Review: Vampire Nation: Violence as Cultural Imaginary

This review originally appeared in Europe–Asia Studies 65:4 (2013), 773-4.

Tomislav Z. Longinović, Vampire Nation: Violence as Cultural Imaginary. Durham, NC & London: Duke University Press, 2011, x þ 212pp., £14.99/$22.95 p/b.

The vampire, the organising trope used by Tomislav Longinović’s study of violence, nationhood and imperialism in former Yugoslavia, is not the first supernatural presence to manifest in a book on cyclical violence in this region. Robert Kaplan’s 1992 travelogue Balkan Ghosts invoked its own paranormal metaphors in a simplistic chronicle of recurrent acts of vengeance that Kaplan used to explain the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The work of Vampire Nation could not be further removed from that of Balkan Ghosts. Neither, however, is it in the tradition of several recent works in International Relations (such as Daniel Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies (2011) or Daniel H. Nexon and Iver B. Neumann’s Harry Potter and International Relations (2006)) that seek to explain conflict with the help of widely accessible popular-cultural creatures. Longinović’s writing requires, but is also well worth, careful reading and an appreciation of psychoanalysis. The full meanings of Longinović’s vampire are, perhaps appropriately, semi-concealed from immediate view.

Vampire Nation explores the relationship between European and Western practices of othering the Serbs and the inherently violent logic of nationalism that has motivated war in the name of South Slavic nations. Longinović argues that the South Slav nationalisms and the power of the West are both to be understood as vampiric, for a multitude of reasons that emerge and combine throughout the book. The wider context to his argument is the body of post-colonialist research that has sought since the early 1990s to expose the European construction of the Balkans. Larry Wolff, Maria Todorova and Vesna Goldsworthy have thus all shown that ‘the West tends to construct these localities as imaginary assemblages that display a “less civilized” version of identity for the gaze of Europe proper’ (p. 29). Longinović adds to this research with a discussion of Bram Stoker’s Dracula – who describes himself as out to avenge ‘that great shame of Kosovo’ (p. 32) – and Western-imagined vampires from Byron’s Lord Ruthven to Twilight. Conceptually, he extends it with attention to psychoanalysis and critical race theory, putting his own twist on what has become a well-researched topic.

Though the characteristics of vampires are never listed, South Slav nationalisms embody them in great number. Nationalism has been imagined as coming back from the grave, as vampires do; the very nature of nationalism necessitates an obsession with communal blood and soil, just as the vampire has an insatiable hunger for life. The vampire hungers for lost territory, ‘gaze[s] into the unreflecting mirror of history’ (p. 143), keeps itself going by feeding on youth, and has torn out the Bosnia-shaped heart of Yugoslavia. Longinović’s exploration of Serb nationalism includes a discussion of the destructive impact of Vuk Karadžić and Vladimir Dvorniković in constructing South Slavic nationalist imaginaries. Like Ivan Čolović, Longinović believes that epic poetry serves for ‘bringing the past into the present and reviving it through violent and bloody repetition of traumatic memories’ (p. 56). Furthermore, he argues, Karadžić’s sacralisation of everyday language sublimated a national trauma of imperial domination in an eternal mourning that has marked Serbs as ‘dead from birth’ (p. 11) and predisposed them to ritual sacrifice. Dvorniković’s contribution is not only to have imagined a South Slavic mentality of pain and melancholy (dert and sevdah) and the kafana as the ‘post-Oriental location’ (p. 108) where men play it out, but to have built this foundation for a modern Yugoslav identity with no space for ‘the identities of non-Slavic peoples’ such as Albanians, Roma or Jews (p. 101). The most original application of vampirology to South Slav nationalism, however, comes when Longinović uses it as a metaphor for South Slavs’ internalisation of discourses of power and belonging that originated in the imperialist West: it is because it has been bitten by the imperial predator that the vampire of nationalism has become undead.

When applied to what Longinović views as historic and contemporary forms of the exercise of Western imperial power, the vampire takes on further meanings. Longinović agrees with Walter Benjamin’s observation that ‘[t]here is no cultural document that is not at the same time a record of barbarism’ (p. 95). The people of the West (or the Global North), unable to accommodate their countries’ own violence within their understanding of modernity, have instead to project it on to an Other who is primitivised for the purpose. The light-fearing literary vampire is thus a conjuration of Europe’s own criminal past, and Longinović observes that the vampire legend and the modern state seem to emerge simultaneously in early modern Austria. Indeed, he forms the important argument that the much-studied othering of Serbs needs to be traced back to imperial Austria-Hungary: the Habsburg elites, for clear geopolitical purposes, are argued not only to have first invented Serb expansionism as a threat in the 19th century but to have first constituted ‘a multitude of familial and tribal configurations’ under the Serb ethnonym through census-taking after 1691 (p. 55). Adapting Lyotard’s mode of referring to ‘the jews’ as a way to emphasise the construction and dehumanisation of a people from outside, Longinović refers throughout to ‘the serbs’ as the object of analogous practices. Whereas he acknowledges Serb crimes in war, the structural villain of his account is the West, which destroyed ‘the last remnants of a South Slavic communist state’ (p. 33) and allied with favoured nations in the Balkans, particularly the Slovenes. Longinović goes even further than Susan Woodward’s Balkan Tragedy (1995) in assigning blame for the collapse of Yugoslav coexistence to Slovenia: Janez Janša, Slavoj Žižek and Laibach all find themselves implicated in Longinović’s critique of the Slovene pursuit of a European and white subject position that cast other Yugoslav peoples into the Global South.

After employing the vampire as a tool to think with, Longinović’s final chapter offers suggestions to break the cycle through ‘non-sacrificial forms of everyday life founded on a culture of responsibility, trust, and even laughter’ (p. 17). They are found in the novels of David Albahari, the activism of B92’s war documentation and the online community of Cyber-Yugoslavia, a website that ‘acknowledges the existence of collectivities beyond the imaginary of the nation’ yet shrinks from political action (p. 180). Both ‘the serbs’ and the West need ultimately to internalise Derrida’s ‘principle of infinite responsibility’ (p. 44). As Longinović shows, whatever the writer’s positionality, a postmodern ethics forces them to condemn the violence within the identity boundary of their own community and not just the violence of others pushed away as remote.

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