The power of the catalytic image: Woolwich, Borovo Selo, and the dangers of collective guilt

On the night of 1 May 1991, four Croatian police officers drove into the village of Borovo Selo, near Vukovar in eastern Slavonia, apparently to exchange the Yugoslav flag for a flag of the Republic of Croatia above a barricade that had been set up earlier that day by a recently-formed Serb militia in the village. Two of the four were wounded and captured when the militia fired on them during the raid. The next day, sixty fellow officers from Vinkovci entered Borovo Selo by bus in order to rescue the two men and drove into a pre-planned ambush at the entrance to the village. In the attack that followed, twelve of the Croatian officers were killed and their bodies mutilated. Horrific photographs of the recovered bodies were shown on Croatian television.

The Borovo Selo massacre amplified Croats’ fears of the rebellion against the Croatian authorities that had been growing in strength since the summer of 1990, when groups of Serbs had set up barricades across roads near Knin in another part of the country, Krajina. Armed incidents had already taken place: that Easter, a firefight in the Plitvice national park between Croatian police and rebels commanded by the Knin police chief, Milan Martic, had left one person dead on each side. The spread of violence into eastern Slavonia and the building of the Borovo Selo barricade Selo had come after the future Croatian defence minister, Gojko Susak, had fired rockets into Borovo Selo in what Laura Silber and Allan Little describe as ‘an unprovoked act of aggression’ against the local Serbs (The Death of Yugoslavia, p. 141).

Fear of where the rebellion and the countermeasures against it might lead had been growing since the Krajina barricades and the Plitvice gun battle. Yet even then, the visceral horror of the images from Borovo Selo seemed to change what it was possible to publicly say in Croatia. Journalists referring to the Serbs as ‘terrorists’ or ‘Chetniks’ – the nickname of the Serb royalist army during the Second World War, which had also massacred non-Serbs – became routine. In the field that I research, the entertainment industry, it was after Borovo Selo that the Croatian broadcaster stopped showing Serb musicians, even those such as the pop singer Zdravko Colic who had been acceptable as late as April 1991. After Borovo Selo, automatic suspicion of Serbs as national enemies could much more easily become ingrained common sense.

The video recorded on a smartphone in Woolwich a few minutes after the killing of Lee Rigby, a drummer in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, approaches the horror of the pictures from Borovo Selo. The hands of the man claiming responsibility for the attack are still covered in blood. Both force the viewer to imagine the brutality of the killing; both depict the murder of victims who were killed because they served their state. Both are far beyond what a reader could normally expect to see on the front page of a newspaper in a time of peace.

Although many British newspapers used a still image from the recording on their front pages the day after the murder, The Guardian‘s use of the image was perhaps the most shocking. Filling the front page with the image, as The Guardian often does, the newspaper confronted readers with the photograph and a quotation from the alleged killer’s speech: ‘You people will never be safe.’ When taken up by a national newspaper, even more so by one that considers its editorial identity anti-racist, the words come perilously close to suggesting that a people – however this is going to be defined – is under immediate, planned attack, the same argument that has been put forward by the English Defence League since its formation in 2009.

On the evening of the killing, a remark apparently originating with a Metropolitan Police source that the attackers had been ‘of Muslim appearance’ was repeated by the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson (a comment for which he subsequently apologised). The Home Secretary, Theresa May, referred to the killing as ‘an attack on everybody in the United Kingdom’. The combination of words, images and commentary circulating in the British media in the aftermath of Woolwich, laid over the public ‘common sense’ about terrorist threats in the UK that has been built up throughout the War on Terror and especially since the 7/7 attacks in London, risked turning what was known about the immediate events – the attackers had claimed to have carried out the killing ‘because Muslims are dying every day’ – into a conclusion of collective guilt: Muslims are to blame.

Talking about guilt and aggression in collective terms creates an atmosphere in which the obstacles to someone’s decision to use violence come down. It can suggest that violence in revenge won’t be punished; that it will be condoned; that it will be justified; even, sometimes, that it counts as self-defence. Among the Guardian staff invited by the reader’s editor to comment on whether the front page had been appropriate, one staff member spoke about their fear that the Guardian’s use of the alleged killer’s quote would bring about precisely these results:

As someone with very religious Muslim family members in this country I watch press coverage of events like these closely, and often with a fair amount of fear. My mum, though she is one of the ‘you people’ in Thursday’s headline, lives in fear that she will become one of the ‘you people’ of the EDL’s chants.

In the five days after Woolwich, 71 hate crimes against Muslims were reported to UK police forces, including the attempted firebombing of a mosque in Grimsby (covered, like Hull, by the area of Humberside Police). A hotline operated by Faith Matters and the Tell MAMA Project has received reports of 201 incidents, ‘up from a daily average of four to six’. The EDL mobilised an unclear number of members – possibly 1,000, possibly more – to march through Westminster on Monday, easily outnumbering the anti-fascist counter-protestors who must now regroup before another far-right march from Woolwich to Lewisham on Saturday.

Many things set the killing in Woolwich apart from the massacre in Borovo Selo. In the background to each event are very different histories of discrimination, settlement, and relative power relations within and around the states where they took place. Their short-term backgrounds are very different, too, with a number and severity of incidents in the locality of Borovo Selo before the massacre that had not, thankfully, occurred in Woolwich. The Borovo Selo massacre took place within an ethnopolitical conflict where different authorities were claiming state sovereignty over territory; the far-right appropriation of Woolwich is an expression of anti-immigrant racism.

What connects them is a brutal killing, a horrific image, and what becomes more acceptable to say in public after the killing and the image become known.

In an academic context I would use the idea of the ‘collectivisation’ of threat or even guilt to explain some of the reactions it was possible to hear as news about the killing in Woolwich spread, and the increase in talk about Serb ‘terrorists’ and ‘Chetniks’ after the murders in Borovo Selo. It’s a thought process where members of a collective group, in this case a majority, recognise a threat as directed against the whole majority and coming from the whole of the minority that the killers belonged to rather than the immediate group that carried out the killing – whether the members of the militia who planned the ambush in Borovo Selo or however many people will be found to have arranged the killing of Lee Rigby in Woolwich. And it is dangerous.

I started thinking through these parallels a day or two ago in conversation with bloggers @Puffles2010 and Sam Ambreen, who have both written about how the media’s sensationalisation of the Woolwich killing have increased the fear they feel as non-white people in Britain. Both refer to the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian who was shot dead by police in 2005 who assumed, based on the colour of his skin, that he was one of the suspects for the 21/7 bombing:

[Nick] Robinson’s failure exposes a wider prejudice: the idea that you can judge someone’s religion by the colour of their skin. Once you get into that territory, you get into scenarios that cost Jean Charles de Menezes his life following 7/7. (@Puffles2010)

Jean Charles de Menezes was one of them. If we had any hopes of restitution post 9/11 (not from guilt but from between a rock and a hard place) the events of 7/7 dashed any chance of rebuilding the fearful paranoid Britain we found ourselves in. Menezes was not Muslim or South Asian, or an Arab. He just shared a similar tone of skin. What about his appearance made him look Muslim? Whatever it was, he paid with his life. (Sam Ambreen)

Sam also draws on my initial thoughts in part of a follow-up post she wrote after the EDL march on Monday. These writers, the Guardian staffer quoted by the readers’ editor, and many others, all have immediate reason to be afraid of being seen as part of a collective threat, and to vest those fears not just in the far right but also in the police. Ash Sarkar, in an update reblogged by Laurie Penny, wrote of her shock at seeing personal friends express hatred on Facebook when they heard of the attack:

I’ve seen people call for hanging, torture, extra-judicial killings, locking up/deporting all Muslims and attacks on mosques. These aren’t strangers on Twitter, but people I’ve grown up with: gone to school with, babysat for, and (in one case) kissed.

Hearing accounts like these (which deserve to be heard in full, rather than explained in a voice like mine – which, since I’m white and not a Muslim, can’t personally express the same degree of fear) points to a responsibility on the part of those of us who are being told we are collectively under attack not to contribute to collectivising guilt or threat any further if we reject the frame. The louder and safer the voice, the greater the responsibility.

Challenging hatred and the far right in the atmosphere that has become public with shocking speed since Woolwich seems a harder task, but also much more urgent, than it did before the Woolwich murder. Reading accounts of anti-fascist organising in Britain in the past, such as the Battle of Cable Street against the British Union of Fascists in 1936 or the resistance to the National Front in Lewisham in 1977, one wonders whether today’s movements would be able to organise similar numbers of people for action inherently more dangerous than the A-to-B marches that have characterised mainstream political protest in the 2000s and 2010s. At the same time, and just as urgently, we need to find ways to resist – and avoid replicating – the politics of collective guilt and threat that make direct violence more possible.

Beyond ‘productivity’ in academic writing: or, what I did on my bank holidays

I could write this as a post about drafting three articles in four or five weeks. But actually they take a lot longer than that.

I have, nevertheless, found myself writing up three papers about very different things since the end of April. Late spring and early summer have ended up being my main conference season this year, so there would always have been some deadlines to meet in any case, but then I also agreed to join in a couple of collective efforts where my perspective could be useful, and then the whole thing turns into a game of deadline whack-a-mole, especially with student feedback and assessment on top.

One of the things I enjoy about my research profile as it’s developed is its versatility: when I can switch between different subjects quickly, I feel on top of my game, and it also creates a greater number of interesting modules I can teach than would have been the case if I’d stuck with just one strand of it. Although I work in a history department, I’ve also been part of a social sciences team, and my departmental base for research but not teaching in another institution was in Modern Languages. My regional focus is mainly south-east Europe and foreign interactions with the region, but I’m also finding more things to say about Britain, some of which I’m going to start to test in conference format after using blogging to explore them originally.

Hopefully, all three of these pieces will end up as journal articles, and depending on submission dates and the review process would be published in 2014 or 2015. For a UK academic, that’s good news, since 2014 marks the start of the next ‘REF period’, in which we all need to have four eligible publications of as high a quality as possible ready for the next Research Excellence Framework evaluation in 2020. 2020 is much too far away for me to know whether any of these three articles would be part of my REF submission (and that’s assuming that the REF would materialise in the form we expect it to), but keeping up a steady publication rate – something I’ve been doing since before I knew I was going to be working in higher education on an ongoing basis – removes pressure near the end of the ‘REF cycle’ to write something, anything.

The first piece is a paper on representations of the Balkans in the film adaptation of Coriolanus that Ralph Fiennes filmed in Serbia-Montenegro a few years ago (this link is to a detailed ‘idea map’ about the making of the film by Molli Amoli K Shinhat, which she told me about after I’d posted about the paper on Twitter). The look of the film draws heavily on news images from the Yugoslav wars, and even includes some archive footage from the wars themselves. Even though the director has billed it as a setting that ‘could be anywhere’, I’m arguing that the film depends on prior knowledge of the Balkans (or what viewers think they know about the Balkans) in order for it to make sense.

I wrote this for the International Feminist Journal of Politics conference earlier this month, which turned out to be an excellent place to give it, but I’ve had the idea since talking about the film with a historian friend during a conference in Denmark last year. Teaching on our department’s ‘Representing the Past in Film’ module, which I’ve been doing since October, also moved this paper up my priority list, although I’m not sure I’d use it if I was going to contribute to a film block in the module, except perhaps as part of something larger about place and space. Originally I thought I’d just write up a summary for the IFJP conference, with the intention of going back and expanding it later; as I started filling out the outline, though, I realised it was ready to draft in more or less its full form (apart from some material on Western identification with Rome that still needs to be added). That’s probably a sign it was ready to write in the first place.

The other two have needed a lot more preparatory work because, in one way or another, they were challenging me to engage with concepts I haven’t used before (which is part of the reason I wanted to do them). The second paper follows on from a conference paper I gave last December at an excellent workshop on ‘bringing class back in’ to the study of Yugoslavia and post-Yugoslavia, where I was talking about how far it’s possible to think of the local employees of international organisations in the region (including, but not limited to, interpreters for peacekeeping forces) as a distinctive socio-economic group. As a result of some discussions during and after the workshop, a research cluster asked me to be part of a special issue on their research theme. The struggle here was finding fresh data, and rather than referring primarily to interviews (which would have duplicated something else I was already working on), I ended up using two fictionalised memoirs by former interpreters as ways of opening up the wider issues that I wanted to talk about. I haven’t had the feedback on this paper yet (it’s likely to be coming in a couple of weeks), so still not sure how much more work it needs.

The third paper has put me through the most difficult writing process that I’ve had for several years. It’s supposed to be about various levels of collective identity in the study of post-Yugoslav popular music, and is intended for a music-focused special issue of an area studies journal. I’ve hit a series of obstacles in planning the article, going back to what now seems like a uselessly vague abstract I wrote last December, or even further back to thinking I could base it around a conference paper I gave last January when I already wasn’t fully engaged with the material I was talking about then, as well as my difficulties with a recent theoretical framework that I was supposed to be engaging with over the course of the paper. The breakthrough came partly through reading several unconnected books that seemed to work well with each other, but also through realising why I was having such serious problems understanding that framework (basically, my methodology, and quite possibly my mind, just doesn’t work like that – and then I could begin developing an argument underpinned by the reasons why it didn’t work like that). The paper has ended up being about the relationship between different collective identities than I thought it was going to be about – using data I was reminded of when I started setting up my music and politics web resource – and, as I write this, the issue editor hasn’t yet seen it, but I’m very glad we at least have something to revise…

None of these are large-scale projects, but I wouldn’t want to think of them as tangents either. There’s one on popular music, one on the international-organisation sector, and one on foreign interactions with south-east Europe, which is quite a good representation of my research interests. They also give a fair idea of how I tend to come up with publications. Nearly everything I’ve written as an academic output has started out as a conference paper; my first four articles were all part of special sections or issues based on the conference panel I’ve been part of. Although publishing too much in special issues can have drawbacks, I probably wouldn’t be publishing now if not for them. In particular, I owe a lot of my confidence in publishing my work to Denisa Kostovicova and Vesna Bojicic-Dzelilovic, who organised a conference on ‘transnationalism in the Balkans’ in 2004 and asked me to contribute my paper on popular music, which extended some of my Masters dissertation, to a special issue of Ethnopolitics based on the conference. (After various revisions, and some adventures in typesetting, the paper became this article in 2006.) Apart from a postgraduate workshop in Dubrovnik, this was the first time I’d presented a paper, and to have a benchmark for what publishable quality actually meant gave me something to aim towards with the 3-4 articles I spun off from my PhD.

(The Dubrovnik workshop is probably why I’m usually not too anxious about verbally presenting papers. Not many things about communicating research can be more nerve-wracking than presenting in a second language you’re still not very fluent in, in front of an eminent historian who also used to be the chief secretary of the Serbian Communist Party.)

These days, as I’m able to attend more conferences and as my networks have grown, the workflow often looks more like: conference where I was doing something else -> idea -> paper -> maybe a conference or two to try it out -> submission and publication -> thinking about something I didn’t quite manage to develop in the paper, which may lead me on to another idea in due course.

There are reasons why I’m able to work at this pace, and not all of them are very comfortable to talk about. Some of them are to do with my research always having been interdisciplinary, so that several academic audiences are equally important to me, and I don’t feel intimidated in adding new ones when I become conscious that I want to address them. This year, in the first year of my new post, I’ve had a reduced teaching load; my assessment load in May has been smaller than it would be otherwise, and the two bank holidays that happen to fall this month have been perfect for pushing on with difficult writing tasks. But also, I wasn’t self-funding a PhD, trying to find time for academic writing while researching part-time, working full-time hours in another job to keep up, or out of work at a time when I should have been building my post-doctoral publication record. I don’t have caring responsibilities or any emotional pressure to be home from work ‘on time’. I started my research trajectory when junior researchers didn’t have to compete for funding in order to pay the author fees for publishing in what their academic judgement told them was the most appropriate journal – and my reservation here isn’t so much ‘What if I wouldn’t have won the funding?’ but ‘How could I have been comfortable publishing what I wanted to publish and knowing that I was doing it at the expense of others who didn’t win?’

Even though I found the months between the end of my full-time contract in 2011 and being offered my current job in 2012 stressful, I still hit a lot of the privilege indicators Melonie Fullick flags up in this post on academic careers. Essentially, I get to play on a much easier difficulty setting.

So it’s my responsibility to turn this productivity into something more than a good publication record and personal benefit – and more so than ever, now that the stress of whether I’m going to find a job, and what kind of job I’m going to find, is gone. I need to keep making sure that the new ideas I work on refresh my teaching. I need to work on making my research accessible to publics outside higher education, not just in terms of ensuring that others can read the publications but also in communicating the ideas in different forms (one of the reasons I blog about Eurovision in May). Now that I’m in a post where I’m able to design projects over a longer space of time, I also need to conceive of research with public engagement built much more closely into it than I’ve done before. None of this is something I should do for my own sake.

And it all takes a lot longer than a week or two.

Are we one?: the Eurovision Song Contest, national promotion and the European financial crisis

It may not seem this way once the first few pyrotechnic effects have gone off, but this year’s Eurovision Song Contest has been significantly reduced in scale. Since the early 2000s, a competition that used to take place in a theatre as a one-off on a Saturday night has become an event that showcases a host city and country for up to a fortnight, with a calendar of rehearsals and receptions filling up the time between the three live broadcasts – two semi-finals and a final over the course of a week – that make up the televised competition.

The feel of recent Eurovisions, including the contest in Athens that I visited in 2006, has had more and more in common with international sports tournaments. Indeed, both kinds of event are now sharing the same infrastructure: since 2000, when Eurovision was held at Globen in Stockholm, Eurovision has become an arena- rather than a theatre-based show, with obvious implications for the size of the audience, the amount of technical equipment needed to deliver a satisfying experience in person, and the scale of performance often thought to be necessary to get a strong reaction from the crowd. Athens 2006 took place in the Olympic basketball arena; the Baku Crystal Hall, built by Azerbaijan as the venue for the 2012 contest, would form part of the Olympic complex if a future hosting bid by Baku were to succeed.

Sociologists call these internationally-broadcast, nation-spotlighting moments ‘mega-events’. They’re opportunities for governments to engage in ‘nation-branding’ strategies: two classic cases, as Paul Jordan argues, being Estonia, which used its hosting of Eurovision in 2002 to reinforce its desired brand as a forward-thinking, democratic, European, technologically accomplished state, and Ukraine, where the theme for Kiev 2005 (‘Awakening’) evoked the narrative of the new Yushchenko government. The possible underside of international celebratory events – forced evictions and repressive policing of protest – has also come into play: notably, Moscow police broke up a Pride demonstration on the day of the Eurovision final in 2009, and several hundred households in Baku were reportedly forcibly evicted from the site where authorities planned to build the Crystal Hall.

Branding the nation for a fortnight, however, comes at a cost, and so does even sending and equipping a delegation to participate and compete in an event of the size that Eurovision has become. It’s a cost that broadcasters and cities find increasingly hard to justify. With public spending on essential services being cut so harshly and quickly that citizens are left in misery, can sending a song to represent the nation at a Europe-wide party really be justified?

Three regularly participating countries – Bosnia-Herzegovina, Portugal and Turkey – as well as the more intermittent Slovakia declined to enter a song in this year’s contest, and for some time the participation of Greece and Cyprus was also in understandable doubt. This year, the visual production costs incurred by the organisers have been cut in half, with hope that it will also reduce costs to future hosts. The multi-national promotional tours that serious Eurovision contenders have felt the need to engage in since Ruslana’s pre-victory campaign in 2004 (after all, why design a warrior princess extravaganza if you’re not going to tell anyone?) are meanwhile becoming a thing of the past, replaced with one-0ff appearances at strategically-chosen preview events such as this year’s promotional concert in Amsterdam.

Baku 2012 may go on to appear like an unmatchable peak – financed by an Azerbaijani government with oil wealth at hand, insulated from the financial crisis that has affected so many other national broadcasters and municipal authorities since 2008, and with an aggressive strategy to promote its capital as a world city.

Butterflies in the stomach?

With Eurovision leaking participants, and the idea of Europe as a political community becoming ever more battered in the aftermath of bailouts of southern European banks, it might seem ironic that the design of this year’s contest in Malmo foregrounds an image of European unity, based on the slogan ‘We Are One’.

Any risk of a fragmenting Europe is far away from what this branding asks the viewer to imagine. Instead, as the designers explain, the Malmo butterfly stands for unity in diversity:

Eurovision Song Contest is a shared project. It unites millions of people. In the East, West, North and South. Be­yond all the glitter, there is a big idea. It’s about togetherness, diversity and happiness. […] Butterflies have one common name, but exist in thousands of different shapes and colours. Just like the Eurovision Song Contest, one strong identity with a rich national diversities. Work­ing together, we can achieve anything. – We are one.

Neither is it primarily putting Sweden in the spotlight. On the face of it, that couldn’t be further from the concept: the executive producer of this year’s contest, Martin Österdahl from the Swedish broadcaster SVT, has explicitly presented his approach to Malmo as a deliberate attempt to move away from the ‘nation-branding’ emphases of recent years. For Österdahl, quoted in a feature on the Eurovision website last October, using Eurovision to promote the nation in the way that has almost become customary appears to be no less than an undermining of the contest’s authentic values:

When Sweden hosts the Eurovision Song Contest, broadcaster SVT wants to direct a large part of the attention at the participating artists and countries. “Making Eurovision into something that just shows off Sweden doesn’t feel right, nor is it in line with the original idea of Eurovision”, says executive producer Martin Österdahl.

The Swedish organisational group aims to renew the Eurovision Song Contest and go back to the competition’s founding values: to bridge over cultural differences and emanate a message that all people are equal.

Martin Österdahl believes that there are a number of ways to put the core values into practice.

“To start off with, you can turn the focus away from using the program to market your own country at any cost, instead highlighting the diversity and wealth of all nationalities and cultures”, he says.

“We are going to be in Sweden and of course we need to explain this and show ourselves off. But it should not just be about our country, and we should not pat ourselves on the back and say that Sweden is best. We need to focus on all the countries taking part”.

Setting a precedent for lowering the costs to participating delegations, through measures such as reducing the length of the rehearsal period (thus cutting down delegations’ accommodation costs), supports SVT’s approach to Eurovision by ensuring that as many countries as possible are able to take part. Uniquely among mega-events – not even a one-off event like the UEFA Champions’ League final goes to last year’s victor – Eurovision presents the winner with not only an honour but a liability, since the right to host is automatically awarded to the previous winner rather than being awarded through a bidding process.

Apocryphal stories of broadcasters deliberately trying not to win so as not to have to bear the costs of hosting are common (and, after Ireland’s three victories in a row in the mid-1990s, provided the plot engine for one of the best-known episodes of Father Ted). As financial constraints on public broadcasters have increased yet the number of broadcasters interested in participation has grown, Eurovision organisers are increasingly facing a stark choice: a premium contest with few entrants, or a cheaper contest with more? It’s a decision that needs to be consciously made if the Eurovision concept isn’t to fall apart.

There are strong practical reasons, then, for Österdahl’s reorientation of the purpose. Yet at the same time, rejecting the emphasis on promoting the nation itself gives a certain impression of the nation: that it’s a country where overt, state-stimulated nation-branding isn’t necessary. In short, perhaps, that Sweden isn’t Russia, or (another potential headache for the Eurovision organisers) Belarus. Or Azerbaijan. Especially not that.

The importance of not being Azerbaijan

In 2012, when Sweden won Eurovision in Azerbaijan, it would have been hard to find two more opposed approaches to the relationship between the media, the state and the public within the Eurovision area. The Swedish representative, Loreen, was the only Eurovision contestant to have visited human rights activists in Baku during the rehearsal period, and commented: ‘These are people who have been through a lot and they should get to tell their stories […] It will be the other side of the front that is being shown. It is a strong front, it is as beautiful as anything, but what happens in the cracks?’

İctimai Televiziya’s staging of the contest in Baku was about magnificence, the conspicuous consumption of energy and space. For a brief moment during the final, however, SVT managed to subvert the grandeur by having the Swedish votes read out by Sarah Dawn Finer’s comedy character Lynda Woodruff – a stereotypical ‘little Englander’ who has somehow become a European Broadcasting Union official despite not wanting to know anything about Europe, least of all (as the presenters would find out) how to pronounce ‘Azerbaijan’.

Distancing SVT’s organisation of Eurovision from the self-promotion of an authoritarian regime is perhaps only to be expected. Several moments in the run-up to this year’s contest would have been highly unlikely , to say the least, last year in Baku: the local police explicitly informing visiting delegations that Sweden permits the right to demonstrate, or the moderator of an official press conference challenging the representative from Belarus about her home government’s attitude to freedom of expression.

Yet the very lack of overt branding around one central narrative is a branding statement, and one that Sweden is uniquely skilled at putting across. Democracy and plurality are core values in Sweden’s highly successful strategy of promoting the nation through social media, where since 2011 an assortment of Swedish residents have been adding their perspectives to a multi-layered depiction of Sweden through the world’s most-followed ‘rotation curation’ Twitter account. The @sweden phenomenon presents the nation as the sum of many individualistic and often contradictory voices; its organisers have kept faith even when curators have taken the account into what many communications officers would regard as high-risk territory, such as commenting on Sweden’s attempts to extradite Julian Assange (different curators have spoken both for and against) or Sonja Abrahamsson’s decidedly off-message comments about Jews.

A recent study by Christian Christensen (£) suggests there are limits to the image of diversity that @sweden puts forward. Curators must already have access to the internet, be active Twitter users and be able to post in English; they must then be nominated by a third party and approved by the Curators of Sweden panel. A copy of the @sweden guidelines Christensen has obtained suggest to him that the project encourages – even if it does not always get – ‘polite, nonaggressive, nonpolitical, uncontroversial views which help to give a certain image of Sweden’ (p. 42). For Christensen, @sweden is in fact ‘an illuminating example of the carefully planned and managed promotion and nation-branding of Sweden, presented under the guise of a “transparent” and “democratic” selection and editorial processes’ (p. 31). Nation-branding, then, would not be so absent from Swedish values after all, even though in comparison to Azerbaijan, Russia or Belarus it would be manifested in a very different way.

Crisis? What crisis?

Malmo 2013’s proclamation that ‘we are one’ addresses a continent where the concept of Europe as a ‘shared project’ reaching ‘millions of people’ appears even more tattered than it did twelve months ago when Sweden won the right to host. Reactions in the German media to the southern European bank bailouts have re-activated stereotypes of Mediterranean ‘laziness’ and ‘indolence’; the mid-2000s utopianism of EU enlargement – which reached its high point in 2004, the same year that Eurovision added a semi-final to accommodate all interested participants, including the growing number from eastern Europe – has stalled and is at risk of being rolled back; the idea of leaving the EU has accelerated into mainstream public discourse in the UK so quickly that resident EU citizens now sense rights they had taken for granted coming under attack. Eurovision as a technical organisation is distinct from the EU as a political institution, but has drawn from a common reservoir of language about unity and integration in order to make its flagship annual event make sense.

Altering the scale of the Eurovision Song Contest to celebrate diversity on the grounds that ‘we are one’ might seem like an attempt to ‘invent’ a tradition in Eric Hobsbawm’s sense – that new traditions are invented to ‘establish continuity with a suitable historic past’, when in fact there has been severe rupture between then and now. At the same time, however, Eurovision has been living with the political and economic impact of the financial crisis on Europe for some years, and what television viewers see represented during the songs themselves may not be all too different from previous years: while I was writing this post, a photo caption posted by the BBC Eurovision page on Facebook promised that tonight’s semi-final would contain ‘[a] real life giant, glitterball spaceships, topless bodhrán-wielding drummers and a dress that bursts into flames’ (this last does so at approximately two minutes into the song by Aliona Moon, with unfortunate overtones of one of Katniss Everdeen’s entrances during The Hunger Games).

Whether next year’s Eurovision develops the Malmo approach, repeats the Baku model or hovers somewhere in between will depend on which country’s entry wins on Saturday, the political relationship of its broadcaster with the state, the priorities of its government, and the amount of money the broadcaster, host city and country is prepared to commit or borrow in order to realise its plan – a level of uncertainty which is ironed out of any other mega-event where hosting rights are awarded years in advance. For the European Broadcasting Union, and for millions of viewers, the chief concern is likely to be continuity: does anything more need to be changed to ensure the sustainability of Eurovision, year on year?

It’s a wonder that nobody so far has been discussing legacy

This is my third in an occasional series of Eurovision posts – with earlier posts on ‘bloc voting’ and the pressure to keep Eurovision apolitical.

A very Special Subject: where does my module on former Yugoslavia go next?

The end of my last ‘Nationalism and Intervention in Former Yugoslavia’ seminar on Wednesday meant that I’m not going to be teaching again until the autumn. (I can’t quite say that I won’t be ‘in the classroom’ again until then, as there’s a round of presentations for another module to be assessed before that.) This doesn’t mean that teaching goes to the back of my mind for the next few months, then; far from it. There’s another new module to launch (on nations and nationalism in the contemporary world), and the former Yugoslavia module is being extended into a two-semester Special Subject, which has been on my mind more and more as the shorter version has been coming to an end.

Reflecting on my classes has been a very different experience this year because I’ve known that they’ll be running in some shape or form again next time. Now, thinking through what worked and what didn’t isn’t just about assessing my personal effectiveness as a teacher, but also part of planning for the next cycle: what worked well, and what can’t I face ever basing a discussion around again? What activities really brought home the underlying themes of the session and what discussion questions just need to be taken outside and put out of their misery? What ideas did students unexpectedly bring up that would be good to add to the content so that future students can benefit from their insights too? Why did a certain fresh new topic in the literature spark no student interest at all? What new research has come out in the last year that I’d like to incorporate into the module, and will it change any of the activities I’m carrying over?

(For instance, at the top of my to-be-read pile in the office is Hariz Halilovich’s Places of Pain: Popular Memory and Trans-Local Identities in Bosnian War-Torn Communities, which has been very well-received in south-east European studies since it came out last year. I’ve already seen that it includes a chapter on the aftermath of ethnic cleansing in Prijedor, which would give extra context to a document exercise we used this year based on the Hague Tribunal testimony of Minka Čehajić, a woman whose husband was disappeared after Bosnian Serb forces took over Prijedor in 1992: will reading Halilovich change what I want the outcomes of that activity to be?)

It’s only recently that I’ve been able to think about modules in cyclical terms like this. Long-term thinking is a luxury of stable employment: before this year, I’d never taught on a module and known that I’d be doing it again next year. (The ‘Yugoslav wars of the 1990s’ module that I designed at Southampton did run twice, but I didn’t know that was going to happen when I taught the first iteration.) As a short-term impact, this ability to plan means that sessions that don’t go well are less upsetting , since I can at least use them as a starting point for planning what to do differently next time. Moreover, there’s the reduction in stress that has come from knowing where and how I can expect to be working and living next year, and from not having to devote an extra day per week to job applications on top of whatever my current work demands; it’s only now that I can recognise how much these kinds of uncertainty affected my teaching quality in 2010-11.

Once the next month of marking is out of the way, then, my teaching focus will be on turning the current ‘former Yugoslavia’ module into a Special Subject. ‘Specials’ are a type of advanced module for final-year history undergraduates (the North American equivalent would be what’s known as a capstone course or senior seminar). Unlike most modules, they run over both semesters of the teaching year, and at Hull a student on a Special Subject will also write their dissertation on a linked topic of their choice that the module tutor is able to supervise. Firstly, then, the new module will be twice as long, and its natural break points will fall differently; secondly, the activities with first-hand sources need to be even more in-depth and extensive, so that students are ready to write a 10,000-word dissertation of their own.

Why study the 1990s three times?

The existing ‘former Yugoslavia’ module has an unusual structure. Knowing that it would take place in semester 2, and realising that the title concepts, ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Intervention’, lend themselves to a ‘part 1’ and ‘part 2’, I planned the first section on the politics and society of former Yugoslavia throughout the 20th century to last up until the Easter break, and the second section on foreign intervention and (former) Yugoslavia to kick in after Easter. Although I’ve used ‘intervention’ in the title, this second part actually concerns foreign contacts with the region in a much wider sense – military, humanitarian and diplomatic intervention, but also other less collective forms of travel, enabling me to bring in the literature on travel writing and ‘imagining the Balkans’ that has been so influential in the historiography.

This means that students go over the 20th-century chronology twice. I haven’t done this before, and when I started the module I was anxious over whether it would work or whether it was just innovation for innovation’s sake. There’s a good reason for it, though: the post-Yugoslav wars in the 1990s have naturally had a huge impact on how researchers write about the region, even when their own focus is an earlier moment in time. The 1990s wars, and the Yugoslav background as a whole, are complex settings that students are unlikely to have studied before. If the module wasn’t going to cover the 1990s until April, how well would students be able to integrate them into their ‘scaffolding’ of what they know about the subject matter? Even though they come last chronologically, the conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are still ‘threshold concepts’ that belong at an early point in the module – not at the end of the module when I want students to be synthesising the main points of a semester’s worth of learning.

And so we’ve ended up approaching the 1990s three times, to make sure that the threshold does get crossed. The introductory week to this module gives a sense of the main themes of the historiography, with strong signals from me that they’ll be able to understand it in more depth as they go on. The key readings for seminar discussion are a chapter from Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia about an early stage of the Croatian war of independence in Krajina and a chapter of V. P. Gagnon, Jr’s The Myth of Ethnic War on Croat/Serb relations – two authors who conceive of ethno-nationalist conflict in very different terms. (I could push the contrast further by switching Glenny out for a chapter of Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, but I’d rather use Kaplan in a ‘Balkanism’ seminar, all things considered.) Awareness of these two perspectives helps students fit later readings into the ‘ethnic war’ debate, and the example of Krajina, or Gagnon’s work, have both recurred in later seminars – evidence that this first week has had some effect.

Then the pre-Easter and post-Easter blocks each finish with the 1990s and their aftermath. Maybe I was never going to be satisfied with my 1990s coverage in a one-semester module – after all, I’ve taught an entire module about the 1990s in the past – but throughout the end of the first block, I was conscious of how much I was leaving out. The Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo conflicts need to be handled separately for their specificities to be appreciated, and B-H has got referred to in seminars much more than either of the others, no doubt partly because that week’s document exercise concerned a Bosnian town. The final session of the block, rounding up literature on the socio-cultural effects of the war, also pulled in two very different directions; I’d have liked to have one seminar for both topics that emerged, but this has implications for the timetable in an option that has two seminar groups.

Spreading the module over two semesters will let me expand the obvious ‘problem’ topics. Croatia, B-H and Kosovo in the 1990s can all have a week to themselves, and the moment in the ‘intervention’ block where I did have two different topics for the seminars (one on the Hague Tribunal and one on motivations for foreign intervention in the 90s) can give each topic its full weight without students needing to attend two different seminars if they want to engage with them both.

My experience with the final week of this module – another experiment – has also been encouraging and is giving me ideas for things that I can do next year. There isn’t a final exam, because the module is assessed by two different types of essays (one focused on a topic from a particular period and session, and one ‘synoptic’ essay where students must pursue a particular theme across the full sweep of the c20 – this avoids ‘cherry-picking’ a favourite period within the module). The traditional end-of-module revision session, then, would be a waste of time. Instead, I asked students to read one of a selection of theoretical or comparative articles that make a significant contribution about one of the concepts we often explore during the module but that aren’t primarily about former Yugoslavia: in seminar discussion they had to summarise its main points to students who hadn’t read it and offer suggestions for how the article’s findings might apply to (or sometimes, not be relevant to) the former Yugoslav case.  I offered a selection of eight articles, all of which had some relation to one or more of the synoptic topics, and trailed the session as an exercise in lateral thinking that would help students identify ideas they could develop further in their synoptic essays.

This ‘breakout’ session is the one that most worried me before I delivered it, especially as attendance had dropped in the previous couple of weeks: would anyone come? And would they see the point? As it happened, attendance was better than it had been for several weeks, and everyone had something to say about their chosen article – for instance, being able to relate Rogers Brubaker’s argument in his ‘Ethnicity without groups’ article (pdf) to Gagnon’s constructivist perspective on the idea of ‘ethnic war’.

A brief run-through of how it looked this time

  • Week 1: introduction to the historiography
  • Week 2: Yugoslav unification and the politics of the first Yugoslavia
  • Week 3: the Second World War and establishment of Communist power
  • Week 4: Tito’s Yugoslavia, including the new ‘socialist consumerism’ research (documents: three Yugoslav pop songs)
  • Week 5: the constitutional and economic crisis, 1980-91 (document: the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences memorandum)
  • Week 6: the wars in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo (document: the Minka Čehajić testimony)
  • Week 7: the socio-cultural impact of the conflicts
  • Week 8: foreign contacts with the Balkans up to 1919 (document: a chapter of Edith Durham’s Twenty Years of Balkan Tangle)
  • Week 9: foreign intervention during the Second World War and early Cold War (document: extract from Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches)
  • Week 10: foreign intervention in the 1990s, part 1 (one workshop on the Hague Tribunal using tribunal statistics and defendants’ ‘statement of guilt’, with thanks to Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik who designed the exercise; another seminar comparing a Douglas Hurd speech on Bosnia from 1992 and Tony Blair’s Chicago speech on the Kosovo War)
  • Week 11: foreign intervention in the 1990s, part 2 (looking at the ‘on-the-ground’ aspects of intervention, including the success or otherwise of peacekeeping; I’d have liked to use a peacekeeper memoir here, but didn’t have the right ones in the library yet)
  • Week 12: theoretical/comparative ‘breakout’

And now what?

My experience with the final week of this module gives me confidence in using that material in the Special Subject. I could include a week on competing academic approaches to nationalism, cover the idea of ‘Balkanism’ and its relationship to ‘Orientalism’ in more depth, or look at the so-called ‘liberal peace’ in a wider context than we were able to do this time. But then I also need to create space for ‘sources and methods’ work to support the dissertation, and to work out where this would be best placed in order for students to be prepared for what they need to do.

Showing that dissertations on the module topic were feasible was an important part of justifying a module on this topic at this level, especially since the Special Subject and dissertation supervision are linked (which isn’t the case everywhere). I’m not in a language-based area studies department, so there need to be enough primary sources available in English to make a good range of dissertation topics feasible. The sources also need to be accessible from Hull: I don’t want to design a module theme that forces students to travel to London archives if they want to do well, since it would be an unfair requirement to impose.These considerations, plus the fact that I’ve researched international intervention in Bosnia, were why I designed the module from the outset around the foreign intervention aspect as well as the internal history of Yugoslavia: it makes a much wider range of English-language sources relevant, as well as tying one of the most important developments in post-Cold War south-east European studies (the ‘Balkanism’ debate) into the module.

Luckily, digitised document collections make the possibilities for non-London-dependent student research much greater than they would have been when I was an undergraduate: besides digital access to records of UK and US parliamentary debates, the Hague Tribunal has placed transcripts of its hearings online; the Open Society Archives have digitised thousands of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty situation reports; there are the declassified documents from the CIA; through JISC, we have access to the US Foreign Broadcasts Information Service and – something I’m particularly excited about – the JISC MediaHub, with relevant news footage from sources including Gaumont, ITN, Channel 4 News and Reuters; there’s a large video archive of oral history interviews about the siege of Sarajevo, which I need to have a look at; Project Gutenberg‘s collection of out-of-US-copyright works helps with access to travel writing and memoirs from the 1920s and earlier; on the off-chance a student wanted to explore the historiography around music and politics in former Yugoslavia (one of my own research areas), there’d even be my own collection of 300+ lyrics in translation – if I can ever improve the usability. Our university library turned out to have a surprising number of Yugoslav pamphlets from the Tito era translated into English, I have enough in my library budget to substantially increase its collection of memoirs, and the Hull History Centre has papers belonging to British socialists who were interested in Tito’s Yugoslavia which could provide a basis for dissertations on Yugoslav Communism and the British Left. All of these need methodological support, advice on search strategies, and opportunities for practice if students are going to be able to use them in a historically informed way.

Planning the week-by-week shape of the module and then fleshing the weeks out with their key readings and primary documents is going to be my main task once marking has finished, and I’m looking forward to it – even though I’m already conscious of how much will still have to be left out…