Over the last couple of years I’ve been revisiting some of my popular culture work, and indeed some of my interview-based research, by thinking about the concept of ‘embodied militarism’ in the emerging field of Critical Military Studies – specifically, how bodily practices and representations of the body reflect and shape imaginations of war inside, around and outside actual armed forces.
In recent years interest in embodiments of militarism, and more generally in embodied experiences of war, has crossed from history and literature (think of Elaine Scarry’s book The Body in Pain or Joanna Bourke’s Dismembering the Male) and sociology (John Hockey’s sensory ethnography of the infantry) into International Relations (through works such as Kevin McSorley’s War and the Body edited collection or Christine Sylvester’s War as Experience). Importantly for me, this approach incorporates both the lived experience of war and the fictional or fictionalised representations of war that appear in popular culture – joining together both sides of my research interests in a way that I used to find hard to express.
In War as Experience (2013), for instance, Sylvester calls for war to be studied as the same kind of ‘social institution’ as heterosexuality or marriage:
In the case of war, the institutional components include: heroic myths and stories about battles for freedom and tragic losses; memories of war passed from generation to generation; the workings of defense departments and militaries; the production of war-accepting or -glorifying masculinities; the steady production and development of weapon systems; religions that continue to weigh issues of just and unjust wars instead of advocating no wars; and aspects of global popular culture – films, video games, TV shows, advertisements, pop songs, and fashion design – that tacitly support activities of violent politics by mimicking or modeling their elements in everyday circumstances. (p4)
Of course, feminist International Relations has already been able to work for a long time with Cynthia Enloe’s concept of ‘militarisation‘, which includes both the material involvement of armed forces with the rest of society and the economy, and an ideological dimension of persuading the public to internalise the values of the military and war – which, Enloe comes to argue, occurs just as much through popular and consumer culture as through any other social process. (As one chapter in Enloe’s book Maneuvers: the International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives (2000) is titled: ‘How do they militarize a can of soup?‘) In the last decade, dozens of scholars have been able to use the idea of ‘militarised masculinities’ to talk about gendered representations and embodiments of militarism in contemporary and historic conflicts. (We hear less about ‘militarised femininities‘, even less about ‘female militarised masculinities’, and next to nothing about any non-binary engagements with militarisation, but they’re there too…)
At the International Studies Association conference this year, I was part of a panel on ‘embodiment, experience and war’ where I talked about the process of writing about militarisation and embodiment – something I’ve been thinking about since a discussion I had with Synne Laastad-Dyvik during ISA last year. She and McSorley (plus Jesse Crane-Seeber and Lauren Wilcox) were also on the panel, with Sylvester as our discussant, and I took the opportunity to think further about what we communicate and what we ourselves might do or sense when we write about embodied experiences of war or mimetic representations of them.
Do we need to worry, for instance, that something about embodied, sensory experience is being lost when we write about it (especially in the format of academic writing)?
Loss vs. translation (because I never want to hear the phrase ‘lost in translation’ again)
In the panel, I suggested that we could think about it less as loss and more as translation – which lets us see what Translation Studies’ close engagement with the process and politics of translation could bring to thinking about this common concern of ours.
We do run into a problem here – whether the concept of translation can actually be extended beyond the interlingual at all. Anthropology and comparative literature have both used and critiqued the idea of ‘cultural translation’, for instance, but does this stretch ‘translation’ too far beyond the distinct things about translating between languages? Mary Louise Pratt offers one useful resolution by casting attention back on the writer as intermediary, focusing on positionality rather than process:
What is gained by using translation not only as a referent, but also as a metaphor for characterizing the transactions, the appropriations, negotiations, migrations, mediations that give rise to it? Perhaps this question invites us to reflect on the power (not the task) of the translator, as the one who knows both the codes; the one who has the power to do justice, be faithful, yet also to capture, deceive, betray one side to the other, or betray both to a third. (Pratt 2010: 96)
And now we’re back to the concern with the social positioning, agency, visibility and ethics of translation (and interpreting) that Translation Studies has been showing since the 1990s. Mona Baker and Anthony Pym, for instance, have both written on what the ethical responsibilities of translators might be; even though they interpret them differently, they’re still both concerned with how an intermediary uses the power that comes from their understanding of how to communicate in a source language and a target language at the same time.
The choices translators make – what to translate? how closely to accommodate the audience expectations? how strategically to unsettle those expectations through translation? – are all, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay ‘The politics of translation‘ sets out, political – not least because the intermediary is always part of some kind of relationship of power towards the source-language audience(s) and target-language audience(s) they are responsible to.
Other fields – ethnography, postcolonial theory, feminist theory and oral history to name a few – may be further ahead in considering positionality, power and trust during the writing process, but there’s a useful focus on the how as well as the why, what and who of writing that Translation Studies puts into the spotlight (at least for me, after several years researching translation/interpreting and ‘language support’ in peacekeeping operations, when Translation Studies was part of the conceptual framework the research team I belonged to was working with).
It’s also interesting to compare writing about embodiment with the problem of screen translation or audiovisual translation; in some ways, it puts you in the same position as a subtitler. Henrik Gottlieb used the phrase ‘diagonal translation‘ to describe what subtitling does: it has to translate from one language to another, but also from one set of senses to another (speech you hear into writing you read – but staying associated with images you see), within a restrictive set of technical conventions for how much text can appear on screen and once and how long it’s supposed to stay there for.
Subtitling, necessarily, compresses meaning: the diagonal translation, as David MacDougall writes in Transcultural Cinema, ‘distils out of a range of implicit or possible meanings certain explicit ones’ (p. 174).
This is more or less where I’d got up to with the ISA paper when Mona Baker visited Hull to give a seminar on her new research about activist subtitling and the Egyptian Revolution. The activists she worked with have tried to translate in ways that already express changes they want to bring about and – while still restricted by some technical constraints – to experiment with format to convey more of the original than subtitling usually can (e.g. one video that moved subtitles around the screen to emphasise the rhythm of a protest chant).
This was an occasion for me to rethink the instances of militarised embodiment that I’ve written about: if I’m worried that something about embodied experience is being lost when I write, is there anything else I can do to mitigate the effect of that compression of meaning?
Thinking about how Saara Sarma has used paper collages of 2D internet parody images to build arguments about the international politics of nuclear warfare (as explained in her 2014 PhD thesis) – based on Sylvester’s theory of collage as a method where ‘‘[i]f there is a storyline […] “it” is one we [as the viewer] must provide’ (Sylvester 2006: 208), I started developing an idea I’d had in a footnote of an earlier version of the paper: is there anything I could do with video remix, for instance, that I couldn’t do with writing? But, if so, what?
When representations recirculate through us
Although I originally meant to talk about writing about embodiment based on interviews and writing about embodiment based on popular-cultural texts, I found when I was putting the paper together I had far more unanswered questions about writing and popular culture research.
This isn’t what I’d have expected if I’d thought about it. Interviews are the narratives of real people to whom I clearly have ethical responsibilities, and directly represent a person’s embodied experience of war; most of the cultural texts I deal with are audiovisual texts and performances, imagined representations at much more of a distance from what Sylvester and McSorley both emphasise is the core activity of war – injuring the body. They feel less real or material in an important way (though audiovisual texts need people to embody their characters in order to be produced, and have their own politics of production and labour; they’re not quite immaterial, either).
But interview-based and fieldwork-based disciplines already have scripts for thinking about the writer as an intermediary of other people’s experience and the responsibilities that writers then have. Whatever the problem is, someone else has probably had it before, if only you know where to look. Working with/on audiovisual texts doesn’t free us of ethical responsibilities or detach us from our social positions relative to others – a point Laura Shepherd reiterated later in the conference during an excellent paper on the ethics of researching and circulating (or not circulating) viral internet memes – but, then, what responsibilities and positions are they?
After explaining some of the ways in which I’ve researched militarised embodiment in popular culture – both in contexts where you’d expect it (like Croatian patriotic popular music during the Homeland War)…
…and in contexts where you might not…
…and making the point that even as we critique the recirculation of images and narratives, they recirculate through us (and bring with them, often very problematically, their own invitations to desire and identify), I finished up wondering whether – like the activist subtitlers in Mona Baker’s research – there are ways narrative approaches that might help get at this point more successfully than I can do in academic writing.
(A few other kinds of narrative that come to mind here: the use of fiction by IR scholars such as Elizabeth Dauphinée or Richard Jackson to communicate ethical questions about researching political violence; the narrative about fandom, desire and identification in the comic The Wicked and the Divine which within a few months, with the creators’ knowledge, had started inspiring fanart and cosplay of its own; the fact that whatever any of us academics write about critical engagement with popular culture, we’ll never reach as many people as Suzanne Collins has with The Hunger Games.)
So far, the closest I’ve come to an audiovisual research output is the Powerpoint of looped and paired images I used a couple of years ago to illustrate a paper I was giving on representations of militarised masculinities and the Balkans in the film adaptation of Coriolanus. (Which eventually became an article itself.) I’d seen Victoria Basham do this with one image per slide during a talk on popular militarism in the UK. For the Coriolanus slides (I’ll put up some of these in a forthcoming blog post about the article), I paired one image from the film and a news image from the Yugoslav wars in order to illustrate the points about resemblance, identification and recirculation that I was making, and had each pair automatically rotate behind me as I talked; it can’t convey all the information that a paper can, but is there anything a display like that can convey that an academic paper can’t, precisely because it forces the listener to take more of a part in making sense of what they can see?
A digital argument?
Feeling that this worked well but not quite knowing why, and being aware of what Sarma has already done with 2D collage, brought me to thinking about video remix. Outside the academy, this has already started becoming established as a tool in cultural studies pedagogy: Jonathan McIntosh’s ‘Buffy vs. Edward: Twilight Remixed‘, which edits footage from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight together into a scene between Buffy Summers and Edward Cullen to comment on Twilight‘s eroticisation of an abusive relationship, has had more than 3 million viewers despite being temporarily removed from YouTube in a copyright dispute. Craig Saddlemire and Ryan Conrad’s ‘A.V.A.T.A.R.: Anglos Valiantly Aiding Tragic Awe-Inspiring Races’, which mixes lines from Avatar with lines from 16 historical films to draw attention to the persistence of ‘white saviour‘ tropes in Hollywood film-making, has 40,000 but could still do with more.
In some ways, this might not even be too far from what we do as academics after all. I’m interested by Virginia Kuhn’s concept of this form of remix as a ‘digital argument':
[R]ecent attempts to categorize remix are limiting, mainly as a result of their reliance on the visual arts and cinema theory as the gauge by which remix is measured. A more valuable view of remix is as a digital argument that works across the registers of sound, text, and image to make claims and provides evidence to support those claims. […] [A]rgument is key to academic efforts, and as such, the term holds resonance for the scholarly community. Remix can be a scholarly pursuit: it cites, synthesizes, and juxtaposes its sources. Argument also contains connotations of the dialogic quality of communication that is not anchored to either speech or writing, and so digital argument can extend its features to writing with sound and image in addition to words.
But then, what sources are even mine to do things with, especially when I’ve been engaged in cross-cultural research? My gut sense is only those sources that I’m addressed by or maybe even that I’m marginalised by; but I’d like to see the fields I belong to do much more to develop the ethics of dissemination methods like these. And how, when we leave more of the meaning-making to the viewer, do we ensure that they can’t miss the critical engagement we want to bring about?
Thanks to my co-panellists at ISA, my colleagues in researching militarisation/embodiment generally, and to Sarah Maitland for conversations which have helped me develop this…
In 2014 I was invited to Hull’s Holocaust Memorial Day service to speak about genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The text below is my speech from the service – shorter and simpler than most of my writing, but still hopefully conveying some of the way I’ve tried to approach nationalism and historical memory as a researcher. The text is unchanged, so references to ‘this month’, ‘this year’ and so on are as of January 2014.
Among the genocides we come together to remember today are the terrible events that took place two decades ago during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It’s thought today that a hundred thousand people died during this war, and more than a million were forced to flee their homes. Their journeys took them all over the world, including here, to Hull. For many of you, this may be a war that you remember once a year. But in Bosnia’s towns and villages, and in Bosnian communities across the world, it is a war that is remembered every day.
I wanted to talk today about the town of Visegrad, in eastern Bosnia. Visegrad is a small town, but a historic one. A Bosnian Muslim from Visegrad, Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic, rose to become a grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, and he had a great bridge built in Visegrad as a gift to his home town. One of the great works of Yugoslav literature, by Ivo Andric, was written about the history of the bridge. It is a symbol of south east Europe’s Ottoman past, and the past of the Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, as a people.
But in April 1992, Visegrad was one of the towns attacked by the Bosnian Serb armed forces and Serb paramilitaries, at the beginning of the Bosnian war. They had identified Visegrad as a place that had to be purged of Bosniaks and made exclusively Serb. This meant killing or expelling two thirds of the town. More than sixteen hundred people have been recorded as killed or missing, and Bosniak townspeople believe the numbers could be higher. Mass graves are continuing to be discovered. Two years ago, when the bodies of 60 victims were buried at the Muslim cemetery in Visegrad, an organisation of victims put up a monument, commemorating the Bosniaks who had been victims of genocide in the town.
Politically and demographically, Visegrad is a Serb town today, as the war aims of Radovan Karadzic intended. The town council in Visegrad opposed the monument. They said it had been put up illegally. This very month, the council sent workers to remove the word ‘genocide’ from the inscription. It would be more convenient for their version of the past if the fact that genocide took place in Visegrad would be forgotten. There are too many testimonies about what happened there for it to be forgotten. But for a town’s local authorities to reject a memorial in this way is itself a symbol: a symbol that non-Serbs and their past are no longer welcome in Visegrad. And we must hope that in Visegrad’s future the town will account better for its past.
Today is a day when we remember victims, and why they need to be remembered. But we also remember how people have resisted genocide and ethnic cleansing. And so I also wanted to talk about the memory of a young man called Srdjan Aleksic.
Srdjan lived in the town of Trebinje, in the south of Herzegovina. He was 25 years old when the war broke out in 1992, he was a promising amateur actor and a swimming champion. Trebinje was also taken over by Bosnian Serb forces, who wanted to cleanse the town of Bosniaks and Croats. In January 1993, he saw a group of Serb policemen assaulting another young man, who was a Croat, Alen Glavovic. Srdjan was a Serb himself; he could have walked past and been in no danger. But he put his body between the policemen and his neighbour Alen. Alen escaped, and is alive today in Sweden. The policemen beat Srdjan to death. His father wrote in Srdjan’s death notice ‘He died carrying out his duty as a human being.’
Trebinje still has no monument to Srdjan Aleksic. But there are streets named after him in Sarajevo, Tuzla and Prijedor, and even in other countries – in Serbia, and Montenegro. Commemorating someone in a street name, in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere, is a way of honouring them as a hero. And Srdjan was. Not just for his courage, though his courage was great. But also for the independence of his mind. Against the distorted history that Karadzic’s regime wanted to impose on Bosnia, Srdjan asserted a greater solidarity, although it cost him his life.
To be able to save the life of his neighbour Alen, Srdjan had to be able to see through the lies of those in power, who wanted their actions to seem like common sense to Serbs. He had to be able to see that these were not police actions to make Bosnia safe for Serbs, but that this was ethnic cleansing, part of a strategy of war crimes. And such an independence of thought is something it falls to all of us to nurture, so that we and those we educate might be able to see through whatever we might otherwise become complicit in.
Commemorations happen once a year in time. Memorials stand at one particular place. But the values they ask us to remember need to be remembered actively, throughout the year, and acted on. Not only when it’s easy, but most of all when it’s hardest to do so. So in remembering the genocide in Bosnia, we remember what is at stake in commemorating the past, and the responsibility that we each hold towards our neighbours, near and far.
Political musical theatre: Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, Croatian patriotic music and narratives of national regeneration
This post was originally published at Balkanist on 17 January 2015.
For both contenders in the run-off of the Croatian presidential elections, Ivo Josipović and Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, music has played some part in their life stories.
Josipović, a social democrat who became president in 2010, is famously a working composer as well as a politician and lawyer and a former director of the Music Biennale Zagreb, a respected festival of contemporary art music.
The musical link for Grabar-Kitarović, a career diplomat who entered Croatian politics in 2003 as a parliamentary deputy for the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), is more indirect: born in 1968, she owes her unusual first name to the Cajun folk song ‘Colinda’ (an adaptation of a black Creole dance from Louisiana), which was re-recorded by several US and Canadian pop artists in the 1960s before being covered in Croatian by Zdenka Vučković in 1967.
Grabar-Kitarović’s extremely close victory over Josipović on 11 January (receiving 50.7% of the vote to Josipović’s 49.3%) was hailed by HDZ supporters in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but interpreted by others including Croatia’s own foreign minister Vesna Pusić as a potential ‘return to the nationalism of the 1990s’ which Grabar-Kitarović would have to avoid in order not to destabilize Croatia.
Pusić, the leader of the Croatian People’s Party (HNS) and a core member of the centre-left Kukuriku coalition which has held parliamentary power in Croatia since 2011, has been a consistent critic of the form of nationalism that HDZ’s founder and Croatia’s first president, Franjo Tuđman, represented in the 1990s. The sociology papers on democracy and nationalism that Pusić published during the 1990s set Tuđman and HDZ in the context of what she saw as a broader trend in the politics of post-socialist eastern Europe. Soon after HDZ had attempted to shut down the independent Zagreb radio station Radio 101, for instance, Pusić wrote in a 1998 article for the Journal of Democracy:
All the new rulers in postcommunist Eastern Europe came to power with two slogans emblazoned on their banners. One read “Democracy,” while the other demanded “Justice for the [Croatian, Polish, Romanian, Slovak, or Bulgarian] People.” For the Croatian (as for other) nationalists, this “historical justice” was the real taproot of political legitimacy, and grounded their right to rule. They had no democratic credentials, and no plans to deepen democracy once they came into power. Their emphasis instead was on the claims of nationhood. […]
The HDZ increasingly treats Croatia as a party-state. Leaders have repeatedly emphasized that they regard the HDZ as capable of encompassing the entire political spectrum, thus eliminating any need for political opposition. President Tudjman continues to pour contempt on the opposition, calling it a herd of “grazing cattle” in a 1995 speech. Both he and his party have been high-handed and autocratic enough to alienate a large portion of the populace.
Comparing Pusić’s and Grabar-Kitarović’s views on the politics of the 1990s could hardly give a clearer illustration of how far memories of Tuđman’s politics are divided in Croatia. For Pusić, the decade was a time of political alienation for which Tuđman and his party should be held responsible. Grabar-Kitarović’s victory speeches, meanwhile, implied that national unity was a value that Croats needed to rediscover in order to reunite the country. Giving her official victory speech, surrounded by her campaign team and volunteers, she began in a less specific way that still communicated recognisable keywords of the Croatian right:
Let us start as early as tonight to work for the improvement of our dear Croatian homeland. I would like to thank above all my dear Croatian Democratic Union, with which I have stood even in the hardest times. I will have to leave the party membership now, but my values, the values of the family, the homeland, love towards the homeland, towards our émigrés, of faith and togetherness, that stays in me, and that is how Croatia will move forward. Let us come together, let us be together!
Halfway through, however, the speech took a specifically revivalist turn directly linking her programme with an imagined political unity and with the HDZ’s contemporary interpretation of Tuđman, before turning into one of the most striking moments of political musical theatre that Croatia has witnessed for some time:
We all want a better Croatia. And this contest of ours, this programme of ours, everything we have done before now, everything has led up to our finally being able to focus on what matters to the life of Croatian people in Croatia, to the life of our émigrés, to the life of the Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina. We have all striven for that, and I call on us all to unite, I also call on those who voted for Mr Josipović to be part of our team, to be part of the movement for a better Croatia because there has been enough division. There has been enough!
There has been enough of ‘mine’ and ‘theirs’, ‘ours’ and ‘yours’. You are all mine, my dear Croatian citizens, let us go together. A hard task awaits us. Let us unite, let us unite our patriotism, love and faith in this Croatian homeland of ours, let us get ourselves out of the crisis, let us finish the path we began under the first Croatian president Dr Franjo Tuđman, let us bring Croatia into prosperity.
(Shouts of ‘Franjo, Franjo’!)
This state, this people, can…
(The team begins singing, and she joins in, the patriotic song ‘Zovi, samo zovi’: Call, just call / all the falcons will / give their lives for you)
Thank you for these words of patriotism, of faith in yourself, because a people that does not believe in itself, that does not respect itself, will not respect others either. But let nobody understand this as a threat; loving what is ours meaning that we respect what belongs to others; but let us fight for Croatian national interests because this is Croatia!
(Even readers who don’t speak Croatian are quite welcome to interpret the section of the speech between approximately seven-and-a-half and nine-and-a-half minutes as the closest thing to a Croatian version of Madonna’s performance in Evita that you are likely to see today.)
Later that evening, Grabar-Kitarović visited the camp outside the Ministry for Veterans that a group of disabled Homeland War veterans set up in October to protest the long delays in their health care. Describing it as her ‘first working visit’, she repeated her commitment to the legacy of Tuđman and promised that ‘nobody is going to call the Homeland War a civil war’.
Pusić’s comments on Grabar-Kitarović’s victory suggest that she sees the new president as directly re-evoking the 1990s. So, too, does this graphic that circulated on social media after the victory speech, in a comment on the current political climates of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia as well as Croatia:
The style and language of Grabar-Kitarović’s speech, however, suggest a subtly different dynamic: less a direct evocation of the 1990s, and more a revival of the manner in which the 1990s were already being idealised by politicians and cultural workers in the early/mid 2000s – when the most lasting contributions to nationalist discourse in Croatia were being made by popular musicians.
The ‘Zovi, samo zovi’ moment itself unfolds in a similar way to its use by audiences greeting patriotic musicians such as Miroslav Škoro or Marko Perković Thompson, such as this moment from Thompson’s concert at the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb in June 2007:
As performers and songwriters, Škoro and Thompson both took on activist roles in support of the early 2000s veterans’ movement, against the centre-left president and prime minister (Stipe Mesić and Ivica Račan) who had come to power in 2000, and in defence of the ‘truth’ about the Homeland War, which they (like the early 2000s HDZ and its rivals on the right) believed was being betrayed by Croatian politicians co-operating with the Hague Tribunal over the indictments of Croatian Army officers. Škoro’s 2005 song ‘Svetinja’ (‘Sacred thing’) depicted a Croatian nation beset by internal betrayal, and called for the three values of ‘faith, love and the homeland’ (‘vjera, ljubav, domovina’) to be held sacred:
Thompson has frequently associated himself with a similar triad, ‘God, the family and the homeland’ (‘Bog, obitelj i domovina’), as in this 2007 interview during the promotion of his album Bilo jednom u Hrvatskoj (Once upon a time in Croatia):
The most important things in my life are God, family and homeland, and in fact in that order. Every man who has these values in himself is a rich man.
Thompson has contributed, just as much as HDZ’s own efforts, to memorialising Tuđman as a founder and defender of the nation. For instance, concerts on his 2002 tour (at the height of the protests in support of the indicated generals Ante Gotovina and Mirko Norac) began with a special video commemorating Tuđman’s role in liberating the ‘holy Croatian soil’ (‘Sveto tlo hrvatsko’):
Thompson’s calls for national unity, however, do not extend to those he has viewed as ‘Yugo-communists’ – among them, those who have described him as ‘a fascist’ or ‘a Nazi’ for his use of symbolism associated with the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) during the Second World War. Controversies about Thompson’s views on the NDH have recurred every few years since he became a star in 1992, symbolising the wider controversy over how contemporary Croatian public memory should treat the past of a state which claimed to express Croatian sovereignty and which persecuted hundreds of thousands of Jews, Serbs, Roma, socialists and homosexuals between 1941 and 1945.
Calling on the nation to ‘unify’ cannot overcome the fact that Thompson remains a divisive figure in Croatian politics and culture and has exacerbated this division through identifying political opponents whom his public statements suggest do not deserve to belong to the nation; but then much the same could be said of Tuđman himself.
Politically and economically, however, the mid-2000s Croatia in which Škoro and Thompson re-idealised Tuđman’s 1990s is not the Croatia in which Grabar-Kitarović, Josipović, the former HDZ official Milan Kujundžić and the young left-wing activist Ivan Vilibor Sinčić contested the 2014 presidential election.
HDZ’s myth of itself as carriers of an infallible tradition of leadership inherited from Tuđman was punctured by the corruption trial of Ivo Sanader, the HDZ prime minister between 2003 and 2009 – all the more reason, perhaps, for a presidential candidate such as Grabar-Kitarović to reach for a consciously re-imagined past.
Meanwhile, new student, environmentalist and anti-austerity movements in Croatia – the milieu from which Sinčić emerged as a surprise third-place presidential candidate in 2014 – had directly articulated critiques of the neoliberal political consensus they held responsible for Croatia’s debt crisis and spiraling rates of unemployment.
Igor Štiks and Srećko Horvat argue that the new Croatian protest movements, and their counterparts in post-Yugoslav successor states, are symptoms of a fundamental democratic deficit in contemporary south-east Europe (and indeed in Europe as a whole):
Post-socialist citizens […] today feel largely excluded from decision-making processes: most elections have turned out to be little more than a re-shuffling of the same political oligarchy with no serious differences in political programmes or rhetoric. Many lost their jobs (during the “privatisation” campaigns) or had their labour conditions worsen and their pensions evaporate; most of the guaranteed social benefits (such as free education and health care) progressively disappeared. In addition to that, citizens are highly indebted, owning money to foreign-owned banks that spread around the Balkans and that control its whole financial sector. After the series of devastating wars across the former Yugoslavia that claimed up to 130,000 deaths in the 1990s, the last decade brought about another wave of impoverishment, this time managed by “euro-compatible” elites ready to implement further neo-liberal reforms portrayed as a necessary part of the EU accession process.
But others, too, have felt equally left behind by the processes through which successive Croatian governments have integrated the state into the European Union – among them the members of the veterans’ movement who welcomed Grabar-Kitarović to their protest camp after her victory; the rural communities that now ‘affirm themselves as “sites of resistance” to urban neoliberalism’, as Michaela Schäuble writes (p. 275) in her recent ethnography of post-war rural Dalmatia; or, indeed, the many Bosnian Croats eligible to vote in Croatia’s elections to whom Grabar-Kitarović also successfully appealed.
After several years without recording new material, Škoro and Thompson both released new albums in 2013–14 containing songs that framed contemporary conditions within the narratives of unity and betrayal they had developed in 2000–7. Miroslav Škoro’s 2013 single ‘Zašto lažu nam u lice’ (‘Why are they lying to our faces?’) revisits his frequent theme of everyday village life but in a context where (the end of its video states) 110,000 people have emigrated from Croatia between 2001 and 2012:
Thompson’s 2013 album Ora et labora (Latin for ‘Work and pray’), meanwhile, emphasised God as an agent of national regeneration (with lyrics for one song written by the Bishop of Šibenik, Ante Ivas), aimed to comment directly on Bosnian politics with another song that aimed to claim areas including the Lašva Valley and Posavina as the historical ‘cradle of Croats’, and for the first time directly incorporated a speech of Tuđman’s (his November 1996 speech accusing ‘Yugo-communist remnants’ of continuing to oppose Croatian freedom and independence) into one of his own songs (framed as a message of defiance against campaigners who had opposed him performing in the Pula Arena).
Love, faith, family, homeland, and even a falcon or two; if Grabar-Kitarović had a bingo card based on the most commonly used phrases in lyrics from the mid-2000s wave of patriotic popular music, it would be pretty much filled in.
Indeed, a few days before the run-off election Thompson wrote Grabar-Kitarović a public letter of support which explicitly attached his defiance of ‘Yugo-communism’ to her campaign (and implicitly challenged Sinčić’s call for voters to abstain), ending with a quotation from his 2007 song ‘Duh ratnika’ (‘The warrior’s ghost’) which had depicted Thompson receiving a message from the ghost of a Croatian soldier who had been killed in the Homeland War:
I call on you all to vote, not just to vote yourselves, but to encourage others to vote as well […] Let us send those remains of Yugo-communism into oblivion and finish what we started in the 1990s.
Let us vote for Mrs Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, separate the wheat from the tares, and begin to realise our dreams.
‘I would give everything to see her, proud and beautiful like in my dreams’
Is Pusić right, then, to be alarmed by Grabar-Kitarović’s rhetoric of national regeneration and the way in which it has been expressed?
For the historian of fascism Roger Griffin, any combination of the call for national renewal and an exclusionary definition of the nation would be a troubling sign. Griffin has argued that the ‘mobilising myth’ of fascist ideology, in Mussolini’s Italy and elsewhere, was a fusion of ‘an organic, illiberal conception of the nation which celebrates the collective energies of the “people”’ and what he terms the myth of ‘palingenesis’, that is, ‘rebirth’ or ‘renewal’:
These two components crystallize in the image of the rejuvenated nation rising phoenix-like from the ashes of the decadent order which has suffocated the true life of the people […] even a relatively unsophisticated analysis of any Fascist text of substance will reveal a recurrent set of images and themes relating either to the condemnation of the decadent, liberal nation of decline, weakness, crisis, anarchy, or to the celebration of the reborn, post-liberal nation of regeneration, strength, stability, order which Fascism aspires to be creating – and very often to the gulf which divides the ‘old’ Italy from the ‘new’. (p. 7)
At a time of systemic and spreading crisis, within political and socio-economic systems that have failed to provide liveable lives to increasing numbers of the population, calls for renewal in themselves are not inherently a fascist theme, or even a right-wing theme; social-democratic versions of the call to work together to rebuild the country on a different basis can equally easily be imagined (consider, for instance, how several recent British film-makers have attempted to turn Labour’s 1945 nationalisation programme, the Dagenham equal pay strikes of 1968 or the solidarity between striking Welsh miners and London gay and lesbian activists during the 1984–5 miners’ strike into symbolic political resources for today), not to mention, of course, calls for solidarity and resistance across national borders, which imply a more radical redefinition of the boundaries of community and citizenship.
Calls for national regeneration imply a narrative about what has gone wrong and how to fix it; it’s on the basis of this narrative that one can evaluate Grabar-Kitarović’s victory speech, or any other. What do they identify as having gone wrong, and – equally importantly – which people or what forces do they hold responsible? And how, finally, do they propose to solve it? Answering these questions can reveal much about how a speaker – or a singer – approaches the matter of who has full rights to belong, and who doesn’t, within the community they claim to address.
Reviving Tuđman’s 1990s through a lens which was already re-idealised in the 2000s has clear advantages for Grabar-Kitarović – indeed, after the Sanader trial, was perhaps the only way that HDZ could win a presidential election in 2014. Tuđman’s unwillingness to concede ground to the opposition outside or even inside HDZ and his own privatisation scandals had already brought on political and economic crises by the mid-1990s; HDZ had little to gain, and much to lose, from reminding voters of the whole decade in its full complexity.
Yet neither could Grabar-Kitarović present herself unproblematically as Sanader’s political heir, despite their shared commitment to integrating Croatia into Euro-Atlantic economic and diplomatic structures.
Was any narrative even left apart from the story of the 1990s along the lines through which it was already being re-imagined in the 2000s? This picture, though illusory, is much more comforting – unless, of course, one is or might be a ‘Yugo-communist’.
Grabar-Kitarović’s public statements during her first week in office have left her in a position where she has appeared to reopen multiple questions, from the constitutional status of Croats in Bosnia to potentially even how Croatia views the status of Vojvodina within Serbia. Coming from a former Assistant Secretary-General for Public Diplomacy at NATO, they lend themselves to being read less as diplomatic gaffes, more as a further form of political theatre. Yet how far her presidency succeeds in improving conditions as she has promised – and who it succeeds in improving conditions for – will depend only partly on the president’s public face and just as much on what happens on the presidency’s back stage.
Special issue of Contemporary Southeastern Europe: ‘The Eurovision Song Contest at 60: Gender and Geopolitics in Contemporary Europe’
Call for papers: special issue of Contemporary Southeastern Europe on ‘The Eurovision Song Contest at 60: Gender and Geopolitics in Contemporary Europe‘
In the last two decades or so, issues of gender at Eurovision have become increasingly visible. Often these have related to the (stated or perceived) sexuality, gender identity or gender expression of performers, but also to a broader notion the contest is an affirmation of camp and queer, which certain host cities and broadcasters have even integrated into the hosting of the event (for instance in Sweden and Denmark).
Diverse representations of gender are not the preserve of Western European entries, however, and countries such as Serbia, Ukraine, Slovenia, Israel and Russia have sent performers who garnered attention for reasons of (claimed or perceived) gender non-conformity, ambiguity or queerness. Yet in recent years the song contest has formed a discursive space around which to discuss human rights, in particular LGBT rights, often in terms of an East/West binary.
The global economic crisis has accentuated North/South divisions in the Eurozone and impacted upon participation in recent Eurovision Song Contests. Nonetheless a purported “East/West” binary remains both tangible and topical with regard to attitudes towards sexual and gender diversity, giving rise to discussions of a “liberal West” and a “conservative East”. Such discourse crystallised in the wake of the victory of Austria’s Conchita Wurst in May 2014 with high-profile negative reactions from individuals from “Eastern” states. Contrary to this, however, the Austrian winner scored solidly amongst “Eastern” televoters.
The open access journal Contemporary Southeastern Europe based at the University of Graz is planning to publish a special issue edited by Catherine Baker (University of Hull) to coincide with the Eurovision in Vienna in May 2015 (see current issue at: http://www.suedosteuropa.uni-graz.at/cse/en/current_issue). We are seeking contributions that deal with issues of gender and geopolitics at Eurovision, with particular reference to Southeastern Europe, though there is scope for some papers in the issue to have a different geographical focus.
Please send a short abstract (max 400 words) and biographical note (max 200 words) to Catherine Baker at email@example.com by 10 December 2014. Selected papers will need to be submitted by 20 February 2015 to allow for the completion of double blind peer review, possible corrections and formatting. (Deadlines need to be strictly adhered to in order to ensure the volume is published to coincide with the Eurovision next May).
Goodbye to the Loch Ness Monster?: on British/Scottish ‘unity’ campaigns and a potential Very Near Abroad Indeed
I haven’t had much to say about the Scottish independence referendum. I’ve never lived or worked in Scotland, and my family background has no relevant connections either, so whether a Yes or No outcome would be best for Scotland isn’t a debate I have much to contribute to.
(I’m also conscious that the problem of Too Many People From The Rest Of The UK Deciding What They Think Is Best For Scotland is one reason the idea of an independence referendum ever got this far, whatever happens on Thursday the 18th.)
I have occasionally commented on aspects of the run-up to the referendum which have resonance for political culture in England, where I do live (I grew up in London, and lived in the South-East until I moved to East Yorkshire in 2012) – such as the astonishing proportion of the electorate (97%) who have registered to vote on Thursday, and the anticipated turnout figures that would be much higher than any recent UK general elections. The rest of the UK needs these levels of political participation too, and whatever happens in the referendum, we need to keep asking what will help achieve it.
Then there’s the mess of Westminster’s contributions to the No campaign, which I feel more comfortable expressing disappointment with – can they really have planned to remind Scottish voters with a week to go that you hardly ever see the Prime Minister in Scotland most of the time, and certainly not in any structured way? And is the continued Conservative brinkmanship about British membership of the EU really the most effective way of persuading voters that No is a less risky choice than Yes?
Something seems to have shifted in English discourse about the referendum since last weekend, when YouGov published the first opinion poll to give the Yes vote a majority. There are good reasons to be cautious about the conclusions of any one poll (see John Curtice’s daily analyses of the various polls’ methods and results, and Patrick McGhee’s comments on making sense of the Don’t Knows), but in terms of general trends, the strong No lead of a year or more ago has now shifted to a much closer and uncertain outcome, which will need to be carefully managed whatever the result.
Let’s Stay Together?
The Yes-majority poll of a week ago does seem to have made the idea that Scotland might become a separate state from the rest of the UK something much more thinkable in England than it has been before. Part of this, of course, will be to do with agenda-setting in the media – television news in particular needs to keep finding new angles on continuing stories – but the practical implications of an independent Scotland for the rest of the UK have shifted from joke to conversation topic over the course of the referendum campaign.
(Though if the idea of an independent Scotland was practically unimaginable in England before, what does that say about the extent to which political discourse in England has appreciated Scottish claims to be a national community?)
A few days ago, the historians Dan Snow and Tom Holland called a ‘unity rally’ to ‘give a voice to everyone who doesn’t have a vote in the referendum to break up Britain’. The rally, under the slogan Let’s Stay Together, will be held in Trafalgar Square on Monday; a similar unity rally in Montréal is often credited with having defeated Quebecois nationalists’ independence campaign in 1995. (It may, of course, have helped that the 1995 rally was in Quebec.)
The voice of this section of the No campaign seems to be quirkily nostalgic (the Spectator journalist Fraser Nelson, inviting readers to the rally, wrote ‘I’m thinking of inviting some subscribers around for a cup of tea in our garden at 4.30pm and we can walk over later’), much like many items in the list of elements of British culture that the novelist Jenny Colgan gave in today’s Observer that she would be sad to lose if Scotland separated from the UK:
It’s my birthright of James Bond. Fish and Chips. Tutti Frutti. Private Eye. Tizer. The Pet Shop Boys. Spit the dog. The Office. The Ladybird Cinderella. Philip Larkin. Flower of Scotland. Windrush. Christopher Hitchens. The Traverse. The Radio 1 roadshow. Mary Poppins. The Tempest. Narnia.
Colgan (who describes her identity as Scottish, British and European) is arguing that the No campaign has failed to communicate with voters on an emotional level – or at least, that the only emotion it has evoked among its arguments about economic detail has been fear. (Tom Holland broadly agreed, tweeting on Sunday: ‘I like being in the same country as @jennycolgan, Glasgow & the Loch Ness Monster, & I really, REALLY don’t want it to change #Indyref‘)
Colgan argues that instead, the Better Together campaign should have been playing on the same emotions that Danny Boyle appealed to in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics:
When Tim Berners-Lee tweeted, during the Olympics ceremony: “this is for everyone” did he not mean us all? From craggy glens to rocky Cornish coves; from tumbling Yorkshire stonewalls to green and boundless Welsh fields, to the Kent hops; from the vast flat plains of netherlandish Norfolk to the grey formal stones of the New Town; echoing through the silent shipyards of those great brothers-in-arms: Glasgow, Liverpool, Belfast?
To me, this reads as a strikingly parochial reinterpretation of the Berners-Lee segment of the opening ceremony – I interpreted Berners-Lee’s ‘everyone’ as global, in line with the director Danny Boyle’s idea for the ceremony to dramatise the message that Britain ‘can be an inspiring beacon for people everywhere’. (The beacon narrative has its own limitations, as I’ve discussed in an article about London 2012 here.)
But the level of intellectual and creative thought that Boyle and his team put into representing the nation at the opening ceremony probably made it inevitable that its symbolic resources would be reused in post-2012 political contention in Britain, even in ways that start putting the components to different purposes – and in a sense, the longer-term ‘meanings’ of the ceremony only emerge through processes like these.
However, offering nostalgia as the reason to keep the United Kingdom together silences much about the British national and imperial past – certainly in Fraser Nelson’s argument last week that the unity rally and its supporters ‘need to tell a different story: about an alliance of countries which, acting as the United Kingdom, has been the greatest force for good that the world has ever known’. A campaign based on this sentiment can hardly give a voice to those for whom the past it evokes has been a source of oppression rather than pleasure.
Although I don’t find Nelson’s narrative or even Colgan’s the most accurate account of how Britain got to be the way it is, I still think something can be gained from thinking about an underlying anxiety they both express: what would happen to day-to-day British culture, to which people from Scotland and representations of Scotland have contributed, if Scotland became an independent state?
Experiences from other cases of secession and fragmentation suggest that social and cultural ties are surprisingly resilient to political break-up. Even with Yugoslavia, a country that was violently destroyed two decades ago, enough cultural contacts and economic relationships have been re-established that one can talk about what Tim Judah called a ‘Yugosphere’, which thrives without any demand for political reintegration. Importantly, this has happened despite intensive efforts by the Slovenian and Croatian states to separate their national cultures from Yugoslavia as far as possible during and after their wars of independence – perhaps a demonstration of the limits of state power over popular culture and everyday life.
The Slovenian sociologist Mitja Velikonja has adopted the phrase ‘ex-home’ from the shelves of Slovenian record stores to describe the relationship between Slovenian culture and ex-Yugoslav culture in general after independence:
In Slovenian music shops, the items (CDs, MCs) are classified not only according to music genres (pop-rock, ethno, jazz, classic music etc.) but also according to the provenance of the music. So, there is Slovenian, ‘domestic’ music (in Slovenian language domača), then ‘foreign’ (tuja) music (predominantly of course from the Anglo-Saxon world); but there is also a curious third category, which is neither ‘ours’ neither ‘theirs’, but between the two: in a paradoxical sense both ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’.
It is classified as ‘ex-home’ music (bivša domača) and it comprises music from the other former-Yugoslav republics. In other words, Croatian, Serbian, Bosniak, Macedonian, and Montenegrin music until and after 1991 still has some kind of special and ambiguous status in our music shops. I think that this tiny and somehow marginal example – not an isolated one – is symptomatic and reveals a very specific attitude of the Slovenes toward the cultural production of the nations with which Slovenes lived for decades in a common state. This cohabitation left not only traces but also stroke roots in Slovenian cultural preferences and also in every-day life in a very specific way.
‘Ex-home’ means more than just ‘not being home any more'; with the Slovenian (and ex-Serbo-Croatian) connotations of the word ‘domestic’, it implies ‘used to be more “home” than it is, but still not “foreign”‘.
Something like that third space – the Very Near Abroad Indeed – would very likely open up if Scotland separated from the UK politically. Indeed, the post-Scottish-independence ‘Britannosphere’ would probably be larger than the ‘Yugosphere'; the trajectory of Scottish independence from Westminster would have been much more peaceful than Slovenia’s independence from Belgrade (Czechoslovakia makes a better comparison than Yugoslavia here), and many more inhabitants of Scotland share their first language with the state they would have left behind. (An ambiguous ‘UK & Ireland’ category already exists as something of a precedent – as if, ‘yes, it’s a different country, but less foreign than those other ones somehow, and let’s just not talk about the history of independence, shall we…’)
Where political separation has the most impact on culture is in the domain of funding and other forms of involvement by the state: in television, for instance, the rest-of-UK BBC would likely deal with questions about its remit that would trouble the commercial broadcasters less. (And we do know that the Scottish independence White Paper envisages a Scottish entry in the Eurovision Song Contest – after which I hope we’d hear a lot less of the argument that neighbourly voting is ‘political’ when Balkan countries do it…) In this sense, the cultural implications of a Scottish Yes would be less uncertain than the financial and citizenship-related matters that would depend on post-independence decisions by the governments of Scotland, Westminster and the EU.
But even the framework of the ‘ex-domestic’ or the Very Near Abroad Indeed is only talking about two layers of identity, each linked with a nation and an (existing or hypothetical) sovereign state: Britishness on the one hand, Scottishness on the other. I’m not certain that Scottish independence would mean Britishness suddenly having to exclude Scottishness from itself whereas it had used to be included; but thinking about the impact of Scottish independence on identities in the rest of the UK shouldn’t be reduced to the level of national identities in any case.
Inhabiting the borderlands
It seems to have taken a Scottish independence referendum to put a UK-wide spotlight on regional identities in the Scottish/English Borders. The Cumbrian MP and former diplomat Rory Stewart has tried to attach the Borders’ fluid history to the No campaign; his new book The Marches, which I haven’t yet read, will argue both that the Borders form a culturally distinct ‘Middleland’ in the British Isles and that the Anglo-Scottish border was a ‘colonial’ imposition under the rule of the Roman authorities who built Hadrian’s Wall.
Stewart is also a co-organiser of the Hands Across The Border campaign, which initially planned a torchlit human chain across the UK to demonstrate the rest of the country’s ‘emotional links and solidarity’ with Scotland (for logistical reasons this changed to building a stone cairn in the border town of Gretna; it was unveiled this weekend, though this aerial shot might have been better composed if they’d filled out the ‘N’ of ‘No’…).
The Borders are a region where trying to determine whether people or pasts are English ‘or’ Scottish doesn’t make sense, as the art historian Ysanne Holt remarks in her commentary on recent art installations in Gretna and Berwick-upon-Tweed:
We all recognise that communication networks forge cultural affiliations for groups and individuals who are not neatly defined by geographical boundaries. In my own growing up, some of this was achieved by the Border Television franchise that stretched across most of Cumbria, the Scottish Borders, Dumfries and Galloway to the Isle of Man, reporting nightly on news and local affairs. All this helped to shape or reinforce a genuinely cross-border community, to the extent that many in Cumbria would claim closer affinity with their Scottish neighbours than with their English ones to the east. The question of felt identities in relation to place, borders and boundaries, real or imagined, permeable or enforced, has a very particular resonance here. […]
[T]o think positively about the future for this region requires what has been termed a “place-based co-operation”, not competition or contested spaces. We need to adopt new ways of inhabiting the “borderlands” and perhaps of practising “borderliness”.
Thinking in terms of locally grounded ‘place-based co-operation’ might also be productive outside the Border region. The latest phase of referendum-talk in England has also raised the question of whether the north, or indeed Yorkshire, would benefit from devolution; a previous attempt, John Prescott’s proposal for a North East Assembly, collapsed in 2004 after voters in the region rejected it by four to one, and planned assemblies for the North-West and Yorkshire/Humber were never put to a vote. Would greater political and economic localism have more appeal today?
As a solution for English regions, the logic of devolution would need to be based on recognising distinctive social and economic features of a region rather than basing administrative boundaries on territorial claims that relate to a particular nation of people – leading to the unanswerable counter-factual question of whether politics in a federated United Kingdom might have meant things not even getting as far as a Scottish referendum on independence in 2014, or whether creating state structures in regions with potential claims to national self-determination would simply in the long run have accelerated separatism.
The result of Thursday’s referendum is probably too close to call, and not something I have a political say about in any case. If the rest of the UK does have to come to terms with a Very Near Abroad Indeed, historians as well as other cultural producers will find themselves adapting the categories they use for making sense of political and social life in the Isles; but there should be scope for doing so regardless of the result.
Researching and teaching about the Yugoslav wars means that, for more than a decade, I’ve been coming into contact with horrific material on pretty much a weekly basis. During my PhD, when I spent months reading Croatian newspapers from the 1990s, I was confronted almost every day with photographs of dead or wounded bodies, or newspaper testimonies about people’s suffering during the 1991-95 wars. Some of the documentary sources and academic studies that I assign when I teach about my specialist area, likewise, can contain a level of horror that these days I take as part and parcel of my work but which might be unexpected to students learning about this moment in history for the first time.
Alternatively – and here’s where it gets even more difficult for teachers – it could be all too much like something from their own lives.
For this reason, I’ve been following the debates about whether and how teachers ought to warn students about uncomfortable topics with particular interest. There have been articles by university educators all year about requests that students at some US universities have made for instructors to warn them in advance about material which could be upsetting to read or watch, especially when it covers topics such as suicide or rape. (And please be aware, if this matters to you, that I will discuss those in some more depth as I go on.)
This academic year, Oberlin College introduced a resource guide advising teachers to provide content notes or ‘trigger warnings’ to make classrooms as inclusive as possible for survivors of sexual violence, then rolled it back after journalists and some of Oberlin’s own staff criticised it as an attack on academic freedom. Meanwhile, the student senate at the University of California, Santa Barbara passed a resolution asking tutors to note content on their syllabi that might have an adverse effect on students with PTSD if they encountered it without being able to adequately prepare themselves.
The thinking behind these requests is about more than students just being ‘upset’, and recognises that, after someone has experienced trauma, certain sensory reminders of what happened can (though not ‘will’) make the brain prepare to experience it all over again. The term ‘trigger warnings’ originated from online communities formed by survivors of abuse and violence, where users warning each other about the content of posts made it more possible for people in a community to have discussions with each other.
It’s existed for long enough in social media and online fandom that some students in a contemporary classroom would have known about the convention of trigger warnings in those spaces before they ever came to class – which means that in one respect the whole current discussion about trigger warnings in teaching is part of a wider context about the digital literacies and textual practices that students may be bringing to the classroom now, and there’d be a lot of scope for educationalists to think further about this.
‘Warning: this report contains flashing lights’
The Oberlin and Santa Barbara cases made national news in the USA, and commentators who already disliked trigger-warning culture online saw the Oberlin/Santa Barbara demands through the same lens. Academics who blog have been discussing them extensively online ever since: the Chronicle of Higher Education website, for instance, has featured several posts arguing that trigger warnings are a form of censorship that insulates students from having to deal with the harsh world outside, as well as posts by instructors disagreeing with them because the impact of trauma on the body deserved to be taken seriously.
However, even before this year, educators had already been confronting the problem of what to do about disturbing content: the American Philological Association, for instance, held a roundtable about teaching about rape in classical literature in 2009, and Liz Gloyn has written thoughtfully about how this has played into her teaching on Ovid. (She’s also had a teaching note on the same topic in Classical World, which has a version without subscription here.)
Gloyn makes the point that, statistically, tutors should expect that every class will contain students who have experienced sexual violence: with numbers like these, it stops being a case of ‘what if’ material like some of what I teach affects a student personally, and starts being a case of how do I anticipate and mitigate the possible impact it could have.
The idea of giving a heads-up about upsetting content isn’t even an internet-age invention. In the UK at least, broadcasters have been using warnings for years – for instance, alerting viewers to disturbing images about to come up in news footage. After programmes that have represented topics such as abuse, eating disorders or suicide, they generally provide information about resources for viewers who might need support after recalling their experiences while watching the programme.
Perhaps the most direct parallel to content notes in teaching is with warnings about flashing lights. (Indeed, I have to remember to give one of these in class every time I show excerpts from the opening ceremony of London 2012.) It’s more and more widely accepted that television/stage audiences need to be advised about flashing lights in performances because they can set off seizures in people who are photosensitive. This is literally a ‘trigger warning’ – anticipating a harmful consequence because of a known risk, and advising viewers so that they can use their awareness of how it affects them and decide how to manage it.
Some theories and practices of content warnings
The most recent long academic post on content notes and trigger warnings is Jack Halberstam’s, which I’ve seen being both praised and critiqued all weekend. (My own thoughts on it are going to be much more by way of critique, not praise.) Halberstam argues that accusations of speech being ‘triggering’ are used to shut down discussion, and as such are ‘neoliberal rhetoric’. More broadly, he argues that the contemporary left has been distracted by ‘identity politics’ which emphasise individual trauma and offence.
Halberstam posits a curious generation gap between his generation of queer activists in the academy and the students they teach, and ultimately suggests that the individual demand to be able to feel safe will lead communities into complicity with state power and oppression, although I have to say that at this point I struggled with the analogy: is every student really in the same structural position inside and outside the academy (where, let’s not forget, most of them are paying for their tuition) that gentrifying white gay activists have held in relation to US urban space?
(His article dismisses, in particular, trans women who have asked other queer people not to use the T-word. Yet, as Morgan Collado, a trans Latina poet and writer, explained in response to his post, ‘The t-slur is used to dehumanize trans women, specifically trans women in the sex trades, and is justification for our murder […] The way Jack frames the problem as trans women being divisive by telling non-trans women to stop using the t-slur shifts the focus off the people who are actually being oppressive, namely Jack.' It’s also worth reading Julia Serano’s response to Halberstam on the generational politics of US queer activism.)
The objection to content warnings which has given me most pause for thought is Brittney Cooper’s, which is much more attentive to the power dynamics inside and outside classrooms than many of them have been (and certainly much more than Halberstam’s has been):
[P]art of what we as educators, parents and students have to recognize is that classroom spaces in which difficult topics like trauma, rape, war, race and sexuality are discussed are already unsafe. When students of color who have endured racism have to hear racially insensitive comments from other students who are in the process of learning, the classroom is unsafe. The classroom is unsafe for trans students who are often referred to by the wrong gender pronoun by both students and teachers. The classroom is unsafe for rape survivors who encounter students in the process of learning why getting drunk at a party does not mean a woman deserves to be raped.
But learning about these topics are all necessary forms of education. […] Overwhelmingly students let me know at the end of each semester that though the discussions were hard, they are glad we had them. Trigger warnings might have scared these students away from participating in discussions that they were absolutely capable of having. And in that regard they do more harm than good. So for the sake of my students, you won’t find them on my syllabi.
Cooper is concerned that students with ideological objections to material could use institutional mechanisms to have a reading removed or cause problems for instructors. In particular, she is anxious that students could get out of examining their own prejudices and privileges by saying they had been ‘triggered’ by material that challenged them.
All this is possible, which is why mandating them could be counter-productive. But there are still ways for content warnings to be good practice, if they’re understood not as censorship but as facilitation (or even, as Andrea Smith suggests based on her work in Indigenous social movements, as part of a collective rather than individual approach to reducing harm).
Sayantani Dasgupta, a practitioner of storytelling and medicine, takes this view in explaining why she’s used them in her classes (though she isn’t responding to Cooper, but to bloggers who have objected to trigger warnings much less thoughtfully):
[P]reventing little Johnny, José, or Jamila from getting a tad misty-eyed in a classroom is not, ideally, what trigger warnings are about. With their roots in the feminist blogosphere—where writers often want to give readers warnings before discussing explicit situations of sexual violence—trigger warnings in classrooms are about acknowledging that each student has her or his own specific life history, family context, identity, body—and that these realities have an impact on how a student understands and interacts with texts. […]
[D]oes my use of trigger warnings in the classroom mean I think my students are weak? Not at all. Rather, it’s because I respect my students, and know that they all come with varied life experiences of which I know only a fraction. Who in my class has a brother who was killed in a homophobic attack? Who in my class survived a sexual assault last year, last month, last week? Who in my class fled their homeland as a result of ethnic cleansing? I don’t always know, but I do know that my students did not somehow hatch, fully grown, the moment they entered my class. Rather, they live complex lives outside of my classroom, lives which bring richness to our collective learning.
The day after I originally published this post, the therapist Meg Barker posted a long essay that tries to get beyond a binary of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ content notes and trigger warnings by thinking through what they can open up and close down:
Perhaps the main point of trigger warnings is to open up the possibility for people to determine what they engage with, when and how. The idea is that, if we provide people with a brief overview of the kinds of topics and issues they are going to be confronted with (in a novel, a movie, a lecture, or a workshop, for example), then they can make an informed decision about whether they wish to engage with it or not. Advocates of trigger warnings regard this as a form of consensual practice, and a good way of modelling, and enabling, a more consensual culture than we currently have. It is also a potential way of recognising the structural constraints around agency. Not all people are as free as others, and one key limit on our freedom are the scars left by experiences of discrimination and oppression. Trigger warnings are one way of giving people greater agency within the structural limits on this. […]
However, there is also the potential – of course – for this approach to close down possibilities as well as opening them up. One risk is that, if taken too rigidly, we start to divide the world in binary ways between the powerful people who get to give trigger warnings, and the powerless victims who require them. […] This potential alerts us again to the risks in line-drawing between traumatised and non-traumatised, oppressed and non-oppressed. Perhaps instead it points us towards recognising the inevitability of traumatic experience during a person’s life, and the complex net of intersecting oppressions in which each person is located.
I have used content notes in teaching when necessary, and would certainly encourage other teachers to think about using them, because I take the view that when they’re used as part of a holistic approach to learning they can make students more able to participate rather than less. (I don’t use the specific wording ‘trigger warnings’, because if students haven’t heard the phrase before it might distance them from thinking about what’s in the note.)
I could still put them in a more prominent place – next year, I’ll try to – and I’m still experimenting with how best to actually run the sessions on the most difficult topics.
It obviously isn’t just the Yugoslav wars where these problems arise in teaching History: anyone teaching a first-year survey course on the 20th century, for instance, will have students who are reading, hearing and seeing more detailed depictions of the Holocaust than they will have done before. Dasgupta’s reminder about bearing in mind what students and those close to them might have experienced is one that every educator needs to think about.
So what can I do?
My own starting point for thinking about disturbing material and teaching is that other people know their own personal circumstances, and the psychological and physical effects those have on them, better than I do. Yes, there could be occasions when my research and professional experience might make me aware of a piece of context around what someone has experienced that they might not have thought about already. That still doesn’t translate into me knowing better than they do about how they actually sense it affecting them.
By defending content warnings, I don’t mean to imply that certain topics are too harmful to be taught. Quite the opposite. One of the most interesting new books on post-Yugoslavia that I’ve seen this year, for instance, has been Elissa Helms’s Innocence and Victimhood: Gender, Nation, and Women’s Activism in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina. It hadn’t come out when my Yugoslavia module began last year, but in this year’s module we could potentially do more with it.
Large sections of Innocence and Victimhood are about the activism of Bosnian women who were raped during the 1992-95 war, and how war rape has been used for political point-scoring (by Bosniak nationalists, and by Western liberal feminists). I’d like students to be able to understand Helms’s argument about gender, nation and narratives about collective victimhood in contemporary Bosnia-Herzegovina. I’d also like them to appreciate an even broader point she makes, which is that in order to understand the post-Yugoslav present we need to consider the effects of wartime violence and the collapse of Yugoslav socialism. Clearly, I’m not going to say that we can’t ever use this book because it discusses rape.
Yet if students are confronted with this material unexpectedly (and Helms’s writing is much less graphic or emotive in this respect than some of the earlier scholars she critiques), is there a risk that some of them wouldn’t be able to finish the reading or even participate in the class? That would work against my objectives as an instructor, and so I ought to do the best I can to mitigate it.
(And of course Innocence and Victimhood is only one of many books on the Yugoslav wars where this would come up. Dubravka Žarkov’s book The Body of War, for instance, is a critical study of the wartime Croatian and Serbian media, examining exactly the kind of imagery that I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post; but in order to make her argument she needs to illustrate what was shown.)
The other reason I’m sympathetic to student-driven demands for content warnings is that, as teachers, we want students to be thinking deeply about what they’re learning. Being able to make serious proposals about changes to teaching means that students must have thought about what the content, structure and methods of teaching already are and how those knits together into a system of knowledge.
Last year, for instance, economics students at Manchester formed a society that called for a revised Economics syllabus with a greater and more critical range of theoretical frameworks, and SOAS students have similarly written a report asking for gender analysis to be integrated into Politics and Development teaching. To me, this is evidence of precisely the kind of critical thinking that the humanities and social sciences strive to develop, even though they’re uncomfortable situations for a department to be in.
Angus Johnston, a historian of US student activism, writes that after this year’s controversies, he’s decided to use content notes in his syllabi where appropriate – not in any way to change the way he teaches, but to clarify the approach that he already has. This is the way that I’d see content notes as well, and next year I’ll probably expand mine along his sort of lines to try and say more about what I aim for my teaching to be like. The purpose isn’t to signal to certain students that some of the module content ought to be off limits for them; rather, it’s to continue to meet the stated outcomes for everybody’s learning while making the material as accessible as I can.
 This has been continuing since I wrote the original version of this post on 6 July, so some of the links in this post now point to articles that appeared after the 6th.
 In the first version of this post I linked to Liam Bechen’s response at this point as a critique of this part of Halberstam’s argument. Collado’s post has appeared in the meantime and I’ve worked it into my text because she’s someone who has been directly harmed by the slur that Halberstam argues isn’t a problem. It’s also worth reading Tobi Hill-Meyer’s response to Halberstam which provides some more context about the specific incident Halberstam was referring to in that section.
Until September 2013, Austria hadn’t had a particularly significant place in the queer history of Eurovision – or, indeed, in the recent history of Eurovision at all. Austria’s most notable contributions to Eurovision had been in the 1960s, including Udo Jürgens‘s victory in 1966, and exemplified German-language Schlager music at a time when it still had wide European appeal. The Austrian national broadcaster ORF had also been responsible for selecting one of Eurovision’s earliest satirical entries, Schmetterlinge’s Boom boom boomerang, in 1977.
In the 1990s and 2000s, on the other hand, Austria’s part in Eurovision was marginal in numerical terms: it rarely finished in the top ten, was relegated twice on the basis of poor scores, and skipped four of the five years between 2006 and 2010 altogether, before returning to use Eurovision as a platform for new singers from Austrian franchises of talent shows.
Conchita Wurst also first reached the Austrian audience through a talent show (ORF’s 2011 revival of Die grosse Chance, which Austrians had first watched in the 1980s). ORF had first considered her for Eurovision in 2012, when she competed in the Austrian national selection and came second, before committing to selecting her for Eurovision 2014.
As a bearded drag performer, Conchita brought an extra kind of gender variance into the history of drag at Eurovision; although she received by far the most press coverage before the contest, it still seemed her persona might be too challenging to gather the mass appeal necessary to win, and a few months ago her odds had been as long as 50/1.
Conchita is the drag persona of Tom Neuwirth, who created her as ‘a statement for tolerance and acceptance': Conchita’s website describes ‘[t]he private person Tom Neuwirth and the art figure Conchita Wurst’ as ‘two individual characters with their own individual stories, but with one essential message for tolerance and against discrimination’.
In her winner’s speech at the end of the Eurovision broadcast, she brought this message on to a collective level: ‘This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom… You know who you are. We are unity, and we are unstoppable!’
This post by Elainovision captures much of the hope in Conchita’s performance and victory:
Conchita won, and that is something well worth celebrating, because overall, this is a good thing. This is a victory. This is a landmark. This is someone who directly confronts society’s rejection of gender-variance, and rejects it in turn, and yet still becomes valued, adored, and respected by a continent. And where she leads the way, others can follow.
So some will write her win off as just a political statement. That’s not true – she can really sing. But it is political, and for all the right reasons. Europe can feel proud this week, and maybe we are slightly closer to a future where gender is as much a thing as someone’s hair – individual, independent, and a statement of identity.
No Eurovision winner has been so much discussed since Dana International, though in some ways Conchita and Dana shouldn’t be too directly compared: Dana International was very clear about her own identity as a trans woman, whereas Conchita as an artistic persona has been created with a challenge in mind: to present audiences with the idea that accepting every person on their own terms is what matters most even if you find their identity hard to understand.
In the last few days, she’s been being celebrated as – in Paris Lees’s words – ‘an ambassador for diversity’ and ‘a mascot for an increasingly large section of society that has little time for other people’s ideas of who we are supposed to be’. However, readers who are cis also ought to be aware that while some trans people have welcomed Conchita’s performance enthusiastically, others have found it very upsetting that Neuwirth has taken on a bearded drag persona when it isn’t Neuwirth or any other cis person who will be most vulnerable to transphobic street harassment and violence based on it. It’s not as simple as Conchita inspiring a community.
A ‘new Cold War’?
Meanwhile, Conchita and her song were already being drawn into narratives about geopolitics and identity in Europe in the run-up to Eurovision, and even more so since she became the winner. The structure of Eurovision has probably made this inevitable: as a televised showbusiness event which is structured as a competition between different nations and their musical cultures, its organisers and many of its participants have consciously used it to communicate messages about what belonging to Europe means or could mean and where Europe’s borders are – both in terms of spatial borders and in terms of values.
Moreover, the finale of one nation being voted the winner by other nations voting in turn invites spectators to project a geopolitical imagination on to any result: ‘Europe’ has voted for this nation rather than that nation; this nation voted for the winner, that nation didn’t.
The geopolitical frame that surrounded this year’s Eurovision was the policies of Putin’s Russia and their implications for Europe. The national-level law against promoting ‘non-traditional sexual relations to minors’ that Russian parliamentarians passed last year had already become an international issue before the Sochi Winter Olympics, to the extent that Western fans, corporations and even some governments displayed rainbow flags to symbolise that their nation belonged to a community of tolerance that represented the opposite of a homophobic, backward Russia.
As reductive as this interpretation might be, its popularity as a narrative meant that much of Eurovision’s huge gay audience would likely have given the Russian Eurovision entry a hostile reception (the two 17-year-old singers representing Russia this year were loudly booed during both their performances) even before Russia’s actions towards Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Who, then, could have been a more symbolic Eurovision winner than a singer who uses performance to invite audiences to accept the gender variance they perceive in her and, through this, to accept anyone as they present themselves? Interpretations of Conchita’s victory as aimed against Putin have abounded in the West. The columnist Cristina Odone, writing in The Telegraph, described Conchita’s win as ‘one in the eye for Putin':
With her Eurovision victory, the Bearded Lady from Austria unwittingly fired the opening salvo in this culture war. Putin thinks that Westerners will prove a push-over when it comes to defending sexual freedom. I’m not so sure.
The Sun – a tabloid that continues to stigmatise queer and trans people on countless occasions – had no difficulties putting its editorial voice behind Conchita when she could be used to mark out Putin and Russia as the enemy. A bearded male reporter from The Sun dressed as Conchita to be photographed outside the Russian embassy, and the newspaper’s Twitter feed was sure to circulate the photo where he was having his details taken by police.
For politicians in Russia who had already been referring to ‘Europe’ as a threat to Russia’s right to determine its own values, Conchita has also been easy to fit into an existing framework. The discourses behind the ban on so-called ‘gay propaganda’ are not just moral or religious, but also geopolitical, as Cai Wilkinson explains when discussing previous statements by Vitaly Milonov, the politician who introduced a law against ‘gay propaganda’ in St Petersburg:
Russia has cast the adoption of anti-homo-propaganda laws as necessary to maintain the country’s “moral sovereignty”, which is perceived to be under attack from LGBTQ people and their supporters […] Milonov went on to dismiss international criticism of the law as a violation of human rights obligations as the work of an international gay lobby that has inﬁltrated the UN and the European Council, arguing that “this is Europe’s problem; why should we copy European laws? Not everything that they have in Europe is acceptable for Russia”. The implicit message is clear: to be properly Russian is to be Orthodox Christian and against homosexuality.
Milonov has since sent a letter to the Russian national broadcaster arguing that Russia should withdraw from Eurovision because the contest promotes homosexuality. The Russian deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, meanwhile tweeted after Eurovision that Conchita had ‘showed supporters of European integration their European future: a bearded girl’.
In contrast, a Europe where Conchita Wurst can win Eurovision with a 52-point margin has the potential to present a European future where a bearded girl fits right in. Philip Bohlman, the scholar of music and nationalism, has responded to this year’s contest by suggesting that the result has helped to bring back Eurovision’s ‘moral compass’ and even that a Eurovision revitalised in this way can point a way towards ‘a nationalism of tolerance and diversity':
ESC queerness begins to demonstrate the attributes of a historical longue durée, and it is for these reasons that it elevates a music competition to a European level on which it is one of the most visible targets for official Russian homophobia and the violation of human rights elsewhere in Europe. It is a return to that history that “Rise Like a Phoenix” so powerfully signifies.
The fact that Conchita was able to win Eurovision has made her available as a symbol for denoting one side in a new – or revived? – ideological and geopolitical clash, with Russia as the opposite pole. Yet this isn’t a framework that Conchita has explicitly played into: although her winning speech addressed an audience who ‘know who you are’, who ‘are unity’ and ‘are unstoppable’, she has not put her persona into the direct opposition with Putin, homophobia and Russia that the ‘new Cold War’ narrative would claim for her.
Who is unity?
Neither has eastern Europe, or even Russia, rejected Conchita, despite the transphobic remarks that politicians and Eurovision commentators made about her in several countries during and after the contest. Filip Kirkorov, the star who composed this year’s Russian entry, supported Conchita after she had won. Just as when eastern European entries dominated the scoreboards in the mid-2000s, it isn’t possible to win Eurovision with votes from just one ‘half’ of Europe: in the end, only Armenia, Belarus, Poland and San Marino gave her no points at all, and Russia to the surprise of many Western viewers gave her five.
Comparing the jury votes and telephone voting results that each contribute 50% of a country’s points, audiences in eastern Europe supported Conchita much more than the juries of music professionals: evidence, Alan Renwick suggests, of an elite/public divide, at least where Eurovision voting is concerned. Russian televoters put Conchita in 3rd place; in Georgia, where the jury votes were thrown out, televoters placed her second.
Sinead Walsh, a researcher working on feminism and peacebuilding in Armenia and Azerbaijan, agrees that the telephone vote results give a more complex insight into post-Soviet sexual politics than many western European viewers might have expected:
It’s also a timely reminder that this story we’re being spoon-fed, the new Cold War saga (“now with gay people!”), is far from the simple tale it’s made out to be – that of civilised, tolerant Europe versus the savage Russian bear-people. Yes, there is a insidious attempt going on, as exposed here and here by Ukrainian NGO Gay Alliance, to manipulate sexual politics for the sake of nationalist agendas. Homophobic attacks, physical and verbal, do go virtually unchecked in this part of the world. Many people grow up feeling ashamed of their sexuality, eventually facing the choice between emigration or living in a kind of internal exile. Thankfully, there are also many people who see this situation for what it is, and refuse to play into the hands of the hetero-political entrepreneurs over something as silly as a song contest. Perhaps they are fighting a losing battle – but perhaps we can help by beginning to realise, and act on, the interconnectedness of all things, and the correlation between sexual freedom and freedom from injustice and corruption.
At the same time, there are good reasons to be sceptical about claims that nationalisms in Europe have become perfectly accepting of diversity – a point I discussed at more length in my last post on Eurovision and ‘LGBT’ rights, where I suggested that celebrations of LGBT equality as a national value still have the potential to mask the marginalisation of undocumented migrants, Muslims and trans people.
This year’s Eurovision included its own uncomfortable failures of inclusivity, such as a white woman wearing mehndi-inspired designs on her arms as part of her costume (cultural appropriation?), and an interval act which seemed to finish on the idea that it was completely to be expected for a white Dane to get China and South Korea confused. Conchita’s own persona, where her biography states that she was ‘born in the mountains of Colombia, and raised in Germany’, seems to play on stereotypes of Latina women immigrants that Neuwirth as a white man has not been harmed by. Liberalism based on tolerance still dismisses these kinds of exclusion too often.
Even in the domain of ‘LGBT equality’ itself, it could be seen as troubling that one of this year’s Eurovision presenters, the actor Pilou Asbaek, appears to have been told he would not be allowed to wear a rainbow symbol on stage, or so he told The Wall Street Journal in March:
Maybe, Asbæk says, he took his impression of the contest as a political event a bit too far in the preparation process. As a big part of the Eurovision fan base are homosexuals, Asbæk suggested to the organizers that he would wear a rainbow flag t-shirt onstage.
“I asked whether it would be funny if I did it,” he says, “but (the suggestion) was refused.”
The story resurfaced when he was interviewed by The Guardian before Eurovision, when he also suggested that the organisers had had the sensitivities of east European broadcasters in mind:
I offer that Eurovision’s definition of Europe is fluid enough to allow all comers, too. Everyone is welcome. “EXACTLY!” he shouts. “That’s IT! Everyone’s welcome. Hispanic lesbian woman, welcome. Little Jewish gay guy, welcome. Everybody, as long you like music and like to party, you’re welcome. I love that. You can see in the world right now that people are becoming more and more afraid of sexuality. That’s so weird. It doesn’t make sense.” He glances at my Dictaphone. “But I’m not allowed to be political. Because east Europe is such a big part of Eurovision. They just need to chill the fuck down.”
But Eurovision is inherently political, surely. He shakes his head. “I asked them if I can wear rainbows. No. We’re not allowed to be political. It’s about music, not politics. But music and politics, you can not divide them. Not in my mind. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland always give each other top points in Eurovision. If that’s not politics, I don’t know what is.”
Compared to last year’s contest – where the interval celebration of Swedish culture included a scene where the presenter played a minister at the wedding of two men – should this year’s organisers have been prepared to stand by the symbol? Or would it have had the problematic effect of reinforcing the narrative about a new cultural Cold War?
Rather than reading Conchita and her popularity as ‘one in the eye for Putin’, her performance can and should challenge viewers to question their own prejudices rather than the prejudices of others. There’s much to be said here for the environmentalist slogan of thinking globally but acting locally: even though the platform was a song contest between national broadcasters and states, the purposes that Neuwirth and Conchita have ascribed to the performance weren’t to do with constructing and reinforcing geopolitical divisions. The ethical imperative that Conchita aims to promote can’t be restated often enough: as Judith Butler stated in a recent interview, ‘[n]o matter whether one feels one’s gendered and sexed reality to be firmly fixed or less so, every person should have the right to determine the legal and linguistic terms of their embodied lives’. Ensuring that right, wherever each of us is, begins at home.
 But thanks to Juha Repo for reminding me of ORF’s support for AIDS LIFE and the Vienna Life Ball: ‘Just a thought – I have felt that Austria has had some queer elements in their Eurovision output before though. I think already 2004 the boyband Tie-Break sported red ribbons in support of the Wien AIDS charity Life Ball, if my memory does not fail me. And in Helsinki their song Get A Life, Get Alive with Eric Papilaya was definitely also the Life Ball anthem of that year and the set decoration was also in the same theme. I know it is not strictly queer only, but I for one have long felt that the Austrian broadcaster has been making statements with their entries before and them selecting Conchita was just a culmination of many years of work for awareness?‘