Catherine Baker

‘That’s all because you asked this great toy question’: Cynthia Enloe and how to historicise anything

In the spirit of spontaneity that impressed me about the piece I’m about to quote from in the first place – possibly one of my favourite answers from a Q&A after a public lecture, from a talk by the feminist International Relations scholar Cynthia Enloe that the University of Westminster, where she gave it last month, kindly recorded and put online.

Enloe, who’s been publishing on war, peace and women’s lives since the 1980s (after beginning her career studying the politics of armed forces’ ethnic make-up, which she freely admits these days she isn’t satisfied with because she hadn’t yet understood how to take women’s lives seriously in International Relations research), was one of two or three feminist IR authors recommended to me in the first lecture of an ‘International Relations 101’ course I crossed over into from my BA History during my first year at LSE, when the lecturer – probably Professor Chris Brown, whose own research didn’t touch on gender at all – was explaining what we’d be reading in the one week on gender that this intro module had. (In fact, most courses in UK universities used to run all year so it occurs to me that was probably in my first week.)

I’m quite sure what propelled me at 18 to the library to look up Enloe and Jean Bethke Elshtain (whose book Women and War I also found out about at this point) was mainly the thought that reading about women and war was likely going to throw up some histories of gender-non-conforming women and where else in my International History syllabus was I going to find out about those. (Elshtain delivered in this respect with an introduction that began with a story about her childhood identification and disidentification with Ingrid Bergman’s Joan of Arc; I’m from the generation that would either be beginning their war-and-gender books with a story about Milla Jovovich’s performance as the same, and/or a story about those first few paragraphs of Elshtain.)

What I found, and didn’t realise I was looking for because most of my syllabus wasn’t even suggesting it was there, was a lens that Enloe develops through books called things like Bananas, Beaches and Bases – and keeps up through the late Cold War, post-Cold-War and we can’t be in the post-post-Cold-War already can we? – for magnifying how apparently trivial objects, or spheres of life that seem completely disconnected from war, are actually linked into systems of thinking and feeling that make war, militarism and gender-based oppression possible at some very deep levels – a manifesto for overthinking that I didn’t know I needed but that has been helping me make sense of the world around me ever since.

I’ve already written on here about (and am still doing work inspired by) why it works so well when Enloe asks in Maneuvers, about a can of pasta shapes made to tie in with Star Wars, ‘How do they militarise a can of soup?’

What I like about this Q&A answer – which runs to almost 900 words, I realised once I’d started to transcribe it – is how it distils arguments I’ve read Enloe make over the space of whole book chapters into the kind of fluidity or clarity that… does not characterise me when I talk about my own research in public at the moment. (There’s the one of me who digresses, there’s the one of me who can’t even finish a sentence, and, usually, the one of me that misses a step I’ve known about so long I take for granted, so that the whole thing falls down in front of anyone else.) Obviously someone at Enloe’s career stage has racked up thousands of hours more practice than anyone at mine, but as I start loping into that ‘early mid-career’ point (and what on earth is that) I worry that that’s only going to get worse not better the greater the range of things I start to know.

Here is Enloe cutting across International Relations theory, cultural history (I’m reminded of Graham Dawson’s work on British boys’ identification with militarised play post-WW2, which I also need to write about at some point), international economics, education research, fashion theory, asides that transform how listeners think about things they might have taken for granted, and questions that coming researchers could develop into whole books or PhDs even over and above the ones there already are, when an audience member asks her a question about toy soldiers:

Do you know that the first toy soldiers which were lead, lead soldiers, you can still see them in museums – they were made to train elite boys in monarchical systems at an early age about their duty as a future soldier for the regime. So militarised toys, and that socialisation of boys into the naturalness of soldiering, or at least the admiration of soldiering, starts very very early. And here again, women as mothers oftentimes feel that they really are responsible for their sons growing up to be quote normal boys, whatever that is, are the ones who take the boy by the hand down the aisle with the military toys. And the military toys are usually right next to the dump trucks. You know, that is the masculinisation of play can look very unmilitarised. You know. How many little girls really play with dump trucks? Well, dump trucks are great. They’ve got all those moveable parts and you can mix the… you know – but somehow, at that early age, dump trucks are thought to be a boys’ toy, versus any child’s toy. I love dump trucks. Because they’ve got all those moveable parts and you can make up games and stories and…

The big toy companies, like Mattel and Hasbro, they’re major companies, if you – you know, you all have very different aesthetics around your curiosities. Not everybody wants to study a playgroup, although that would be a really good thing to do. If you watch pre-school teachers trying to take the gender out of play, even though the gendering of play has started at home. Or you find the playgroup is very gendered, and a well-meaning mother or father is then trying to de-gender the play when the child comes home. But if that’s not really where your research skills or your research tastes lie, take on a big toy company, and do a history of GI Joe. I mean, did anyone here have a brother or oneself that ever had a GI Joe toy? Ta-da. […]

The Barbie phenomenon, and the GI Joe phenomenon, these are globalised toys. They are made in very particular parts of the world. So if you’re interested in the globalisation of production, go find where really popular toys are made. Find out what you can reveal about the gendering of toys in the production of them, the masculinisation or feminisation of them, the marketing of them… So you’ve got a lot of different tastes in what really strikes you would be interesting to do as research. Find the level, in this case, from the everyday play, to the international production of toys, find some place to come together with your tastes and reveal it. Mattel is the producer of Barbie, and Barbie now has a couple of very spiffy military uniforms, a dress air force uniform. And you can cite exactly when that happened, exactly when Mattel’s toy designers decided that Barbie would be more attractive if one of her outfits was a military uniform. It wasn’t at the beginning. You can historicise anything, and when you historicise something you find where decisions are made. And when you find where decisions are made, you reveal politics. That’s one of the reasons to ask historical questions.

The Gap – by the way, I ask these questions so that you all write about them and then send them to me. That’s really what I’m doing here. The Gap introduced camo. Do any of you have a camouflage tank top, or a knapsack, or a pair of sneakers, or is this too embarrassing to ask? Did any of you once? Right, there you go. All right. But camo – and now it’s abbreviated to camo so that it won’t sound so militarised. That was the fashion industry that did that. They took ‘camouflage’, in garments, and then abbreviated, so most of us would forget it’s really about being invisible so that you can shoot somebody. That’s what camouflage is about. I mean, why do firefighters wear bright red? Because they want to be visible. Right? Camouflage is to be invisible. The Gap corporate designers, and marketers, made a very specific decision, in about – I used to know this for sure – about 2001, that they would introduce camo into their fashion line. Then they made, the next year, a decision to introduce camo into their Gap for Kids. But children actually don’t buy clothes in the kids section of The Gap. Mothers do. So every child, and I’m always – this is terrible, you get infected with this and you just see it everywhere – but when I see a child with a little camo outfit on, I wonder what – I really want to know. I truly want to know. What was she thinking? But, I mean, truly. What is she thinking? That it’s just a beautiful pattern? I mean, why not checks? Because The Gap’s profit depends on her making some association that she thinks that camouflage is a cute outfit for a child. So look for decisions. And the way you look for decisions is to watch something over time that didn’t exist, and then watch when it does exist, and then ask who made what decision when. And that’s all because you asked this great toy question.

My transcription, so my errors, and certainly my line breaks (don’t rely on this as a citation), but about as clear an exposition as possible of what Enloe has called in her later books a ‘feminist curiosity‘ – an eye so well acclimatised to the problems and structures Enloe wants to reveal that an everyday detail like a clothing pattern or the arrangement of a supermarket aisle sets off a cascade of I truly want to know, and full of subtle reframings like her description of the purpose of military camouflage (how much more often do you probably hear about it as there to prevent soldiers being shot, rather than to hide them so that they can shoot somebody?) – the analytical turns that have started making me wonder what a feminist aesthetic curiosity applied to such cultural and everyday dimensions of international politics might be.

And this is only a spontaneous answer to an audience question after the talk she’d planned to give – a lecture where she sets out the taken-for-granted, normalised (but in no way inherently normal) ideas about danger, protection and gender that make it so easy for societies, universities and people to start becoming militarised – and that make those beliefs so difficult to unmake, at least without being able to look underneath the surface of things like this…

Written by bakercatherine

7 October 2016 at 8:39 pm

‘A place calling itself Rome’: Coriolanus, military masculinities and a feminist aesthetic curiosity

This post originally appeared at the International Feminist Journal of Politics blog on 20 September 2016, accompanying my article ‘”Ancient Volscian border dispute flares”: representations of militarism, masculinity and the Balkans in Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus‘ (International Feminist Journal of Politics 18:3 (2016): 429-48).

In the first duel between the two feuding generals who serve as protagonist and antagonist in Ralph Fiennes’s cinema adaptation of Coriolanus, a bloodied Roman commander in grey-green digital camouflage uniform, bulked out by tactical pouches, radio equipment and the personal paraphernalia of US forces’ urban combat in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, confronts the leader of the barbarian Volscians, a bearded paramilitary in plain green fatigues whose irregularly dressed and lightly equipped forces resemble countless still and moving images of fighters from a very different yet equally ‘post-Cold-War’ conflict, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.


The contest between Coriolanus, the Roman war hero who turns away from political acclaim to fight alongside the very barbarians against whom he won his battle honours, and Aufidius, the Volscian leader who moves from admired adversary to counterpart to the agent of Coriolanus’ death, is a historical rivalry from the early stages of Rome’s wars with the Volsci in the 5th–4th centuries BC, adapted into a tragedy by William Shakespeare, and understood by Fiennes (both director and star of this 2012 adaptation) as a narrative that purports to reveal timeless truths about men and war.

The materiality of the film’s production design, on the other hand, could hardly be more time-bound: not only are the identities of each army and polity conveyed through resemblance to forces from a different newsworthy war, but Fiennes and his production team visualise the competition between the two men through directly opposing two military masculinities, the combat soldier of the post-9/11 War on Terror (representing a state that US liberals have been likening to Rome since its founding days) against the paramilitary of post-Yugoslav ethnopolitical conflict, as pictured in news photography including Ron Haviv’s famous ‘Blood and Honey’ series.The choice to make the film on location in Serbia and Montenegro meant that ruined post-Yugoslav locations in Belgrade, Pančevo and Kotor add verisimilitude for any viewer who remembers news images from the Yugoslav wars, as sites supposed to have been devastated by the Roman–Volscian conflict – even though the destroyed hotel where Coriolanus and Aufidius fight their first duel is none other than the (now refurbished) Hotel Jugoslavija in Belgrade, which owes its ruins not to either side in an ethnopolitical conflict but to a NATO air strike during the Kosovo War in 1999.


Archival news footage from (on almost every occasion) the Yugoslav wars (one early riot scene contains a clip from a protest in South-East Asia; none of it comes from the war in Iraq) further localises the action in not so much the material Western Balkans but the imagined space of ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ into which one of the two most prominent Western discourses about the wars transformed the Yugoslav region.

The blurring of ‘found footage’ and scenes staged and designed in resemblance to it sees, in one exposition sequence, Gerard Butler’s Aufidius and three other Volscians cheering and waving rifles as they drive into conquered or liberated territory, above the rolling headline which gave my International Feminist Journal of Politics article the first part of its title: ‘“Ancient Volscian Border Dispute Flares”’. The caption does not give us the ‘ethnic’; alongside these images juxtaposed with concepts of ancientness and territory, it does not need to.


With the built environment and the thematics of exposition situating the film’s imaginary space so much more within (a certain Western construction of) the Yugoslav wars than within any post-9/11 conflict – and with a Serbian costume designer, Bojana Nikitović, and the Serbian actors portraying several supporting military characters contributing their own awareness of the aesthetics of the Yugoslav wars – the chief means of distinguishing the Romans and Volscians becomes the aesthetic differences in the embodied military masculinities of each side.

Indeed, the psychological narrative of Coriolanus’ rivalry with and admiration of Aufidius – which will end in Coriolanus’ death at Aufidius’ hands after his wife and mother have persuaded him to make peace and return to Rome – is visualised through the transformation of Coriolanus’ and Fiennes’s own militarised body into a persona that several UK film reviewers independently likened to ‘a Balkan warlord’.


Coriolanus’ death at Aufidius’ hands, after his wife and mother have persuaded him to make peace and return to Rome, thus becomes simultaneously the resolution of the tragedy, the blade finding (as Fiennes explains in his director’s commentary) ‘its place of penetration’, and Fiennes’s imagination of a ‘weird ancient tribal blood rite of embrace and sadness’ (the hero slain by his dualistic rival yet again?) – a homoerotics given thematic unity by the enactment of ‘ancientness’, killing and tribalism in a ‘Balkan’ setting.

Coriolanus, the film, reached nowhere near as many viewers on release in 2012 as blockbusters such as The Dark Knight Rises or The Hunger Games; however, like both those films in different ways, the aesthetics of its design depend on the evocation of resemblance to (and sometimes direct incorporation of) images from recent conflicts to incorporate narratives about the nature of war and violence in the present or recent past into the texture of a speculative setting.

Such evocation in Coriolanus primarily occurs through the conjunction of material space and the costumed, performing body. Much of what this adaptation can tell scholars of international politics would not therefore be contained at all in the elements of audiovisual narrative, such as dialogue and story, with which researchers accustomed to written texts who study popular culture may be most comfortable. Similarly, much of what this adaptation can tell scholars of international politics would not be perceptible at all without applying a ‘feminist curiosity’ (to quote Cynthia Enloe) and a ‘queer intellectual curiosity’ (Cynthia Weber), to start perceiving how its constructions of war and violence are constituted by ideas about gender, masculinities, desire and the body.

The combination – what we might call a feminist aesthetic curiosity – could reveal much about the continuum between representation and imagination, mimesis and speculation, through which creators, spectators and even military institutions produce and contest ideas about violence, gender and war.


Written by bakercatherine

21 September 2016 at 5:08 pm

South-East European studies in the ‘House of International Relations’

This post originally appeared at the Forum Transregionale Studien (TRAFO) blog on 14 September 2016.

Six years after I finished my doctoral research at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, two years after I had briefly returned to SSEES as a teaching fellow leading Masters modules about nationalism and ethnic conflict, students at UCL launched a campaign against Eurocentric and institutionally racist structures of thought within the curriculum that they termed ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’.

The campaign, which began in 2014 and spread to other UK universities including Leeds, Birmingham and Warwick, framed its title as a challenge which, if a teacher were to answer it, would involve unpicking a complex of assumptions about rationality, modernity, and which people and places have become entitled to set themselves at the intellectual centre of producing knowledge about the rest of the world. Exposing the ‘unmarked nature’ of whiteness in the design of teaching and learning, and the unquestioned assumptions about which scholars represent the theoretical heart of a discipline and which are added on as marginal radicals or providers of empirical area-specific knowledge, would thus be the first step in ‘dismantling’ the white curriculum and starting to decolonise the university, alongside confronting structural racism in the academy itself (as a panel discussion at UCL organised by Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman had asked earlier in 2014: ‘Why isn’t my professor black?’).

The ‘House of IR’

The subtle dynamics of reproducing whiteness through the hierarchies of authority that teachers construct when suggesting the centres and margins of their field are illustrated by Anna Agathangelou and L H M Ling’s evocative metaphor, well-known to decolonial, postcolonial, feminist and queer scholars in International Relations, of the ‘House of IR’. Agathangelou and Ling consciously model their illustration on a colonial home: the intimate exclusions within/outwith the domestic compounds of Dutch-colonised Indonesia and French-colonised Indochina that the global historian Ann Laura Stoler has detailed in her own work.

The House thus has its founding fathers (individualist, masculinist realism), its good liberal mothers and daughters, its rebel critical-theorist sons, its fallen daughters (postmodernists and queers), its acknowledged and unacknowledged descendants inside and out, and its downstairs, where the ‘servants’ – IR’s ‘non-Western, nonwhite sources of knowledge, traditions, or worlds’ – ‘live, work, and produce for the House of IR’ (Agathangelou and Ling 2004: 27, 30).

Anticipating the #RhodesMustFall protests of 2015–16 about the unacknowledged legacies of colonialism and slavery on elite campuses in South Africa and Britain, and the ongoing struggles at US universities to confront the material and symbolic legacies of slave-owning benefactors, the UCL ‘Dismantling the Master’s House’ group also drew attention to the presence of the colonial past of their specific institutional setting: the commemoration of Francis Galton, who founded eugenics as a scientific field at UCL, in the 21st-century university’s public culture.

The ‘House of South-East European Studies’

If I had still been teaching at SSEES in 2014–15, how would I have answered the question ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ when looking at my own modules, or connected the history of an east European studies institute (founded in WW1 by scholars who were lobbying the British government to support Slav national liberation movements’ struggle against Austria-Hungary, later part of Britain’s Cold War infrastructure of knowledge, intelligence and research) to the colonial legacies of the university that SSEES had joined in 1999? What texts would someone need to add in order to bring race into the centre of the discipline’s debates, alongside its central paradigms of ‘nationalism’ and ‘ethnicity’ – or even to integrate histories of people of colour in central and south-east Europe into the core narrative of the region that an undergraduate historian would take away?

Did this subset of area studies, about a region of Europe which had been repeatedly occupied and which had never been the metropole of an overseas empire itself, need to reckon with whiteness and the global history of ‘race’ to the same extent as the history of Britain or America, the Netherlands or France?

Yet at the same time the ‘House of South-East European Studies’ – especially the interdisciplinary south-east European cultural studies/history/anthropology in which I positioned my doctoral work – would give critical inquiry based on postcolonial thought much more space upstairs than its equivalent ‘House of IR’. Since the early 1990s, a research agenda translating the premises of Edward Said’s Orientalism to south-east Europe, first developed by Milica Bakić-Hayden (with Robert Hayden and alone) and Maria Todorova, has suggested that the politics of differentiating a civilised and urban ‘Europe’ from a backward ‘Balkans’, a fundamental identity-making project both outside and within the region, depend on symbolic hierarchies similar to, or perhaps part of the same structures as, orientalising oppositions between ‘Europe’ and ‘the East’.

Questions of essentialisation, othering, stereotyping, exotification and mis/representation are inescapable in the study of post-socialist identities – with immediate opportunities, in the majority white and Anglophone classrooms where I teach, for reflecting on similar (perhaps connected; perhaps, too, not automatically identical) dynamics of othering and periphery-making directed towards the Middle East, Africa, South or East Asia, Latin America, Islam, or even Ireland.

For me, however, the construct of the ‘House of South-East European Studies’ I’ve postulated is a retrofitted house. The disciplinary conversations I was part of during my PhD were parallel to, but largely separate from, those taking place in other fields that grounded their knowledge in specific languages and regions.

(That sentence avoids the term ‘area studies’ deliberately: in 2010, at an applied linguistics conference where I was to talk about my postdoctoral research on language intermediaries and peacekeeping in Bosnia, I told a Brazilian colleague in the audience of a panel that I had done my PhD at SSEES, an ‘area studies’ department. For all the postcoloniality that my doctoral research had started to train me in – and SSEES itself is more engaged in rethinking ‘area studies in the 21st century’ than it was 10 years ago – I had still failed to appreciate how much more heavily the ‘area studies’ of a white English-speaking woman from and educated in London would ring to her ears as an extractive, colonising term.)

Situating South-East Europe in Global Dynamics of ‘Race’

Unlike contributors to this forum for transregional research who have positioned themselves in International Relations throughout their careers, I began engaging with IR (to which I had first been drawn as an undergraduate via the possibilities it offered for studying women and war, even if it meant reading against the grain of an intro syllabus largely devoted to explaining the English School) first because its critical and feminist studies of peacekeeping offered a conceptual language for connecting south-east Europe as a site of international intervention with the rest of the world, then because its emerging and hard-fought aesthetic, experiential and queer turns helped to explain why many of my interests in cultural politics had run together.

While it has taken extensive struggle by postcolonial and decolonial scholars to make race and racism a theoretical lens within IR, my own re-entry to IR – giving me a mental map where the margins of Agathangelou and Ling’s House look more like a centre – is what persuaded me, once the Why Is My Curriculum White? group posed the question, that situating south-east Europe in a global International Relations or a global history of anything else must involve situating the region in global dynamics of ‘race’ – a concept which, in contrast to ‘ethnicity’ or ‘postcolonialism’, is more isolated from the central conversation in the first discipline to which I belonged.

South-East Europe – like ‘central Europe’, ‘eastern Europe’ or ‘the former Soviet Union’, but also part of a transregional ‘post-Ottoman’ space – sits in an ambiguous position in the global history of race and imperialism. Ruled by the Ottoman, Habsburg and Venetian empires, cast into the periphery of ‘Eastern Europe’ during and after state socialism, and with the deepest colonial legacy in the region (that of the Ottoman empire) being left by a power that in northern/western frames of Europeanness was either on the margins of Europe or outside Europe altogether, it was never the metropole of an overseas empire.

Migrants from south-east Europe moving to postcolonial European countries or settler-colonial states have been subject to changing and conflicting frameworks of identifying with and ascribing race: having to ‘learn to become white’ (and to become complicit in whiteness, racism and settler colonialism) like other southern Europeans in early 20th-century North America, with access conditional on politics (not being a Communist or anarchist) as well as phenotype; being told ‘At least you’re the right colour’ by white neighbours offering – extremely conditional – acceptance to Bosnian refugees in late 20th-century Australia; being incorporated into the racialised category of ‘east Europeans’ in post-EU-enlargement Britain; and these are only three examples of the conjunctions between race, ethnicity, class, migration policy and history encountered by south-east European migrants and diasporas.

A common European antiziganism, inflected by distinct but comparable national identity discourses, marginalises Roma in south-east Europe and when they migrate to the West; while some Romanian migrants in western Europe deploy antiziganist constructions of Romanian nationhood in order to distance themselves from Roma in their host society’s racialising gaze.

The subaltern identification that adaptations of postcolonial theory has given south-east Europe can explain much about the region’s peripheral position but also sits uneasily with the investments in whiteness as well as Europeanness that postsocialist national identity projects have made, from widespread antiziganist media and everyday rhetoric, to occasional but unquestioned appearances of blackface performance on entertainment television, to the Slovenian and Croatian governments’ emphatic stance during the current refugee crisis that their states should be countries of managed transit – or no transit at all – not countries of settlement.

Anikó Imre, writing on whiteness and antiziganism in postsocialist eastern European media (including her 2005 essay ‘Whiteness in Post-Socialist Eastern Europe: the Time of the Gypsies, the End of Race’, and more recently ‘Postcolonial Media Studies in Postcolonial Europe’), and Dušan Bjelić, in essays on Balkan involvement in the colonization of Palestine and on the identity discourses of Kristeva and Žižek, both argue that south-east Europe would not stand outside the dynamics of coloniality and race that Global IR can place at the centre of the discipline’s inquiry.

Research like Miglena Todorova’s PhD ‘Race Travels: Whiteness and Modernity Across National Borders’, on Bulgarian identity and global formations of race throughout the 20th century, completed in 2006 (the same year she published an article on National Geographic and the Balkans), exemplifies the questions about race I wanted to incorporate into my teaching about ethnicity and nationhood at SSEES in 2011–12 but did not have the architecture to properly build. Academic publishing’s economics of ‘market’ that render small nations and ‘niche’ topics supposedly uncommercial are part of a politics and technology of knowledge production that restrict the opportunities for innovative scholarship about and from peripheralised regions to be made widely available in book form, while unmarked methodological nationalism among readers, instructors and reviewers can produce an exceptionalism of its own. ‘Connected histories’ thus fail to be connected not even because connections are never made, but because connections are made, missed, remade, and liable to be missed again.

During a collaboration with Jelena Obradović-Wochnik on ‘the nexus between peacebuilding and transitional justice’ – two fields where critical research asks similar questions about knowledge/accountability gaps, ‘liberal peace’ assumptions and the structural inequalities between international intervention agencies and local residents, yet which rarely seem to engage with each other – we had initially been surprised to find so little theoretical bridge-building between the fields when perspectives ‘from the ground up’ (knowledges based on everyday discourse, oral history, ethnography) made the shortcomings of peacebuilding and of transitional justice appear as two instances of the same problem. The theoretical connections we needed were already ‘there’, in the work of Chandra Lekha Sriram and Rama Mani; but neither had been extensively cited into the conversations about the liberal peace where we began.

Global IR– Not new, but a lens

Working transregionally in south-east European studies overlaps with, and may often be informed by, the ambitions of Global IR. As a researcher located at and educated in a centre of knowledge production ‘about’ the rest of the world which has that status as a legacy of colonial-era higher education and research, however, I do not wish to suggest it is a ‘new’ lens, far less to impose another hierarchy of progress and temporality in suggesting that in some way the field ought to ‘catch up’.

Instead, it is a lens that the centre of the field has failed to see through to the same extent as it has seen through lenses of ethnonationalism or even postcoloniality – and a lens that can permit old as well as new histories and solidarities to come into view.

Written by bakercatherine

19 September 2016 at 9:03 am

The Illyrian alphabet that wasn’t: how two centuries of European printers circulated an imaginary Balkan script

One of the joys of historical research is finding unusual things in old books.

One of the joys of social media once you link a whole lot of historians, linguists and literature people up with each other is finding the unusual things people have found in a lot of old books.

Like these pages from Josiah Ricraft’s The Peculier Characters of the Orientall Languages and Sundry Others, published in London in or around 1645, that Heather Froehlich encountered while looking at texts in languages other than English in the Early English Books Online collection:

(Make that The Peculier Characters of the Orientall Languages and Sundry Others, Exactly Delineated for the Benifit of All Such as Are Studious in the Languages, and the Choice Rarities Thereof, and for the Advancement of Language Learning in These Latter Dayes. That claim to precision with its millenarian twist at the end – the same combination that introduced readers of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens to an occult text called The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch – is exactly what you want in your early-modern-English-book-title aesthetic.)

Two of these scripts – the ‘Alphabet of the Slavs’ and ‘Alphabet of the Croats’ – are forms of Glagolitic, one of the scripts devised for writing down Old Church Slavonic by the early medieval Byzantine missionaries who spread Orthodox Christianity in eastern Europe. Cyrillic (named after one of the two most famous missionaries, Saints Cyril and Methodius) endured and became the basis of alphabets for eastern Slavonic languages such as Russian and Ukrainian, and for south Slavonic languages in nations with strong Orthodox traditions (Serbian, Bulgarian, Macedonian).

Glagolitic (somehow, it never got called ‘Methodian’) didn’t become the basis of any modern-day national language’s literary script, but as a liturgical and monumental script lasted longest in Croatia. For 19th- and 20th-century Croatian national movements, the 12th-century Baška tablet, discovered by a Croatian priest in 1851 when Croatian (and many other) national ‘awakenings’ were in full swing, has both symbolised the continuity of Croatian statehood and connected to layers of Croatian national myth.

The inscription acknowledges the historic King Zvonimir, who ruled the medieval Croatian kingdom until being betrayed by his own noblemen; moreover, it provides the first reference to ‘the national Croatian name […] in the Croatian language’. And it does it in Glagolitic.  (In the words of one of the most famous new patriotic songs that emerged in 1991 at the beginning of the Croatian war of independence, resonant with the karst landscapes of the Dalmatian hinterland, history is quite literally ‘written on a firm stone’.)

(Today, narratives and iconography of the Croatian national past that play on the ‘primordialism’ of ethnicity and tradition in the landscape continue to make Glagolitic script a symbol of Croatian ethnic continuity on the land, immediately distinguishable for a Croatian onlooker from the Cyrillic script which in the region’s late 20th/early 21st century language politics connotes Orthodoxy and Serbdom. It’s not uncommon on patriotic t-shirts and tattoos; some monuments commemorating 20th-century Croatian national ‘martyrs’ are inscribed in Glagolitic; and the Zagreb-based designers Vesna and Marija Miljkovic have used the script as detail for an entire clothing and accessories line.)

Ricraft’s fourth script, a version of Cyrillic, is the ‘Alphabet of the Muscovites’, inverting the balance of power between Russian and South Slav languages that most inhabitants of Slavonic languages departments will be used to these days.

It’s the first script, the ‘Alphabet of the Illyrian Slavs’, that looks hardest to place. Glagolitic-but-not-quite, Greek-but-not-quite, serpentine tails where you don’t expect them to go – tipping its ‘peculier characters’ into the uncanny valley between historic typography, modern-day invention and contemporaneous alchemical esoterica to which several decades’ worth of films and book covers have tied the aesthetic of early modern printing for a contemporary eye.

(Take a novel like Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Dumas Club, filmed as The Ninth Gate, about an antiquarian book dealer hunting a 17th-century treatise that can supposedly summon the Devil; just put up a woodcut on screen and the viewer should start to be smelling brimstone.)

Indeed, as a place-name Illyria itself is in much the same valley – the name of a historic tribe in south-east Europe who pre-date the migration of the Slavs, attached to a Roman province, Napoleon’s Adriatic satellite state and the first wave of the South Slav national ‘revival’ in the Habsburg Empire; part of an Albanian myth of national origin; and, as Vesna Goldsworthy records in her history of fictional Balkan countries, one of literature’s most popular go-to names for imagining the Balkans behind the one that gave her book its title, Inventing Ruritania. And then there was that time Joss Whedon named an ancient warrior demon after it.

To paraphrase Kieron Gillen’s line from The Wicked + The Divine about the mysteriously reincarnated goddess Tara (‘We don’t know if she’s Buddhist, Hindu or Tara from fucking Buffy‘), semidetached from its historic moorings the name has permeated literature so far that ‘we’ might be forgiven for not knowing if it’s from Shakespeare, Greater Albania or Illyria from fucking Angel.

Except the background to the Alphabet of Illyrian Slavs is less Ninth Gate, more in the equally time-honoured bibliographic tradition of printers messing about – with something to reveal about how north-west European typographers thought about foreign languages in the 16th to 18th centuries.

Ricraft’s was far from the only handbook to include the Alphabet of the Illyrian Slavs, according to the Slavonic linguist Sebastian Kempgen, collector of Slavic alphabet tables from 1538 to 1824. It’s there in Richard Daniels’s Copy-Book of 1664, also from London, and a Leipzig printing manual in 1740; it surfaces in France in 1766, in Pierre Simon Fournier’s Manuel typographique, and in Edmund Fry’s 1799 Pantographia. De Bry’s Alphabeta et characteres, printed in Frankfurt in 1596, contains several Cyrillic and Glagolitic alphabets, the Illyrian script and a Cyrillic ‘Moscovitian’, putting it into the same lineage as Ricraft. Several Italian handbooks, meanwhile, don’t have the script at all. Finally, Kempgen traces it back to Zurich: Urban Wyss’s Libellus valde doctus, elegans, & utilis, published for the edification of calligraphers in 1549, where Kempgen notes no other Slavonic languages were printed at all.


‘Illyrian’ alphabets in the later books, compared to the greater variations of Cyrillic and Glagolitic scripts, resemble the Wyss models much more:

These later copies reproduced the alphabet very faithfully, but it is obvious that, for 250 years, none of the authors of these copybooks had a “living” alphabet to check his engravings against, that there actually were no texts that could be used to sample these letters from, no speakers to correct anything etc. Whereas in all these typographic books the Glagolitic and the Cyrillic alphabets do exhibit certain changes over time as they changed naturally, this one alphabet seems to be frozen in time, as if it had been photocopied by one author after the other. (Kempgen 2015: 6)

Kempgen speculates that Wyss invented the alphabet himself, using Glagolitic as a model but adding embellishments of his own that matched the codes of what he perceived as exotic (something he also seemed to have done to his book’s ‘Egyptian’ alphabet):

Having no idea which parts of the Glagolitic letters were distinctive and which weren’t, he transformed the Glagolitic letters into fanciful designs that fit the rest of the exotic alphabets that he cut for his book […] In Zurich at the time, there would have been no one who could have given him advice on how to interpret the Glagolitic letters best – which parts were important and which of his ornamental additions or re-interpretations made them unrecognizable as Glagolitic letters. (Kempgen 2015: 11)

The ‘mysterious’ Illyrian script, in other words, belongs somewhere between the chain of early-modern biblical typos, litanies of unfortunately transcribed script tattoos, and the comedies of errors through which Google Translate error messages and out-of-office emails end up written on signs.

Moreover, it’s missing several important sounds that the alphabet of any Slavonic language would be likely to contain; and the Italian manuals, printed closest to the Adriatic where their readership was likely to be in most contact with the script, have no trace of the Wyss alphabet whatsoever. Esteemed typographers in north-west Europe, for two and a half centuries, still reprinted the ‘Illyrian’ alphabet as fact. As Kempgen concludes:

Due to lack of better knowledge, it has been faithfully reprinted for 250 years – but never anywhere near Slavic-speaking countries. (Kempgen 2015: 11)

Wyss’s alphabet circulated because it looked plausible; other Cyrillic and Glagolitic scripts were and had been in use, ‘Illyria’ already existed as a designation, the Illyrian alphabet looked like its neighbours, why shouldn’t it be there? It’s as if the Dothraki language, knowingly constructed by George R R Martin and David Peterson for Game of Thrones in evocation of the horse-nomads of Eurasian steppes, were actually to appear in a handbook on the languages of Central Asia.

Two centuries before the Venetian traveller Alberto Fortis was romanticising the nomads and bandits of the Dalmatian hinterland as ‘Morlachs’, a generation before Shakespeare was imagining his shipwrecked twins making landfall in Illyria, Wyss was playing his own part in the European imagination of the Balkans. Whether Ricraft regarded the Illyrian Slavs as speakers of one of his ‘orientall languages’ or ‘sundry others’, his woodcut contributed a small node to the network of representations that south-east European cultural theorists such as Maria Todorova and Milica Bakic-Hayden have often compared to orientalism, or the politics of imperialist Europe representing and exoticising the Middle East.

Similar fabrications, in the age of national ‘awakenings’, could sometimes inspire nationalist imaginations anyway; the poems of Ossian, a third-century Gaelic bard, were part of a cultural movement that moved not only some Scots but romantic nationalists in other countries to imagine a folkloric national past even when they turned out to have been written by a contemporaneous Scottish poet, James MacPherson, in the 1760s.

If the Illyrian alphabet has never lent itself to an invention-of-tradition move, it might be because the chain of transmission ends abruptly, according to Kempgen, with Pantographia; linguists active in the 19th-century national ‘awakenings’ put enough new material into circulation about their languages’ scripts that they stopped depending on handbooks in the Wyss lineage and the error did not persist into the 20th century. Its lack of the full complement of South Slavonic letters means it would be hard to adapt to revivalist purposes in the same way that Glagolitic itself, though out of daily use, lives on in contemporary Croatian patriotic iconography.

Benifit or not to any such as were studious in the languages, Ricraft’s perpetuation of the alphabet-that-wasn’t certainly stands as a choice rarity thereof; an insight, even if not the one he might have wished for, into the advancement of language learning in his own latter dayes.

Written by bakercatherine

31 August 2016 at 5:51 pm

Brexit has echoes of the breakup of Yugoslavia

This post originally appeared at the LSE EUROPP: European Politics and Policy blog on 5 July 2016.

Even before the results of the United Kingdom’s referendum on European Union membership, the tone of the campaigns, the polarisation of public attitudes and the uncertainty over the country’s constitutional future had all started to recall another European crisis, two and a half decades ago: the break-up of Yugoslavia and the international community’s failure to prevent a bitter constitutional crisis escalating into war.

Jacques Poos’s comment that ‘this is the hour of Europe’, when he flew into Yugoslavia as chair of the European Community’s foreign affairs council on 29 June 1991 to mediate between the Yugoslav prime minister and the presidents of seceding Slovenia and Croatia, not only proved hollow but also symbolised, as Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and Croatian Serb militia offensives against Croatian towns escalated, an emptiness of ‘Europeanness’ at the very moment the EC had looked towards a future as today’s EU. (Poos’s remark gave its name to Josip Glaurdić’s exhaustive diplomatic history of the break-up.)

Yet for several years the Yugoslav public had already been feeling a sense of spiralling, interlocking crises over the balance of power between different republics and nations inside the federation. Slobodan Milošević’s moves to recentralise the federation on terms most favourable to Serbs, addressing Serbs as victims of persecution as he did so, interacted with Slovenian demands for fiscal and political autonomy with such implications for Croatia and its border regions (where Serbs were concentrated), and threatening knock-on effects for Bosnia-Herzegovina, that by June 1991 the ‘Yugoslav public’ was already an extremely fragmented – yet not defunct – idea.

People who lived through the Yugoslav wars – like Kemal Pervanić, who survived the Omarska concentration camp after the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) took control of his home town in 1992 and now lives in Britain, or Feđa Burić, a Bosnian historian weighing up the dangers of referendums – draw parallels between Yugoslavia and Britain as multi-national, deeply unequal societies which would unsettle anyone who believed the causes of conflict in Yugoslavia were unique to the Balkan region. ‘These terrible things don’t happen to some strange people – they happen to people like ourselves,’ Pervanić said in a Thomson Reuters Foundation video published on 28 June.

The break-up of Yugoslavia took the public through a downward spiral of collapsing expectations, each dragging people into a new sphere of uncertainty and fear: from the Yugoslav system being more successful than its capitalist and Warsaw Pact neighbours, to the reverse; from it being unthinkable that the union of republics would break up, to it seeming inevitable that it would; from living an everyday working life to seeing your standard of living and the whole economy collapse beyond repair; from Communism being the ideology you learned at school, to an entire system of political power and property ownership falling apart; from moving normally around your town, to fearing for your safety on the streets, based on what others read as your ethnicity.

Even if these were ill-founded – historians still debate whether or not Yugoslavia had too many long-term weaknesses to be viable when it was unified in 1918 – they were part of people’s common sense, until they could not be.

When I teach courses about the break-up of Yugoslavia and the social contexts behind the 1990s wars, British students start seeing their own society differently.

The issues at stake for Britain and its constituent entities have many resonances with, and important differences from, Yugoslavia – but perhaps the most troubling parallels come from how politicians and the media brought Yugoslavia to the point of collapse and co-operated to intensify fear and hatred once Slovenian and Croatian secession was inevitable.

Recursive secession

Scotland’s likelihood of leaving the UK if Britain leaves the EU, because the larger country is seceding from something that the smaller country inside does not want to leave, is an example of what political scientists call ‘recursive secession’. In Yugoslavia, Croatian independence under a nationalist government was unacceptable to the Croatian Serb militias, supported by Milošević, who started taking control of Serb-majority municipalities in Krajina in August 1990. If Croatia seceded, the SDS threatened to secede in turn.

Structurally, though, Scotland as the Scottish National Party (SNP) currently imagines it is the Slovenia of the piece: the small northern republic, keen to prosper within ‘Europe’ and struggling against political shifts in the larger country that will prevent it doing so. Nicola Sturgeon’s efforts to negotiate independently with European leaders strongly resemble how the Slovenian and Croatian presidents, Milan Kučan and Franjo Tuđman, started sounding out international support – finding their strongest allies in Germany and Austria – for their plans to secede after Slovenia held an independence referendum on 23 December 1990.

Kučan, indeed, recently drew qualified comparisons between Brexit and Slovenian independence, comparing the Leave campaign to the self-interest of Milošević and his supporters.

Croatia, in this mapping, would be the Northern Ireland. The prospect that Milošević would support his Croatian Serb allies in opposing independence and undermining Serbs in other parties who co-operated with the Croatian government made independence much more complex and risky for Croatia than Slovenia, which had no settled Serb minority.

Despite the intense nationalism of Tuđman’s government, and its indifference to how Croatian Serbs perceived Tuđman’s ambivalence towards the legacy of Croatian collaboration with fascism during the Second World War, public and political resolve for independence in Croatia was lower than in Slovenia even in spring 1991. The Borovo Selo massacre on 2 May, when Serb insurgents killed 12 Croatian police officers in Eastern Slavonia, tipped the balance. 93.2 per cent of voters in Croatia – not counting Krajina, where Serbs boycotted the vote – voted for independence in a referendum on 19 May 1991. SDS in Krajina had declared autonomy in September 1990 and claimed republic status in December 1991, after six months of open war.

Like Croatia did in 1991, but along different lines, Northern Ireland has a recent history of ethnopolitical conflict, and independence would risk instability and political violence on the mainland as well as Northern Ireland itself.

But there are important differences between the two sets of secessions – including how few voters in England seem to have appreciated the impact that Brexit would have on Northern Ireland, the UK/Irish border and the Good Friday Agreement, and the effect of fearing a return to the violence of the 1970s–90s, compared to how keenly aware other Yugoslavs were in 1989–91 of the potential for violence in Croatia.

The most immediate is that neither Holyrood nor Stormont are militarising their police and equipping army reserves ready for confrontation with the armed forces of the larger state, as Slovenia and Croatia both did in spring 1991 – leading to Slovenia’s ten-day war against the JNA and Croatia’s much longer conflict with JNA and Krajina forces.

And, structurally, Scotland can hardly signify Slovenia and the Serb Democratic Party at the same time.

Asymmetric confederation

What makes Brexit a constitutional as well as a political crisis is that results in two of the UK’s ‘four nations’ (England and Wales) showed a majority to Leave, and results in the other two (Scotland and Northern Ireland) were a majority Remain. Westminster rejected the SNP’s demand for a ‘quadruple lock’ on the referendum (so that Leave could not succeed without majorities in all four nations) in June 2015.

Scottish and Northern Irish voters who feel that they are being taken out of the EU against their wishes have a sense of territorial democratic autonomy to draw on which is not available to English and Welsh voters who feel the same way – except by building territorial–political identities around cities like London, Oxford and Bristol with Remain majorities.

After 175,000 internet users signed a petition for London to declare independence, the city’s new mayor Sadiq Khan said on 28 June that ‘As much as I might like the idea of a London city state, I’m not seriously talking about independence today – I am not planning to install border points on the M25!’. He did demand new powers over business, housing, transport, health, policing and tax, and has been negotiating with Sturgeon and the chief minister of Gibraltar (where 96 per cent voted Remain) about their ‘shared interests’ in remaining in the EU.

Proposals for some UK territories to Remain while others Leave, but for the UK to stay together as a state, arguably have partial precedents such as the relationship between Denmark and Greenland or Spain and the Canary Islands – though still skip over the problem of residents of England and Wales who would still want and need to exercise the individual rights, especially freedom of movement, they had taken for granted as part of the EU.

They echo the plans to reform Yugoslavia as an asymmetric confederation, proposed by Slovenia and Croatia in October 1990, where each Yugoslav republic would have its own defence and foreign policies and the right to apply for EC membership individually. The presidents of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia offered another ‘asymmetric federation’ proposal in February 1991.

Scholars debate why the confederation plan failed or whether it was even intended to succeed (Glaurdić makes the case that Milošević sabotaged it; Dejan Jović argues it was only ever a tactical move); but this is the level of complexity with which the UK constitution would have to be re-negotiated in order to balance the democratic majorities from Scotland and Northern Ireland with the total majority vote across the UK.

Constitutionally, however, the UK ‘four nations’ and the Yugoslav republics are different kinds of entity. The status of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland dates back to ‘Acts of Union’ with the Crown from 1536, 1603 and 1800, with subsequent amendments including the partition of Ireland in 1921 and the devolutions of 1998. England, the largest nation and the equivalent to Serbia in a rough UK/Yugoslav parallel, has no separate constitutional status, and it is UKIP rather than Labour which has led calls for an English parliament.

The Yugoslav republics, established as Tito’s Partisans gained control of territory during the Second World War and confirmed by the 1946 constitution, had all officially exercised national self-determination in forming the federation and ostensibly had the right to secede – though whether this right applied to republics or to ethno-national groups (whose demographic boundaries did not coincide with the republics) was the very constitutional issue behind conflict in Croatia in 1990–1.

How quickly public support for independence can flip

Nicola Sturgeon’s immediate commitment that ‘the option of a second referendum [on Scottish independence] must be on the table’ after the referendum results rested on an SNP manifesto commitment in the May 2016 elections that the Scottish Parliament should be able to hold another referendum if there were ‘a significant and material change in circumstances […] such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will’.

While the change in the Scottish public mood isn’t so overwhelming for Sturgeon to actually call the referendum straight away, the closeness of the UK-wide result adds to the perception that the national Leave majority is too small to take such a drastic step.

So, even more damningly, does the feeling among Remain supporters that all the Leave campaign’s promises were based on misinformation – from the promise of taking back national sovereignty when the next prime minister is likely to be unelected, to the quoted £350 million per week that Britain could save by leaving the EU, to statements that Turkey was on the brink of joining the EU and, with its large Muslim population acquiring EU freedom of movement, posing a national security risk to the UK. (The Leave campaign subsequently wiped its website.)

And so does the revelation that neither the Leave campaign or Westminster had a plan for actually managing and negotiating Brexit, leading to a situation where the all-important Article 50 notification (which would trigger Brexit after two years) might not even be made.

Remain supporters, in Scotland and elsewhere, do not just feel outvoted – they feel betrayed, and afraid (as Leave voters will if Westminster never activates Article 50). Scottish voters have an outlet for those sentiments in the SNP.

The shock of the result and its aftermath does not in itself evoke the same kind of visceral terror as the Borovo Selo massacre – though the fear created by escalating racist violence on UK streets has its own similarities to the early stages of ethnopolitical conflict.

But majorities tip from supporting autonomy towards the riskier choice of independence when it becomes clear that the nation has no prospect at all of achieving what voters see as its self-determination within the structure of a larger country – and the referendum crisis may have brought Scotland to that point.

By the time Slovenian and Croatian voters were deciding between autonomy and independence, political activity in Yugoslavia was centred almost entirely on the separate republics, with the multi-party elections of 1990 all taking place at different times. By the time the Yugoslav prime minister formed his own Yugoslavia-wide party in July 1990, aiming to offer an alternative to Milošević’s authoritarian vision for the federation, Slovenia and Croatia had voted already, with nationalist parties winning in both.

Building political alliances across, as well as within, autonomous national units will be essential for UK political movements that seek to hold the country together.

‘Europe’ as a symbol of hope – about to be betrayed?

While the UK referendum was directly about the European Union, Slovenia’s and Croatia’s independence referendums might as well have been. Slovenian liberals aspired to join Europe culturally and politically, even (or in some eyes especially) if it meant leaving the ‘Balkan’ remainder of Yugoslavia behind. Kučan reformed the Slovenian League of Communists into a social democratic party under the slogan ‘Europe Now!’

In the early stages of the war in Croatia, the Croatian government as well as many of the public looked to the EC to intervene, force Milošević to accept Croatian independence and end the occupation of Krajina. ‘We want to share the European dream, we want democracy and peace,’ Tomislav Ivčić sang in an English-language song, written as war intensified in August 1991, which Croatian Television hoped would serve as a promotional video for the Croatian cause abroad.


A few months later, the hopes Croats had invested in Europe would be dashed as the JNA and paramilitaries overran Vukovar in November 1991 and the Croatian government accepted a ceasefire in January 1992 which left one third of its territory under occupation – just as SDS in Bosnia-Herzegovina was about to declare a sovereign ‘Republika Srpska’ to prevent Bosnia seceding too.

Bosnians who had hoped in 1990 that the Krajina conflict would not affect Bosnia would share Croatians’ disenchantment with ‘Europe’, and suffer an even more devastating war, as the EC failed to prevent SDS militias and the JNA killing and expelling non-Serbs in municipalities they controlled, encircling other towns and nearly partitioning the capital, Sarajevo.

Violence on the scale of the war in Croatia or Bosnia is not imminently threatening the United Kingdom. But scenes of young people appealing directly to ‘Europe’, like the March for Europe on 2 July or the demonstration in London that interrupted a live Channel 4 News broadcast on 28 June, recall independence rallies in Slovenia or, even more so, peace rallies in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina where other young people begged leaders not to let them down.

Politicians get emotional as ‘normal’ politics fall apart

Scenes from the European Parliament on 28 June – with the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker asking the UKIP leader Nigel Farage why he was still there, Farage goading MEPs (‘You all laughed at me… well, I have to say, you’re not laughing now’) and the SNP’s Alyn Smith, after demanding the EU respect Scotland’s vote to remain, receiving a standing ovation for his concluding ‘Scotland did not let you down… please, I beg you, do not let Scotland down!’ – were so far outside the usual frame of EU parliamentary politics that they immediately became items of viral news.

The spectacle came from the contrast between speakers’ emotions and what viewers probably expect to be the dispassionate nature of a European Parliament chamber (much more so than the unruly, ‘braying’ sound of UK Prime Minister’s Questions). The feelings Juncker, Farage, Smith and others displayed hinted at longer-standing resentments over questions of sovereignty and independence which were suddenly on public view.

Notable, too, was the invisibility of the United Kingdom, as opposed to its individual nations, in Smith’s direct appeal to European lawmakers.

All of these seem to be signals that the boundaries of ‘normality’ in UK/EU politics have shifted in a very short space of time, driven by people who are still coming to terms with it.

People who remember scenes from televised Yugoslav Party congresses and parliaments in 1988–92, or indeed news footage from the period in 1990–1 when the European Community still appeared to be able to influence the outcome in Yugoslavia, might see several parallels – from the unprecedented emotion with which politicians talk to each other, to the fact that, the euro crisis apart, the break-up of Yugoslavia was the last overnight geopolitical crisis where the EC/EU as an institution played a major role.

In the UK as in Yugoslavia, however, the media have been implicated in producing the crisis for much longer, in ways that might parallel the course of events that made it even become conceivable in the late 1980s that Yugoslavia could imminently break apart.

Media spectacle can make centres out of extremes

Only a few years ago, UK media treated UKIP and Farage as marginal parties rather than part of the core of political options (where Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats belonged), giving them and the Green Party broadly similar coverage.

Ofcom and the BBC awarded UKIP ‘major party’ status in England and Wales for the 2014 European elections after it made significant local election gains in 2013–14, and confirmed UKIP, but not the Greens, as a ‘major party’ for general elections in 2015.

‘Major party’ status entitles parties to an extra party political broadcast and is also likely to influence news editors charged with maintaining political balance in reporting election campaigns. Themes and images in tabloid media, especially on immigration and on the disenfranchisement of England, harmonise with UKIP campaigns more directly than any mass newspaper or television channel amplifies Green campaigns when their policies fall to the left of Labour.

UKIP ‘managed to define the discourse around migration’ in the 2015 election, Laleh Khalili writes, even though the party itself only gained one seat.

Farage’s confrontational and triumphalist tone as a speaker appeals to UKIP supporters as a sign he will take on the Westminster and Brussels elite on behalf of England but strikes many on the Left experience as bullying and unpleasant, most of all in his post-referendum victory speech when he praised ‘the dawn breaking on an independent United Kingdom […] without having to fight, without a single bullet being fired’ only a week after the shooting of Jo Cox. Although his own background is in City trading, and for years Labour and Conservative politicians had already been politicising immigration, his discourse stands out from established members of the political elite.

In a parallel way, Slobodan Milošević used populist language and a promise to reverse the disenfranchisement of a nation through constitutional change to present himself to Serbs as a political outsider, leading the so-called ‘anti-bureaucratic revolution’, even though he had risen through the ranks of the Serbian Communist Party and previously headed a major Yugoslav bank. (Charles Simić, writing in December, likened Milošević’s political communication to Donald Trump.)

Non-Serbs, especially Albanians in Kosovo, Croats and Bosnians – as well as Serbs struggling for more rather than less democracy in Yugoslavia – feared Milošević as a figure who would legitimise and incite ethnopolitical violence by Serbs. (One of Milošević’s first acts of aggression, in March 1989, was to revoke Kosovo’s autonomy as a province of Serbia, repress Albanians’ political and cultural rights, and introduce martial law.)

Serbian media helped to create the myth of Milošević as a combative, anti-elitist defender of Serbs when TV Belgrade repeated clips of his comment, made while visiting Kosovo Serb protestors in April 1987, that ‘Nobody is allowed to beat you!’ (referring to their allegations of being beaten by Kosovo police).

Farage’s and Milošević’s programmes resemble each other in that both address disenfranchised members of majority nations (a white English public or the Serbs) as groups who are marginalised, victimised and under siege, using language of crisis and threat. For Farage, the threat is of floods or swarms of immigration, putting Britain under social and cultural strain, which EU rules supposedly prevent Britain from reining in.

Earlier on the day of Jo Cox’s death, Farage had posed in front of a poster reading ‘Breaking point: the EU has failed us all – we must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders’. The image was of a column of refugees, mostly Middle Eastern, on the Slovenian/Croatian border in the summer of 2015.

Both Serbs in 1988 and residents of deindustrialised England in 2016 faced serious economic disadvantages, of recent onset, that Yugoslavia or Westminster had not addressed. (Even for Serbs, living standards would fall yet further under Milošević except for those in positions to benefit from corruption, war profiteering or organised crime.)

Yet ethnic minorities, EU migrants, LGBT people, disabled people threatened by further austerity, and left-wing activists in the UK fear the consequences of a UKIP-driven government in the UK in ways which are not identical to, but have some parallels with, the fears of non-Serbs in the early stages of Milošević consolidating power through the Yugoslav federal system.

One major difference between the media of 1988–91 and the media of 2016, however, is how and where the public see tide-turning audiovisual moments and in what ways the media fragment their audiences.

Fragmented media help interpretations of the crisis diverge

In Yugoslavia, people saw incidents like Milošević’s remark to Kosovo Serb protestors or the pictures from Borovo Selo at home on broadcast evening news. Today, moments like the European Parliament speeches or the news about Jo Cox reach us throughout the day, on workplace computers and mobile devices, at different times.

Which moments, narratives and interpretations even reach us are conditioned by how we structure our own social media and what network algorithms then choose to show us, in a more finer-grained way than different newspapers have always framed reality in different ways for their readerships.

Late 1980s Yugoslavia did not have such individualised media fragmentation but, with all republics’ broadcasters controlled by their republics’ Communist parties (and some programming shared between republics), its broadcast infrastructure still meant that viewers in different republics formed divergent, directly opposed understandings of what the Yugoslav crisis even was, unless they consciously sought alternative sources of information. After the 1990 elections, Slovenia and Croatia could follow Milošević’s lead in using television as a vehicle for their own political and historical narratives.

Different publics in Yugoslavia knew less and less about how the crisis was seen elsewhere in the country. Within an escalating cycle of ethno-political fear, increasingly, they did not want to, until ethno-national identity became the predominant frame of reference in public.

The Yugoslav crisis happened, and the Brexit crisis has happened, at dizzying speed, leaving the public trying to piece together ‘instant histories’ from media, their own experiences and their friends and neighbours. Digital media might intensify polarising tendencies even further, if people see less and less outside their online as well as offline ‘filter bubble’.

They might deterritorialise the polarisation which in Yugoslavia occurred on a territorial, ethno-national basis; in England, at least, the two hardening ‘sides’ are spread throughout the country, with more or less concentrated majorities or minorities in certain areas. Within as well as between nations, the public end up with substantially different ‘instant histories’ and act on them in different ways.

But digital media also give more access to alternative perspectives than print media and analogue broadcasting ever made possible – an advantage on which campaigns based on solidarity across difference will need to capitalise.

Ethnic and racist violence shapes how collective identities form

The most frightening, immediate effect of the referendum campaign and result in the UK has been what is publicly perceived as, and is highly likely to be, a dramatic increase in racist abuse and violence.

Jo Cox’s assassination on 16 June by a man linked to neo-Nazi terrorism shocked the public – including her fellow Labour MPs, now embroiled in a contest over the future and existence of their party – because it marked a form of political violence that UK residents not already under threat by the far right usually suppose not to exist in Britain.

During the referendum campaign, far-right groups circulated propaganda about Muslim refugees as terrorist infiltrators and sexual predators – playing on the attacks in Paris, Brussels and Cologne – that harmonised horribly with the mainstream Leave campaign’s public statements about immigration and Turkish membership of the EU. (Compare how caricatures of Albanian Muslims as rapists circulated in late 1980s Serbia, adding their undertones to Milošević’s claims that Serbs were being persecuted in Kosovo.)

Cox resembled the moderate police chief of Osijek, Josip Riehl-Kir, in her potential to interpret the crisis in an alternate way to the political consensus. Cox had written, days before her death, in defence of EU membership and free movement of people, and campaigned for Britain to resettle more Syrian refugees. Reihl-Kir had tried to defuse ethnicised Serb/Croat tensions in Slavonia in spring 1991, in marked contrast to Serb militants’ antagonism towards Croatian police elsewhere on the emerging front line, until his assassination by a Croat ex-policeman that July.

A report on Islamophobic hate crime by Tell MAMA, which Cox would have launched on 30 June, had already found a 300 per cent increase in offline crimes against Muslims in 2015 compared to the previous year, with spikes after the attacks in Paris. Muslims were most likely to be attacked in shops, on streets or on public transport, and when wearing Islamic dress.

Accounts of on-street attacks, threatening letters, school and workplace bullying, and racist slurs have spiralled since the very day of the referendum result – with police recording a 57 per cent increase in reported hate crimes compared to corresponding days last year, the National Police Council calculating that hate crime reports have increased fivefold since the referendum, and a Facebook group organised to collect first-hand accounts of racist violence, Worrying Signs, becoming overwhelmed.

Ethnic minorities, Muslims, East Europeans (already targets of cultural racism in UK tabloids) and white people with foreign accents have all reported abuse and attacks – giving the impression of violence that is both escalating and widening the range of people meant to be intimidated.

Public concern about a sudden ‘surge’ in xenophobia, Akwugo Emejulu writes, conceals years of ‘everyday and institutionalised racism and violence’ that people have experienced in Britain and which they have often been disbelieved when they describe. Race, and who has been more or less likely to feel the effects of racism, is the deepest-rooted dimension of the divergence of ‘scripts’ that different members of the public now have for making sense of the crisis.

Acts of ethnicised and racialised violence, even between one person and another, have collective effects. Before open war broke out in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and beyond areas that were occupied or became front lines, people who belonged – or were just finding out that they belonged – to ethnic, political and sexual minorities suffered intimidation that was supposed to reverberate into the consciousness of others who shared the same identity.

The difference between Britain and Yugoslavia is not the underlying dynamic of collective violence and intimidation so much as the different balances of histories and power behind the violence. War broke out in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina after sustained campaigns of intimidating ethnic others, undermining social and political alternatives, and equipping future armies and paramilitary groups on a mass scale.

The identities drawn into conflict with each other in Yugoslavia were ethno-national, all based on a link between ethnicity and sovereignty over territory that had to be proved or broken to determine which state the land should belong to.

Racist violence in England is based on a narrative of white English sovereignty in which Britain can never be ‘home’ to immigrants or to any Black or Asian Britons at all – a country which, Kehinde Andrews writes, ‘was always happy to exploit the dark skinned subject, but never comfortable living with them.’ The global historical legacies of British imperialism and the legacies of Serbian national expansionism are not identical, and too direct a comparison between Yugoslavia and Britain would erase the reckoning with colonial history that Britain, in the aftermath of Brexit, needs urgently to undertake.

Uncertainty and insecurity harden social divisions

The scripts about belonging that EU citizens living in the UK thought they had – though their scripts were already inflected by race, language and religion – have been whipped away since the beginning of the referendum campaign.

Without their own say in the referendum (unless they were Irish), 3.3m citizens of other EU states have had to watch British politicians and the public overturn plans they had made for their long-term future and expose them to at least two years of uncertainty over whether they can continue living in the UK on equal terms. Some arrived in schools and workplaces the morning after the referendum to be told by classmates and workmates they were going to be sent home.

Their uncertainty has only built further as David Cameron and Theresa May (now a front-runner for Conservative leadership) have refused to guarantee that EU citizens already living in the UK would retain their current residence rights after Brexit and a UKIP peer, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, encouraged the government to use uncertainty over EU migrants’ status to ‘retaliate’ if necessary in negotiations with the EU.

EU citizens’ prominence in arguments about immigration at this moment does not alter how seriously the political consensus to present immigration as a source of scarcity and tension has already affected non-EU citizens, or the violence that the EU will continue to inflict at its borders and through detention centres unless it significantly alters its own migration policy. Yet since Westminster not Brussels already controlled UK immigration policy, Brexit would change neither of those things except to the extent that non-EU citizens would have greater chances of obtaining UK visas – yet migrants from the Global South could anticipate visa requirements as restrictive as they are now.

Even many UK citizens who voted Remain have had their political identities, and their very senses of self, affected by the willingness of the Leave campaign to manipulate EU citizens’ uncertainty: with shock that they never predicted such indifference; with dread that extremism they had already predicted is coming closer to the centre of power; with grief and disbelief that the other side voted the way that it did.

How do you comprehend that so many people in the country you are supposed to share values with could vote with such indifference to 3 million others’ status and wellbeing – or, when stakes were so high, might not have been bothered to vote at all?

This is the beginning, but only the beginning, of how new political identities emerge and ‘other sides’ form.

The social bonds that broke down, and were deliberately broken down, before and during the Yugoslav wars included many ‘former neighbours’, close friends who found it impossible to understand the other’s perception of events when they themselves were experiencing so much horror.

Britain is nowhere even close to experiencing the levels of violence that divided Vukovar or Sarajevo, and the forces impelling polarisation are differently configured. In coming days and months, movements seeking to build coalitions for change will nevertheless have to appeal to mixtures of Remainers, Leavers and voters who did not use their vote, building solidarities which hardened political boundaries – though grown out of comprehensible, fearful emotions – could impede.

Here, polarisation can work both ways: projecting symbolic value judgments on to whole cities, such as Sunderland which highly visibly announced a Leave majority early in televised coverage of the results, ‘misses complex stories of racism and resistance’ that could help to build a broader consensus against austerity and racism than the Remain campaign was able to mobilise, or even commit to, in June 2016.

People are demanding alternatives nobody is offering

Public participation around both the Leave and Remain positions has revealed demands for social and political alternatives that no large political option currently has on offer.

No politician with a UK-wide remit began their post-referendum remarks with the kind of messages to EU citizens that Nicola Sturgeon or Sadiq Khan addressed to their electorates in Scotland and London.

No Leave voter who believed that a Britain outside the EU could afford to revitalise its economy and public services has been offered anything other than a politics of fear and ethnicised entitlement, or guarantees that the fruits of any prosperity Britain did achieve would go towards repairing their own marginalisation.

The loudest voices that members of the English and Welsh public determined not to be taken out of the EU against their will can identify with in their calls for an alternative to Article 50 negotiations are only able to offer another way out to a different British nation, unless Sturgeon can win substantial concessions affecting England and Wales in Scotland’s negotiations with the UK.

The pro-EU rallies since the referendum in cities that voted Remain are not direct equivalents of the Sarajevo peace rallies – and no Euromaidan.

But Yugoslavia in 1990 and 1991 contained a strong civic upswell of support for democratisation and peace within a still-Yugoslav framework which some alternative political parties channelled yet no leader with sufficient power was prepared to adopt. Instead, bases for political solidarity outside the nationalist consensus were systematically intimidated and undermined.

Britain’s history is distinct from Yugoslavia’s, despite the surface parallels that attend the potential break-up of a multi-national state in contemporary Europe. Yet perhaps the most important insight from the break-up of Yugoslavia is that it was not inevitable, nor pre-determined by long-term ethnic tensions, for the constitutional collapse of the country to descend into war; the history of the Yugoslav wars, whether in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Kosovo reveals detailed evidence of violence deliberately perpetrated and alternatives suppressed. Interrupting comparable processes in Britain, within a different set of social and political contexts, will be essential in building a more democratic and just society whether the UK’s future is as one country or more.

Written by bakercatherine

6 July 2016 at 6:51 pm

Tell me why this world is a mess: a demoralised nationalism researcher goes to the polling station

The way back from my polling station leads past a pub which coincidentally or not, last night on the eve of the EU referendum, was playing ‘Stay Another Day’ by East 17 out of its beer garden as loud as a soundtrack while I was walking home.

Any brief irrational comfort that might have given me about how the vote will go seeped out again when all on its own my first-thing-in-the-morning brain picked (we don’t do subtle here) Amy McDonald/’Don’t Tell Me That It’s Over’ as today’s morning earworm and so that’s basically where we are.

Though the summer-in-the-middle-of-uni, nothing’s-really-final-yet atmosphere you get from the average Amy McDonald song (or at least both the ones that come round on shuffle every so often – I’m not sure I could tell the rest apart from KT Tunstall) might get at why I’ve found it so difficult to write from my own perspective about the effect that the referendum is having on national identity – as opposed to sharing the writing of people who have a lot more immediately at stake from the result than I do, which has been the main way for my online self to make sense of the how-the-hell-did-it-even-get-to-this-point feel of the whole campaign.

If taste and identity and self are all linked together, which of course they are, then the first time I felt like I was developing tastes and interests autonomously rather than in reaction to others was all happening inside a container shaped like ‘Europe’, between GCSEs and the first year or two of university, between about 1998 and 2001.

‘Europe’ was a frame of reference and of course I belonged in it: European histories that went beyond and around and between the few big country-stories you’d encounter in school History, even at ours; access to the imaginative possibilities of different literatures beyond what someone had bothered to translate, and maybe one day I could; drilling down into the national pop musics I caught glimpses of through the Eurovision Song Contest; the everyday pan-Europeanness of the range of names on my school register; understanding that the past wasn’t just a matter of similar things happening in different countries at the same time but a set of international, transnational ideological struggles. 

Mixed, at the time, with a disidentification from ‘Britishness’ which now that I think about it was probably a disidentification from a straight, coupled-up national community where I didn’t seem to have a mapped-out place.

(There was a queer dimension to identifying *with* Europe, as well, now I think about *that*; the space where I started being able to recognise ‘women who looked like me’, whatever that meant, was the result of all sorts of mobilities and cultural exchanges between Britain and Italy Spain Greece Germany France Hungary Croatia Portugal; I was queer and European before I had any sense of being queer and British.)

It would have been unimaginable at the turn of the millennium, at least for me, to think that Britain would even be voting on leaving the EU, let alone coming this close to actually choosing it, less than twenty years later.

But then a lot of other things unimaginable at the turn of the millennium have mostly happened too.

The other thing that’s demoralised me so much about the referendum campaign – moving from he personal to the public – isn’t even the extent of open racism or xenophobia that finds an ever larger platform in the media’s need for 50/50 ‘balance’ in a two-question referendum; it’s the much larger groundswell of indifference it feels like it must have revealed in order for a Leave campaign with the premises it has to even be polling this well.

Yet it’s the premises of the Leave and Remain campaigns together that have put UK residents with EU passports in a position where, even before any result goes through, they’ve been left feeling as if they need to prove their economic net worth to the British nation or be held responsible for the consequences of scarcity politics that are a result of UK government decisions, more than EU decisions. 

Both campaigns have acquiesced in presenting immigration as in itself causing shortages and social tension, and in casting non-UK passport holders as an economic burden to society – which even when you refute it is still where the conversation is. 

A referendum which according to some readings was only even called so that the prime minister could score an internal point within his own party has left 3 million people with the political atmosphere being flipped around them in a matter of months – from never questioning your freedom of movement rights, to wondering whether your job will depend on a work permit, whether the government will impose an income test you won’t pass, whether you’ll need to go through a naturalisation process you never expected to need in order to carry on with the same life that you’d planned. 

In the meantime, depending on UK citizens to decide your future for you, and having to rely on vague assurances that in the event of a Leave vote ‘it’ll probably be OK’ for EU citizens already living here – when you’ve seen friends and co-workers from outside the EU being hammered over the last few years with restrictions that they never imagined when they committed to moving to the UK either.

The UK political consensus was already around reducing immigrants’ lives to a budget line of value, but the tone of these referendum campaigns has suddenly demonstrated to even more people that their belonging to the nation is conditional and how quickly it can be taken away.

In a different kind of way I’m aware that EU workers’ rights laws give me an extra layer of insulation between me and the homophobe who wants to cause a moral panic around how someone like me shouldn’t be in charge of young people’s welfare in a university. 

(Last night’s other image from my walk home: Jo Cox’s photo added to the flowers, tributes and candles from the vigil for Orlando last week, still in front of the Hull Cenotaph.)

They’re imperfect laws and they don’t do anything to change the fact that the same European institution polices its borders so tightly it would rather see thousands of people drown at sea than allow them to board flights and settle legally in the states that constitute it. They still have a psychological effect which over time has encouraged me to be more innovative in my teaching and research, more open and supportive with colleagues and students, than I might have been. 

Replace that with an extra nagging anxiety, multiply that by the number of people who gain some sense of security from this or any other part of EU workers’ rights – and I can’t imagine that a UK government like the current one would ‘take back control’ in order to extend those further – and you have another dimension of the anxiety that the protracted uncertainty after a Leave vote would cause. But at least I have a one fifty-millionth or so of a say in the outcome.

I’m as apprehensive of a low turnout as I am of a Leave result itself because of what it feels like it would reveal about the public’s level of empathy. With so much at stake for people who haven’t had a vote, how could you not use yours if you had one?

And I’m someone whose teaching ought to have contributed to people being able to intervene in the kinds of cycles of polarisation and exaggeration that have been ramped up throughout the campaign. I and dozens of other people teach about the break-up of Yugoslavia and how the mainstream media moved an open politics of ethnic entitlement and resentment into the political centre, where it didn’t have to be.

Does any of it matter? Has anyone stepped back from looking at a UKIP poster or a Labour ‘controls on immigration’ pledge because of the things we do when we teach 20th-century history and international politics? I think so, and I want to think so, but how does anyone know?

Even if the result turns out to be Remain, which the latest polls seemed to suggest after all, the campaigns have caused a rip in the social fabric that will take serious work to repair.

Where do we start tomorrow?

Written by bakercatherine

23 June 2016 at 5:03 pm

‘Ours to claim?’: lesbian history, gender variance and identification with the past

Historians of sexuality on my Twitter timeline today have been discussing this post at Notches on the ‘Gay American History @ 40′ conference earlier this month, which Rachel Hope Cleves writes was marked by ‘passionate, and often painful, disagreement’ around the question of – and the implications of asking – how historians define the category of ‘lesbian’.

Cleves summarises the unease that she felt this question provoke as follows:

That disagreement did not finish with the close of the panel but continued through to the conference’s very end, and expressed itself along three related axes: anger about the historical erasure of lesbianism; distrust of the aggressive historicism applied to the category of lesbianism; and fear of the loss of lesbian identity within a trans futurity.

I was on the other side of the ocean from the conference and have never worked on the history of sexuality in the USA. I have, on the other hand, had to think about my own historical practice and the approaches I’d give to others through a number of projects recently, including editing a volume on gender history in 20th-century eastern Europe and the USSR (which has gone into production now!) and carrying out some pilot research on student perceptions of trans and non-binary inclusivity in their teaching (this was the background to it – I now need to write up the report).

Reading the Notches post gave me some initial thoughts as a teacher and conference organiser, and some wider thoughts as someone who also faces the responsibility of writing about people in the past whose lives involved diverse sexual practices and gender non-conforming behaviour, for readers and students whose own time is marked by struggles over the same things. (Is it necessarily ‘aggressive’, for instance, to want to historicise a category of identity?)

(I should say first of all that I’m younger than many of the conference delegates would have been and didn’t suffer from the historical erasure of lesbian identities in the same way as many older women; I also have a much more ambivalent relationship with the label, which I’ll say a bit more about as I go on.)


One of my first thoughts, as it should have been for anyone who might organise a conference or session where this could come up, is: what would I have done if this had happened at my panel.

The summary of the conference alludes to a number of unpleasant incidents, including one where a cisgender (not trans) gay activist reopened a bitter disagreement he had had with the transgender studies in general and the trans historian Susan Stryker (the keynote speaker) in particular. (Stryker, as Cleves notes, describes the background in her essay ‘(De)Subjugated Knowledges‘, part of the Transgender Studies Reader she and Stephen Whittle assembled in 2006.)

What would another historian who was trans – a PhD student in the history of sexuality, say, knowing they would need to launch themselves into this subfield’s disciplinary community in order to gain an academic job or recognition – take away from the discussions they witnessed, the summaries they read, or the ‘tension directed by older lesbian-feminists against younger trans masculine people’ that Cleves describes as ‘palpable’ throughout the conference?

How did panel chairs respond when any of this happened? What expectations about the atmosphere of the conference had organisers set out at the beginning, or as the event unfolded, or even in a pre-conference code of conduct (a practice which is still much more common at technology or fandom conventions than academic events)? How far was the ‘possibility that [lesbian and trans] affinities might overlap’, as Cleves writes, able to be heard beyond the appeal that Jen Manion, a trans and lesbian-feminist historian of early America, made at the beginning of their presentation?

I can’t know the answers to any of those questions (and they aren’t questions which arise just from this one conference and its incidents). They will play on the minds of trans and non-binary scholars who might attend similar events, especially those whose position in the academy is most precarious. As organisers, we need to show through our actions that they’ll be welcome.


Cleves also tries to understand the atmosphere ‘within the context of the historical denials of lesbianism, and the historicist erasures of lesbian continuities, that have left many feeling under assault’ – even within the history of sexuality, which (perhaps especially in studies of the USA?) has been dominated by studies of gay men.

(Cheryl Morgan writes at more length here, in her own response to the conference report, on the trans-exclusionary narrative that trans men’s possibilities for expressing their own identities has put the future of a lesbian identity under threat.)

Perceiving that there has been an ‘aggressive form of historicism directed by academics at the category of lesbians’, Cleves writes:

I wonder, as do many others, why writing about lesbianism in particular elicits such agonized concerns over historicism. I know from my discussions with non-academic audiences and readers that many lesbians, old and young, find meaning in connecting to historic predecessors. It hurts to hear that those women who forged lives together in the past, often at enormous cost, aren’t really yours to claim.

Anyone whose teaching has systematically or even accidentally created opportunities for gay, lesbian, bi, trans students – or students subject to social inequalities in any other way – to find out more about a marginalised past should understand the power of connecting with a history that includes you after all, even if they haven’t had to search for such a past themselves. There’s more than one reason why the hit film about gay life and the miners’ strike in Thatcher’s Britain was called Pride.

The liberatory, thrilling effect of reading that in the past as well there really were people like you, when you’ve had to struggle just to be recognised and accepted like that in the present – breaking against you like a huge reshaping wave when you least expect it in the corner of a library, the middle of a lecture, or scrolling through seminar readings on a crowded train.

(Mine were during my Masters, mostly; balancing on a window-stool in the old ULU cafe, looking out at a street that went pitch-dark by 5 pm, listening on at least one occasion to a mix-tape of post-Milosevic Serbian pop-folk.)

Do we have to share identity labels with our historic predecessors to recognise ourselves in them, them in ourselves, and put our roots down in the present through a historical continuum that has contained both us and them?


Maybe I won’t change the mind of anyone for whom the category and identity of lesbian has been the word they’d never heard before, the secret until suddenly joyous word, that explained everything unreconcilable about who they are. It wasn’t, for me; in my own communities ‘everybody knew’ what a lesbian was in the early 1990s, and in fact ‘everybody’ probably knew more about what a lesbian was than ‘lesbians’ did, whoever they were, even as I went to ridiculous, painful and damaging lengths not to be one.

Once I’d made it quite undeniable that it did apply to me, I used it, mostly too explain a complex of inclinations and disinclinations that seemed to (I’d later understand they didn’t have to) go together. I might use it today as a clumsy approximation of the wriggle-room I find there is on both sides of the axis of desire (who I am; who I’m attracted to) that ‘lesbian’ today – for me – seems like it might fix tight.

But I’m more ambivalent to it now, compared to 20 years ago, because the language and concepts I had available then were based on there only being two genders (I didn’t even understand bisexuality then, and said some hurtful things to bi classmates at university before I did). That means I’d explain my own gender and sexuality differently now, compared to then. And that’s just changed even in my lifetime. Different categories I might or might not belong to are available, compared to 20 years ago; and even figuring out which ones don’t apply to me, once I know about them, gave me finer-grained ways to interpret my own identity.

I’m still not aware of a word that captures all the things I know now about how I relate to gender and how that relates to the genders and gender expressions of the people I’m attracted to, for the even more specific category I sometimes see reflected back at me. The best I can say (and how different even that feels to half a lifetime ago) is that at least I know, even if I can’t fully express, the combination of things there ought to be a word for.

This is a very different account of gender, sexuality, language and identity than would come from a woman for whom ‘lesbian’, from the moment she first heard it, always sounded unquestionably right. I don’t want to take her history of identity formation away through explaining more about mine.

Though both of us would be part of the same historical moment – this frustrating, contingent, still sometimes exuberant early 21st century that future historians of sexuality will try to piece together.

For a long time, including most of the time I was at university when I had the most opportunity to find historic predecessors, I did think ‘lesbian’ was the only category I could fit into. I was engaged in lesbian history-making then even if I wouldn’t say that I am now. But even when I thought that was the only feasible category there was to belong in, I remember looking for experiences like mine, or practices I might have shared, more than identities – hints and traces of the combination of characteristics that I was coming to understand had something to do with identity and desire as I experienced it. Some of those feelings of liberation, I’m not the only one who felt or did that, through reading historical writing came from books with, on the face of it, nothing to do with lesbians at all.


The question of how historians write about people who might come down through the sources as ‘gender non-conforming women’ but who might have described their identities as transmasculine or non-binary if they’d had access to the language and worldview of early 21st century English-speaking queer movements has been confronting gender historians and historians of sexuality for some time.

I’m thinking particularly here of the more complex cases where evidence about a person’s life is ambiguous or scarce. When even sources in a subject’s own time were already representing him as male, as can sometimes be the case, it seems clear to me that writing him into history as a lesbian would erase what the evidence itself tells us about his past.

Nan Alamilla Boyd’s 1999 essay ‘The Materiality of Gender’ (also reprinted in the first Transgender Studies Reader) observed that (p. 74):

Both lesbian and transgender communities look to the past to recuperate individuals who proudly or cleverly lived outlaw sexualities or genders. However, because of the slippage between sexuality and gender, lesbian and transgender communities often spin usable histories around the same figures.

Boyd suggested that lesbian history-making in her own field, late 19th/early 20th American history, had based its understanding of who could or could not have been a lesbian on ‘birth bodies’, incorporating people with extensive histories of self-presentation as men while implying that trans women would never be able to fall into the category of lesbian.

Applied with this assumption (I don’t want to suggest that it always is or has been), even as ‘lesbian’ creates identification with the past for some readers, for readers who already know they are not women yet have had to struggle against a woman’s identity being imposed on them, the same category cuts off their access to the same thrill of connectivity with the past that lesbian history, hard-won, has offered many of its other readers.

Indeed, for a trans male or non-binary reader, ‘lesbian’ in his or hir own history of identity formation has often been a category that invalidates, when unwillingly applied to him or hir and to others like himself or hirself.

The same identity term that emancipates a woman for whom it means love and solidarity can be and has been, within another set of power relationships, an instrument of violence when it removes rather than sustains someone’s autonomy.  The difference is in who claims which identity through language and who takes whose away.

What can historians do, then, about historical subjects whose gender they find hard to determine?

Judith/Jack Halberstam’s essay ‘Unlosing Brandon‘, critiquing accounts of trans men’s lives including Brandon Teena and the jazz musician Billy Tipton, framed the interpretive problem (p. 48) around a principle that has something to offer historians even if they disagree with Halberstam’s interpretation of the evidence around those men’s particular lives:

I will be asking here what kind of truths about gender we demand from the lives of people who pass, cross-dress, or simply refuse normative gender categories. None of the transgender subjects whom I examine here can be definitively identified as transsexual, and none can be read as lesbian; all must be read and remembered according to the narratives they meticulously circulated about themselves when they were alive.

What I take from this passage, held in tension with my puzzlement over why it might be hard to identify Teena or Tipton definitively as transsexual given the evidence historians do have about their lives, is its emphasis at the end on the work of historical interpretation: what is historians’ knowledge, derived from a collection of evidence, actually based on?

If this is ‘aggressive historicism’ when we ask it about the category of ‘lesbian’, I’m guilty of it – but from the point of view that any category is a container that humans have come together to construct, and we ought to be able to understand and historicise what holds it together.


I started writing about gender and sexuality in the first place in order to get at how those social identities intersected with my first specialism, identities of ethnicity and nationhood (which, like gender-and-sexuality, are two linked but still distinct categories themselves).

My question when teaching and then writing about a past more distant then the 1990s, where ethnicity and nationality – in former Yugoslavia and elsewhere – were publicly understood as categories and identities, has always been: how do we know someone’s ethnic identity in the past, and how do we know whether ethnicity meant the same thing to them as it would now?

South-east European history is one of many fields where population movements, historic religious conversions, and multi-ethnic everyday forms of belonging have left regions, territory, heritage and people open to being claimed by competing national movements, each with historical narratives that could seem to back them up.

Even for the late 20th century, some scholars (like Chip Gagnon or Dubravka Zarkov) suggest that ethnicity started being made to matter in late Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav society more than it had done – a precondition for the Yugoslav wars to have mass participation and support – because of how revisionist intellectuals, Slobodan Milosevic and others in reaction hardened ethnic boundaries through the media by emphasising ethnopolitical division and fear.

Even when we can determine a person’s cultural and linguistic affiliation accurately – if we have ample evidence of what language they chose to write in – this wasn’t necessarily the same kind of attachment to a political entity and to dominant accounts of that country’s values as it would more likely be today – if only because of the very historically specific relationships between religious collective identities, rulers and societies earlier in European history.

How do I know whether an individual in 16th-century Dalmatia – let’s say, in the spirit of this post, one I never encountered in the literature but could have done, in the image of Anne Hathaway as Viola in Twelfth Night – saw themselves as a Croat, an Italian, a Venetian, a citizen of the republic of letters, or anything else?


A historian writing in support of the long continuity of the Croatian nation would have one approach. A historian writing in support of the long continuity of the Italian nation might ascribe a different ethnic identity to our Dalmatian while still agreeing with their Croatian counterpart about how far historians can trace ethnicity back.

A deconstructionist historian – like John Fine, who called his last book When Ethnicity Did Not Matter in the Balkans – would write with less certainty altogether.

My own approach to ethnicity and nationalism is firmly anti-essentialist – which informed how I planned and organised the introduction to the Yugoslav Wars I published last year. My final chapter shows how scholars of culture and language have ‘denationalized’ south-east European cultural histories, but in doing so meets an ethical tension that runs throughout the book: 

[A]utomatically choosing a specific nation as one’s unit of analysis could obscure developments that are difficult to study through a single national lens […] How far, however, could the project of ‘denationalizing’ history go when writing about the Yugoslav wars, when people were killed, tortured and forced from their homes because of what ethno-national group they belonged or were assigned to?

Yet compared to my first book, on popular music and national identity in Croatia, I’ve still put something of a brake on how far I deconstruct ethnicity. I owe that to some of the Bosnian participants in the oral history project I went on to work for, who claimed space for ethnic labels in their narratives even when I hadn’t added them, and to reading trans theorists’ accounts of the disregard that deconstructions of gender and embodiment by and inspired by Judith Butler had had for the realities of trans lives.

(Talia Bettcher summarises those critiques, especially those of Jay Prosser and Vivian Namaste, here; as does Julia Serano, whose critique of deconstructionism influenced how I wrote about ethnicity and interviewing in a chapter I contributed to a volume on oral history and mass violence.)

The coincidence of reading trans feminist literature at the same time as reviewing these interviewing experiences challenged me to work an attention to marginalisation and imbalances of power more directly into how I approach the deconstruction of nationalism and ethnicity from then on.

Too much deconstruction, Cheryl Morgan writes, prevents trans people making the same connections with their past that gay, lesbian and queer historians have been able to seek and reclaim:

To start with, just because the word transsexual didn’t exist in ancient times that doesn’t mean that trans people didn’t exist. As the above (very incomplete) list of identities shows, people lived lives outside of the gender binary in most (if not all) cultures throughout history. Where we have no evidence it is probably because such people had to stay under the radar for fear of their lives.

Trans historians, like lesbian historians, fear pasts being deconstructed out of existence. Sometimes – in the case of trans men’s histories, often – the deconstructors have been lesbians.

What does this mean for historians who share an identity with others who have carried out an ‘aggressively’ historicist deconstruction?


Ethnicity and sexuality, or ethnicity and gender variance, don’t map directly on to each other as categories of identity. Ethnicity as a concept has not been marginalised throughout history in the same way as same-gender desire, even as people have been persecuted (the driving force behind much European history in the so-called ‘age of nations’) because of what ethnicity they have or what ethnicity was ascribed to them; being able to conceive of having an ethnic identity has very rarely been punishable.

But there are parallels. One is that, in both cases, anti-essentialism and deconstruction are analytical tools with the potential to emancipate but also the potential to oppress. Deconstruction can diversify historians’ understanding of the identities and practices of gender, embodiment and desire and it can limit them. Deconstruction in the face of verifiable historical evidence about the facts of an ethnic conflict can become, and appear to legitimise relativisation of war crimes.

Categorisation and deconstruction are tools; their human users apply ethics to them.

Another parallel emerges if we go back to the idea near the beginning of this post – that marginalised readers of history seek historical predecessors with their own identities to be able to access the same kind of continuity with the past that a straight or cisgender reader could already take for granted.

How far do we need historical subjects, like our hypothetical Dalmatian, to have had the same concepts of identity as ourselves in order to be able to identify with them?

With ethnicity and nationality, perhaps, not much. The meanings of ethnic identity, the importance of ethnic identity, and even the ethnic identities that people might have claimed could all be very different in past centuries compared to today. Are they so distant that it’s impossible to imagine people who held them as part of the same community, connected through time, as ourselves?

‘How do we label our subjects’ ethnicity and nationality most accurately?’ and ‘How do we most accurately describe our subjects’ gender, therefore their sexuality?’ would be at a fundamental level the same question, had the categories of ethnicity and sexuality not had different histories themselves.

And what do we do when we’re not sure? This question does touch them both.

An anti-essentialist historian of ethnicity might reject present-day place names for past territories, or construct sentences to refer to individuals or organisations rather than ethnic groups. The comparable moment of decision in writing about gender and sexuality takes in as basic a unit of language as the pronouns. How do we know which pronouns to use for our historical subjects?

A radical question if you have never had to think about which ones to use for yourself or someone else you know – but a question that turns the lens of ‘How do we know what we know?’ on to something that you previously took for granted.

(What if historians didn’t use pronouns, when they weren’t sure?)


Identifying with the past – in acquiring a collective ethno-national past, a lesbian past, a trans past, or anything else – means seeing past differences across categories that would complicate the identification. It always will.

A figure you might identify with in the past might have spoken different languages, likely practiced a religion, held very different values from yours in all kinds of ways – and yet something, across all the differences a historian could identify, still resonates to make them perceptible as someone who was like you, yours to claim.

Historical identification is – will always be – partial.

It’s an exciting and – at least in the concepts of identity that we have, today – necessary part of building up identities in the present, fighting back against marginalisation, and creating a space where you can imagine that you exist and others like you exist and there’s a continuity of that.

Yet it’s a strategic, selective kind of identification. And it always will be, because they  – whoever they were, whoever she or xe or he was – were in a different historical context from us.

To a lesbian in the peace movement, where might lesbians whose passion was for military adventure sit within her lesbian history?

To a religious lesbian, where might her lesbian history accommodate a lesbian who hated the Church?

Partially, problematically; but some space would be there.

As I was thinking about this piece this morning, I happened to read M. W. Bychowski’s essay on ‘Genres of Embodiment‘ and medieval transgender literature, prefaced by an account of a transphobic incident at another conference, the International Congress of Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo.

Bychowski writes of medieval transgender lives as ‘relics that we have forgotten how to read’, embedded as the evidence about them is in such different notions of religion and the body, and seeks ways not to erase the category of gender but to use the knowledge that gender variance exists to reframe medievalists’ perception:

Rather than demanding we set aside our history, a critical trans studies challenges us to do the potentially harder work of changing how we structure and understand our history.

The work of historical research is interpretation, holding past and present woorldviews in tension to make sense of evidence; acknowledging the limits of what we know, and the ambiguities of how we can know about it, but driven as well by whatever the historian perceives as their own responsibilities towards their present.

Written by bakercatherine

18 May 2016 at 6:54 pm