-Yugoslavia for so long. Jelena (Subotić) writes, in her essay on citizens’ moral implication in the violence of Milošević’s Serbia or Trump’s USA, of our ‘larger, metaphysical responsibility as citizens who still benefit from structural racism or from structural inequality, or from structural anti-immigration policies. Even if we oppose them, by our own position in society we are implicated in them – an argument that goes at least as far back as Karl Jaspers’. To hope for a transparent reckoning with the past in Croatia or Serbia (I’d understood by the end of my PhD), it would be a double standard not to work towards the same in Britain – a country whose imperial and slave-trading past had systemic consequences around the world.

Knowing about post-Yugoslavia through the ‘openings’ I’d been part of for years, I suggested at the end of the queer in/security pieces, had made me more able to understand that Britain was not immune to the kind of authoritarian, nationalist future that now seemed to be coming to pass:

I know without having lived it that ethnopolitical conflict works like that.

The anxieties over ‘dilution’ or ‘undermining’ national cultural values that racists and xenophobes intensify in order to mobilise public support for restricting immigration work like that.

[…] Studying the Yugoslav wars since my early twenties, when all that preoccupied me at the time they were happening was making sense of the confusion with which I entered my own queer teens: I know identities wax strongest, turn from individual to collective, description to politics, when people believe or are led to believe that that identity is why they’re under threat.

I know it through compressing acres of wartime newsprint into weeks of research, through collecting hours upon hours of memories, through years of friendship and listening and solidarity, all breaking down my own filter of it-can’t-happen-here.

But I’d also suggested that having grown up queer, knowing that my belonging to the respectable majority would only ever be conditional, had made that filter more fragile and perhaps helped me to feel the solidarities I do:

There are freedoms I have in England or would have in America, which I didn’t even expect to enjoy as a teenager but which my queer elders won for me. In doing so, I gained a strange kind of everyday security with an uncanny contingency underneath – which I could lose again in ways that, if they were proposed for straight people, would be the stuff of dystopia, ‘some Handmaid’s Tale shit right there’.

(Dystopia still happens. But it takes so many more guns.)

Did knowing these kinds of insecurity with my own body make me more detachable from the idea that the territory–nation–culture nexus I was born in should automatically be a place of safety, progress and inspiration to the rest of the world – an idea that has so readily slipped into many Westerners’ belief that their knowledge is the most authoritative on ‘Balkan affairs’? I am wary of saying that queerness alone is enough to create an alliance – and yet if anything in my life has predisposed me to step away from the Anglophone West being at the centre of the world, that must be what it must be. (Did failing to fit the norms of heterosexual and class success at a school that was supposed to train girls to join Britain’s institutions of power do that?)

Without directly experiencing the Yugoslav wars, my consciousness of history, politics and security – of what can happen, and how it starts, and where it ends – has still been Yugosplained. Jelena, Aida and Srđan warn in their concluding essay, as our mood seemed to when we sat together:

Yugoslavia also carries a message for our friends and colleagues in the countries we now find ourselves in – believe in your exceptionalism – at your own peril; ignore your past – at your own peril; do not listen to Others amongst you – at your own peril.

My thoughts sit there too. And that sits in my bones.

The space of an embrace: Eurovision’s affective communities in lockdown

This post originally appeared at the Music, Affect, Politics / Glasba, afekt, politika blog on 11 May 2020.

Shortly after lockdown in Italy began, Italian apartment-dwellers started joining in co-ordinated singing from their balconies, including the song that had just won the Sanremo Music Festival and was still officially Italy’s entry for the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest. When it became clear that that too would have to be cancelled, Eurovision fans rallied together on social media to bind their sense of community back together by watching past contents online.

Both these ‘affects’ of lockdown presumed opposite relationships to space and gathering together than those on which Eurovision and other live televised events have relied for their emotional power. To illustrate that, consider how each contrasts with the seemingly unlikely note of sombreness and sincerity that Ermal Meta and Fabrizio Moro brought into the Eurovision grand final in 2018 when they performed that year’s Italian entry ‘Non mi avete fatto niente’ (‘You haven’t done anything to me’) –a song commemorating the hundreds of victims of the urban terrorism which had added undercurrents of fear to the everyday experience of city life for millions of people in the mid-2010s.

Alone on stage against a background of deep red spotlights and digital projections of their lyrics translated into fifteen languages, Meta and Moro named the sites of recent attacks in Cairo, Barcelona, Paris, London and Nice, with imagery more graphic than casual viewers would likely expect from a contest with so kitsch a reputation, and appeals to tolerance and religious reconciliation that tested the boundaries of Eurovision’s rule against political messages.

Moro’s intense gaze at the crowd, and the tightness of his fist clenched around his microphone stand, even seemed to make visible the unspoken knowledge that audiences, performers and fans had had to suppress since the Bataclan attacks and the Manchester Arena bombing in order to enjoy any live spectacle at all: it could have been any working musician, and any crowd.

Two years later, the song that would have been Italy’s Eurovision entry, Diodato’s ‘Fai rumore’, was instead being sung in unison by Italian city-dwellers from their balconies, joining in one of the only physical forms of community with a group larger than their own household that was open to them now that the severity of coronavirus in Italy had forced the country into Europe’s earliest and arguably strictest lockdown.

In Meta’s and Moro’s song, as in the discourses of the many European leaders who had had to react to mass-casualty attacks in their countries and cities over the previous few years, terrorism appeared to be motivated by religious intolerance and a blow struck against what their words implied was a shared way of life (in a transnational community extending through Europe to Cairo, though marked specifically as victims of Islamist terrorism compared to the effect it might have had to name Oslo or Utøya as well): its targets were members of the public taking part in the city’s everyday rituals of sociality and joy, in bars and shopping streets and concert crowds.

Against the geographic enormity of the globe, with ‘galaxies of people dispersed in space’, Meta and Moro sang, ‘the most important thing is the space of an embrace’. This intimate, commonplace comfort is now, for up to half the world’s population, against the law to share with anyone outside their household, and denied to those living alone at all – while the terrorist has all but vanished as a source of outdoor dread.

The everyday emotional and affective experiences of living through coronavirus lockdown are unprecedented for those who have been fortunate never to have lived under extended state curfew or a wartime siege, or to have had disabilities restricting them from taking part in public life outside the home; the context of a global, seemingly uncontrollable airborne pandemic is new even then. Together with the anxiety and, for growing numbers of us, the grief that the virus itself has brought, and with what it has meant for any of our working lives, our everyday affects and moods are governed by the politics and economics of our intimate space – the size and quality of our homes, who we live with and how, the gendered dynamics of power and even violence within households, and the structural factors that stratify access to private gardens and other amenities by race and class.

Even more so than in other emergencies, there can be no such thing as a collective experience of coronavirus when some have lived through it with those emotionally closest to them and others will have spent months without face-to-face conversation or touch.

National and transnational media, nevertheless, continue to be driven by a guiding logic of addressing – or inventing – a collective community, which (as Benedict Anderson first noted about the readership of national newspapers) was always too large by orders of magnitude for its members to have ever personally met. Even as multi-channel broadcasting, social media and streaming television have fragmented the mass audiences that television used to count on, media scholars have looked to live events and festivals as the sites where what Angharad Closs Stephens calls the ‘affective atmospheres of nationalism’ (and transnationalism) are most likely to be charged, in person, through the screen and on the keyboard or the phone.

But what happens to the ability of live music and sporting events to bring collective communities temporarily together and invite them to share the sentiments brought out by particular representations of national and transnational identity – the very thing that Eurovision researchers have long argued the contest is famous for – when they have depended on gathering crowds, presenters, participants and technical crew together in sizes that could be banned for months or even longer?

As sports teams and national governing bodies began to pull out of international fixtures even before governmental travel restrictions started making them impossible (one of the last fixtures involving an Italian team, Atalanta’s Champions League match against Valencia in Milan on 19 February, has been blamed for coronavirus outbreaks in both Valencia and Atalanta’s home city of Bergamo), Eurovision fans grew increasingly aware that the live contest in Rotterdam’s 15,000-capacity Ahoy Arena would not be able to take place as scheduled in the middle of May.

During the early stages of lockdown, as celebrities posted stay-at-home appeals from inside their own houses and bands found ways to play together while physically separated (Dubioza Kolektiv, the Bosnian band ‘sick of being European just on Eurosong’, have been streaming their weekly ‘Quarantine Show’ from their homes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia), fans speculated whether Eurovision could still go ahead with remote presenters and the pre-contest videos for what was already a complete slate of songs. The European Broadcasting Union, in charge of Eurovision, announced the inevitable on 18 March, recognising that the size of the event made it too complex to postpone for later in the year.

While the annual Eurovision broadcast brings a temporary affective community into being through television and social media for the length of the contest, fandom (or the many fandoms that now criss-cross various online and offline spaces) sustains an affective community year-round – where keeping up with and sometimes travelling to national selections and pre-Eurovision events as well as the contest itself is an annual ritual, and fans forge friendships, relationships, work and study plans (my own PhD on Croatian popular music and national identity wouldn’t have looked the same if the scandal of Severina’s 2006 Croatian Eurovision entry hadn’t happened in the middle of my research). Fandom’s annual anchor being cancelled for the first time in its history, without even a scoreboard to argue about in years to come, was one more blow in a collapsing social reality.

That weekend, journalist and Eurovision fan Rob Holley organised the first of what’s become a weekly synchronised watchalong of a past contest, #EurovisionAgain, to help fill Saturday nights – because, ‘why not come together every Saturday night and share the moment anyway’? First up was the Malmö contest in 2013, where most fans outside Sweden had first encountered now-legendary presenter Petra Mede; Athens 2006, Moscow 2009, Vienna 2015, Dublin 1997 and Helsinki 2007 have followed, with their own online voting countdown devised by Ellie Chalkley from fan site ESC Insight (for which I’ve written a few times), and the EBU even co-operating to stream new high-definition versions of the 2000s contests and help make older finals temporarily available online.

(Eurovision’s social media channel has also been sharing #EurovisionHomeConcerts where recent contestants share versions of their own and each other’s songs, and a special show on the original date of the grand final will celebrate this year’s entries and ‘link Europe through other familiar songs from the past, performed in iconic European locations’ – to end with a joint performance of the UK’s last Eurovision winner ‘Love Shine A Light’, to be seen on most participating broadcasters except the BBC, which will produce its own Eurovision celebration instead.)

After trying to detach from social media for the few Saturday nights of the lockdown, I joined in #EurovisionAgain for the Helsinki rewatch, livetweeting and making a short video explaining some of the background behind Marija Šerifović’s historic win.

Even watching a contest for the first time brings complex layers of memory and imagination together into the meanings viewers make out of what’s on stage – from memories of other contests and social experiences around those ritual times, to impressions of past or future travel to countries and cities involved, and narratives about international politics that we or the media project on to performances to affectively connect them with identities of ours (the way that Conchita Wurst’s victory in 2014 immediately became bound up with narratives of ‘Europe’ as a tolerant, LGBTQ-friendly space contrasted against ‘Russia’, after the Russian Duma had passed the so-called ‘gay propaganda’ law in 2013).

Rewatching a contest adds temporal distance to those layers of emotional meaning, on both personal and collective levels. In 2007, I was entering the last year of my PhD, and starting to draft the articles on Eurovision and pop-folk music I published in 2008 without knowing what a snapshot of that particular moment in the cultural politics of European integration they’d become, or that I’d still be actively researching Eurovision as an academic thirteen years later as a result of them; Šerifović’s win, for viewers with feminist or queer awareness and some knowledge of Serbian politics since then, may well call to mind the ‘tactical Europeanisation’ of the Serbian state’s shift towards securing Pride marches in the 2010s and the appointment of Ana Brnabić as the region’s first openly gay prime minister in 2017.

In the middle of a pandemic, the emotional experience of watching a past Eurovision might also contrast what each of us and our communities took for granted then with what it has become impossible to do now, with no certainty about when or how gathering in public will be safe again or crossing international borders will be allowed. Like the spectres that Meta’s pleading hands and Moro’s clenched fist brought into the undercurrent of his performance, these are affects that have to stay beneath our consciousness in order to feel the joy we probably turn to Eurovision for.

But it is the ways viewers have created affective experiences and rituals with each other around the annual rhythm of the contest, through digitally mediated communities, which have let those communities invent new rituals even when no live contest can take place at all.

Shelter in place: the feminist and queer insecurities of ‘home’

This post originally appeared at The Disorder of Things on 30 March 2020.

The UK government message is plain, stretched out over socially-distanced podiums at press conferences: ‘Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives.’

Other national leaders and US state governors have similarly appealed to the public to respect emergency shelter-in-place or lockdown regimes, police are patrolling the streets to enforce orders for people to remain indoors, social media users have framed staying at home as a communitarian effort through hashtag campaigns such as Italy’s #iorestoacasa (‘I’m staying at home’), and celebrities are performing their contributions to public morale by sharing video messages filmed in their well-appointed homes.

But feminist and queer understandings of security remind us that even in a global pandemic home can be the least secure place of all, through the forms of structural and physical violence that manifest within.

Homes themselves will be worsening the health of those living in conditions which are too cramped to distance or isolate themselves safely, those suffering the mental health consequences of not having private space or guaranteed access to the open air, and those whose housing depends on informal agreements with arbitrary or discriminatory landlords in the midst of a global economic shutdown. All these circumstances, which can be seen as structural violence, are more likely to affect individuals who have been racialised into stigmatised minority groups, queer and trans people with limited access to employment protections, and migrants kept out of stable housing by the enforcement of the ‘everywhere’ or ‘polymorphic’ border.

The daily work of social reproduction that Juanita Elias and Shirin Rai foreground in theorising a ‘feminist everyday political economy’, meanwhile, is where those bearing the predominant burden of that labour may well experience the ontological insecurity that shortages of basic supplies cause. Beneath the immediacy of worrying how to feed one’s household amid the buckling of neoliberal just-in-time supply chains (their ties to international security detailed in Deborah Cowen’s The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade) is, for many, the ontological insecurity of understanding that an economic system one had taken for granted is no longer able to meet one’s basic needs, to the extent it ever could. Women in central and eastern Europe and the former USSR, gender historians such as Jill Massino show, took the brunt of dislocations like these both under state socialism and as that system broke down, while the work of Swati Parashar writes the household into security studies as a unit of analysis by showing how Maoist insurgents in India expand their support base among marginalised households.

Feminist and queer lenses on security, however, reveal that the home is not just where households manage the insecurities that face them from outside: it is also where relationships of power and violence within the household expose some members’ bodily and psychic security to the threats posed by others. Harriet Gray’s research on domestic abuse in military households, for instance, suggests that intimate partner violence may be even more prevalent in the military than it is for the one-third to one-quarter of women who will experience it in civilian life, and highlights the military family home as a site where idealised models of military gender are reproduced.

The escalating rates of intimate partner violence that Lepa Mlađenović and other feminists running Belgrade’s crisis hotline for female and child victims of violence noted during the Yugoslav wars was not only associated with male partners returning from the battlefield but also men becoming angry after watching alarmist propaganda on television. As gun shops in certain US states declare themselves essential services, studies such as Laura McLeod’s on efforts to improve gender security by reducing the number of small arms in Serbian homes remind us that the more firearms in private homes, the greater the risks that they will be turned on partners and children. Women whose gender interlocks (in the words of the Combahee River Collective) with other systems of oppression are, as ever, most vulnerable of all, and in the UK the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants is already reporting cases of migrant women being forced into street homelessness after leaving abusive partners because their visas are marked ‘no recourse to public funds’. Activists in China, Brazil, Italy, Cyprus and elsewhere have already noted rates of domestic abuse rising after lockdowns are introduced. It is not hard to imagine how they will rise further the longer that sufferers’ everyday escape routes are closed off, and when male partners in conditions of food scarcity are enacting Iris Marion Young’s ‘logic of masculinist protection’, fuelled in settler colonial societies by the armed frontier myth.

Queer and trans youth with hostile parents, meanwhile, know all too well that home is no security and can often be an actively dangerous place. Those already estranged from their parents, in their home country or elsewhere, do not have the recourse to emergency accommodation in the family home that policymakers expect they might when jobs in the gig economy fold and college campuses close down. Those forced to remain in the family home through lockdown must suddenly adjust to being unable to escape family pressure to renounce expressions of sexual difference and gender non-conformity while losing physical contact with the places of security that friends, queer social spaces, specialist youth services, or supportive educators may have helped them make before.

Digital networks at least enable queer and trans young people with safe enough internet access in their homes to shore up their psychic security by experiencing validation, recognition and virtual interaction with their peers and online sources of support. Even accessing these, however, is more precarious when under the ongoing parental surveillance they are likely to experience in extended quarantine: the UK charity Mermaids, which supports trans youth and their families, added an emergency escape button to its website when the UK lockdown began (on the model of sites for women and children experiencing domestic abuse, which have used them for some time), and was promptly hounded by anti-trans campaigners who have been attempting to spread the belief that trans people are abusively grooming children under their parents’ eyes.

The interpersonal politics within the family home, particularly the pressure to live up to the wishes of a parent who ‘just wants you to be happy’ and not to spoil the mood by asserting the otherness one embodies or the critique one knows, are one of the main foundations of Sara Ahmed’s feminist critique. This has begun with her theorisation of happiness and other emotions (in The Cultural Politics of Emotion and The Promise of Happiness) and continues to inform her theorisation of diversity work in institutions and how organisations work to suppress dissent and complaint. These insights, just as applicable to the co-option of feminist agendas in international institutions as they are to the everyday politics of militarism or affect, are grounded in a knowledge from around the kitchen table that Ahmed shares with many individuals whose ability to step away from that table has been suddenly locked down.

The latent insecurity of the home, nevertheless, is still a source of immediate shelter unavailable to those whose access to any form of housing is insecure. Homelessness in IR is more a metaphor for feminism’s unwelcome reception in certain bastions of disciplinary IR thought (Christine Sylvester writes of ‘the standpoint of homelessness’ in Feminist Theory and International Relations in a Postmodern Era) than a subject of study; yet it is one of the most serious material insecurities facing the subjects of feminist political economy. Gender in its intersections with race and other oppressions structures housing insecurity whether one is a poor trans person living precariously on and off the street (at the centre of Viviane Namaste’s work and other studies of trans political economy, yet disregarded in most social policy) or a Syrian refugee ineligible for resettlement somewhere more stable than a refugee camp because he is a single man.

Almost every imaginable strategy that housing-insecure individuals might use to resolve their immediate accommodation crises is rendered either impossible or much more severely criminalised under quarantine restrictions, while the history of public health shows that authorities have routinely harassed sex workers and other workers in the marginal economy off the streets in the interests of hygiene (not least when commanders have judged the sexual health of soldiers under threat).

The conditions in which individuals who fall sick will be cared for, meanwhile, also exposes the inequality and contingency of ‘home’ within an international political economy of care – another sphere where the feminist study of political economy and of security come together once we acknowledge that the everyday security of the body is a matter of interest (if not, we might even suggest following Lauren Wilcox, the founding matter of interest) for IR. Migrant nurses who will be at the forefront of responses to Covid-19 in hospitals, and migrant domestic workers who will also be at that forefront when the wealthy sick are treated at home, leave their own families behind and submit to repressive visa regimes in order to sustain homes they rarely see, forming extensions of what Maliha Safri and Julie Graham call ‘the global household’; they are among the city-dwellers least able to isolate themselves from the risks of coronavirus, and in the case of domestic workers living in with their employers, among the most unable to escape abusive living situations.

The migrant who is undesirable until her labour becomes essential to what war-themed metaphors are troublingly characterising as a new healthcare front line is, meanwhile, just one of many such ‘unwanted im/migrant’ figures whose position in international politics Cynthia Weber reveals in Queer International Relations by using queer migration studies to show ‘how any attempt to posit home and homeland as secure ontological places is confounded by encounters with movement and queerness inside the home’.

When tragedy strikes, queer understandings of security also recognise that the families impacted by sickness and death are more disparate and diverse than any of the relationships recognised by the state. For many queer people, especially those whose birth families have brought them violence and insecurity, family is a social relation spread across dwellings, forged through networks such as alternative sexual subcultures, fandom communities or sites of queer of colour resistance like the ballroom scene, all far from the nuclear and monogamous units that states privilege with rights. The pandemic which has defined queer collective history since the 1980s, HIV/AIDS, not only accelerated the bitter rejection of heteronormative family forms in 1990s queer theory but also lent emotional urgency to some activists in marriage equality campaigns, knowing that marriage would at least have given them or others like them precedence over homophobic parents when it came to decisions about their lovers’ care.

The history of HIV/AIDS in queer communities, as Steven Thrasher wrote when the US lockdowns began, both testifies to the forms of care that queer chosen families had to build for each other in the face of public hostility and to the problem that taking up space with massed bodies is no longer a viable strategy for exerting political pressure when the deadly virus is carried in the air. A performative theory of assembly (as theorised by Judith Butler) in a moment of pandemic will necessarily, Thrasher suggests, be closer to models of disabled activism than methods of political protest with which most able-bodied activists are familiar, exercised through long-distance solidarities and expressed by individuals physically residing within separate homes.

The myth of the secure home on which the notion of security through staying at home depends is, as the black feminist thought of Patricia Hill Collins reminds us, an illusion obscuring the many ways in which the home becomes a space of violence and insecurity. Acknowledging this, as an everyday perspective on security makes it essential to do, has implications for the myth of the secure national home which, as Collins observes, is so often invoked in attempts to homogenise the public mood and naturalise the securing of the nation’s borders. It is a further irony of the politics of ‘home’ that the health of that metaphorical home is now threatened in several countries by charismatic male leaders setting their personal authority above scientific expertise to impede effective suppression of the pandemic, a further insecurity in what Marysia Zalewski and Anne Sisson-Runyan write of as ‘the grubby vortex of Trump-time’.

‘Who designed these uniforms—Tom of Finland?’: the real story behind these viral photos of Spanish soldiers

This post appeared on Prospect Online on 24 March 2020.

They are musclebound and tanned, with sage-green shirts open to the chest, bulges below their black leather belts, and chinstraps curiously slung along their chiselled jaws.

They are the elite troops of the Spanish Legion, and on an internet desperate to be distracted from pandemic lockdown, they are English-language Twitter’s latest thirst trap.

After the Spanish military was deployed to cities at high coronavirus risk, New York writer Jill Filipovic tweeted “Spain, hi, can you deploy some of that in our direction?” above photos of parading legionnaires. Thousands of Twitter users joined her in desire, some informed her of the Legion’s fascist origins, and others remarked on how homoerotic their uniforms seemed.

Yet the history of the Legion makes those three things no contradiction at all.

End of 2018 publications round-up

Some years there are a lot of small things, other years there’s one big thing. This was mostly a one-big-thing year.

  • Race and the Yugoslav Region: Postsocialist, Post-Conflict, Postcolonial? came out with Manchester University Press.
  • My article ‘Postcoloniality Without Race?: Racial Exceptionalism and South-East European Cultural Studies’, which expands on ideas from Race and the Yugoslav Region about how ‘Orientalism’ has been applied to studying ‘the Balkans’, came out in Interventions.
  • I have a short essay in Critical Studies on Security about the aesthetics of embodying different imaginations of war and violence, and the pleasures of identifying with stars and characters who embody them, in Wonder Woman. (With an extra 4,000 words of literature review, this could have been a full-length academic article – but then I wouldn’t have had time to write it last year at all…)
  • My book chapter on the complex place of the Military Wives Choir(s) in TV entertainment, patriotic showbusiness, and everyday military life came out in Veronica Kitchen and Jennifer G Mathers’s volume Heroism and Global Politics – with its origins in a blog post I wrote here in 2012.
  • Guest posts for Prospect Online on the Croatian president’s self-promotion during this year’s men’s World Cup, for History Today on the problem of gender non-conforming ‘cross-dressing’ soldiers in history, for E-IR on the international politics of music video, for Discover Society on postsocialism and whiteness, for Imperial and Global Forum on the ‘Windrush myth’ after London 2012, for the German Historical Institute’s History of Knowledge blog on the silent histories of enslavement behind celebrating ‘Europe’ at Eurovision in Lisbon (reblogged by ESC Insight), for LSE Engenderings on integrating gender into historical research, for LSE EUROPP on Brexit, colonialism and Bosnia, and for ESC Insight again on the queer politics of military kitsch.

In press for next year: a spin-off article from material that wouldn’t fit into Race and the Yugoslav Region about female pop-folk celebrity in south-east Europe, which has just been accepted by Feminist Media Studies; a review article for Contemporary European History about recent studies of peacebuilding in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo; a book chapter for The Palgrave Handbook on Languages and War where I reflect on interviewing ex-peacekeepers and interpreters about their work in Bosnia; and a contribution to a forum in New Perspectives on how postcolonial studies of postsocialism deal with class.

One or two more pieces on the aesthetic politics of popular culture and nationalism might also be ready by the end of 2019, not to mention the edited volume on ‘militarisation’, aesthetics and embodiment I’ve been coordinating this year.

Colonialism does connect Britain, the EU and Bosnia – but Britain is not being treated like a colony

This post first appeared at LSE EUROPP: European Politics and Policy on 19 November 2018.

Daniel Hannan MEP is not the first to compare the European Union’s role in international governance in post-conflict Bosnia-Herzegovina to the exercise of colonial rule. Writing for Conservative Home on 14 November, the day Theresa May sought the approval of her cabinet on the UK’s draft Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, Hannan joined other pro-Leave critics of the agreement by arguing that it would leave Britain ‘facing colonial rule from Brussels, of the sort the EU imposed on Bosnia following the Yugoslav war’.

In criticising the EU’s political and financial interventions in Bosnia since the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed in December 1995, Hannan might seem to put himself alongside such unlikely allies as the writers Srećko Horvat and Igor Štiks, who drew attention to the EU’s ‘monumental neo-colonial transformation of [the Balkans] into a dependent semi-periphery’, or David Chandler, who used the phrase ‘empire in denial’ to describe international state-building in Bosnia and elsewhere.

Yet the country he compares to Bosnia is not Kosovo, where movements of Albanians and Serbs have both resisted the EU’s rule of law mission, or Greece, where Marxist economists during the bailout crisis accused Brussels of pursuing ‘a new type of colonialism’ against the European south, but the United Kingdom, the EU’s second largest economy and the country which once ruled the largest empire in the world.

While Britain’s part in world history is as the agent not the subject of colonial power, and its relationship to the EU has existed in a very different balance to Bosnia’s, post-Dayton Bosnia and Brexit Britain can in fact be connected into a common history of European coloniality – though not in the way Hannan suggests.

The EU’s role in Bosnia

There are, to be sure, valid critiques of EU governance in Bosnia when seen through a postcolonial lens. One might cite the ‘Bonn Powers’ that Dayton’s ad hoc Office of the High Representative (OHR) possessed to veto or dismiss elected officials for breaching the peace agreement, which were vested in the EU from 2002 to 2011 when High Representative and EU Special Representative were a ‘double-hatted’ role.

The EU has been responsible for military peace support operations in Bosnia since 2004, ran Bosnia’s international police mission in 2003–12, launched a business development programme called the Compact for Growth and Jobs in 2014 as its response to popular discontent expressed in that year’s plenum protests, reformed Bosnian customs and security services in order for Bosnia to play its part in fortifying EU external borders, and sets the conditions Bosnia must meet to progress through its EU pre-accession strategy.

Insights from postcolonial studies, especially the adaptations of Edward Said’s Orientalism that for two and a half decades have been helping to explain the importance of symbolic boundaries between ‘Europe’ and ‘the Balkans’ in south-east European collective identities, illuminate the ways that international and local officials, intellectuals and media appeal to the idea of Europeanness in making political claims. The EU and other international institutions scarcely invented hierarchical constructions of rational, liberal Europe against the backward ‘Balkans’, but embedded them even further into Bosnian political culture because of the EU’s power to determine whether or not Bosnia had met its conditions for reform.

The linguist Danijela Majstorović, for instance, writes that discourses of Europeanisation in OHR press releases during the early 2000s (including the particularly interventionist term of the only British High Representative, Paddy Ashdown), ‘represented, legitimised and coerced Europeanisation’ when they issued from an institution with powers like the OHR’s, reflecting ‘problematic relations […] of dominance in a sovereign country.’

The promise of integration into the EU in return for successfully implementing reforms serving the interest of neoliberal capital, Majstorović and Zoran Vučkovac argue, stripped the Bosnian public of the democratic political agency to pursue socio-political alternatives and constrained any forms of collective political identification beyond the three ethnic identities enshrined in Dayton. While the EU itself did not draft Dayton, its influence ensured the Dayton system stayed in place.

Even the very idea of European integration and enlargement has been argued, by postcolonial scholars such as Dušan Bjelić and Piro Rexhepi, to disavow the colonial pasts from which today’s ideas of ‘Europe’ emerged. Casting the European Union as a wholly new phase in Europe’s history, Bjelić suggests, permits its leaders and the publics who identify with it to disavow the overtly racist discourses of civilisational superiority with which ‘European’ culture was imagined when possession of an empire was the making of a ‘European’ power. It is in investigating this form of exceptionalism and disavowal where deeper connections between the EU, Brexit and post-Dayton Bosnia truly start to emerge.

Brexit and colonialism

Nostalgia for Britain’s imperial past has, indeed, characterised most of the Leave side’s enthusiastic imaginations of the prosperity post-Brexit Britain could supposedly enjoy. Speculations about replacing the EU with the USA as Britain’s main trading partner or creating a common ‘CANZUK’ free trade and movement area connecting Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, depend on imagining a 21st-century Britannia that commands as much diplomatic and economic power as when it ruled an empire, and whose prospective allies need her much more than she needs them. CANZUK advocates’ arguments that the British public would favour migrants from these white-majority settler-colonial countries, which they imagine as culturally closer than the eastern peripheries of the EU, expose the core of whiteness they place at the centre of British national identity even though they are positing a closeness which is supposedly independent of race.

The intellectual debt this geopolitical fantasy owes to ideas of federalising the white settler empire at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Duncan Bell and Srđan Vučetić suggest in a forthcoming article, exposes how deeply the idea of the ‘Anglosphere’ is and always has been racialised – and shows what boundaries CANZUK advocates are setting around the sovereign political community who, in Leave discourse, are entitled to and exercising their right to ‘take back’ political control.

Exaggerated visions of Britain’s importance in the world have not only informed Leave campaigners’ promises about post-Brexit trade but even, as Gary Younge suggests, the government’s negotiating strategy since June 2016 – a miscalculation that Britain could lay down the terms of the deal to Brussels, and an absence of any script for what to do when that turned out not to be true. For Nadine El-Enany, Brexit is ‘not only an expression of nostalgia for empire, but the fruit of empire’ – a policy that could never have come about if Britain had confronted the racism that still structures its present, thanks to its imperial past.

What is at stake in positioning Britain as the subject of colonial rule, not the power that exercised it, in rhetoric that seeks to persuade readers who identify with glorious myths of British sovereignty that accepting the draft Withdrawal Agreement would amount to colonial domination?

Bosnia has, in fact, already served Hannan as an example of what he perceives as the anti-democratic nature of the EU on several occasions – including a speech to the European Parliament in February 2014 using the same anecdote about a conversation with the High Representative (‘the colonial governor, so to speak’) as evidence of the ‘eternal gulf’ separating ‘the Brussels official’ from ‘the democrat’. His stance on Bosnia and the EU dates back to at least 2002, when he used Ashdown’s dismissal of the federal finance minister Nikola Grabovac to ask in the European Parliament ‘whether democratic standards will really be fostered in the new country when an unelected foreigner wields such arbitrary power in this manner’.

Hannan’s comments suggesting Britain would now be treated the same way as Bosnia came after other Leave politicians who had aligned themselves with nostalgia for a so-called ‘Global’ (instead of ‘European’) Britain had described the backstop deal as subjugation ill befitting Britain’s standing in the world. Almost a year earlier, Boris Johnson (then still foreign secretary) had argued that accepting all the EU’s regulations during a transitional period after Brexit would leave Britain as a ‘vassal state’. He repeated the phrase while the Cabinet were debating the Withdrawal Agreement.

The leader of another Leave faction, Jacob Rees-Mogg, alluded to an explicitly racialised motif of humiliation in stating that signing the agreement would leave Britain ‘not a vassal state but a slave state’ – a remark that the Labour MP David Lammy immediately criticised on Twitter as ‘trivialising the abuses of slavery’, based on an ‘ignorant nostalgia for Britain’s Imperial past’. Slaves, in the ‘Rule Britannia’ myth of sovereignty, are the very thing that Britons shall not be – a framework in which it is more shameful to be enslaved than to acquire generations of wealth from the sale, oppression and labour of human beings who were.

Evoking post-conflict Bosnia as a warning of what global status would await Britain if the backstop is agreed not only, as Jasmin Mujanović wrote on Twitter, trivialised the memory of the 100,000 people who lost their lives in the Bosnian war. The argument’s very internal logic requires disavowing the colonial past of Britain and other European powers while expecting the reader to sympathise with the unjustness of colonial rule.

Genuine parallels?

The threat of Britain ending up in the same ‘colonial’ relationship to the EU as Bosnia touches the emotions of imperial nostalgia because it implies a massive national fall from grace in the global hierarchy of which countries control their own destiny and which countries exist to have their destinies controlled. Such racialised hierarchies of power and entitlement have been translated, since the formal decolonisation of European empires, into the centre–periphery relations which inform Western Europe’s dealings with the Global South but also the East, and South, of Europe itself. In British imaginations, Britain does not deserve Bosnia’s fate.

Neither, of course, did Bosnia – and the diplomatic context that determined how the Bosnian war could be ended was itself shaped by British foreign policy, when the government of John Major and Douglas Hurd insisted the war was a matter of ‘ethnic hatreds’ which the international community ought to contain, rather than forestalling Radovan Karadžić and Slobodan Milošević’s pincer movement against the Sarajevo government and its citizens while they still could.

Hannan’s story about talking to the ‘High Commissioner’ (in fact ‘High Representative’) in Bosnia joins both men in an attitude of offhand detachment (the High Representative joking that if the Serbs and Muslims both thought he was biased against him, he must be doing something right; Hannan replying that if everyone was unhappy, he must have been doing something wrong). A similar indifference could be said to characterise the attitudes of both the Leave campaign and the government to the stakes of the Good Friday Agreement and the everyday realities of peace and (in)security at the Irish border. So detached a style of politics and peacebuilding has its origins in the entitlement with which colonial Great Powers took it upon themselves in past peace congresses to determine state borders and resolve competing national claims. Britain not only sat alongside continental European powers at these tables, but presumed to lead.

Where Britain’s prospects after Brexit might resemble post-Dayton Bosnia, above all without a deal, is in a much more everyday domain – the shock that travel restrictions, extended shortages of food and medicines, and permanent damage to standards of living might inflict on people’s sense of what used to be ‘normal’, and the sense of ‘stuckness’ that pervades Bosnian society two decades after Dayton, unable to weaken the entrenched ethnopolitical interests that hold the Dayton constitution in place and trapped in what Stef Jansen, Vanja Čelebičić and Čarna Brković have called the EU’s ‘waiting room’.

Yet an even more important, immediate parallel between Brexit Britain and post-Dayton Bosnia lies in the psychological blow struck to 3.7 million citizens of other EU countries living in the UK, forced to watch their sense of belonging in what had become their home country removed overnight and left in doubt over whether they would even be allowed to stay – amid the racist and xenophobic abuse that the Brexit referendum appeared to legitimise, persuading the perpetrators of a statistically significant rise in hate crime that it was now acceptable to tell speakers of foreign languages, people of colour, and Muslims to ‘go home’. The sense of licence and impunity that the Leave campaign and referendum victory released has troubling echoes of, even though its circumstances are not identical to, the atmosphere before the Yugoslav wars began.

Bosnia and the UK are not, and have never been, in the same structural position vis-à-vis the EU, and critiques of the EU’s ‘neo-colonial’ treatment of Bosnia and other countries on its internal and external periphery cannot simply be mapped on to the UK, a country that had the ability to influence EU policy in South-East Europe – and that won more concessions from the EU than any other member state. Instead, the true hinge of coloniality connecting Brexit Britain and post-Dayton Bosnia is the sense of imperial nostalgia and the myth of British exceptionalism which has always fuelled the imagination of the Leave campaign.