The 60th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest has probably seen more academic involvement in real time around Eurovision than any other contest – including a live-streamed conference sponsored by the European Broadcasting Union last month which put researchers and broadcasters in dialogue with each other (which I unfortunately wasn’t able to go and listen to because of a full day of teaching here at Hull – but the recording of the event is still online, and I hope there’ll be publications based on some of the talks in future).
There’s been a Eurovision Research Network since 2009, and indeed academics with interests in cultural studies, European identities and the politics of representation were already networking around Eurovision before that – the first full conference on Eurovision I remember took place in Volos in 2008 (I was there talking about what participating in Eurovision had used to mean in Croatia), and before that in 2006 I’d contributed to a panel on Eurovision at an International Communications Association conference with what I thought was a sideline (on ‘ethno-pop’ and simulated folklore at Eurovision) from my PhD research but which would end up as my most-cited publication by some way.
More recently, universities in Eurovision host cities or countries have organised conferences during or very close to the contest itself (beginning with a conference in Oslo in 2010) – including the conference last year in Copenhagen which invited me as one of their keynote speakers and gave me an opportunity to reassess my own frameworks for thinking about the cultural politics of what turned out to be a very specific European historical moment in the mid-2000s before the global financial crisis of 2008.
I haven’t been involved in media commentary on the same scale as the people who have really developed Eurovision research as a visible field in the last 5-6 years (Paul Jordan, who’s researched nation-branding and Eurovision in Estonia and Ukraine, has even become part of BBC Eurovision semi-final coverage – as in this extract from a semi-final interval last year where he and Tijana Dapcevic are giving the BBC’s Scott Mills a crash course in Macedonian pronounciation), but this year I did find myself talking to journalists about Eurovision much more than usual – and if it’s the one time of year that you can get the British (or French or Australian) public interested in the politics of popular culture in former Yugoslavia or how that has fitted into wider processes of narrating collective identities in Europe since the end of the Cold War, why not?
This year I was also coordinating a special issue of an academic journal on Eurovision, so one way or another it’s been something I’ve been much more involved with as a researcher – and a good opportunity to try and become more confident as an interviewee than I have been.
For the sake of rounding everything up, this is what I’ve contributed to this year:
- ABC’s Rear Vision radio documentary on the history of Eurovision (which the Rear Vision team wrote up here)
- A France 24 feature on Eurovision and gay rights (also in English here)
- A Buzzfeed report on the prospects for Kosovo joining Eurovision
- The first live radio interview I’ve ever done – on Phil White’s daytime show for BBC Radio Humberside (at 40 minutes in)
- And a video interview for Contemporary Southeastern Europe to accompany my introduction to our Eurovision special issue – which we were able to publish online (as a set of open access papers) on the day of the second semi-final
Eurovision focuses public attention on a lot of issues that are part of my wider research, so for some years I’ve also been using it as an opportunity to communicate that on social media at a time when people are maybe more likely than usual to be open to thinking about them. Since 2011, every year before Eurovision I try to write up a long blog post on the politics of Eurovision from one angle or another – in previous years these have covered discourses about ‘eastern European bloc voting’, the impossibility of keeping Eurovision non-political, national promotion and the European financial crisis, and this year looking at some narratives of multiculturalism. Last year, building on a talk I’d originally given for LGBT History Month at Hull) I blogged about Eurovision and narratives of LGBT equality a few weeks before Eurovision happened to be won by Conchita Wurst – in a year when the major geopolitical framework viewers and journalists were projecting on to Eurovision was the relationship between Europe and Russia and the place of LGBT rights within it. (Which meant quickly writing up a second, just as extensive blog post.)
The LGBT/Conchita posts have probably been one of the reasons there’s been wider interest in my Eurovision-related work than usual. They’ve been popping up in academic citations already as well, and they continue to bring new readers to this blog – even outside the peak period of interest in Eurovision, most weeks WordPress shows me a handful of search results like ‘eurovision gay audience’, ‘eurovision history queer’, or the current front-runner in the list of search terms this month, ‘why is eurovision so gay’. (There are also a few more left-field ones: ‘eurovision presenter with one breast lower than the other’ is currently the most baffling one this year; and I don’t know the background to why someone was searching for ‘syldavian language eurovision’, but don’t blame me if that’s the next Belgian entry – after all, Belgium has sung in an imaginary language before…)
The other thing I’ve been doing with social media and Eurovision is livetweeting during the broadcasts (which I’ve also done during some opening ceremonies for international sports competitions, including London 2012 and Sochi/Glasgow 2014). That makes me plus what can feel like almost everyone else on Twitter, then (and in fact it’s even been suggested that the ‘second-screen experience’ of being able to tweet along with Eurovision is one of the reasons Eurovision viewing figures have been so healthy in recent years); but enjoying the contest and thinking about how to understand it blurs together (as it so often does – if you research popular culture, in some ways you never really stop being at work). I collected up my Eurovision tweets this morning while I was writing this blog post up and am a little bit alarmed that Storify has chosen a header image of the rainbow flags seen in the audience during Russia’s semi-final performance all on its own.
The main Eurovision-related things I’ve been thinking about since the final – both of which have something to do with digital media themselves – are the narratives around a potential Russian win this year and the question of how or whether Eurovision might start admitting Kosovo – which will probably win the race to be the next Eurovision debutant within Europe, assuming Radio Television of Kosovo stays interested and (the bigger question) whether the European Broadcasting Union wants Kosovo to be represented as a participating state.
First of all, the first half of the Eurovision voting – where Russia’s Polina Gagarina seemed to be building up a lead before points suddenly started flowing towards Sweden.
(Look out for the rainbow flags in these crowd shots from the semi-final – which in the final (with different people probably sitting in the seats) were various national flags instead)
The spectacle of participating countries reading out their votes is part of the ritual of Eurovision, and the source of most of Eurovision’s symbolic phrases, such as ‘douze points‘, which we hear every time the presenters read back votes in French; ‘nul points‘, which is equally part of viewers’ common knowledge about Eurovision although it’s never actually heard; not to mention ‘Hello, [City], can we have your votes please?‘, and the expectation that at least one satellite link will go completely wrong (this year, there were three). Voting is also where spontaneous moments are most likely to break into the ritual, and supposedly this part of the show can even have higher viewing figures than the songs.
Since 2011, the EBU has accelerated the tension of the voting by basing the voting order on an algorithm ‘to try and make the voting as exciting as possible’ – where feasible, arranging the order to delay the announcement of the winner until as close to the end as they can. (The juries who now award 50% of a country’s points total have already voted during a live dress rehearsal or ‘jury final’ the night before, meaning organisers can calculate the voting order for the televised final overnight.)
During the first third of the voting, the highest points tended to be going to Gagarina – a sign, pre-algorithm, that she’d have a good chance of hanging on to her lead throughout. One of the things the Eurovision structure of a competition between nations does is invites viewers to construct geopolitical narratives around what they see and hear, and indeed usually that’s one of the pleasures of watching it. Over this quarter of an hour, however, the prospect of Russia winning Eurovision 2015 and therefore hosting Eurovision 2016 was also provoking reactions ranging from apprehension to outrage on social media – and also in the live audience, where the crowd was booing loudly enough for the presenters to intervene but sound engineers replaced the sound with cheers.
The editing of the crowd reaction has been controversial enough, but another point worth making is that the emotional reactions produced by this concentration of Gagarina’s highest scores into a short space of time were a result of the organisers’ narrative intervention in the voting order – and wouldn’t necessarily have happened in a randomly allocated order where Gagarina, Sweden’s Mans Zelmerlow (the winner) and Italy’s Il Volo (who came third) might have been exchanging a lead more gradually or Zelmerlow leading throughout.
Of all the format changes that Eurovision organisers have made since 1998-2000, when the development of Eurovision into a contemporary arena spectacle began, this is the one that most deeply alters their role from the arbiters of a competition to the authorial position of guiding audience’s expectations in a particular direction. (Eurovision producers can now also exercise control over the running order of songs on stage, which has been more controversial among fans, but arguably doesn’t have the same concentrated impact as narrative intervention in the voting order.)
The algorithm has existed in previous years too, but never produced an outcome that’s played on audience emotions to the same extent, in the light of everything that’s currently at stake around perceptions of Russia and around the experience of those whom Putin’s policies have put at risk. This year, at least, felt as if the algorithm had placed Eurovision producers more in the role of a pro wrestling promoter than a sports referee – deliberately crafting a narrative that will mobilise the audience’s emotional investment in the fate of a hero or villain before turning the outcome around at a climactic point. Perhaps this was the inevitable result of the algorithm – we don’t know enough about it to say whether it could have arranged the points given in any other order, given what it’s been programmed to do – but the spectacle of Eurovision voting, as viewers in future years will need to remember, is something much more scripted than it used to be.
(And let’s not forget that the homophobic/biphobic/transphobic Russian right wing itself actually wants Russia to leave Eurovision – Vitaly Milonov, the architect of the Russian ‘anti-homopropaganda’ legislation, is also one of the loudest voices calling for Russia to withdraw.)
Hello, Priština, can we have your votes please?
The second thing to pick up is whether, or when, Kosovo is going to make its Eurovision debut – a question that was already being asked even before Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008. This year, representatives of Radio Television of Kosovo (RTK) were apparently in Vienna during Eurovision week, and Kosovo’s deputy foreign minister, Petrit Selimi, suggested while he was livetweeting the Eurovision final that Kosovo might participate next year:
The obstacle, so far, has been that Kosovo’s independence still isn’t recognised by the United Nations or a number of states inside and outside Europe (including Serbia and Russia, but also for instance Spain). It isn’t a member state of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and, as such, RTK doesn’t count as the public broadcaster of a country in the European Broadcasting Area – the criterion for Active Membership of the European Broadcasting Union, which until very recently used to be a prerequisite for participating in the Eurovision Song Contest.
This year, however, Eurovision saw its first entry by an ‘Associate Member’ broadcaster – Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service, ostensibly as a one-off to celebrate the 60th edition of Eurovision and the long-standing interest in Eurovision among Australian viewers. The Australian entry, Guy Sebastian’s ‘Tonight Again’, came fifth – an excellent result for a new participant, but not the victory Australia would have needed to return next year (when, even then, Australia wouldn’t have been allowed to host).
Relaxing the link between Eurovision participation and active membership of the EBU suggests that, even if RTK can’t become an EBU active member for some time, there could be a way for Eurovision to include an entry from Kosovo – in the event that its organisers wanted to include Kosovo as a participant, which politically is the most important question. Could RTK be admitted either as an associate member of the EBU (although this is a category for public broadcasters of ITU member states outside the European Broadcasting Area), or in the EBU’s third category of ‘approved participant’ (defined as containing ‘[o]rganisations from an ITU country with an activity in the field of broadcasting which for any reason do not qualify for active or associate membership but whose participation in certain EBU activities is considered useful for the Union’ – in practice it contains some broadcasters based in particular countries, some transnational television networks such as Arte and Euronews, and a telecoms infrastructure firm)?
In the meantime, Kosovo will already have participated at the Rio Olympics after being recognised by the International Olympic Committee in 2014 – itself potentially a triumph for Selimi’s strategy of ‘digital diplomacy‘. After starting to be admitted into the ‘world of nations’ that international sports events make up, could the objective of Eurovision recognition be next?
Celebrating a multicultural Europe?: stories and silences of multiculturalism in the Eurovision Song Contest
The Europe celebrated in today’s Eurovision Song Contest is a multicultural Europe. And so it seemed when the three Austrian presenters of this year’s contest stood next to each other for the first time in the broadcast of the semi-final: Alice Tumler, whose mother is from Martinique, Mirjam Weichselbraun, whose parents are white, and Arabella Kiesbauer, whose father is from Ghana, are all well-known light-entertainment presenters in Austria. Together, they also help to personify an Austria and a Europe which, a narrative of multiculturalism would suggest, has incorporated the 20th century’s migrants of colour and their descendants into what it means to be Austrian or European in the early 21st century.
Eurovision researchers tend to agree that Eurovision is an event where performers, broadcasters and viewers all use and express ideas about the cultural identity of Europe, and ideas about how a particular nation might relate to Europe. Sometimes, what happens in Eurovision might even feed into how people think about the meaning of Europe in a wider sense.
As well as thinking about Eurovision from the point of view of lesbian, gay, bi and trans equality, or of the idea of European ‘enlargement’ after the Cold War, both of which I’ve tried to do before, another question that researchers of Eurovision have started to explore is: how well has Eurovision reflected the multicultural reshaping of national and European identities that took place in the late 20th and early 21st century, and is Eurovision – or Europe – always as inclusive as even that tale of progress might suggest?
When I put these questions to a European Studies class at the University of Cincinnati who I spoke to over Skype a few months ago (with thanks to their teacher, Sunnie Rucker-Chang, for inviting me to talk to her students), I didn’t begin by talking about something that had happened in Eurovision, but about one of many reactions to a Eurovision performance – indeed, as extreme a reaction against multiculturalism in Europe as it would be possible to find.
Norway from 2011 to 2012
The 1,500-page manifesto of Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in Oslo and Utøya in July 2011, not only explained his ideology – a fantasy of defending Norway and Europe from Islamification, which targeted the Left because he believed that contemporary Europe’s accommodation of feminism and multiculturalism had left Europe vulnerable to an Islamic takeover from within – but also contained a day-by-day account of his preparation for the attacks.
On one day in May 2011, Breivik commented on that year’s Eurovision Song Contest, where Norway was represented by the Kenyan-Norwegian singer Stella Mwangi. Mwangi’s song Haba haba told the story of the life lessons she had learned from her Kenyan grandmother, with lyrics in English and Swahili – the first time any East African language had been heard on stage at Eurovision.
Breivik filled his commentary with racist slurs against Mwangi and the complaint that ‘my country has a crap, politically correct contribution’. Elsewhere, meanwhile, he wrote about the music that he himself intended to listen to as he motivated himself for the attacks: particularly songs by the Swedish far-right singer Saga; the epic soundtrack composition ‘Requiem for a Tower'; and a song from the Age of Conan video game soundtrack by another Norwegian vocalist, Helene Bøksle. Bøksle is white, fair-haired, and usually performs in Norwegian, her vocals well-matched with the epic style of music that Breivik admired. Coincidentally, Bøksle had also competed to represent Norway at Eurovision in 2011, with the song Vardlokk (Calling the soul).
The divergent way that Breivik’s extremist ideology made sense of two musicians, Mwangi and Bøksle, who were both deeply embedded in contemporary Norwegian culture shouldn’t suggest that there’s a simplistic binary tension between tradition and multiculturalism – and indeed, the fact that Breivik operated with a binary like that is itself a good reason to oppose one.
Rather, it illustrates an observation that can also be made about Eurovision in much more mundane ways: performances in Eurovision, and discussions about Eurovision, take place within a wide field of narratives about the idea of Europe, the cultural values Europe might have, and the relationship that any nation or person might have with those.
These narratives are always political; they are affected by politics, and they shape politics. And because Eurovision is set up as a competition between countries (just think how much you see the countries’ names on screen during Eurovision, compared to the performers’ or broadcasters’ names, after all), it invites its audiences to make sense of what they see and hear with reference to what they know about national and European identities.
The year after the Oslo and Utøya attacks, Norway’s participation again gives us an illustration of how Eurovision invites viewers to ‘narrativise’ what they see even if the narratives aren’t made explicit. The Norwegian contestant in 2012, Tooji, is an Iranian-Norwegian singer and trained social worker who has worked with young refugees (and his song, like many Eurovision entries since the early 2000s from countries such as Turkey, Greece, Armenia and Azerbaijan, worked ‘eastern’-sounding instrumental flourishes into its pop-R&B arrangement).
A Norwegian expression of defiance against Breivik’s racist, exclusionary concept of Norway and Europe and the terror he had planned to sow in Norwegian society? It was certainly there for a viewer to read if they wanted to, as was a demonstration of Norway as being fully up-to-date with contemporary transnational pop trends – although the song (while qualifying for the final night) still ended up coming last in the Eurovision final.
Watching any Eurovision Song Contest in recent years would demonstrate that the contemporary contest represents European multiculturalism and does so through a narrative of progress – that European nations, and Europe, have been successful in becoming multicultural, and that multiculturalism is one of Europe’s values.
Yet this has taken time: although Eurovision began in the very period when the largest scale of postcolonial migration into western Europe was taking place, it took many years for Eurovision to reflect this social change in any substantial way.
Danse, balance sur le white and black blues
Until 1964, Eurovision remained in the words of the Dutch musicologist and cultural historian Lutgard Mutsaers, ‘an all-white environment’ (2007: 164) – a monoracial track record first interrupted when the Netherlands selected an Indonesian-Dutch singer, Anneke Gronloh. Two years later, another Dutch representative, Milly Scott, became the first black musician to sing at Eurovision when she performed Fernando en Filippo (Fernando And Filippo) in 1966.
Yet, including Scott, there would be only five black participants in Eurovision between 1967 (when Eduardo Nascimento represented Portugal) and 1990, when Joelle Ursull (a former member of the trio Zouk Machine) represented France with the song White and Black Blues (based on Afro-Caribbean percussion and dance, though written by a white composer, Serge Gainsbourg).
France, indeed, stood out in early-1990s Eurovision for entries that represented France first as a multicultural nation and later as a nation of diverse regions (with songs in the mid-1990s reflecting Corsica and Brittany). The next French entrant after Ursull, Amina Annabi, was French-Tunisian, sang with North African vocal ornamentation, and very nearly won; France’s singer in 1992, Kali, was Haitian and sang in French and Antillean Creole.
In her book on Corsican choirs and the ‘world music’ market, Transported by Song, the musicologist Caroline Bithell connects this run of French entries to the policy of the 1988-93 French culture minister, Jack Lang. Lang wanted to reshape French national identity around the image of a ‘champion of cultural diversity’, evident in state support for ‘world music’ production but also in how the French national broadcaster represented France at Eurovision.
(Redirected towards the French regions, something of Lang’s diversity strategy remained after 1993, when French Eurovision entries tended to reflect the linguistic diversity of regions including Corsica and Brittany.)
Ursull was the first of 14 black singers who would perform in Eurovision during the 1990s, especially for France, the Netherlands and Portugal but also for Austria, Britain, Israel and Bosnia-Herzegovina (where Béatrice Poulot, from Réunion, joined Dino Merlin’s multilingual Bosnian entry in 1999). France and the Netherlands especially might have the potential to go down in Eurovision history as multicultural pioneers; though Mutsaers also points out that, as of 2007 when she wrote her book chapter, no Dutch Eurovision representative had had Moroccan or Turkish heritage even though these were the two largest immigrant communities in the Netherlands. (The Moroccan-Dutch singer Hind Laroussi subsequently represented the Netherlands in 2008.)
Come on everybody, let’s sing along and feel the power of a song
Eurovision’s first – and still its only – black winner, Dave Benton, competed alongside Tanel Padar in 2001 as part of an interracial duo representing a country not widely thought of as racially diverse: Estonia. When Estonia won Eurovision and hosted the contest in 2002, as Paul Jordan argued in his research on nation-branding in Estonia and Ukraine, the Estonian government acquired an even larger platform for its strategy to promote Estonia as a prosperous, technologically advanced democracy than it could ever have imagined when it first launched the so-called ‘Brand Estonia’ campaign. Through Benton’s participation, ‘Brand Estonia’ also became the image of an Estonia at the multicultural forefront of Europe.
Benton, who had moved to Estonian from Aruba in 1997, could be celebrated nationally for winning and could help to show that Estonia was multicultural. At the same time, he represented integration into the nation through language, the same expectation that the Estonian political elite had towards Estonian Russians (the background, incidentally or not, of Benton and Padar’s backing vocalists in 2001).
Jordan’s interviews with elites and the Estonian public about Eurovision and Estonian national identity found that politicians were very keen to talk about the successes Benton exemplified, and indeed Benton himself saw his own story as a success of integration; yet members of the public were also liable to point out evidence of everyday racism that the elite narratives did not contain.
(Some of Jordan’s research about his other case study, Ukraine, will appear in our forthcoming Eurovision issue of Contemporary Southeastern Europe, including attitudes to the participation of Gaitana, a mixed-race Ukrainian singer, in Eurovision 2012 when Ukraine was about to co-host the European football championships. The articles are still a day or two from going online, but this Time article from 2012 describes some of the cultural politics in the meantime, including the reaction of Svoboda’s Yuriy Syrotyuk, who stated that Gaitana was ‘not an organic representative of the Ukrainian culture’ and would lead Europeans to think that Ukraine was ‘a country of a different continent’.)
This disconnect, and many others, reminds us that understanding multiculturalism, European identities and Eurovision needs us to do more than simply enumerate who’s been represented when (which this post hasn’t set out to do) and describe what narratives of multicultural progress can tell us; beyond that, we need to be aware of what stories of successful inclusivity might actually conceal.
People of colour are still underrepresented at Eurovision, and even more so in the backstage organisation of the contest than on stage – in other words, in the areas where the most power to shape the structure and direction of the contest is to be had. Even on stage, the performance scholar Ioana Szeman reminds us that Roma, ‘the largest transnational [ethnic] minority in Europe’ (2013: 126), have rarely been present on the Eurovision stage with Romani music or language, even as music that audiences interpret as ‘Romani’ or ‘Gypsy’ became fashionable during the pop-folk wave of the 2000s.
Exceptions, notably the Romani hip-hop group Gipsy.cz (who represented the Czech Republic in 2009), Sofi Marinova (whose song for Bulgaria in 2012 contained lines in 10 languages including Romani) and Esma Redzepova (part of the Macedonian entry in 2013), have failed to qualify through the semi-finals.
Commenting on Romania’s entry in 2012 (Zaleilah, which was performed by a group of Romanian and Afro-Cuban musicians called Mandinga and written by the Romanian pop-folk producer Costi Ioniţă), Szeman suggests that a simplified multiculturalism has emerged at Eurovision that smooths over the complexity of racism (in Romania or elsewhere) in practice. Gipsy.cz might have been able to reclaim stereotypes of the Roma musician and, in the context of Eurovision, suggest that Czech national identity could accommodate Romani ethnicity and language when this had been a matter of xenophobic dispute at home – yet the problem of whether (as Aniko Imre writes), in order to succeed, Roma musicians must ‘sell back to the […] majority’ an ‘exoticising, touristic vision’ of themselves which that majority had produced in the first place (Imre 2008: 336) is even more salient in Eurovision, with its extra pressures towards self-exoticism, than in the marketing of Romani hip-hop scenes in general which Imre was originally discussing.
The politics of exoticism, indeed, are an important corrective to any narrative about multiculturalism which is based solely on counting representation; we also need to account for what kinds of representation have more or less capacity to be seen and heard.
Come on closer and tell me what you don’t find here
Exoticification – depicting a place or people as attractive because they are different, reducing them to a handful of simplified characteristics ascribed to ideas about gender, ethnicity and race – depends on ideas of ‘self’ and ‘other’, ‘us’ and ‘them’ in order to be intelligible – and is always dependent on some kind of unequal power relations. Indeed, it helps legitimise unequal power relations, as Edward Said’s Orientalism or Ella Shohat and Jack Stam’s Unthinking Eurocentrism demonstrated for many kinds of Western representations of the Middle East (including visual art, travel and historical writing, and popular film).
Eurovision, as a platform for representing nations and cultures while aiming to win votes from an international European audience you want to vote for you, has ended up lending itself to strategies of exotification very well – all the more so since the public, rather than expert juries, became responsible for Eurovision voting from 2000 onwards (and solely responsible for Eurovision voting in almost all countries between 1998 and 2008). The classic example – for the producers of many Eurovision entries in the mid-2000s, as well as for viewers and researchers – is Sertab Erener’s Every Way That I Can, which won Eurovision for Turkey in 2003.
By performing in Eurovision, and by winning and hosting Eurovision, Turkey could position itself as part of Europe (at a time when the Turkish government was interested in pursuing the objective of EU accession) and contest the discourse from many European states that Turkey should not belong to Europe at all. Yet the song did so by appealing to precisely the tropes through which orientalising representations have constructed the Balkans and the Middle East as opposites of ‘Europe’, combining up-to-date musical production with musical connotations of ‘easternness’ (itself fashionable in Western pop and hip-hop at the time) and the supreme orientalised stereotype of the harem.
(As far as its staging went, Every Way That I Can was firmly up-to-date in the early 2000s and indeed still wouldn’t look out of place in an MTV Music Awards-type setting today. Except the chances are it would belong to Katy Perry and, well, would bring with that a whole extra set of problems.)
‘World music’ production, cinema and literature are all subject to similar pressures, and indeed the marketing of these other cultural genres helps to shape the taste cultures that viewers might bring to Eurovision. Writing about tropes of war and ethnic violence in a range of 1990s films from south-east Europe, the film scholar Dina Iordanova described the position that cultural creators from the region often found themselves in as ‘self-exoticism’, and raised a valid concern: what kinds of representations are we less likely to see and hear when commercial pressures towards self-exoticism are so great?
Similar issues emerge from approaching the history of German-language Schlager music (one of Eurovision’s foundational pop genres, which has influenced Eurovision entries beyond Germany, Austria and Switzerland) in a postcolonial context. The German literature scholar Sunka Simon argues that Schlager lyrics ever since the 1950s have consistently expressed a fascination with an imaginary East and a hot South. This, for Simon, is colonialist imagery, abstracted from the places it purports to be about, sexualised and racialised.
Milly Scott’s Fernando en Filippo, indeed, was itself an example of abstracting names, music and symbols into a more abstract, exotic-but-different-from-here, exotic-because-different space: the ponchos and guitars of Scott’s backing vocalists suggested the song referred to Mexico, the geography in the lyrics might place the action in Chile, and ‘Filippo’ (unless he had Italian-speaking heritage as well) would have been more likely to be called ‘Felipe’ in either case.
Problems like these lead Katrin Sieg to the critique of ‘performing race in neo-liberal Europe’ that she develops on the basis of the Eurovision 2010 interval act, a collection of flashmob dances in European cities leading into a live performance of Glow by the Afro-Norwegian duo Madcon.
The image of a pan-European party with black African immigrant communities successfully integrated into the centre of the show and European citizens of colour (sometimes) dotted throughout the city crowds created a compelling picture of technologically-enhanced ‘unity in diversity’ yet, Sieg suggests, would fail to communicate how racialised structures of oppression in the past and present have created structural inequalities in Europe (or even the full scope of who has been affected by social hierarchies based on concepts of race):
It positions black Europeans as engines of the creative economy, but elides ever more urgent questions about race as a social formation governing social exclusions, exploitative divisions of labour and resource distribution. […] While the situation of indigenous or immigrant minorities that remain largely invisible at the ESC is often made more precarious by their lack of citizenship, the high cultural visibility that Afro-European entertainers enjoy compared to other minorities does not ensure stronger political representation, nor does citizenship status eliminate other (cultural, economic or social) forms of racialization, as the situation of Afro-German citizens demonstrates. (Sieg 2013: 28)
A narrative of perfect multicultural integration, then, would fall into the same kinds of silences that Alana Lentin and Sara Ahmed both point out exist in celebrations of a ‘post-racial’ Europe or a post-racial world – the idea that a world where a mixed-race man can be elected US President, or a Europe where a black man from Aruba can be part of the winning Eurovision entry from a post-socialist country, has overcome racism and that ‘race’ as a category of oppression no longer matters.
A narrative of inclusivity?
The contemporary Eurovision Song Contest displays a narrative of inclusivity which may be something to aim for – and far preferable, certainly, to the xenophobic alternative concepts of European identity that a Breivik or Syrotyuk would offer – but has dangers when seen as a self-congratulatory statement of simply how Europe is. One way to test the limits of Eurovision’s progress narrative might be to ask what aspects of multiculturalism or expressions of multiculturalism Eurovision could, or could not, incorporate easily.
What scope, if any, might there ever be for staging the kind of critique that queer and trans people of colour in Europe have made of contemporary sexually-diverse nationalisms that, while incorporating gays and lesbians into the nation, put immigrants and Muslims under collective suspicion of not sharing the new national values – the kind of challenge to contemporary narratives of national identity that Jin Haritaworn and Fatima El-Tayeb have made?
Could a Eurovision entry – in a contest where the space of ‘Europe’, based on the International Telecommunications Union’s European Broadcasting Area, extends around the Mediterranean’s whole coastline, north and south – ever be used to oppose the fortification and militarisation of the EU’s external borders (including those at sea) in the same way that previous entries have advocated for environmental justice, nuclear disarmament or international peace?
And what obstacles might stand in the way of such critiques reaching a Eurovision stage?
Special issue of Contemporary Southeastern Europe on ‘The Eurovision Song Contest at 60: Gender and Geopolitics in Contemporary Europe‘
UPDATE (21 May): the articles are online! Links to all the articles (where you can also find Skype interviews with the authors, classroom discussion questions, and further reading suggestions) now below…
Last November, the editors of Contemporary Southeastern Europe (an open-access journal based at the University of Graz’s Centre for Southeast European Studies) asked me to coordinate a special issue on ‘The Eurovision Song Contest at 60: Gender and Geopolitics in Contemporary Europe’ to coincide with Eurovision 2015, which – thanks to Conchita Wurst – is going to be held in Vienna.
Six months isn’t a very long time at all to plan, write and edit a set of academic research articles but – with a lot of hard work and commitment from the contributors – the articles are now online just in time for Eurovision week. (Which, even if not quite as demanding as organising a Eurovision entry in the same period of time, still gives you some appreciation of what it’s like having to work towards the date of Eurovision as a fixed point…)
Issues of CSE are relatively small – four papers and an introduction – but the contributors have still been able to introduce several different perspectives and approaches for understanding the position of Eurovision in the geopolitics of national and European identity since the Cold War.
I’m contributing an introduction which updates some of my previous work on Eurovision and representations of national identity in south-east Europe, as well as bringing together some of the perspectives on Eurovision, the global financial crisis and the politics of multiculturalism that I’ve been developing in talks recently (complementing some other work I’m doing on Eurovision and the international politics of LGBT rights).
Neven Andjelic, the author of Bosnia-Herzegovina: the End of a Legacy (2003) – an in-depth study of Bosnian politics in the years leading up to the outbreak of war in 1992 – will contribute a study of one of the best-known moments in south-east Europe’s Eurovision history, the selection and performance of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s first entry as an independent state in 1993 while Sarajevo was still under siege. His interviews with members of the delegation set the entry in the context of the Yugoslav and Bosnian music industries and the geopolitics of early 1990s Eurovision.
Paul Jordan, also known to viewers of the BBC’s Eurovision semi-final coverage as ‘Dr Eurovision‘, documents the complexities of national identification in four Eurovision entries from one of the countries that most exemplified the geopolitical dynamics of Eurovision in the 2000s: Ukraine. His interviews with broadcasting officials, participants and members of the Ukrainian public demonstrate how far representations of the nation are actively produced – and how much they are contested – as Eurovision delegations decide what to present.
Jessica Carniel – a cultural studies scholar from what happens to be Eurovision’s newest participant, Australia – moves the issue even closer to the present day by exploring some of the routes through which Eurovision has contributed to contemporary geopolitical visions that hierarchically re-imagine a ‘West’ and ‘East’ that are supposedly divided by attitudes to sexuality and gender identity. Her case studies include two Eurovision kisses between women (or rather one that took place and another that eventually did not) and the politics of state homophobia in Azerbaijan.
And finally, Alexej Ulbricht, Indraneel Sircar and Koen Slootmaeckers combine their expertise in political science and human rights to compare voting patterns and media discourses in the 2007 and 2014 song contests, both of whose winners – Marija Šerifović in 2007 and Conchita in 2014 – departed from heteronormative conventions of gender expression. If in 2007 the mainstream tabloid press of Germany and the UK attributed Šerifović’s victory to eastern European ‘bloc voting’ rather than the triumph of tolerance that they projected on to Conchita’s victory in 2014, what might this suggest about developments in geopolitical imaginaries of sexual and gender diversity between then and now?
Or visit the Contemporary Southeastern Europe webpage here…
Since 2013 I’ve been working on a new kind of book project for me: an introductory text on the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, which I spent most of 2014 working on intensively and which is now due for publication later this year. (Indeed, it’s close enough that the publishers have been showing me options for the cover design; I’m happy with the one we’ve chosen, and am hoping it’ll be going public very soon.)
The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s will be very different to my previous two books (a research monograph on popular music and struggles over national identity in post-Yugoslav Croatia, and a co-authored monograph on translation/interpreting and peacekeeping during and after the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina). Firstly, it’ll be going straight into paperback, meaning there’s a good chance more of its potential readers will actually read it.
Secondly, it puts me in a very different relationship to its subject matter; Sounds of the Borderland and Interpreting the Peace were both the result of multi-year research projects after which I was the only person (or with Interpreting the Peace part of the only team) to have been able to write those books that way. With this book, on the other hand, several dozen scholars would have the subject knowledge to be able to write a book fitting the general remit I had when I began the project: a 50,000-word book aimed at a reader who is new to the topic and which fits into a series that puts ‘a strong emphasis on the different perspectives from which familiar events can be seen’.
(And it’s the right time to be doing a book like this; despite the volume of new research that continues to be published about the wars and their consequences, it’s still hard to find an up-to-date book to recommend to a reader who is new to the subject that will help to open up all the other books for them.)
Why should I do this, then, rather than anyone else?
In a post last year I talked about some of the micro-level decisions I was having to make while I was writing the book – choices, for instance, about organising events into a narrative, imposing an order on events by breaking them up into chapters and periods, making sure the reader can understand what’s at stake in essentialist or anti-essentialist representations of nationalism and ethnicity, and trying to make visible what truth claims are based on. I hope some of those thought processes will still be visible in the text (I wish I could have worked meta-commentary on my own narrativisation into the book in a much more structured way, but just didn’t have the word count to do it).
I set myself three objectives at the beginning of the writing process, which I think I have fulfilled – though ultimately the people who read and (I hope) use the book will be the judges of that.
First of all, I wanted it to help the reader understand research that is happening right now. The last few years have seen a new wave of archival studies about the core history of the wars, such as Josip Glaurdić’s The Hour of Europe: Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia or Robert Donia’s new biography of Radovan Karadžić, but also research that has been trying to expand the angles from which historians and other scholars might look at the wars (such as Bojan Bilić and Vesna Janković’s important edited volume, Resisting the Evil: (Post-)Yugoslav Anti-War Contention), not to mention work that takes a position on the longer-term human consequences of the wars and the collapse of Yugoslav socialism (for instance, Damir Arsenijević’s edited volume Unbribable Bosnia and Herzegovina: the Fight for the Commons, which was published earlier this year in response to the Bosnian ‘plenum’ protests of 2014).
Another objective was for the writing to show the reader how scholars make interventions into fields of knowledge, by giving some examples of how authors have set out to reinterpret or reassess elements of the histories of the wars. And a third – which perhaps can’t be entirely disentangled from the second – is to make explicit to the reader that their own beliefs and values are going to form part of how they (or the authors of any of the books in the bibliography, or me) go about interpreting and evaluating the events.
The book has eight chapters, beginning with a chapter on the long-term historical background to the wars, then chapters that cover the ‘1980s crisis’ in Yugoslavia; the independence of Slovenia and Croatia; the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina; and the Kosovo War plus its implications for Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia as well as Kosovo. (Already that’s slipping the boundaries of the 1990s – but then I’m a ‘lecturer in 20th century history’ whose research regularly ends up going into the 2010s…)
The last chapters (which are also informed by the teaching and research I’ve done in different disciplines) introduce ways in which the consequences of the conflicts have been researched and show how these research questions can feed back into understanding the 1990s: from debates over peacebuilding and reconciliation, through the prosecution of war crimes (an activity which has itself helped to shape historical knowledge about the recent past), into the cultural and linguistic legacies of the wars.
The long-term chapter was almost the most challenging part of the book to write, and the one that’s changed most dramatically since the first draft of the text (where it was twice as long, and much more detailed bibliographically – but when the full draft of the book started pushing 75,000 words in September, I had to accept that the first chapter couldn’t stay that way without pushing out another chapter later on).
I say ‘almost’ the most challenging part of the book because the most difficult – appropriately, perhaps – was the conclusion. Within 1,500 or so words – because the book length in this series just wouldn’t give me any space for war – I had both to sum up an account of the conflicts that I found most convincing and to show the reader the approach to historical narrative that the book had taken.
At times I wasn’t sure if I’d even improved on David Campbell’s classic review article ‘MetaBosnia‘ from 1998, which compared how ten works written in the mid-1990s had presented 32 political events that took place between 1990 and 1992 in Bosnia-Herzegovina; I hadn’t even been able to get into Campbell’s level of detail, or the level of detail that (with quite a different philosophy of knowledge) Sabrina Ramet was able to employ in her 2005 book about academic interpretations of the wars.
Moreover, as someone who aims to deconstruct notions of collective identity and narratives based on them, I need – like every other scholar in this area – to balance that against the responsibility of writing about real lives and deaths.
Ultimately, this needs to be a book which equips the reader to read more books, rather than being the first and last thing that anyone should read. This is not supposed to be even close to the final word on the Yugoslav wars, and indeed the format of the series precludes it from being that – which is one of the reasons I felt comfortable taking up the opportunity to write it at all. (It could however help open up discussion on how we teach, and how we might teach, the history of the wars from the point of view of two decades later – something that there’s a lot more scope to think about than I could cover here.) Mainly, it’s the book I’ve wanted to recommend as a starting point but which didn’t previously exist – which is usually a good reason to write anything…
Longer ago than I care to remember, I was part of a conversation on social media with some colleagues who teach and research in the area of critical military studies about ways of using various kinds of cultural texts about war and the military – including war art and also music – in our teaching. In the meantime, Critical Military Studies has become a journal as well as an approach, I’ve been getting my intro text on the Yugoslav wars ready for publication (more on this soon…) and I still haven’t found time to write up the points on using popular music in teaching about ‘militarisation’ that I contributed to this discussion howeverlongitwas ago.
‘Militarisation’, as it appears in Cynthia Enloe’s work, is a foundational concept in feminist International Relations and very easy to bring into other disciplines that deal with war and everyday life. In her 1983 book Does Khaki Become You?, Enloe referred to militarisation as the set of material and ideological processes through which war and the military are made acceptable to the public: ‘In the material sense it encompasses the gradual encroachment of the military institution into the civilian arena’ (through civilian firms becoming dependent on defence contracts, or the armed forces becoming involved in providing public services), but material forms of militarisation are likely to go hand in hand with an ideological dimension in which these activities ‘become seen as “common sense” solutions to civil problems’ (Enloe 1983: 10).
The ideological side of ‘militarisation’ is what educationalists call a ‘threshold concept‘ – something you need to have understood in order to be able to grasp the next set of ideas in the field, but also something that probably needs you to change the way you think in order to be able to understand it (the thing with thresholds is that once you’ve gone over them you can’t really go back).
Enloe’s next books drew even more attention to aspects of militarisation in late 20th century/early 21st century everyday life, leading up to the perfectly framed question in the title of one chapter of her 2000 book Maneuvers: ‘How do they militarize a can of soup?‘
(The short answer: by cutting the pasta shapes into designs of Star Wars satellites. But go and read the chapter to think through Enloe’s interpretation of why.)
How could you use popular music to help students think about this concept, understand where Enloe was coming from, and ultimately become able to use it in their own analyses and relate it to their own intellectual frameworks?
I came up with several suggestions based on my own teaching, depending on how much time and space you want to give popular music in your pedagogy and how much active learning you’re aiming for your activity to involve.
One way is simply to highlight a point you want to make in a lecture by using a song, a music video, or a clip of a live performance – the same way that, for instance, Laura Shepherd uses a scene from The West Wing about the Mercator and Peters projections of the globe to illustrate the argument that the politics of representation need to be taken seriously in international relations:
The critical importance of how we represent our world(s) is attested to in this comedic scene, with Fallow, the spokesperson, going on to explain that ‘When Third World countries are misrepresented they’re likely to be valued less. When Mercator maps exaggerate the importance of Western civilisation, when the top of the map is given to the northern hemisphere and the bottom is given to the southern … then people will tend to adopt top and bottom attitudes’ (Shepherd 2013: 125-6).
When I taught a module on nationalism at UCL SSEES, I started each lecture with a ‘song of the week’ that connected to the theme of that week’s lecture and seminar, using songs from the regions studied at SSEES (Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union). I still want to refresh the song selection and reintroduce ‘song of the week’ to the differently-structured nationalism module that I teach now at Hull – despite the occasional hiccup with lecture-room technology, those few minutes at the beginning of the session for everyone to think about how what they’re watching expresses the question of the week felt like they worked well.
For instance, this rock song which the Slovenian football association used as its official song for the 2010 World Cup (Dviga Slovenija zastave – Slovenia is raising flags) was our song of the week for the lecture on ‘everyday nationalism’ and social construction – since a lot of the research on how nationalism is routinised into everyday life discusses sport.
At the beginning of the lecture on gender, sexualities and the nation, we watched what was then the previous year’s Eurovision Song Contest entry from Armenia, Apricot Stone, which helped to connect ideas about gender and nationalism to earlier discussions about national symbols and territory:
In these lectures I was using songs as an introduction and then moving on; the next level of interactivity would be to structure in time for students to critically discuss a song/performance/video themselves, either as a seminar activity or as an interactive break during the lecture – doing it this way, you would show the video and ask students to respond to a few questions that draw out the themes you want them to be able to discuss. (Here, it’s helpful to post the clips and lyrics on your VLE in advance so that students who might need longer to take in the content and make notes will be able to participate fully.)
The scope here is almost unlimited depending on the topics you want to explore. Anti-war protest songs? US post-9/11 country music? Cultures of Remembrance in contemporary British entertainment (where a perceptible ‘entertainment/military complex’ opened up, even taking in The X Factor, in the final years of the war in Afghanistan)? I’ve been able to use popular music from the Yugoslav wars this way not just in area studies classes but also in non-area-specific teaching.
It’s often possible to align musical examples with seminar readings remarkably well: for instance, if your class on humanitarian intervention had been reading Sherene Razack’s work on peacekeeping, racism and the ‘new imperialism’ (which focuses on Canada and the ‘Somalia Affair’) this celebration of Canadian peacekeeping from 1994 (Stompin’ Tom Connors’s Blue Berets – which begins with a minute of news footage from the siege of Sarajevo) could make an excellent counterpoint:
Or, going even further, music could be an entry point for encouraging students to apply ideas about militarisation and popular culture to their own cultural lives – ask students to each bring an example of a song or video that contributes to or resists militarisation to an upcoming class, and give a mini-presentation setting the song in that context. Alternatively, this could be the focus of a written assignment.
Most of my modules have an element where students need to choose a particular example or case to research or contextualise in some way; I haven’t used this particular activity yet, since I don’t have a module that it could currently go into, but even as I was sketching it out in the original conversation I was excited to think about the range of music that students might bring into an activity like this – just as I always enjoy seeing what students choose to focus on in their research essays for my existing Music, Politics and Violence module.
And, one way or another, maybe somebody will explain how this happened:
Over the last couple of years I’ve been revisiting some of my popular culture work, and indeed some of my interview-based research, by thinking about the concept of ’embodied militarism’ in the emerging field of Critical Military Studies – specifically, how bodily practices and representations of the body reflect and shape imaginations of war inside, around and outside actual armed forces.
In recent years interest in embodiments of militarism, and more generally in embodied experiences of war, has crossed from history and literature (think of Elaine Scarry’s book The Body in Pain or Joanna Bourke’s Dismembering the Male) and sociology (John Hockey’s sensory ethnography of the infantry) into International Relations (through works such as Kevin McSorley’s War and the Body edited collection or Christine Sylvester’s War as Experience). Importantly for me, this approach incorporates both the lived experience of war and the fictional or fictionalised representations of war that appear in popular culture – joining together both sides of my research interests in a way that I used to find hard to express.
In War as Experience (2013), for instance, Sylvester calls for war to be studied as the same kind of ‘social institution’ as heterosexuality or marriage:
In the case of war, the institutional components include: heroic myths and stories about battles for freedom and tragic losses; memories of war passed from generation to generation; the workings of defense departments and militaries; the production of war-accepting or -glorifying masculinities; the steady production and development of weapon systems; religions that continue to weigh issues of just and unjust wars instead of advocating no wars; and aspects of global popular culture – films, video games, TV shows, advertisements, pop songs, and fashion design – that tacitly support activities of violent politics by mimicking or modeling their elements in everyday circumstances. (p4)
Of course, feminist International Relations has already been able to work for a long time with Cynthia Enloe’s concept of ‘militarisation‘, which includes both the material involvement of armed forces with the rest of society and the economy, and an ideological dimension of persuading the public to internalise the values of the military and war – which, Enloe comes to argue, occurs just as much through popular and consumer culture as through any other social process. (As one chapter in Enloe’s book Maneuvers: the International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives (2000) is titled: ‘How do they militarize a can of soup?‘) In the last decade, dozens of scholars have been able to use the idea of ‘militarised masculinities’ to talk about gendered representations and embodiments of militarism in contemporary and historic conflicts. (We hear less about ‘militarised femininities‘, even less about ‘female militarised masculinities’, and next to nothing about any non-binary engagements with militarisation, but they’re there too…)
At the International Studies Association conference this year, I was part of a panel on ’embodiment, experience and war’ where I talked about the process of writing about militarisation and embodiment – something I’ve been thinking about since a discussion I had with Synne Laastad-Dyvik during ISA last year. She and McSorley (plus Jesse Crane-Seeber and Lauren Wilcox) were also on the panel, with Sylvester as our discussant, and I took the opportunity to think further about what we communicate and what we ourselves might do or sense when we write about embodied experiences of war or mimetic representations of them.
Do we need to worry, for instance, that something about embodied, sensory experience is being lost when we write about it (especially in the format of academic writing)?
Loss vs. translation (because I never want to hear the phrase ‘lost in translation’ again)
In the panel, I suggested that we could think about it less as loss and more as translation – which lets us see what Translation Studies’ close engagement with the process and politics of translation could bring to thinking about this common concern of ours.
We do run into a problem here – whether the concept of translation can actually be extended beyond the interlingual at all. Anthropology and comparative literature have both used and critiqued the idea of ‘cultural translation’, for instance, but does this stretch ‘translation’ too far beyond the distinct things about translating between languages? Mary Louise Pratt offers one useful resolution by casting attention back on the writer as intermediary, focusing on positionality rather than process:
What is gained by using translation not only as a referent, but also as a metaphor for characterizing the transactions, the appropriations, negotiations, migrations, mediations that give rise to it? Perhaps this question invites us to reflect on the power (not the task) of the translator, as the one who knows both the codes; the one who has the power to do justice, be faithful, yet also to capture, deceive, betray one side to the other, or betray both to a third. (Pratt 2010: 96)
And now we’re back to the concern with the social positioning, agency, visibility and ethics of translation (and interpreting) that Translation Studies has been showing since the 1990s. Mona Baker and Anthony Pym, for instance, have both written on what the ethical responsibilities of translators might be; even though they interpret them differently, they’re still both concerned with how an intermediary uses the power that comes from their understanding of how to communicate in a source language and a target language at the same time.
The choices translators make – what to translate? how closely to accommodate the audience expectations? how strategically to unsettle those expectations through translation? – are all, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay ‘The politics of translation‘ sets out, political – not least because the intermediary is always part of some kind of relationship of power towards the source-language audience(s) and target-language audience(s) they are responsible to.
Other fields – ethnography, postcolonial theory, feminist theory and oral history to name a few – may be further ahead in considering positionality, power and trust during the writing process, but there’s a useful focus on the how as well as the why, what and who of writing that Translation Studies puts into the spotlight (at least for me, after several years researching translation/interpreting and ‘language support’ in peacekeeping operations, when Translation Studies was part of the conceptual framework the research team I belonged to was working with).
It’s also interesting to compare writing about embodiment with the problem of screen translation or audiovisual translation; in some ways, it puts you in the same position as a subtitler. Henrik Gottlieb used the phrase ‘diagonal translation‘ to describe what subtitling does: it has to translate from one language to another, but also from one set of senses to another (speech you hear into writing you read – but staying associated with images you see), within a restrictive set of technical conventions for how much text can appear on screen and once and how long it’s supposed to stay there for.
Subtitling, necessarily, compresses meaning: the diagonal translation, as David MacDougall writes in Transcultural Cinema, ‘distils out of a range of implicit or possible meanings certain explicit ones’ (p. 174).
This is more or less where I’d got up to with the ISA paper when Mona Baker visited Hull to give a seminar on her new research about activist subtitling and the Egyptian Revolution. The activists she worked with have tried to translate in ways that already express changes they want to bring about and – while still restricted by some technical constraints – to experiment with format to convey more of the original than subtitling usually can (e.g. one video that moved subtitles around the screen to emphasise the rhythm of a protest chant).
This was an occasion for me to rethink the instances of militarised embodiment that I’ve written about: if I’m worried that something about embodied experience is being lost when I write, is there anything else I can do to mitigate the effect of that compression of meaning?
Thinking about how Saara Sarma has used paper collages of 2D internet parody images to build arguments about the international politics of nuclear warfare (as explained in her 2014 PhD thesis) – based on Sylvester’s theory of collage as a method where ‘‘[i]f there is a storyline […] “it” is one we [as the viewer] must provide’ (Sylvester 2006: 208), I started developing an idea I’d had in a footnote of an earlier version of the paper: is there anything I could do with video remix, for instance, that I couldn’t do with writing? But, if so, what?
When representations recirculate through us
Although I originally meant to talk about writing about embodiment based on interviews and writing about embodiment based on popular-cultural texts, I found when I was putting the paper together I had far more unanswered questions about writing and popular culture research.
This isn’t what I’d have expected if I’d thought about it. Interviews are the narratives of real people to whom I clearly have ethical responsibilities, and directly represent a person’s embodied experience of war; most of the cultural texts I deal with are audiovisual texts and performances, imagined representations at much more of a distance from what Sylvester and McSorley both emphasise is the core activity of war – injuring the body. They feel less real or material in an important way (though audiovisual texts need people to embody their characters in order to be produced, and have their own politics of production and labour; they’re not quite immaterial, either).
But interview-based and fieldwork-based disciplines already have scripts for thinking about the writer as an intermediary of other people’s experience and the responsibilities that writers then have. Whatever the problem is, someone else has probably had it before, if only you know where to look. Working with/on audiovisual texts doesn’t free us of ethical responsibilities or detach us from our social positions relative to others – a point Laura Shepherd reiterated later in the conference during an excellent paper on the ethics of researching and circulating (or not circulating) viral internet memes – but, then, what responsibilities and positions are they?
After explaining some of the ways in which I’ve researched militarised embodiment in popular culture – both in contexts where you’d expect it (like Croatian patriotic popular music during the Homeland War)…
…and in contexts where you might not…
…and making the point that even as we critique the recirculation of images and narratives, they recirculate through us (and bring with them, often very problematically, their own invitations to desire and identify), I finished up wondering whether – like the activist subtitlers in Mona Baker’s research – there are ways narrative approaches that might help get at this point more successfully than I can do in academic writing.
(A few other kinds of narrative that come to mind here: the use of fiction by IR scholars such as Elizabeth Dauphinée or Richard Jackson to communicate ethical questions about researching political violence; the narrative about fandom, desire and identification in the comic The Wicked and the Divine which within a few months, with the creators’ knowledge, had started inspiring fanart and cosplay of its own; the fact that whatever any of us academics write about critical engagement with popular culture, we’ll never reach as many people as Suzanne Collins has with The Hunger Games.)
So far, the closest I’ve come to an audiovisual research output is the Powerpoint of looped and paired images I used a couple of years ago to illustrate a paper I was giving on representations of militarised masculinities and the Balkans in the film adaptation of Coriolanus. (Which eventually became an article itself.) I’d seen Victoria Basham do this with one image per slide during a talk on popular militarism in the UK. For the Coriolanus slides (I’ll put up some of these in a forthcoming blog post about the article), I paired one image from the film and a news image from the Yugoslav wars in order to illustrate the points about resemblance, identification and recirculation that I was making, and had each pair automatically rotate behind me as I talked; it can’t convey all the information that a paper can, but is there anything a display like that can convey that an academic paper can’t, precisely because it forces the listener to take more of a part in making sense of what they can see?
A digital argument?
Feeling that this worked well but not quite knowing why, and being aware of what Sarma has already done with 2D collage, brought me to thinking about video remix. Outside the academy, this has already started becoming established as a tool in cultural studies pedagogy: Jonathan McIntosh’s ‘Buffy vs. Edward: Twilight Remixed‘, which edits footage from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight together into a scene between Buffy Summers and Edward Cullen to comment on Twilight‘s eroticisation of an abusive relationship, has had more than 3 million viewers despite being temporarily removed from YouTube in a copyright dispute. Craig Saddlemire and Ryan Conrad’s ‘A.V.A.T.A.R.: Anglos Valiantly Aiding Tragic Awe-Inspiring Races’, which mixes lines from Avatar with lines from 16 historical films to draw attention to the persistence of ‘white saviour‘ tropes in Hollywood film-making, has 40,000 but could still do with more.
In some ways, this might not even be too far from what we do as academics after all. I’m interested by Virginia Kuhn’s concept of this form of remix as a ‘digital argument':
[R]ecent attempts to categorize remix are limiting, mainly as a result of their reliance on the visual arts and cinema theory as the gauge by which remix is measured. A more valuable view of remix is as a digital argument that works across the registers of sound, text, and image to make claims and provides evidence to support those claims. […] [A]rgument is key to academic efforts, and as such, the term holds resonance for the scholarly community. Remix can be a scholarly pursuit: it cites, synthesizes, and juxtaposes its sources. Argument also contains connotations of the dialogic quality of communication that is not anchored to either speech or writing, and so digital argument can extend its features to writing with sound and image in addition to words.
But then, what sources are even mine to do things with, especially when I’ve been engaged in cross-cultural research? My gut sense is only those sources that I’m addressed by or maybe even that I’m marginalised by; but I’d like to see the fields I belong to do much more to develop the ethics of dissemination methods like these. And how, when we leave more of the meaning-making to the viewer, do we ensure that they can’t miss the critical engagement we want to bring about?
Thanks to my co-panellists at ISA, my colleagues in researching militarisation/embodiment generally, and to Sarah Maitland for conversations which have helped me develop this…
In 2014 I was invited to Hull’s Holocaust Memorial Day service to speak about genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The text below is my speech from the service – shorter and simpler than most of my writing, but still hopefully conveying some of the way I’ve tried to approach nationalism and historical memory as a researcher. The text is unchanged, so references to ‘this month’, ‘this year’ and so on are as of January 2014.
Among the genocides we come together to remember today are the terrible events that took place two decades ago during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It’s thought today that a hundred thousand people died during this war, and more than a million were forced to flee their homes. Their journeys took them all over the world, including here, to Hull. For many of you, this may be a war that you remember once a year. But in Bosnia’s towns and villages, and in Bosnian communities across the world, it is a war that is remembered every day.
I wanted to talk today about the town of Visegrad, in eastern Bosnia. Visegrad is a small town, but a historic one. A Bosnian Muslim from Visegrad, Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic, rose to become a grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, and he had a great bridge built in Visegrad as a gift to his home town. One of the great works of Yugoslav literature, by Ivo Andric, was written about the history of the bridge. It is a symbol of south east Europe’s Ottoman past, and the past of the Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, as a people.
But in April 1992, Visegrad was one of the towns attacked by the Bosnian Serb armed forces and Serb paramilitaries, at the beginning of the Bosnian war. They had identified Visegrad as a place that had to be purged of Bosniaks and made exclusively Serb. This meant killing or expelling two thirds of the town. More than sixteen hundred people have been recorded as killed or missing, and Bosniak townspeople believe the numbers could be higher. Mass graves are continuing to be discovered. Two years ago, when the bodies of 60 victims were buried at the Muslim cemetery in Visegrad, an organisation of victims put up a monument, commemorating the Bosniaks who had been victims of genocide in the town.
Politically and demographically, Visegrad is a Serb town today, as the war aims of Radovan Karadzic intended. The town council in Visegrad opposed the monument. They said it had been put up illegally. This very month, the council sent workers to remove the word ‘genocide’ from the inscription. It would be more convenient for their version of the past if the fact that genocide took place in Visegrad would be forgotten. There are too many testimonies about what happened there for it to be forgotten. But for a town’s local authorities to reject a memorial in this way is itself a symbol: a symbol that non-Serbs and their past are no longer welcome in Visegrad. And we must hope that in Visegrad’s future the town will account better for its past.
Today is a day when we remember victims, and why they need to be remembered. But we also remember how people have resisted genocide and ethnic cleansing. And so I also wanted to talk about the memory of a young man called Srdjan Aleksic.
Srdjan lived in the town of Trebinje, in the south of Herzegovina. He was 25 years old when the war broke out in 1992, he was a promising amateur actor and a swimming champion. Trebinje was also taken over by Bosnian Serb forces, who wanted to cleanse the town of Bosniaks and Croats. In January 1993, he saw a group of Serb policemen assaulting another young man, who was a Croat, Alen Glavovic. Srdjan was a Serb himself; he could have walked past and been in no danger. But he put his body between the policemen and his neighbour Alen. Alen escaped, and is alive today in Sweden. The policemen beat Srdjan to death. His father wrote in Srdjan’s death notice ‘He died carrying out his duty as a human being.’
Trebinje still has no monument to Srdjan Aleksic. But there are streets named after him in Sarajevo, Tuzla and Prijedor, and even in other countries – in Serbia, and Montenegro. Commemorating someone in a street name, in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere, is a way of honouring them as a hero. And Srdjan was. Not just for his courage, though his courage was great. But also for the independence of his mind. Against the distorted history that Karadzic’s regime wanted to impose on Bosnia, Srdjan asserted a greater solidarity, although it cost him his life.
To be able to save the life of his neighbour Alen, Srdjan had to be able to see through the lies of those in power, who wanted their actions to seem like common sense to Serbs. He had to be able to see that these were not police actions to make Bosnia safe for Serbs, but that this was ethnic cleansing, part of a strategy of war crimes. And such an independence of thought is something it falls to all of us to nurture, so that we and those we educate might be able to see through whatever we might otherwise become complicit in.
Commemorations happen once a year in time. Memorials stand at one particular place. But the values they ask us to remember need to be remembered actively, throughout the year, and acted on. Not only when it’s easy, but most of all when it’s hardest to do so. So in remembering the genocide in Bosnia, we remember what is at stake in commemorating the past, and the responsibility that we each hold towards our neighbours, near and far.