Catherine Baker

Archive for July 2012

Can we build Jerusalem?: overthinking the Olympic opening ceremony

Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony left me in the same position I began to explore in yesterday’s blog post: what kind of subjectivity as a spectator can I have now that thinking critically has become an integral part of how I enjoy a spectacle?

As rare an event as the Olympic Games opening in the country where you live is imagined at every step – by the director, participants, media, commentators, and the host-country audience – as a national focal point. That sets down an extra biographical layer of meaning: where were you when you saw the opening ceremony? A future oral history project or Mass Observation study could easily ask that question.

In the seven years since London was awarded the Olympics, my own expectations about where I would be on the night of 27 July 2012 have changed many times and radically, in ways I couldn’t even have conceived of in July 2005, when I hadn’t received funding for the PhD that ended up changing my life course. Consciousness of how I might be feeling in any other of those places pervades my experience as a spectator. What extra emotions would an imagined symbol like the shipping forecast, or something much more material like the sight of Richmond Bridge, evoke in me if I was still living near my family, or if I was working outside the United Kingdom now?

Before I write about what I found successful in the ceremony, I want to acknowledge the things I found most problematic (and to acknowledge also that there will be much more to say than this, which my own privilege and positionality will certainly get in the way of me seeing):

What to do about the Empire. The first sequence depicts the destruction of the British countryside during the Industrial Revolution; yet the even greater devastation wrought on others’ lands to produce the wealth with which the awe-filled men in stove-pipe hats were able to commission the smokestacks and municipal achievements is silenced. I don’t know how you would represent this, though acknowledging imperialism as a historical wrong while pretending that it causes no harm in the present (a criticism made of the Sydney Olympics) would be no better.

Celebrating disruptive protest while contemporary protesters were being detained a few miles away. The historical pageant included the women’s suffrage movement (led out by a descendant of Emmeline Pankhurst)  and apparently – although I’m not sure the cameras picked this up – the Jarrow march against poverty and unemployment. At the same time, up to 100 participants in a Critical Mass cycle ride through London were being kettled and detained by police for breaching instructions not to cross north of the Thames. This isn’t Danny Boyle’s fault, but takes the ceremony closer to the kind of bread-and-circuses simulacrum some people feared the whole thing would be (‘we are representing, simplifying and celebrating things that we are actually taking away’).

The peacemakers handing the Olympic flag to the military. As illusory as the myth of the Olympic truce is, if we’re going to play on this, shouldn’t it have been the other way round?

Black-faced demons. No. Not even if they were meant to be Dementors. There are other ways to do that.

But there were also choices I appreciated, and that deserve some further thought.

The downplaying of war memory. The myth of the nation coming together under German bombing in the Second World War became a significant part of public culture during Britain’s contemporary wars, gathered pace after 7/7 and accelerated to its current velocity under Brown and Cameron. It’s meaningful to Britons who experienced and suffered in the War, but its contemporary use is very often an attempt to graft moral responses to the Second World War on to contemporary conflicts that are much more contentious. Incorporating a massive representation of the Blitz in the historical sequence would have been very tempting, and in keeping with the dominant public narrative in Britain. War memory does appear, but in more subtle ways: the poppies in the cornfield; Britain’s industrial heritage interrupted by the bowed heads of Remembrance; the Chelsea Pensioners. (And unfortunately, during James Bond’s helicopter flight over the Thames bridges, a snippet of the Dambusters March. Really? There?)

Remembering the victims of terrorism without evoking threat, or what must therefore be done to protect us from it. The ‘memorial wall’ that appeared at the end of the pageant appears primarily, to a British audience, as a commemoration of the Londoners who died on 7/7 (there’s been a suggestion that it could also be read as a commemoration of the victims of Munich, whom LOCOG has not yet memorialised officially); the staging consisted of an interpretive dance piece by Akram Khan and a performance by Emeli Sandé of Abide With Me (a hymn traditionally sung at the FA Cup Final).  Again, at the security Olympics, there are many worse ways this could have been done.

Celebrating the NHS. This sequence in a children’s hospital – incorporating J K Rowling as the storyteller, and Mary Poppins flying in to defeat the villains of children’s literature – could have come across as precisely the kind of simulacrum that Boyle needed to avoid (and that I was afraid it would turn out to be). Yet it contained the potential to be, and much of the sub-audience to whom I’m connected through social media have read it as, something much more subversive: blogger Steve Walker, for instance, even read it as the centrepiece of a ‘coded message’ to the coalition government. In the age of internet memes, this section produces some powerful resources, such as this image put out by UK Uncut before the ceremony had even finished:

Rowling’s own views on tax and the welfare state, set out in this interview from 2010, play nicely into what is being evoked here:

I never, ever, expected to find myself in a position where I could understand, from personal experience, the choices and temptations open to a man as rich as Lord Ashcroft. The fact remains that the first time I ever met my recently retired accountant, he put it to me point-blank: would I organise my money around my life, or my life around my money? If the latter, it was time to relocate to Ireland, Monaco, or possibly Belize.

I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens, with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.

A second reason, however, was that I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall.

The participation of Tim Berners-Lee. Not because he’s from the same country as me, or because he’s associated with a university I worked for for four years; but because he invented this thing, and then chose not to profit commercially from it. Or, as his (genuine) Tweet during the opening ceremony read: ‘This is for everyone.’

The flame ritual. Olympic flames are traditionally lit by a celebrated Olympian from the host country; rumours before this year’s ceremony suggested Roger Bannister, Steve Redgrave, Bradley Wiggins, or even the Queen. The London flame was lit by seven teenage athletes, each nominated by an Olympian from the past; the cauldron, invisible throughout the ceremony, turned out to be made up of the copper vessels that had accompanied each of the 205 national teams into the arena; strength in diversity, none greater than another.

Probably by coincidence, given the timescales involved, this ended up resembling the aesthetic of the film version of The Hunger Games: a multi-racial group of teenagers, dressed in black tracksuits, standing in a circle, around something that looks very like a cornucopia, lots of flame around, and the tallest athlete happening to look incredibly like Alexander Ludwig/Cato. But there’s a deeper sense in which this felt like a Hunger Games moment, since what resonates most with me about the books is how the author prevents her protagonist becoming the classic superhero who brings complete public and private resolution; in turning away from the figure of the single heroic Olympian, there’s something of that here.

The complete absence of Wenlock and Mandeville. I intensely dislike the Olympic mascots. Their origin story slips easily into them representing ‘the last two drops of British steel’. Their design, deliberately mimicking CCTV cameras, is even more unfortunate when the main public critique of the London Olympics has been around the intensification of surveillance and security, with concerns over when or if all the extraordinary measures in Stratford will be rescinded. One unfortunate Mandeville, brought to life size during a public art project, had its glaring eyebrows turned into the brim of an imperial military pith helmet.

If there’s another one of these shows next century, celebrating a from-below pushback against neoliberalism, something that looks very like Wenlock is what Mary Poppins will be fighting against.

Final thoughts

Danny Boyle’s programme notes have been circulating on Twitter since Riz Ahmed photographed them from his copy of the programme. Boyle asks in the final paragraph, playing on the themes of William Blake’s Jerusalem that inspired his staging of the ceremony:

But we hope, too, that through all the noise and excitement you’ll glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of the better world, the world of real freedom and true equality, a world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring notion that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication. A belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone.

Is this enough to ignite a political fightback against neoliberal policies and the dismantling of the state? One of the Hull Labour MPs, Karl Turner, certainly implied this last night when he retweeted a photo of the programme notes and another user’s comment: ‘Can we build Jerusalem?’

(I won’t be surprised if riffs on this appear all through British political communication in the next few years – both from those who are more or less in sympathy with it and from those who are not. Today, however, I’m not sure ‘building  Jerusalem’ is the right language to use. It echoes the ‘shining city on the hill’ syndrome that gives legitimacy to US exceptionalism; more to the point, imagining a Jerusalem in Britain seems to appropriate the material, political Jerusalem 2,000 miles away.)

What was dramatised last night was a series of achievements: public, industrial, cultural, literary, musical, political. I agree with many of them and want to feel inspired by them; but I don’t want to be inspired by them on a basis that excludes others because of some essential aspect of themselves. All these are achievements, but considering the global context in which they were achieved, can we ever think of them as solely British?

Written by bakercatherine

28 July 2012 at 1:53 pm

Seeing athletes as transnational migrants: the book that changed how I watch sport

In a recent column on politics, migration and the Olympics, Laurie Penny asked:

 The Games are supposed to showcase a spirit of internationalism and foster a sense of community that crosses borders. The important questions here are: what kind of community, and what kind of borders?

I’ve enjoyed watching sport since my mid-teens, well before I knew I was going to write or teach about nationalism, and I used ideas about sport as cultural performance in some of my research on popular music and identity in Croatia; for years, I’ve been used to thinking through those ideas as I watch, even though I’m not supposed to be ‘at work’. But reading Thomas F Carter’s book In Foreign Fields: the Politics and Experiences of Transnational Sport Migration (Pluto, 2011) last year changed the way I would start answering Penny’s question.

Recently, that question has been most publicly visible in the UK in the arguments about who is – or should be – eligible to belong to ‘Team GB’. The Daily Mail created a controversy over overseas-born British athletes, terming them ‘plastic Brits’, in spring 2012 when Tiffany Porter, who had represented the USA at junior level, was appointed team captain for the World Indoor Championships. The Daily Telegraph subsequently identified that 60 of this year’s 542 UK Olympians had been born abroad.

International sporting competitions depend on fixed notions of citizenship: only citizens of a state can represent it in international competition. The transitional periods imposed by some governing bodies, during which an athlete changing nationality cannot compete, suggest that sports administrators as well as spectators view the idea of changing one’s citizenship solely to be able to join a different team as illegitimate. We conceive of international teams as made up of the very best of their nation, that is, of the people who are ‘naturally’ there.

In the 21st century, even more than before, the framework for international representation in sport has failed to keep up with the way that people live their lives. Tiffany Porter is one of many competitors whose life circumstances have left them eligible to represent more than one country. Porter has held dual US/UK nationality since birth; other team members have qualified for UK citizenship by marrying a UK national or by fulfilling residency requirements in the UK.

Carter’s achievement in In Foreign Fields is to write about sports competitors as working transnational migrants – no more, no less. As workers, they negotiate (and sometimes evade) the immigration regimes of the states they move to and through. Their capacity to meet management demands for labour determines whether or not they are able to continue living in a foreign state; their family networks often benefit from the migrant member’s mobility, yet sometimes are endangered or even destroyed by a migrant’s decision to move.

From my twin points of view as an athletics spectator and a researcher who now also writes about mobility, seeing professional sport worked into a migration studies paradigm was a lens-shifting moment:

an anthropological approach to the study of transnational migrants and migrant labour has centred upon the contexts in which labourers navigate alien social landscapes that are no longer linked to a singular locale or contained within a nation-state, but have become transnational social orders within which people struggle to make lives for themselves. At times they are helped, while at others they are hindered, by the international movements of capital and the activities of states over which they have no control. This is as true for transnational sport migrants as it is for labourers in other industries. It just appears that sports migrants enjoy the perks of elite existence because of the coverage of celebrity sports stars in the media, a vision replicated in academic studies. (p. 11)

One case study in In Foreign Fields, of a sports professional with a particularly complicated migration trajectory, comes from the event I’ve followed most closely as a spectator. In my own consciousness she had figured as one of several adversaries of my favourite competitor in the event (by choosing to follow this other athlete, I’ve undoubtedly identified with her, although she isn’t from my own nation), before she vanished from visibility as a result of her problems transferring citizenship. Writing about her case, Carter observes:

the notion of dual citizenship simply does not exist for national or international governing bodies of global sport. […] For the IOC, IAAF and others, citizenship is mutually exclusive: one cannot be both Cuban and Sudanese. […] Díaz Roque’s use of citizenship as a form of capital enabled her to improve her own economic situation, albeit at the expense of sundering family ties. (p. 94–5)

More recently, Díaz Roque (Carter’s pseudonym for an elite competitor whom followers of the event may well still recognise) has achieved her long-term aim of acquiring UK citizenship through spousal reunion, and has been caught up in – and responded to – the tabloids’ ‘plastic Brits’ controversy. This competitor has been particularly hard hit by a representation framework that does not make space for the ambiguity of national belonging; even Tiffany Porter, who trained in the USA and whose CV may appear more straightforwardly that of an ‘import’, has a demonstrable personal and lifelong connection to the United Kingdom. As spectators, none of us know Porter well enough to know what part the UK has played, or might play in the future, in her life outside work. We just don’t know; nor would followers of Díaz Roque’s event have known the details of her private life if they hadn’t become public property through the media.

Porter and Díaz Roque are both part of transnational families: they can be seen to be connected to the nation they now represent through routes independent of their work. What seems to bother spectators most is the idea that a national team can ‘buy in’ success by recruiting people who have nothing to do with the nation.

For athletics fans, the extreme example of ‘buying a team’ is Qatar, which recruited long-distance runners from Kenya in 2003. Stephen Cherono and Albert Chepkurui both became Qatari citizens, changing their names to Saif Saeed Shaheen and Ahmad Hassan Abdullah and reportedly receiving up to $1 million.

Building a Qatari team this way appears to violate the idea that a sports team should be the optimal expression of national physical achievement. But where does this idea stop?

National sports federations with the required financial resources routinely hire foreign coaches and engineers, and send their athletes to training facilities abroad. No British track and field competitors will take part in the Olympic opening ceremony because they are still at a training camp in Portugal; UK Athletics’s head coach, Charles van Commennee, is Dutch. There is no expectation here – except perhaps when it comes to England football managers – that teams should be restricted to what is ‘authentically’ available in their home country. The discomfort is much greater when the person whose body performs the activity is perceived as not belonging than when the people who have helped to get that body into top condition are avowedly foreign.

The build-up to the London Olympics has seen critiques of the politics and economics of sport begin to spread out to a wider audience: this blogger, for instance, argues that Olympic branding and organisation are capable of making a broader public angry about commercial and security practices that only activists have been concerned with until now. Is there a potential for migration studies to use the Olympics as a bridge to public engagement in the same way, or are spectators in international sport too invested in imagining the nation as they already perceive it?

Written by bakercatherine

27 July 2012 at 12:41 pm

Should musicians be liable for incitement to genocide?

The charges of inciting ethnic violence laid against three Kikuyu singers this month by Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission represent the latest attempt to extend the reach of post-conflict justice beyond physical perpetrators – by holding musicians and music broadcasters responsible for their complicity in ethnopolitical conflict.

National and international lawyers dealing with the aftermath of the 2007–08 post-electoral conflict in Kenya are following the precedent of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) which, at the trial of Simon Bikindi in 2006–2008, became the first war crimes tribunal to indict a musician for incitement to genocide.

Bikindi’s songs calling for Hutu solidarity against Tutsis had been repeatedly played before and during the genocide in 1994 by the broadcaster Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM). Earlier cases at the ICTR had convicted RTLM speech broadcasters of incitement (an approach the International Criminal Court has extended to Kenya by indicting the radio broadcaster Joshua arap Sang in 2011), and the prosecution at the Bikindi trial argued that a musician could be held liable on the same basis.

The evidence of his songs alone and texts recorded before the genocide was not enough for the ICTR to convict Bikindi of incitement (judgement, PDF). Convicting him on the basis of his lyrics would have required the prosecution to prove that Bikindi shared the intent of the génocidaires when he composed the songs and that to avoid liability after the violence began he should have asked RTLM to stop playing his music (see Snyder 2006). However ,his conviction for incitement rested instead on an incident where he had broadcast a speech calling for violence from his car.

Legal scholars have offered several sets of extended criteria for proving incitement in the wake of Bikindi in support of the notion that songs can be considered actionable speech. Did the speaker – or the performer – use dehumanising rhetoric during or soon after acts of violence against the target group? What channels of communication were used and how responsible was the performer for the dissemination of the speech or song?

Though musicians have been put on trial for their songs under many regimes (see Côté 2011, £), subjecting the creative work of musicians to criminal responsibility within a transitional justice framework is an innovation of the ICTR. Transitional justice after the Yugoslav wars, in contrast, has not attempted to cover the behaviour of musicians. There is strong evidence that media played a significant role in disseminating ethnonationalist discourses before, during, and after the wars and that popular music was implicated in this framework.[1] However, the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, preparing its indictments from the mid-1990s onwards, has not tried to assign responsibility for ethnic cleansing to musicians or to put media executives on trial.

Music in the post-Yugoslav conflicts was, nonetheless, used as a tool in ethnopolitical conflict. Many prisoner testimonies record the forced singing of ethnonationally marked songs as a torture technique (for which the torturers, not the creators of the songs, are liable), and music playing was used to harass enemy troops during breaks from combat. States and armed forces used music and its celebrities, performing at front lines, as an asset to improve troop morale: Croatian forces, for instance, militarised civilian musicians into ‘artistic units’ in autumn 1991, legally rendering them combatants for the duration of their service. On a more general level, attempting to break apart the common entertainment industry of the former state through legal, financial and discursive means achieved, or aimed to achieve, a conceptual separation of ethnonational groups through altering the everyday musical landscape. All these methods contributed to the aims of ethnopolitical conflict by acting on military and civilian morale and by hardening the boundaries of groups.

The patriotic discographies of all sides in the post-Yugoslav conflicts contain songs that could be compared to the repertoire at issue in Bikindi. The ICTR has held songs recorded in advance as insufficient for incitement, but live performances of them in proximity to acts of violence might be. Developing this standard would require a jurisprudence of what messages were and were not actionable. Is the call to push the enemy out of one’s own country defensive, legitimate and exempt? What if the singer promises instead, as in one well-known Croatian wartime song, that ‘our hand will reach you even in Serbia’? Could behaviour outside the text, such as the display of flags or salutes with specific connotations during a performance in proximity to an act of violence, create liability even if the words of the song might not?

Comparing the ICTY and ICTR approaches leads us to ask whether the work of transitional justice in former Yugoslavia would have been improved if it had exposed the complicity of musicians and criminalised what performers, and many of their audience, would regard as their wartime patriotic engagement in support and defence of their own ethnic group.

The politics of music after the Yugoslav wars suggest that bringing musicians into the remit of transitional justice would in fact have been more divisive, and not conducive to post-conflict reconstruction.

Discourses of music as a weapon of war were widespread during and after the Yugoslav wars, in all belligerent entities. The dominant discourse read the use of music by one’s own group as within the bounds of the normal, and simultaneously concluded that the musicians of the “other”, who had behaved in parallel, were personally implicated in aggression. On the Croatian side, for instance, the Serbian pop-folk singer Nada Topčagić continues to be held responsible for performing patriotic songs to Serb soldiers and civilians at a concert in occupied Vukovar in 1992; veterans’ groups in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2009–10 similarly objected to the first performances by Lepa Brena in their countries after the war because they understood her to have worn a Bosnian Serb uniform while visiting Brčko in 1994. The idea that the “other” had used music as a weapon of war served, after the conflict, as a reason why the music of the “other” was not acceptable for performance or hearing within the nation-state. This logic, in fact, continued the fixing and separation of ethnic boundaries.

The discourse was applied not just to artists whose complicity could be proved, but on a collective basis: when used in Croatia against music from Serbia, for instance, it caught up even with Belgrade’s anti-war alternative rock musicians, some of the least likely people in the country to have taken part in violence. The head of the Croatian Musicians’ Union in the mid-1990s, whose policy was to impede Croatian–Serbian musical collaboration, became a figure of fun in the left-wing Croatian press after stating that ‘nobody can guarantee that some of those musicians weren’t mobilised and might not have been shooting Vukovar up’ (Feral tribune, 17 April 1995). The discourse that the “other’s” musicians were collectively complicit in the war interfered with – though did not completely prevent – the re-coalescence of a common, through fragmented, cultural space.

Music is clearly significant in ethnopolitical conflict; yet viewing it solely through a legal lens has drawbacks. State media systems, in the post-Yugoslav states and elsewhere, incorporated musicians as a professional group into patriotic initiatives that expressed the dominant, ethnocentric narrative of the conflict: but to accuse all musicians of professional complicity loses sense of the multiple reasons, including the idea of a pluralistic national defence, why musicians took part in them. Any ‘benevolent censorship’ of ethnocentric music brings with it irreconcilable problems of the power to define what is illegitimate and whom it is applied against. And the idea of indicting musicians for incitement for patriotic music risks producing a net that would extend, in cases such as the Yugoslav wars, to the majority of a state’s professional musicians.

The potential damage to shared cultural and everyday connections between groups and states – which must surely be a necessary part of post-conflict reconciliation – is clear. The work of musicians may legally be an object of interest for transitional justice. That is not to say it should systematically be so.

This post originally appeared at Justice in Conflict and is based on conclusions in an article under review by Patterns of Prejudice.

[1] On media in general, see V. P. Gagnon, Jr, The Myth of Ethnic War: Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s (Cornell University Press, 2004); Dubravka Žarkov, The Body of War: Media, Ethnicity and Gender in the Break-Up of Yugoslavia (Duke University Press, 2007). On music, see Eric D Gordy, The Culture of Power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), Ivan Čolović, The Politics of Symbol in Serbia (Hurst, 2002) and my Sounds of the Borderland: Popular Music, War and Nationalism in Croatia since 1991 (Ashgate, 2010).

Written by bakercatherine

26 July 2012 at 2:45 pm

A little silk skirt like that lady from London: consumerism in a socialist society

This weekend I’ve been reading a review copy of Patrick Hyder Patterson’s Bought and Sold: Living and Losing the Good Life in Socialist Yugoslavia (Cornell University Press, 2011). I’ve had good luck with book reviews this year – another book I’ll be reviewing for the International Feminist Journal of Politics ended up helping me work out how to revise my contributions for a forthcoming book on languages and peace operations in Bosnia, and Bought and Sold would have been a must-read for me in any case because of my interests in culture and politics in former Yugoslavia.

The idea of a consumer society in a socialist state is fascinating culturally: weren’t they not supposed even to have those, anyway? (Yet Yugoslavia was deliberately different: its focus on consumer as well as industrial production from the 1960s onwards was a deliberate way to distinguish it from the Soviet bloc as well as from the West.)

In Yugoslavia’s case, it’s also fascinating politically, and in ways that resonate right into the contemporary West or Global North. Patterson is a historian who believes that, when a severe economic crisis hit Yugoslavia in the 1980s, the state’s inability to satisfy the consumer promises it had made to the public undid its legitimacy and created the space into which the post-Yugoslav elites whose actions destroyed the country could rush:

in ways we are only now beginning to appreciate, the failure of the Yugoslav Dream – the thwarted expectation of a Good Life that would be ever more available, ever more pleasing – was an essential part of what ultimately brought socialism to an end and tore the country apart. To understand what happened to Yugoslavia, and to the communist project in Yugoslavia, we need to appreciate the nature and power of the Yugoslav Dream and, beyond that, to ask just how the new vision of the Good Life was created, how it was lived, and what it meant for Yugoslav society – to ask, in other words, how it was bought and sold. (p. xvii)

This can’t help but resonate today, when another financial crisis has left large sections of the public in the West/North adjusting to a similar loss of expectations: what Paul Mason referred to, in a blog post that became the seed for his book on post-2008 unrest, as ‘the evaporation of a promise’. For Yugoslavia, Patterson argues that participating in a realistically accessible consumer culture enabled people to imagine themselves as part of a collective, Yugoslavia-wide social group with the same common references and aspirations – the common culture which is remembered now in physical and virtual museums of consumer nostalgia, and which at least some of the post-Yugoslav nationalist leaders tried (and failed) to strip meaning from. Where does replacement social meaning come from when common consumption fails?

At the same time, the book has fascinated me in ways that were probably too detailed to explain in a review for what, this time, is a very general and historically-oriented audience. I know that I’d pick out different things about the book if I was reviewing it for, let’s say, an interdisciplinary south-east European studies journal rather than the one that did commission it, which was the English Historical Review. One of these is the idea that symbols of consumption had a major role in constructing Yugoslav perceptions of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’, which is a tendency visible across socialist and post-socialist south-east Europe: all these societies went through large and rapid internal migrations from the countryside to cities as the states industrialised, and south-east European have been trying to make sense of the resulting dislocations ever since, with them being recontextualised again after the collapse of socialism.

(I want to blog more about this in the future: there are comparisons with consumption-based value judgements about class in the UK, as studied by people like Bev Skeggs, Sian Weston or Owen Jones.)

Patterson shows that, in the 1960s, ‘the country was experiencing an extraordinary transformation, and a new, consumerist way of life was filtering outwards even to the poorest rural areas’ (p. 39) – presented, in the book, with evidence from Party documents, sociological texts, advertising asnd magazines. There’s similar evidence in popular music of people trying to come to terms with what was being built, which was no less than ‘a genuine and far-reaching restructuring of life beyond the cities’ (p. 178).

For a generation of Yugoslavs, the contradictions were summed up in the ‘newly-composed folk music’ exemplified, in the 1980s, by Lepa Brena, whose star personality exemplified and exaggerated the Yugoslav woman of these transformations. (Some of my earliest research was to do with the cultural politics around the post-Yugoslav evolutions of NCFM.) In one of her first hits, Dama iz Londona (Lady from London, 1982), Brena’s character and her long-suffering boyfriend Mile fall out over their tastes in clothing and consumption:

Kaže meni lane moje, opanci ti lepo stoje
Haljine ti tanke ko u varošanke

Da mi kupiš, Mile, šuknjicu od svile
Da mi kupiš, Mile, šuknjicu od svile

Pa da stanem na štiklice
Da nacrtam obrvice
Da zanjišem sa bedrima, plavom kosom i njedrima

Bila bi ko ona dama iz Londona

(My darling tells me, sandals suit you
Thin dresses like the girls in town wear

Mile, if you buy me a little silk skirt
Mile, if you buy me a little silk skirt

And if I stand on high heels
If I draw in my eyebrows
If I captivate with my hips, my blonde hair and my breasts

I’ll be like that lady from London)

Even this short extract mobilises all sorts of ideas about fashion, glamour, clothing and textile production, luxury and (the imagination of) travel.

It was the decisions Patterson describes in his chapters on the advertising industry and on ideologists inside and outside politics that opened up the space where these negotiations would take place, and determined that Yugoslavia would not be a shortage and scarcity culture of the kind seen in much of the Soviet bloc. What one chose to consume, however, could then become material for social differentiation, in ways similar but not identical to the way that symbolic boundaries of (one’s own, and other people’s) class identity in the UK.

Written by bakercatherine

9 July 2012 at 10:49 am

Posted in history, music, research