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.

Catherine Baker: ‘Introduction: Gender and Geopolitics in the Eurovision Song Contest’

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: ‘National Promotion and Eurovision: From Besieged Sarajevo to the Floodlights of Europe’

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: From Ruslana to Gaitana: Performing ‘Ukrainianness’ in the Eurovision Song Contest

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: ‘Skirting the Issue: Finding Queer and Geopolitical Belonging at the Eurovision Song Contest’

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.

Alexej Ulbricht, Indraneel Sircar and Koen Slootmaeckers: ‘Queer to be Kind: Exploring Western Media Discourses about the ‘Eastern Bloc’ during the 2007 and 2014 Eurovision Song Contests’

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

Introducing the intro text: why I’ve written an introduction to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s

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…

How do they militarise a music video?: using popular music to teach about militarisation

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 zastaveSlovenia 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: