When what we see isn’t what we’re meant to hear: you can lead an audience to Eurovision but can you make it think?
Early in the year for a Eurovision post, but February is when most participating broadcasters are busy choosing their entries (although the keenest, like Albania’s RTSH, wrap theirs up well before Christmas) and it’s when some of the most interesting examples of what an entry might do are going around.
The latest national selection to get underway is Slovenia’s EMA, halfway through cutting sixteen songs down to eight before a final next weekend and still nowhere near the size of a media-event behemoth like Sweden’s six-week Melodifestivalen.
This rather spectacular production by EMA standards stood out from the others in Friday’s semi-final:
Working around Eurovision’s performance rules (no pre-recorded vocals; no more than six people on stage), which were supposed to put poorer and richer broadcasters on level playing fields but haven’t kept up with the digital backdrop technology that has transformed Eurovision staging since the mid-2000s, the pop-opera group Tosca Beat put on a three-minute provocation about media manipulation which resembled a whole vein of utilitarian young-adult dystopias in recent Hollywood cinema, and definitely – we can tell from the group’s promotion before EMA – meant to reference George Orwell’s 1984.
Serendipitously helped by the huge girders that EMA’s producers decided to decorate the stage with this year, it even used some of the same visual codes as a musical/artistic project which started out as shock-value provocateurs in late socialist Yugoslavia and became edgy cultural heritage for an independent Slovenia: Laibach, the industrial band named after the German translation of ‘Ljubljana’ that pushed past Kraftwerk to mobilise totalitarian and fascist aesthetics to such a degree since forming in a Slovenian mining town in 1980 that listening to or watching their music is a continual process of trying to work out whether they actually mean it after all, and whether what you’re enjoying is really the wit of the parody or maybe the pull of what they supposedly subvert.
(And yes, that’s what happens when you translate the ‘One Vision’ of ‘Radio Gaga’-era Queen into German – where the sound of lyrics like ‘one man, one goal, one vision’ evokes a very different kind of charismatic relationship between leader and crowd than the supposed inspiration for Queen’s original, Martin Luther King.)
Or that’s how it came across to Eurovision blogger and punk rock singer Roy Delaney, who hadn’t expected ‘a post-industrial Laibach tribute act’ in an EMA semi-final but found one anyway:
Surely this can’t be an accident? Militaristic outfits, megaphones, situationist statements, stompy marching music and a deeper-than-mines voice croaking out between the high pitched choruses. It’s Slovenia’s biggest ever international musical export, toned down and made (slightly more) palatable for the Friday evening TV crowd.
It’s the brown blouse and crossed-over belts of the middle soprano Urška Kastelic, in front of the stark video backdrop, that do most to evoke the ambiguity of Laibach (who added their own uniformed female vocalist, Mina Špiler, in 2004) and make the viewer wonder should they really be doing that?
What resolves it for Tosca Beat, or ought to, is the white-uniformed megaphonist and keyboard player pulling on a set of angel wings (in a move that takes about ten seconds – this all goes much more quickly in the Hunger Games) and intoning what seems to be a warning about the seductive power of totalitarianism:
The rush for victory will be present at all times… The race for defeating a helpless enemy will become our number one priority… Don’t let it happen. It depends on us.
If the first two and a half minutes are having the viewer join in the pleasure of an aesthetic – a way of sensing things and feeling emotions through them – that comes to them first through the horrors of 20th-century European history and then through the inherently ambiguous (many, like Susan Sontag in her essay on ‘Fascinating Fascism’, would say too ambiguous) conventions of late 20th century provocative art, the ‘Don’t let it happen’ potentially reaches out to show how easily it does happen, while the spectatorship is still going on.
The politics of irony, memory and nostalgia in post-Yugoslav Slovenia, from the ‘Neue Slowenische Kunst’ (‘New Slovenian Art’ in German) art collective that emerged from the same alternative milieu as Laibach in the 1980s to parody the kitsch iconography of authoritarianism and state power, to the ‘nostalgic culture‘ around Communist and Partisan symbols among young Slovenes who did not even grow up in Yugoslavia, make acts like this crop up in Slovenian pop music from time to time – one of the stalwarts of Slovenian military bricolage, Rock Partyzani, even took part in EMA in 2011.
‘Free World’ hasn’t even gone on to make next week’s national final, meaning the audience for this dystopian intervention – or whatever it was – will likely be no larger than the 200,000-300,000 Slovenian viewers who might watch an EMA heat and the several thousand Eurovision fans who keep up with EMA live or on YouTube.
One song that will be on stage in Kiev and faces a similar challenge, however, is the winner of Italy’s Sanremo festival – Francesco Gabbani’s ‘Occidentali’s Karma’.
Even as the poetic conventions of Italian pop music go, ‘Occidentali’s Karma’ – which has been seen more than 18 million times on YouTube in ten days, plus another 1 million views for Gabbani’s performance in the Sanremo final – is an ambitious philosophy essay.
The title – ‘Westerners’ karma’, or il karma degli occidentali transposed into the possessive syntax of an English apostrophe-s – is already asking the listener to play a linguistic game which at the very least needs an anglophone to work out who are the occidentali anyway, then – if they’re going to understand what the lyricist wants them to – to work out what Gabbani might mean about their karma or the search for it or whether they can even access it or not.
The rest of the lyrics take a glossary to explain – something which the 40+ television commentators who have to introduce this song to Eurovision viewers in May won’t have the luxury of – and according to Gabbani’s fellow songwriter Fabio Ilacqua are supposed to critique the shallowness of modern life in the West and the way that Westerners have appropriated ‘Eastern’ spiritual practices to help them cope:
It describes the situation of Westerners, their models and their way of seeking refuge in the Oriental rituals for comfort. It’s a pretext to observe how are we as modern humans. Westerners are turning to oriental cultures like tourists who go into a holiday village. Oriental cultures are seen as an escape from the stress, but they were not born for this. It’s the trivialisation of something profound.
What the viewer first sees, unless the staging is very careful, is a white man dressing up in orange robes going namaste.
On stage at Sanremo, a line in the song’s lyrics citing the anthropologist Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape inspired its producer to bring a man in a gorilla suit on stage halfway:
‘Occidentali’s Karma’ is now, to the overlapping Italian and transnational communities of Eurovision fans, the early favourite to win the contest and/or that song that needs to come with an entire bibliography, and, to many more internet users, the viral video with the dancing man in the gorilla suit.
Within the lyrics, the line ‘the naked ape is dancing, occidentali’s karma’ (‘la scimmia nuda balla, occidentali’s karma’) is saying something about a search for meaning that Gabbani sings has weighed on human minds on levels from the high art of Hamlet to the Neolithic.
Outside the lyrics – to a viewer who doesn’t understand the language, or doesn’t grasp in the middle of a televised song festival what the hell is supposed to be going on – it’s a dancing gorilla, in a song about karma and nirvana.
Which when the gorilla was and is a symbol of African primitivity in so many European racisms (think how often the racist abuse hurled at black footballers involves gorilla chants), working so deep down in white imaginations as to be imperceptible to persuade white people to fear physically imposing black men, and when the superiority of Europe in biological and cultural racism is so much about civilisation and modernity – is not what Ilacqua says he means the song to be about.
The long history of stereotypes of Africa and primitivism in Western arts and culture (which have outlasted the overseas empires that European countries like Italy and Britain actually had, and permeated across Europe to countries that didn’t have them at all), and the colonial overtones to contemporary Western appropriations of ‘Oriental’ spirituality, are a huge structure of thought and feeling that could prevent some viewers grasping the song’s critical intent, leave others recognising the racialised meanings of the gorilla and interpreting the performance as one that just reproduces the same dynamics it set out to critique, because the immediate aesthetic impact of what the viewer sees comes more quickly and viscerally than the intellectual effect of what the viewer (if they can catch it) hears.
(I’d switch the gorilla out for a Flintstones caveman for the Eurovision final. Yes, it loses the ‘naked ape’ reference. ‘Neolithic man’ is in the lyrics as well. You get three minutes.)
Tosca Beat and Gabbani are at very different steps of the Eurovision pyramid, but both have tried to use the aesthetics of performance to ask the viewer to recognise something else underneath what looks like their visual presentation – and occupy an ambiguous relationship towards the visual culture of European fascism or colonialism as they do so.
Can a Eurovision performance engage an audience in the kind of spectatorial move that both these videos make? It can try – but the sources they reassemble still have such power in European and Western imaginations that there’s no guarantee it can succeed.
These comments are adapted from my opening remarks at the ‘Teaching the Yugoslav Wars Two Decades On’ roundtable at the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies convention today, alongside Fedja Burić, Dragana Cvetanović, Tomislav Longinović, Christian Nielsen and Sunnie Rucker-Chang – thanks to them all and to everybody who contributed their own impressions from the audience.
I originally organised this roundtable and another session with the same title at this year’s International Studies Association conference after writing my introduction to The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s and having to think through what I wanted to be able to do in my teaching, what I wanted others to be able to do, and how the contexts have changed since I was an undergraduate and postgraduate in London 8-15 years ago.
It’s a different chronological context and, as has become even sharper since Yugoslav Wars came out, a different political context.
Originally I was going to talk at the roundtable about what it means to teach about the Yugoslav wars in Britain, in the mid 2010s, to students who at Hull are nearly all white and British, and nearly all of what they encounter about Yugoslavia or its successor states in their general lives will have been premised on the idea that Yugoslavia was ‘somewhere else’.
That Yugoslavia on one hand, and Britain on the other, are part of separate spaces which have been defined by very different historical and political legacies; that Britain is at the centre of how things can be expected to be, and the Yugoslav region was outside that or lagging behind that.
I’ve always wanted to de-centre that in my own work, probably before I could even put into words that that was what I wanted to do.
In the days before the Brexit referendum and even more so after it, hearing accounts of racist and xenophobic violence and harassment increasing, I had a crisis of confidence. I’m someone whose teaching ought to have contributed to people being able to intervene in the kinds of cycles of polarisation and exaggeration that have been ramped up throughout the campaign. I and dozens of other people teach about the break-up of Yugoslavia and how the mainstream media moved an open politics of ethnic entitlement and resentment into the political centre, where it didn’t have to be.
Does any of it matter? Has anyone stepped back from looking at a UKIP poster or a Labour ‘controls on immigration’ pledge and thought differently about its messages because of the things we do when we teach 20th-century history and international politics? I think so, and I want to think so. But how does anyone know?
We strive to equip students to see across perspectives they might not have considered; to equip them for acts of everyday resistance to authoritarianism and hatred, and for recognising when there is a call for them; to equip them to account for violent historical legacies without succumbing to ascriptions of collective guilt, and to live in a society where others may have more knowledge than them of the effects those legacies have had.
British public culture exhibits the ‘never again’ reflex in its abstract, every Holocaust Memorial Day, which in Britain annually takes in Srebrenica alongside the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide; and yet the process of the break-up of Yugoslavia from ‘crisis that still feels like business as usual’, to something like the outbreak of full scale war and ethnic cleansing in 1991 in Croatia or 1992 in Bosnia, towards something of the scale of Srebrenica in 1995, is so poorly understood.
In 2014 I was asked to contribute to a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Hull Guildhall with a talk about the Bosnian Genocide. Rather than mobilising a sense that ‘we’ have to prevent mass violence and genocide ‘there’, I wanted to leave the audience with the question of: if this is how it seemed for Muslims in Visegrad, or for Srdjan Aleksić (the young Serb man in Trebinje who intervened in an act of ethnicised violence by fellow Serbs and saved the victim’s life at the cost of his own), what would the equivalent be for you, for us, here? And when would you know that you were starting to recognise it?
This is part of why I felt a resigned, saddened, but not shocked kind of alarm as the Brexit vote came closer, when I heard that a far right extremist had assassinated an MP, Jo Cox, who had called for Britain to accept more refugees (I thought at once of Josip Reihl-Kir, the moderate police chief of Osijek assassinated in July 1991 who had tried to de escalate violence when that was not in the interest of extremists on either side).
As the US vote came closer, it felt like no coincidence that people like Aleksandar Hemon or Charles Simic were among the first white writers in the US to warn that Trump was not a joke and to warn of what else can become possible very quickly once so racist, xenophobic and violent a register of political speech starts to be normalised. (Another, Sarah Kendzior, is an anthropologist of political repression in Uzbekistan.)
Knowing historically that 1990 was a turning point for the origins of the Yugoslav wars, but then reading Croatian newspapers from the beginning of 1990 which were not on anything like the crisis footing that they would be, brought home to me as a white English student how fast everyday life could fragment and be turned into something else – the pace of the ‘destruction of alternatives’.
Understanding that and understanding that Yugoslavia is not some inherently different place from Britain, has left me with part of my back brain that goes: don’t think that authoritarianism or violence can’t happen here.(I’ve written elsewhere about how that intersects with my identity/experience as queer.)
I didn’t live through the Yugoslav wars in any way that affected me, I don’t feel the echoes of the break up in the visceral way that my friends and colleagues do who did, but my window for what can happen in a crisis is closer I think to many of us here than perhaps to many of my colleagues and students in my own department.
What else then can we achieve by teaching about the Yugoslav wars, as well as educating students about what happened ‘in that part of the world’, because it is about so much more than that? What do we want students to appreciate – what do we want students to be able to see or do differently?
We can teach the skills the public need to be an informed and critical citizen of a democracy; and through what and how we teach, perhaps we can pass on to our students enough of that early warning system that we ourselves have so that they might intervene where they might not have done, so that they might speak out or educate others where they might not have done, so that at least some of the things our early warning system catches might not come to pass.
And as I said at the end of the roundtable: let’s get on and do it.
I’m writing this from the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies annual convention where three years ago I travelled just after sending out acceptances and rejections for chapters people had proposed for a volume I was editing on Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR, last year I chaired a panel with several of the contributors meeting for the first time to present research from their chapters, and this year some more of us will be meeting just as the book is published in hardback and paperback on 18 November – so yes, there is still time to use it for your spring-semester classes.
Historians and other scholars of gender in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the 20th Century, especially during the state socialist period, already have several excellent edited volumes at their disposal, where scholars specialising in many different countries have been able to combine their own specialisms into saying something wider-reaching about simultaneously one of the most intimate and one of the most public topics in politics and history.
Ours is a volume that emerged at a time when historians of state socialist Europe have been striving to put the region’s connections with the rest of the globe, not just the West, into the centre of analysis; when questions about women’s agency and activism under state socialism are live controversies; when research on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender pasts and presents is both expanding and embattled; when ways to think about gender in its intersections with other kinds of oppression are ever more accessible and ever more necessary; when narratives of inevitable progress in social equality or political freedom looked ever more shaky even before the US election campaign that overshadowed our volume’s run-up to publication.
It would also be published in a series where most works are on Western Europe and North America and where the task of showing the complexity of the region(s) we study, balancing the similarities of their historical experience with pan-European and global lenses that show them to be much more than a marginal periphery, was both an opportunity and a responsibility.
The 88 abstracts I received when I invited chapter proposals in autumn 2013 covered East Germany to Kyrgyzstan, the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries to the present day. Selecting the chapters was as close as I’ve ever come to a three-dimensional jigsaw: the volume needed balanced coverage across the century, without over-representing any one country; I can’t have all my interwar chapters based on Poland (let’s say) and all my state socialist ones based on Czechoslovakia; if I take this innovative chapter proposal here, I’m going to have to turn down that one elsewhere; my own research is on the Yugoslav region, so I’ve got more proposals about there than anywhere else, and I’m going to have to turn more of them down; and why did everyone have to publish their ground-breaking work on that topic last year?
And then a law criminalising the ‘promotion of non-traditional sexual relations to minors’ went through the Russian Duma.
Three years later, we have a volume of fourteen chapters which will offer specialists exciting new research by emerging and established scholars, and teachers of European /20th-century gender history ways to incorporate Eastern Europe and the USSR into their syllabus.
Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR has a ‘long’ 20th century, beginning in late Habsburg Bohemia with Cynthia Paces‘s chapter on ‘Czech Motherhood and Fin-de-Siècle Visual Culture’. Throughout the book, I’ve tried to balance excitingly new research topics with original approaches to themes which have been at the core of gender history since it started being written. Cynthia’s chapter on Czech materialist nationalism is a great example of the latter, and points to comparisons with imperial and anti-colonial feminisms at the same time which I hope others will be more able to take further because of the suggestions here.
The next chapter, Olga Dimitrijevic‘s ‘British-Yugoslav Lesbian Networks During and After the Great War’, draws together two separate lesbian history-making projects to reveal a connection that I’d simply never heard about before I read Olga’s abstract: the relationships between Scottish Women’s Hospitals volunteers who travelled to Serbia in WW1 and women on the Yugoslav avant-garde art scene, particularly the painter Nasta Rojc. Olga had discovered the SWH connection while researching Rojc for the first volume on Serbian and Yugoslav gay and lesbian history, and retraces a link that eluded even the lesbian British historians who have written the queer relationships and gender non-conforming performances of SWH volunteers into Britain’s lesbian past.
What excited me on reading the proposal for Jo Laycock and Jeremy Johnson‘s chapter on ‘Creating “New Soviet Women” in Armenia? Gender and Tradition in the Early Soviet South Caucasus’, meanwhile, wasn’t just how it could extend the scope of the volume beyond a metropolitan-Russia-centric view of Soviet gender history but also how much its questions about constructing ‘ethnicity’ and ‘tradition’ resonated with themes in the study of south-east Europe. If today’s ‘area studies’ often keep the Balkans and the Caucasus apart, a view from the late 19th century Ottoman Empire – or from 21st-century historians trying to reassess the late Ottoman period on its own terms – would see them as much more part of the same region – a lens it’s become much easier to see through since working with Jo and Jeremy.
The tensions between similarity and contrast that run throughout the volume are encapsulated by Jenny Kaminer‘s ‘Mothers of a New World: Maternity and Culture in the Soviet Period’, which returns to the theme of motherhood first explored in Cynthia Paces’s chapter on Bohemia, but in the context of the radical transformations the Bolsheviks sought to achieve in Soviet private and public life, and through the changing priorities of Stalin, Khrushchev and the late Soviet leaders. Jenny uses popular literature to illustrate how the roles of ideal Soviet mothers were imagined at all these moments, suggesting limits to how far historians can generalise about gender policy even in one country, let alone the whole region.
Katherine Jolluck‘s ‘Life and Fate: Race, Nationality, Class, and Gender in Wartime Poland’ takes on the harrowing, necessary task of explaining how gender, as well as race, ethnicity, nationality and class, determined the experiences of Poles and Jews exposed to both Nazi and Soviet persecution between 1939 and 1945. As the allusion to Vasily Grossman’s novel of WW2 in Katherine’s title suggests, this is an unflinching chapter, without which our account of the 20th century would simply not be complete.
Another chapter on the Second World War, Kerstin Bischl‘s ‘Female Red Army Soldiers in World War II and Beyond’, covers a topic which both in historical research and in Russian society has been a subject of growing interest since the end of the Cold War. Beyond the stories of individual war heroes such as the sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko or the famous ‘Night Witches’ fighter pilots, Bischl shows how the stories Russian women have been able to tell and have heard about their service have themselves changed within shifting Soviet and post-Soviet memory politics.
The last chapter on the interwar/WW2 period (though not limited to that), Erica Fraser‘s ‘Soviet Masculinities and Revolution’, exemplifies one of the objectives I had for the volume from the very beginning – to create ever more dialogue between studies of gender in this region and elsewhere. Using the concept of ‘revolutionary masculinities’, well-known in Latin American studies of Cuba and other revolutions in the 20th century, and studies of how the French revolutionary regime thought of itself as a ‘band of brothers’, Erica reassesses how later Soviet authorities as well as the Bolsheviks imagined leadership and revolution. I couldn’t have framed my own introduction to the volume in the same way without this chapter, and its approach informed me as an editor as I encouraged authors to bring out latent transnational comparisons and contrasts in their own work.
The volume then turns to state socialist rule in Eastern Europe, beginning with a chapter on ‘Gender and Youth Work Actions in Post-War Yugoslavia’ by Ivan Simic – whose first paper on Yugoslav Communist adaptations of Soviet gender ideology I’d had the pleasure of hearing earlier in 2013, without having any idea it was actually his first. Yugoslavia would emphatically develop its own interpretation of Communism after 1948, when Stalin ejected it from the Soviet bloc; in 1945-8, the period at the centre of Ivan’s chapter, it was perhaps the most enthusiastically Stalinist of all Eastern European Communist regimes, and the chapter both traces how Yugoslav Communists made sense of Soviet policies and picks up what are now recurring themes of health, youth, modernity and the body.
Judit Takács, in her chapter on ‘Listing Homosexuals since the 1920s and under State Socialism in Hungary’, uses her discovery of an astonishing document in the Hungarian national archives – a list of suspected homosexuals, attached to government correspondence during the Second World War about subjecting minorities to forced labour – to point to continuities between, on the face of it, three very different political systems in Hungary: the late Habsburg period, the authoritarian ‘Regency’ regime which went on to collaborate with the Third Reich, the even more brutal Arrow Cross regime of 1944-5, and state socialism. Police practices of surveilling, listing and blackmailing gay men, Judit suggests, did not differ appreciably from regime to regime, and some are even likely to have persisted after the decriminalisation of sodomy in 1961 – an argument that complicates any neat division of 20th century history into periods based solely on political regimes.
The most everyday, domestic, intimate aspects of life under state socialism – which reveal how far Communist regimes sought to reach into their subjects’ private life – are the subject of Maria Bucur‘s ‘Everyday: Intimate Politics under Communism in Romania’. Drawing first on her own experiences growing up in Communist Romania, then on a large oral history project she has been conducting for some time with Romanian women, Maria shows how oral history and the ‘Alltagsgeschichte’ (everyday history) approach can illustrate the workings of Communist power and the ways that individuals tried to navigate endemic scarcity and hold on to private space. One of Maria’s own volumes on east European gender history, co-edited with Nancy Wingfield (Gender and War in Twentieth Century Eastern Europe), was a key work for me in thinking about how I wanted to frame this collection, and I’m delighted that she suggested this chapter for ours, which is a product of intergenerational as well as international exchange.
The run-up to the collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe figures in this book through Anna Muller‘s chapter on ‘Masculinity and Dissidence in Eastern Europe in the 1980s’, which uses the writings and letters of male Polish political prisoners in particular to offer new insights into the dissident masculinities of late state socialism and even, bearing in mind the careers of many ex-dissidents after 1989, to draw connections between the ideas about gender formed in opposition movements during the 1980s and the impact on gender relations that postsocialist politics would have. The transnational history of imprisonment is another emerging area in modern history, and reading this chapter made me think for instance of studies of masculinity and imprisonment in Northern Ireland; here as elsewhere in the volume, fresh connections between Eastern Europe and other regions start emerging all the time.
By asking ‘What is Political in Post-Yugoslav Feminist Activism?’, meanwhile, Adriana Zaharijevic both gives an overview of how the collapse of Yugoslav state socialism, the impact of ethnopolitical violence in Croatia and Bosnia, and the effects of more recent global financial crises affected women’s movements in the Yugoslav region, and makes a suggestion that earlier volumes like this simply could not have made because less time has passed: the postsocialist period, which scholars in east European studies have been so used to debating as the present, might already be over. Whatever might follow it – Adriana suggests the present period might be defined by the political logic of neoliberalism – today’s movements would be well advised not to lose sight of the radical insights of their predecessors just because the state and big financial donors might be better predisposed towards women’s movements than they used to be.
Maria Adamson and Erika Kispeter, writing on ‘Gender and Professional Work in Russia and Hungary’, adapt the comparative methodology of a well-known work in east European gender studies, Éva Fodor’s study of women and the workplace in Hungary and Austria, to directly address the problem of how far conclusions based on evidence from the USSR can automatically be extrapolated to Eastern Europe. Behind the state socialist ideal that posts in professions such as law and medicine should be equally open to women and men, Adamson and Kispeter find divergent experiences across the national borders and even changes of policy and practice within them, suggesting what level of depth is necessary for solid comparative work.
My own last chapter for the volume, ‘Transnational “LGBT” Politics after the Cold War and Implications for Gender History’, covers a set of political and social struggles which took further turns even as we were compiling the volume, with foreign responses to state homophobia/biphobia/transphobia in Russia often highlighting the kind of simplistic West/East divisions that east European scholars of sexuality, such as Robert Kulpa and Joanna Mizielinska, had already been criticising – just as global queer studies has often done from postcolonial perspectives. Centering struggles for trans recognition and health care as well as struggles for sexual rights in this post-Cold War period brings into view a question that historians of gender non-conformity before the 1990s would also do well to consider: how do historians know the gender of their historical subjects, and how do we do justice to the constructions of gender and sexuality that were present in subjects’ own place and time while accounting for the presence throughout history of people who today might be called trans?
I feel confident in saying that no previous volume on east European gender history has integrated sexual diversity and gender non-conformity with the breadth of this one: rather than just having ‘the LGBT chapter’, queer ways of being appear in multiple ways across the century, as of course they have. We could have had even more. As well as regretting the many excellent proposals I had to turn down because they were harder to balance into a table of contents or closely matched a proposal I knew I needed to include because of another innovation it had made, the field of east European and post/Soviet gender studies has developed even further since the end of the 2000s that I’ve heard so many excellent presentations at ASEEES and other conferences and thought ‘If only they’d done this research a couple of years earlier it could have been perfect for the volume’. If I were planning the volume now, there are more themes I’d want to seek out somebody to cover – in particular, I wish now the volume had had a chapter on race and the ‘global Cold War’, and there’s a much wider range of people working on this than there used to be.
In the meantime, I hope everything this volume does achieve will inspire historians of gender inside and outside the region to ask some new questions; to carry on connecting Eastern Europe and the ex-USSR with how their colleagues study gender around the rest of the globe; and to suggest how knowledge and theory about gender relations grounded in evidence from the region can also inform studies and understandings of gender politics elsewhere.
‘That’s all because you asked this great toy question’: Cynthia Enloe and how to historicise anything
In the spirit of spontaneity that impressed me about the piece I’m about to quote from in the first place – possibly one of my favourite answers from a Q&A after a public lecture, from a talk by the feminist International Relations scholar Cynthia Enloe that the University of Westminster, where she gave it last month, kindly recorded and put online.
Enloe, who’s been publishing on war, peace and women’s lives since the 1980s (after beginning her career studying the politics of armed forces’ ethnic make-up, which she freely admits these days she isn’t satisfied with because she hadn’t yet understood how to take women’s lives seriously in International Relations research), was one of two or three feminist IR authors recommended to me in the first lecture of an ‘International Relations 101’ course I crossed over into from my BA History during my first year at LSE, when the lecturer – probably Professor Chris Brown, whose own research didn’t touch on gender at all – was explaining what we’d be reading in the one week on gender that this intro module had. (In fact, most courses in UK universities used to run all year so it occurs to me that was probably in my first week.)
I’m quite sure what propelled me at 18 to the library to look up Enloe and Jean Bethke Elshtain (whose book Women and War I also found out about at this point) was mainly the thought that reading about women and war was likely going to throw up some histories of gender-non-conforming women and where else in my International History syllabus was I going to find out about those. (Elshtain delivered in this respect with an introduction that began with a story about her childhood identification and disidentification with Ingrid Bergman’s Joan of Arc; I’m from the generation that would either be beginning their war-and-gender books with a story about Milla Jovovich’s performance as the same, and/or a story about those first few paragraphs of Elshtain.)
What I found, and didn’t realise I was looking for because most of my syllabus wasn’t even suggesting it was there, was a lens that Enloe develops through books called things like Bananas, Beaches and Bases – and keeps up through the late Cold War, post-Cold-War and we can’t be in the post-post-Cold-War already can we? – for magnifying how apparently trivial objects, or spheres of life that seem completely disconnected from war, are actually linked into systems of thinking and feeling that make war, militarism and gender-based oppression possible at some very deep levels – a manifesto for overthinking that I didn’t know I needed but that has been helping me make sense of the world around me ever since.
I’ve already written on here about (and am still doing work inspired by) why it works so well when Enloe asks in Maneuvers, about a can of pasta shapes made to tie in with Star Wars, ‘How do they militarise a can of soup?’
What I like about this Q&A answer – which runs to almost 900 words, I realised once I’d started to transcribe it – is how it distils arguments I’ve read Enloe make over the space of whole book chapters into the kind of fluidity or clarity that… does not characterise me when I talk about my own research in public at the moment. (There’s the one of me who digresses, there’s the one of me who can’t even finish a sentence, and, usually, the one of me that misses a step I’ve known about so long I take for granted, so that the whole thing falls down in front of anyone else.) Obviously someone at Enloe’s career stage has racked up thousands of hours more practice than anyone at mine, but as I start loping into that ‘early mid-career’ point (and what on earth is that) I worry that that’s only going to get worse not better the greater the range of things I start to know.
Here is Enloe cutting across International Relations theory, cultural history (I’m reminded of Graham Dawson’s work on British boys’ identification with militarised play post-WW2, which I also need to write about at some point), international economics, education research, fashion theory, asides that transform how listeners think about things they might have taken for granted, and questions that coming researchers could develop into whole books or PhDs even over and above the ones there already are, when an audience member asks her a question about toy soldiers:
Do you know that the first toy soldiers which were lead, lead soldiers, you can still see them in museums – they were made to train elite boys in monarchical systems at an early age about their duty as a future soldier for the regime. So militarised toys, and that socialisation of boys into the naturalness of soldiering, or at least the admiration of soldiering, starts very very early. And here again, women as mothers oftentimes feel that they really are responsible for their sons growing up to be quote normal boys, whatever that is, are the ones who take the boy by the hand down the aisle with the military toys. And the military toys are usually right next to the dump trucks. You know, that is the masculinisation of play can look very unmilitarised. You know. How many little girls really play with dump trucks? Well, dump trucks are great. They’ve got all those moveable parts and you can mix the… you know – but somehow, at that early age, dump trucks are thought to be a boys’ toy, versus any child’s toy. I love dump trucks. Because they’ve got all those moveable parts and you can make up games and stories and…
The big toy companies, like Mattel and Hasbro, they’re major companies, if you – you know, you all have very different aesthetics around your curiosities. Not everybody wants to study a playgroup, although that would be a really good thing to do. If you watch pre-school teachers trying to take the gender out of play, even though the gendering of play has started at home. Or you find the playgroup is very gendered, and a well-meaning mother or father is then trying to de-gender the play when the child comes home. But if that’s not really where your research skills or your research tastes lie, take on a big toy company, and do a history of GI Joe. I mean, did anyone here have a brother or oneself that ever had a GI Joe toy? Ta-da. […]
The Barbie phenomenon, and the GI Joe phenomenon, these are globalised toys. They are made in very particular parts of the world. So if you’re interested in the globalisation of production, go find where really popular toys are made. Find out what you can reveal about the gendering of toys in the production of them, the masculinisation or feminisation of them, the marketing of them… So you’ve got a lot of different tastes in what really strikes you would be interesting to do as research. Find the level, in this case, from the everyday play, to the international production of toys, find some place to come together with your tastes and reveal it. Mattel is the producer of Barbie, and Barbie now has a couple of very spiffy military uniforms, a dress air force uniform. And you can cite exactly when that happened, exactly when Mattel’s toy designers decided that Barbie would be more attractive if one of her outfits was a military uniform. It wasn’t at the beginning. You can historicise anything, and when you historicise something you find where decisions are made. And when you find where decisions are made, you reveal politics. That’s one of the reasons to ask historical questions.
The Gap – by the way, I ask these questions so that you all write about them and then send them to me. That’s really what I’m doing here. The Gap introduced camo. Do any of you have a camouflage tank top, or a knapsack, or a pair of sneakers, or is this too embarrassing to ask? Did any of you once? Right, there you go. All right. But camo – and now it’s abbreviated to camo so that it won’t sound so militarised. That was the fashion industry that did that. They took ‘camouflage’, in garments, and then abbreviated, so most of us would forget it’s really about being invisible so that you can shoot somebody. That’s what camouflage is about. I mean, why do firefighters wear bright red? Because they want to be visible. Right? Camouflage is to be invisible. The Gap corporate designers, and marketers, made a very specific decision, in about – I used to know this for sure – about 2001, that they would introduce camo into their fashion line. Then they made, the next year, a decision to introduce camo into their Gap for Kids. But children actually don’t buy clothes in the kids section of The Gap. Mothers do. So every child, and I’m always – this is terrible, you get infected with this and you just see it everywhere – but when I see a child with a little camo outfit on, I wonder what – I really want to know. I truly want to know. What was she thinking? But, I mean, truly. What is she thinking? That it’s just a beautiful pattern? I mean, why not checks? Because The Gap’s profit depends on her making some association that she thinks that camouflage is a cute outfit for a child. So look for decisions. And the way you look for decisions is to watch something over time that didn’t exist, and then watch when it does exist, and then ask who made what decision when. And that’s all because you asked this great toy question.
My transcription, so my errors, and certainly my line breaks (don’t rely on this as a citation), but about as clear an exposition as possible of what Enloe has called in her later books a ‘feminist curiosity‘ – an eye so well acclimatised to the problems and structures Enloe wants to reveal that an everyday detail like a clothing pattern or the arrangement of a supermarket aisle sets off a cascade of I truly want to know, and full of subtle reframings like her description of the purpose of military camouflage (how much more often do you probably hear about it as there to prevent soldiers being shot, rather than to hide them so that they can shoot somebody?) – the analytical turns that have started making me wonder what a feminist aesthetic curiosity applied to such cultural and everyday dimensions of international politics might be.
And this is only a spontaneous answer to an audience question after the talk she’d planned to give – a lecture where she sets out the taken-for-granted, normalised (but in no way inherently normal) ideas about danger, protection and gender that make it so easy for societies, universities and people to start becoming militarised – and that make those beliefs so difficult to unmake, at least without being able to look underneath the surface of things like this…
‘A place calling itself Rome’: Coriolanus, military masculinities and a feminist aesthetic curiosity
This post originally appeared at the International Feminist Journal of Politics blog on 20 September 2016, accompanying my article ‘”Ancient Volscian border dispute flares”: representations of militarism, masculinity and the Balkans in Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus‘ (International Feminist Journal of Politics 18:3 (2016): 429-48).
In the first duel between the two feuding generals who serve as protagonist and antagonist in Ralph Fiennes’s cinema adaptation of Coriolanus, a bloodied Roman commander in grey-green digital camouflage uniform, bulked out by tactical pouches, radio equipment and the personal paraphernalia of US forces’ urban combat in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, confronts the leader of the barbarian Volscians, a bearded paramilitary in plain green fatigues whose irregularly dressed and lightly equipped forces resemble countless still and moving images of fighters from a very different yet equally ‘post-Cold-War’ conflict, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
The contest between Coriolanus, the Roman war hero who turns away from political acclaim to fight alongside the very barbarians against whom he won his battle honours, and Aufidius, the Volscian leader who moves from admired adversary to counterpart to the agent of Coriolanus’ death, is a historical rivalry from the early stages of Rome’s wars with the Volsci in the 5th–4th centuries BC, adapted into a tragedy by William Shakespeare, and understood by Fiennes (both director and star of this 2012 adaptation) as a narrative that purports to reveal timeless truths about men and war.
The materiality of the film’s production design, on the other hand, could hardly be more time-bound: not only are the identities of each army and polity conveyed through resemblance to forces from a different newsworthy war, but Fiennes and his production team visualise the competition between the two men through directly opposing two military masculinities, the combat soldier of the post-9/11 War on Terror (representing a state that US liberals have been likening to Rome since its founding days) against the paramilitary of post-Yugoslav ethnopolitical conflict, as pictured in news photography including Ron Haviv’s famous ‘Blood and Honey’ series.The choice to make the film on location in Serbia and Montenegro meant that ruined post-Yugoslav locations in Belgrade, Pančevo and Kotor add verisimilitude for any viewer who remembers news images from the Yugoslav wars, as sites supposed to have been devastated by the Roman–Volscian conflict – even though the destroyed hotel where Coriolanus and Aufidius fight their first duel is none other than the (now refurbished) Hotel Jugoslavija in Belgrade, which owes its ruins not to either side in an ethnopolitical conflict but to a NATO air strike during the Kosovo War in 1999.
Archival news footage from (on almost every occasion) the Yugoslav wars (one early riot scene contains a clip from a protest in South-East Asia; none of it comes from the war in Iraq) further localises the action in not so much the material Western Balkans but the imagined space of ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ into which one of the two most prominent Western discourses about the wars transformed the Yugoslav region.
The blurring of ‘found footage’ and scenes staged and designed in resemblance to it sees, in one exposition sequence, Gerard Butler’s Aufidius and three other Volscians cheering and waving rifles as they drive into conquered or liberated territory, above the rolling headline which gave my International Feminist Journal of Politics article the first part of its title: ‘“Ancient Volscian Border Dispute Flares”’. The caption does not give us the ‘ethnic’; alongside these images juxtaposed with concepts of ancientness and territory, it does not need to.
With the built environment and the thematics of exposition situating the film’s imaginary space so much more within (a certain Western construction of) the Yugoslav wars than within any post-9/11 conflict – and with a Serbian costume designer, Bojana Nikitović, and the Serbian actors portraying several supporting military characters contributing their own awareness of the aesthetics of the Yugoslav wars – the chief means of distinguishing the Romans and Volscians becomes the aesthetic differences in the embodied military masculinities of each side.
Indeed, the psychological narrative of Coriolanus’ rivalry with and admiration of Aufidius – which will end in Coriolanus’ death at Aufidius’ hands after his wife and mother have persuaded him to make peace and return to Rome – is visualised through the transformation of Coriolanus’ and Fiennes’s own militarised body into a persona that several UK film reviewers independently likened to ‘a Balkan warlord’.
Coriolanus’ death at Aufidius’ hands, after his wife and mother have persuaded him to make peace and return to Rome, thus becomes simultaneously the resolution of the tragedy, the blade finding (as Fiennes explains in his director’s commentary) ‘its place of penetration’, and Fiennes’s imagination of a ‘weird ancient tribal blood rite of embrace and sadness’ (the hero slain by his dualistic rival yet again?) – a homoerotics given thematic unity by the enactment of ‘ancientness’, killing and tribalism in a ‘Balkan’ setting.
Coriolanus, the film, reached nowhere near as many viewers on release in 2012 as blockbusters such as The Dark Knight Rises or The Hunger Games; however, like both those films in different ways, the aesthetics of its design depend on the evocation of resemblance to (and sometimes direct incorporation of) images from recent conflicts to incorporate narratives about the nature of war and violence in the present or recent past into the texture of a speculative setting.
Such evocation in Coriolanus primarily occurs through the conjunction of material space and the costumed, performing body. Much of what this adaptation can tell scholars of international politics would not therefore be contained at all in the elements of audiovisual narrative, such as dialogue and story, with which researchers accustomed to written texts who study popular culture may be most comfortable. Similarly, much of what this adaptation can tell scholars of international politics would not be perceptible at all without applying a ‘feminist curiosity’ (to quote Cynthia Enloe) and a ‘queer intellectual curiosity’ (Cynthia Weber), to start perceiving how its constructions of war and violence are constituted by ideas about gender, masculinities, desire and the body.
The combination – what we might call a feminist aesthetic curiosity – could reveal much about the continuum between representation and imagination, mimesis and speculation, through which creators, spectators and even military institutions produce and contest ideas about violence, gender and war.
This post originally appeared at the Forum Transregionale Studien (TRAFO) blog on 14 September 2016.
Six years after I finished my doctoral research at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, two years after I had briefly returned to SSEES as a teaching fellow leading Masters modules about nationalism and ethnic conflict, students at UCL launched a campaign against Eurocentric and institutionally racist structures of thought within the curriculum that they termed ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’.
The campaign, which began in 2014 and spread to other UK universities including Leeds, Birmingham and Warwick, framed its title as a challenge which, if a teacher were to answer it, would involve unpicking a complex of assumptions about rationality, modernity, and which people and places have become entitled to set themselves at the intellectual centre of producing knowledge about the rest of the world. Exposing the ‘unmarked nature’ of whiteness in the design of teaching and learning, and the unquestioned assumptions about which scholars represent the theoretical heart of a discipline and which are added on as marginal radicals or providers of empirical area-specific knowledge, would thus be the first step in ‘dismantling’ the white curriculum and starting to decolonise the university, alongside confronting structural racism in the academy itself (as a panel discussion at UCL organised by Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman had asked earlier in 2014: ‘Why isn’t my professor black?’).
The ‘House of IR’
The subtle dynamics of reproducing whiteness through the hierarchies of authority that teachers construct when suggesting the centres and margins of their field are illustrated by Anna Agathangelou and L H M Ling’s evocative metaphor, well-known to decolonial, postcolonial, feminist and queer scholars in International Relations, of the ‘House of IR’. Agathangelou and Ling consciously model their illustration on a colonial home: the intimate exclusions within/outwith the domestic compounds of Dutch-colonised Indonesia and French-colonised Indochina that the global historian Ann Laura Stoler has detailed in her own work.
The House thus has its founding fathers (individualist, masculinist realism), its good liberal mothers and daughters, its rebel critical-theorist sons, its fallen daughters (postmodernists and queers), its acknowledged and unacknowledged descendants inside and out, and its downstairs, where the ‘servants’ – IR’s ‘non-Western, nonwhite sources of knowledge, traditions, or worlds’ – ‘live, work, and produce for the House of IR’ (Agathangelou and Ling 2004: 27, 30).
Anticipating the #RhodesMustFall protests of 2015–16 about the unacknowledged legacies of colonialism and slavery on elite campuses in South Africa and Britain, and the ongoing struggles at US universities to confront the material and symbolic legacies of slave-owning benefactors, the UCL ‘Dismantling the Master’s House’ group also drew attention to the presence of the colonial past of their specific institutional setting: the commemoration of Francis Galton, who founded eugenics as a scientific field at UCL, in the 21st-century university’s public culture.
The ‘House of South-East European Studies’
If I had still been teaching at SSEES in 2014–15, how would I have answered the question ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ when looking at my own modules, or connected the history of an east European studies institute (founded in WW1 by scholars who were lobbying the British government to support Slav national liberation movements’ struggle against Austria-Hungary, later part of Britain’s Cold War infrastructure of knowledge, intelligence and research) to the colonial legacies of the university that SSEES had joined in 1999? What texts would someone need to add in order to bring race into the centre of the discipline’s debates, alongside its central paradigms of ‘nationalism’ and ‘ethnicity’ – or even to integrate histories of people of colour in central and south-east Europe into the core narrative of the region that an undergraduate historian would take away?
Did this subset of area studies, about a region of Europe which had been repeatedly occupied and which had never been the metropole of an overseas empire itself, need to reckon with whiteness and the global history of ‘race’ to the same extent as the history of Britain or America, the Netherlands or France?
Yet at the same time the ‘House of South-East European Studies’ – especially the interdisciplinary south-east European cultural studies/history/anthropology in which I positioned my doctoral work – would give critical inquiry based on postcolonial thought much more space upstairs than its equivalent ‘House of IR’. Since the early 1990s, a research agenda translating the premises of Edward Said’s Orientalism to south-east Europe, first developed by Milica Bakić-Hayden (with Robert Hayden and alone) and Maria Todorova, has suggested that the politics of differentiating a civilised and urban ‘Europe’ from a backward ‘Balkans’, a fundamental identity-making project both outside and within the region, depend on symbolic hierarchies similar to, or perhaps part of the same structures as, orientalising oppositions between ‘Europe’ and ‘the East’.
Questions of essentialisation, othering, stereotyping, exotification and mis/representation are inescapable in the study of post-socialist identities – with immediate opportunities, in the majority white and Anglophone classrooms where I teach, for reflecting on similar (perhaps connected; perhaps, too, not automatically identical) dynamics of othering and periphery-making directed towards the Middle East, Africa, South or East Asia, Latin America, Islam, or even Ireland.
For me, however, the construct of the ‘House of South-East European Studies’ I’ve postulated is a retrofitted house. The disciplinary conversations I was part of during my PhD were parallel to, but largely separate from, those taking place in other fields that grounded their knowledge in specific languages and regions.
(That sentence avoids the term ‘area studies’ deliberately: in 2010, at an applied linguistics conference where I was to talk about my postdoctoral research on language intermediaries and peacekeeping in Bosnia, I told a Brazilian colleague in the audience of a panel that I had done my PhD at SSEES, an ‘area studies’ department. For all the postcoloniality that my doctoral research had started to train me in – and SSEES itself is more engaged in rethinking ‘area studies in the 21st century’ than it was 10 years ago – I had still failed to appreciate how much more heavily the ‘area studies’ of a white English-speaking woman from and educated in London would ring to her ears as an extractive, colonising term.)
Situating South-East Europe in Global Dynamics of ‘Race’
Unlike contributors to this forum for transregional research who have positioned themselves in International Relations throughout their careers, I began engaging with IR (to which I had first been drawn as an undergraduate via the possibilities it offered for studying women and war, even if it meant reading against the grain of an intro syllabus largely devoted to explaining the English School) first because its critical and feminist studies of peacekeeping offered a conceptual language for connecting south-east Europe as a site of international intervention with the rest of the world, then because its emerging and hard-fought aesthetic, experiential and queer turns helped to explain why many of my interests in cultural politics had run together.
While it has taken extensive struggle by postcolonial and decolonial scholars to make race and racism a theoretical lens within IR, my own re-entry to IR – giving me a mental map where the margins of Agathangelou and Ling’s House look more like a centre – is what persuaded me, once the Why Is My Curriculum White? group posed the question, that situating south-east Europe in a global International Relations or a global history of anything else must involve situating the region in global dynamics of ‘race’ – a concept which, in contrast to ‘ethnicity’ or ‘postcolonialism’, is more isolated from the central conversation in the first discipline to which I belonged.
South-East Europe – like ‘central Europe’, ‘eastern Europe’ or ‘the former Soviet Union’, but also part of a transregional ‘post-Ottoman’ space – sits in an ambiguous position in the global history of race and imperialism. Ruled by the Ottoman, Habsburg and Venetian empires, cast into the periphery of ‘Eastern Europe’ during and after state socialism, and with the deepest colonial legacy in the region (that of the Ottoman empire) being left by a power that in northern/western frames of Europeanness was either on the margins of Europe or outside Europe altogether, it was never the metropole of an overseas empire.
Migrants from south-east Europe moving to postcolonial European countries or settler-colonial states have been subject to changing and conflicting frameworks of identifying with and ascribing race: having to ‘learn to become white’ (and to become complicit in whiteness, racism and settler colonialism) like other southern Europeans in early 20th-century North America, with access conditional on politics (not being a Communist or anarchist) as well as phenotype; being told ‘At least you’re the right colour’ by white neighbours offering – extremely conditional – acceptance to Bosnian refugees in late 20th-century Australia; being incorporated into the racialised category of ‘east Europeans’ in post-EU-enlargement Britain; and these are only three examples of the conjunctions between race, ethnicity, class, migration policy and history encountered by south-east European migrants and diasporas.
A common European antiziganism, inflected by distinct but comparable national identity discourses, marginalises Roma in south-east Europe and when they migrate to the West; while some Romanian migrants in western Europe deploy antiziganist constructions of Romanian nationhood in order to distance themselves from Roma in their host society’s racialising gaze.
The subaltern identification that adaptations of postcolonial theory has given south-east Europe can explain much about the region’s peripheral position but also sits uneasily with the investments in whiteness as well as Europeanness that postsocialist national identity projects have made, from widespread antiziganist media and everyday rhetoric, to occasional but unquestioned appearances of blackface performance on entertainment television, to the Slovenian and Croatian governments’ emphatic stance during the current refugee crisis that their states should be countries of managed transit – or no transit at all – not countries of settlement.
Anikó Imre, writing on whiteness and antiziganism in postsocialist eastern European media (including her 2005 essay ‘Whiteness in Post-Socialist Eastern Europe: the Time of the Gypsies, the End of Race’, and more recently ‘Postcolonial Media Studies in Postcolonial Europe’), and Dušan Bjelić, in essays on Balkan involvement in the colonization of Palestine and on the identity discourses of Kristeva and Žižek, both argue that south-east Europe would not stand outside the dynamics of coloniality and race that Global IR can place at the centre of the discipline’s inquiry.
Research like Miglena Todorova’s PhD ‘Race Travels: Whiteness and Modernity Across National Borders’, on Bulgarian identity and global formations of race throughout the 20th century, completed in 2006 (the same year she published an article on National Geographic and the Balkans), exemplifies the questions about race I wanted to incorporate into my teaching about ethnicity and nationhood at SSEES in 2011–12 but did not have the architecture to properly build. Academic publishing’s economics of ‘market’ that render small nations and ‘niche’ topics supposedly uncommercial are part of a politics and technology of knowledge production that restrict the opportunities for innovative scholarship about and from peripheralised regions to be made widely available in book form, while unmarked methodological nationalism among readers, instructors and reviewers can produce an exceptionalism of its own. ‘Connected histories’ thus fail to be connected not even because connections are never made, but because connections are made, missed, remade, and liable to be missed again.
During a collaboration with Jelena Obradović-Wochnik on ‘the nexus between peacebuilding and transitional justice’ – two fields where critical research asks similar questions about knowledge/accountability gaps, ‘liberal peace’ assumptions and the structural inequalities between international intervention agencies and local residents, yet which rarely seem to engage with each other – we had initially been surprised to find so little theoretical bridge-building between the fields when perspectives ‘from the ground up’ (knowledges based on everyday discourse, oral history, ethnography) made the shortcomings of peacebuilding and of transitional justice appear as two instances of the same problem. The theoretical connections we needed were already ‘there’, in the work of Chandra Lekha Sriram and Rama Mani; but neither had been extensively cited into the conversations about the liberal peace where we began.
Global IR– Not new, but a lens
Working transregionally in south-east European studies overlaps with, and may often be informed by, the ambitions of Global IR. As a researcher located at and educated in a centre of knowledge production ‘about’ the rest of the world which has that status as a legacy of colonial-era higher education and research, however, I do not wish to suggest it is a ‘new’ lens, far less to impose another hierarchy of progress and temporality in suggesting that in some way the field ought to ‘catch up’.
Instead, it is a lens that the centre of the field has failed to see through to the same extent as it has seen through lenses of ethnonationalism or even postcoloniality – and a lens that can permit old as well as new histories and solidarities to come into view.
The Illyrian alphabet that wasn’t: how two centuries of European printers circulated an imaginary Balkan script
One of the joys of historical research is finding unusual things in old books.
One of the joys of social media once you link a whole lot of historians, linguists and literature people up with each other is finding the unusual things people have found in a lot of old books.
Like these pages from Josiah Ricraft’s The Peculier Characters of the Orientall Languages and Sundry Others, published in London in or around 1645, that Heather Froehlich encountered while looking at texts in languages other than English in the Early English Books Online collection:
(Make that The Peculier Characters of the Orientall Languages and Sundry Others, Exactly Delineated for the Benifit of All Such as Are Studious in the Languages, and the Choice Rarities Thereof, and for the Advancement of Language Learning in These Latter Dayes. That claim to precision with its millenarian twist at the end – the same combination that introduced readers of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens to an occult text called The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch – is exactly what you want in your early-modern-English-book-title aesthetic.)
Two of these scripts – the ‘Alphabet of the Slavs’ and ‘Alphabet of the Croats’ – are forms of Glagolitic, one of the scripts devised for writing down Old Church Slavonic by the early medieval Byzantine missionaries who spread Orthodox Christianity in eastern Europe. Cyrillic (named after one of the two most famous missionaries, Saints Cyril and Methodius) endured and became the basis of alphabets for eastern Slavonic languages such as Russian and Ukrainian, and for south Slavonic languages in nations with strong Orthodox traditions (Serbian, Bulgarian, Macedonian).
Glagolitic (somehow, it never got called ‘Methodian’) didn’t become the basis of any modern-day national language’s literary script, but as a liturgical and monumental script lasted longest in Croatia. For 19th- and 20th-century Croatian national movements, the 12th-century Baška tablet, discovered by a Croatian priest in 1851 when Croatian (and many other) national ‘awakenings’ were in full swing, has both symbolised the continuity of Croatian statehood and connected to layers of Croatian national myth.
The inscription acknowledges the historic King Zvonimir, who ruled the medieval Croatian kingdom until being betrayed by his own noblemen; moreover, it provides the first reference to ‘the national Croatian name […] in the Croatian language’. And it does it in Glagolitic. (In the words of one of the most famous new patriotic songs that emerged in 1991 at the beginning of the Croatian war of independence, resonant with the karst landscapes of the Dalmatian hinterland, history is quite literally ‘written on a firm stone’.)
(Today, narratives and iconography of the Croatian national past that play on the ‘primordialism’ of ethnicity and tradition in the landscape continue to make Glagolitic script a symbol of Croatian ethnic continuity on the land, immediately distinguishable for a Croatian onlooker from the Cyrillic script which in the region’s late 20th/early 21st century language politics connotes Orthodoxy and Serbdom. It’s not uncommon on patriotic t-shirts and tattoos; some monuments commemorating 20th-century Croatian national ‘martyrs’ are inscribed in Glagolitic; and the Zagreb-based designers Vesna and Marija Miljkovic have used the script as detail for an entire clothing and accessories line.)
Ricraft’s fourth script, a version of Cyrillic, is the ‘Alphabet of the Muscovites’, inverting the balance of power between Russian and South Slav languages that most inhabitants of Slavonic languages departments will be used to these days.
It’s the first script, the ‘Alphabet of the Illyrian Slavs’, that looks hardest to place. Glagolitic-but-not-quite, Greek-but-not-quite, serpentine tails where you don’t expect them to go – tipping its ‘peculier characters’ into the uncanny valley between historic typography, modern-day invention and contemporaneous alchemical esoterica to which several decades’ worth of films and book covers have tied the aesthetic of early modern printing for a contemporary eye.
(Take a novel like Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Dumas Club, filmed as The Ninth Gate, about an antiquarian book dealer hunting a 17th-century treatise that can supposedly summon the Devil; just put up a woodcut on screen and the viewer should start to be smelling brimstone.)
Indeed, as a place-name Illyria itself is in much the same valley – the name of a historic tribe in south-east Europe who pre-date the migration of the Slavs, attached to a Roman province, Napoleon’s Adriatic satellite state and the first wave of the South Slav national ‘revival’ in the Habsburg Empire; part of an Albanian myth of national origin; and, as Vesna Goldsworthy records in her history of fictional Balkan countries, one of literature’s most popular go-to names for imagining the Balkans behind the one that gave her book its title, Inventing Ruritania. And then there was that time Joss Whedon named an ancient warrior demon after it.
To paraphrase Kieron Gillen’s line from The Wicked + The Divine about the mysteriously reincarnated goddess Tara (‘We don’t know if she’s Buddhist, Hindu or Tara from fucking Buffy‘), semidetached from its historic moorings the name has permeated literature so far that ‘we’ might be forgiven for not knowing if it’s from Shakespeare, Greater Albania or Illyria from fucking Angel.
Except the background to the Alphabet of Illyrian Slavs is less Ninth Gate, more in the equally time-honoured bibliographic tradition of printers messing about – with something to reveal about how north-west European typographers thought about foreign languages in the 16th to 18th centuries.
Ricraft’s was far from the only handbook to include the Alphabet of the Illyrian Slavs, according to the Slavonic linguist Sebastian Kempgen, collector of Slavic alphabet tables from 1538 to 1824. It’s there in Richard Daniels’s Copy-Book of 1664, also from London, and a Leipzig printing manual in 1740; it surfaces in France in 1766, in Pierre Simon Fournier’s Manuel typographique, and in Edmund Fry’s 1799 Pantographia. De Bry’s Alphabeta et characteres, printed in Frankfurt in 1596, contains several Cyrillic and Glagolitic alphabets, the Illyrian script and a Cyrillic ‘Moscovitian’, putting it into the same lineage as Ricraft. Several Italian handbooks, meanwhile, don’t have the script at all. Finally, Kempgen traces it back to Zurich: Urban Wyss’s Libellus valde doctus, elegans, & utilis, published for the edification of calligraphers in 1549, where Kempgen notes no other Slavonic languages were printed at all.
‘Illyrian’ alphabets in the later books, compared to the greater variations of Cyrillic and Glagolitic scripts, resemble the Wyss models much more:
These later copies reproduced the alphabet very faithfully, but it is obvious that, for 250 years, none of the authors of these copybooks had a “living” alphabet to check his engravings against, that there actually were no texts that could be used to sample these letters from, no speakers to correct anything etc. Whereas in all these typographic books the Glagolitic and the Cyrillic alphabets do exhibit certain changes over time as they changed naturally, this one alphabet seems to be frozen in time, as if it had been photocopied by one author after the other. (Kempgen 2015: 6)
Kempgen speculates that Wyss invented the alphabet himself, using Glagolitic as a model but adding embellishments of his own that matched the codes of what he perceived as exotic (something he also seemed to have done to his book’s ‘Egyptian’ alphabet):
Having no idea which parts of the Glagolitic letters were distinctive and which weren’t, he transformed the Glagolitic letters into fanciful designs that fit the rest of the exotic alphabets that he cut for his book […] In Zurich at the time, there would have been no one who could have given him advice on how to interpret the Glagolitic letters best – which parts were important and which of his ornamental additions or re-interpretations made them unrecognizable as Glagolitic letters. (Kempgen 2015: 11)
The ‘mysterious’ Illyrian script, in other words, belongs somewhere between the chain of early-modern biblical typos, litanies of unfortunately transcribed script tattoos, and the comedies of errors through which Google Translate error messages and out-of-office emails end up written on signs.
Moreover, it’s missing several important sounds that the alphabet of any Slavonic language would be likely to contain; and the Italian manuals, printed closest to the Adriatic where their readership was likely to be in most contact with the script, have no trace of the Wyss alphabet whatsoever. Esteemed typographers in north-west Europe, for two and a half centuries, still reprinted the ‘Illyrian’ alphabet as fact. As Kempgen concludes:
Due to lack of better knowledge, it has been faithfully reprinted for 250 years – but never anywhere near Slavic-speaking countries. (Kempgen 2015: 11)
Wyss’s alphabet circulated because it looked plausible; other Cyrillic and Glagolitic scripts were and had been in use, ‘Illyria’ already existed as a designation, the Illyrian alphabet looked like its neighbours, why shouldn’t it be there? It’s as if the Dothraki language, knowingly constructed by George R R Martin and David Peterson for Game of Thrones in evocation of the horse-nomads of Eurasian steppes, were actually to appear in a handbook on the languages of Central Asia.
Two centuries before the Venetian traveller Alberto Fortis was romanticising the nomads and bandits of the Dalmatian hinterland as ‘Morlachs’, a generation before Shakespeare was imagining his shipwrecked twins making landfall in Illyria, Wyss was playing his own part in the European imagination of the Balkans. Whether Ricraft regarded the Illyrian Slavs as speakers of one of his ‘orientall languages’ or ‘sundry others’, his woodcut contributed a small node to the network of representations that south-east European cultural theorists such as Maria Todorova and Milica Bakic-Hayden have often compared to orientalism, or the politics of imperialist Europe representing and exoticising the Middle East.
Similar fabrications, in the age of national ‘awakenings’, could sometimes inspire nationalist imaginations anyway; the poems of Ossian, a third-century Gaelic bard, were part of a cultural movement that moved not only some Scots but romantic nationalists in other countries to imagine a folkloric national past even when they turned out to have been written by a contemporaneous Scottish poet, James MacPherson, in the 1760s.
If the Illyrian alphabet has never lent itself to an invention-of-tradition move, it might be because the chain of transmission ends abruptly, according to Kempgen, with Pantographia; linguists active in the 19th-century national ‘awakenings’ put enough new material into circulation about their languages’ scripts that they stopped depending on handbooks in the Wyss lineage and the error did not persist into the 20th century. Its lack of the full complement of South Slavonic letters means it would be hard to adapt to revivalist purposes in the same way that Glagolitic itself, though out of daily use, lives on in contemporary Croatian patriotic iconography.
Benifit or not to any such as were studious in the languages, Ricraft’s perpetuation of the alphabet-that-wasn’t certainly stands as a choice rarity thereof; an insight, even if not the one he might have wished for, into the advancement of language learning in his own latter dayes.