When what we see isn’t what we’re meant to hear: you can lead an audience to Eurovision but can you make it think?

Early in the year for a Eurovision post, but February is when most participating broadcasters are busy choosing their entries (although the keenest, like Albania’s RTSH, wrap theirs up well before Christmas) and it’s when some of the most interesting examples of what an entry might do are going around.

The latest national selection to get underway is Slovenia’s EMA, halfway through cutting sixteen songs down to eight before a final next weekend and still nowhere near the size of a media-event behemoth like Sweden’s six-week Melodifestivalen.

This rather spectacular production by EMA standards stood out from the others in Friday’s semi-final:

Working around Eurovision’s performance rules (no pre-recorded vocals; no more than six people on stage), which were supposed to put poorer and richer broadcasters on level playing fields but haven’t kept up with the digital backdrop technology that has transformed Eurovision staging since the mid-2000s, the pop-opera group Tosca Beat put on a three-minute provocation about media manipulation which resembled a whole vein of utilitarian young-adult dystopias in recent Hollywood cinema, and definitely – we can tell from the group’s promotion before EMA – meant to reference George Orwell’s 1984.

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Serendipitously helped by the huge girders that EMA’s producers decided to decorate the stage with this year, it even used some of the same visual codes as a musical/artistic project which started out as shock-value provocateurs in late socialist Yugoslavia and became edgy cultural heritage for an independent Slovenia: Laibach, the industrial band named after the German translation of ‘Ljubljana’ that pushed past Kraftwerk to mobilise totalitarian and fascist aesthetics to such a degree since forming in a Slovenian mining town in 1980 that listening to or watching their music is a continual process of trying to work out whether they actually mean it after all, and whether what you’re enjoying is really the wit of the parody or maybe the pull of what they supposedly subvert.

(And yes, that’s what happens when you translate the ‘One Vision’ of ‘Radio Gaga’-era Queen into German – where the sound of lyrics like ‘one man, one goal, one vision’ evokes a very different kind of charismatic relationship between leader and crowd than the supposed inspiration for Queen’s original, Martin Luther King.)

Or that’s how it came across to Eurovision blogger and punk rock singer Roy Delaney, who hadn’t expected ‘a post-industrial Laibach tribute act’ in an EMA semi-final but found one anyway:

Surely this can’t be an accident? Militaristic outfits, megaphones, situationist statements, stompy marching music and a deeper-than-mines voice croaking out between the high pitched choruses. It’s Slovenia’s biggest ever international musical export, toned down and made (slightly more) palatable for the Friday evening TV crowd.

It’s the brown blouse and crossed-over belts of the middle soprano Urška Kastelic, in front of the stark video backdrop, that do most to evoke the ambiguity of Laibach (who added their own uniformed female vocalist, Mina Špiler, in 2004) and make the viewer wonder should they really be doing that?

What resolves it for Tosca Beat, or ought to, is the white-uniformed megaphonist and keyboard player pulling on a set of angel wings (in a move that takes about ten seconds – this all goes much more quickly in the Hunger Games) and intoning what seems to be a warning about the seductive power of totalitarianism:

The rush for victory will be present at all times… The race for defeating a helpless enemy will become our number one priority… Don’t let it happen. It depends on us.

If the first two and a half minutes are having the viewer join in the pleasure of an aesthetic – a way of sensing things and feeling emotions through them – that comes to them first through the horrors of 20th-century European history and then through the inherently ambiguous (many, like Susan Sontag in her essay on ‘Fascinating Fascism’, would say too ambiguous) conventions of late 20th century provocative art, the ‘Don’t let it happen’ potentially reaches out to show how easily it does happen, while the spectatorship is still going on.

The politics of irony, memory and nostalgia in post-Yugoslav Slovenia, from the ‘Neue Slowenische Kunst’ (‘New Slovenian Art’ in German) art collective that emerged from the same alternative milieu as Laibach in the 1980s to parody the kitsch iconography of authoritarianism and state power, to the ‘nostalgic culture‘ around Communist and Partisan symbols among young Slovenes who did not even grow up in Yugoslavia, make acts like this crop up in Slovenian pop music from time to time – one of the stalwarts of Slovenian military bricolage, Rock Partyzani, even took part in EMA in 2011.

‘Free World’ hasn’t even gone on to make next week’s national final, meaning the audience for this dystopian intervention – or whatever it was – will likely be no larger than the 200,000-300,000 Slovenian viewers who might watch an EMA heat and the several thousand Eurovision fans who keep up with EMA live or on YouTube.

One song that will be on stage in Kiev and faces a similar challenge, however, is the winner of Italy’s Sanremo festival – Francesco Gabbani’s ‘Occidentali’s Karma’.

Even as the poetic conventions of Italian pop music go, ‘Occidentali’s Karma’ – which has been seen more than 18 million times on YouTube in ten days, plus another 1 million views for Gabbani’s performance in the Sanremo final – is an ambitious philosophy essay.

The title – ‘Westerners’ karma’, or il karma degli occidentali transposed into the possessive syntax of an English apostrophe-s – is already asking the listener to play a linguistic game which at the very least needs an anglophone to work out who are the occidentali anyway, then – if they’re going to understand what the lyricist wants them to – to work out what Gabbani might mean about their karma or the search for it or whether they can even access it or not.

The rest of the lyrics take a glossary to explain – something which the 40+ television commentators who have to introduce this song to Eurovision viewers in May won’t have the luxury of – and according to Gabbani’s fellow songwriter Fabio Ilacqua are supposed to critique the shallowness of modern life in the West and the way that Westerners have appropriated ‘Eastern’ spiritual practices to help them cope:

It describes the situation of Westerners, their models and their way of seeking refuge in the Oriental rituals for comfort. It’s a pretext to observe how are we as modern humans. Westerners are turning to oriental cultures like tourists who go into a holiday village. Oriental cultures are seen as an escape from the stress, but they were not born for this. It’s the trivialisation of something profound.

What the viewer first sees, unless the staging is very careful, is a white man dressing up in orange robes going namaste.

On stage at Sanremo, a line in the song’s lyrics citing the anthropologist Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape inspired its producer to bring a man in a gorilla suit on stage halfway:

‘Occidentali’s Karma’ is now, to the overlapping Italian and transnational communities of Eurovision fans, the early favourite to win the contest and/or that song that needs to come with an entire bibliography, and, to many more internet users, the viral video with the dancing man in the gorilla suit.

Within the lyrics, the line ‘the naked ape is dancing, occidentali’s karma’ (‘la scimmia nuda balla, occidentali’s karma’) is saying something about a search for meaning that Gabbani sings has weighed on human minds on levels from the high art of Hamlet to the Neolithic.

Outside the lyrics – to a viewer who doesn’t understand the language, or doesn’t grasp in the middle of a televised song festival what the hell is supposed to be going on – it’s a dancing gorilla, in a song about karma and nirvana.

Which when the gorilla was and is a symbol of African primitivity in so many European racisms (think how often the racist abuse hurled at black footballers involves gorilla chants), working so deep down in white imaginations as to be imperceptible to persuade white people to fear physically imposing black men, and when the superiority of Europe in biological and cultural racism is so much about civilisation and modernity – is not what Ilacqua says he means the song to be about.

The long history of stereotypes of Africa and primitivism in Western arts and culture (which have outlasted the overseas empires that European countries like Italy and Britain actually had, and permeated across Europe to countries that didn’t have them at all), and the colonial overtones to contemporary Western appropriations of ‘Oriental’ spirituality, are a huge structure of thought and feeling that could prevent some viewers grasping the song’s critical intent, leave others recognising the racialised meanings of the gorilla and interpreting the performance as one that just reproduces the same dynamics it set out to critique, because the immediate aesthetic impact of what the viewer sees comes more quickly and viscerally than the intellectual effect of what the viewer (if they can catch it) hears.

(I’d switch the gorilla out for a Flintstones caveman for the Eurovision final. Yes, it loses the ‘naked ape’ reference. ‘Neolithic man’ is in the lyrics as well. You get three minutes.)

Tosca Beat and Gabbani are at very different steps of the Eurovision pyramid, but both have tried to use the aesthetics of performance to ask the viewer to recognise something else underneath what looks like their visual presentation – and occupy an ambiguous relationship towards the visual culture of European fascism or colonialism as they do so.

Can a Eurovision performance engage an audience in the kind of spectatorial move that both these videos make? It can try – but the sources they reassemble still have such power in European and Western imaginations that there’s no guarantee it can succeed.

‘That’s all because you asked this great toy question’: Cynthia Enloe and how to historicise anything

In the spirit of spontaneity that impressed me about the piece I’m about to quote from in the first place – possibly one of my favourite answers from a Q&A after a public lecture, from a talk by the feminist International Relations scholar Cynthia Enloe that the University of Westminster, where she gave it last month, kindly recorded and put online.

Enloe, who’s been publishing on war, peace and women’s lives since the 1980s (after beginning her career studying the politics of armed forces’ ethnic make-up, which she freely admits these days she isn’t satisfied with because she hadn’t yet understood how to take women’s lives seriously in International Relations research), was one of two or three feminist IR authors recommended to me in the first lecture of an ‘International Relations 101’ course I crossed over into from my BA History during my first year at LSE, when the lecturer – probably Professor Chris Brown, whose own research didn’t touch on gender at all – was explaining what we’d be reading in the one week on gender that this intro module had. (In fact, most courses in UK universities used to run all year so it occurs to me that was probably in my first week.)

I’m quite sure what propelled me at 18 to the library to look up Enloe and Jean Bethke Elshtain (whose book Women and War I also found out about at this point) was mainly the thought that reading about women and war was likely going to throw up some histories of gender-non-conforming women and where else in my International History syllabus was I going to find out about those. (Elshtain delivered in this respect with an introduction that began with a story about her childhood identification and disidentification with Ingrid Bergman’s Joan of Arc; I’m from the generation that would either be beginning their war-and-gender books with a story about Milla Jovovich’s performance as the same, and/or a story about those first few paragraphs of Elshtain.)

What I found, and didn’t realise I was looking for because most of my syllabus wasn’t even suggesting it was there, was a lens that Enloe develops through books called things like Bananas, Beaches and Bases – and keeps up through the late Cold War, post-Cold-War and we can’t be in the post-post-Cold-War already can we? – for magnifying how apparently trivial objects, or spheres of life that seem completely disconnected from war, are actually linked into systems of thinking and feeling that make war, militarism and gender-based oppression possible at some very deep levels – a manifesto for overthinking that I didn’t know I needed but that has been helping me make sense of the world around me ever since.

I’ve already written on here about (and am still doing work inspired by) why it works so well when Enloe asks in Maneuvers, about a can of pasta shapes made to tie in with Star Wars, ‘How do they militarise a can of soup?’

What I like about this Q&A answer – which runs to almost 900 words, I realised once I’d started to transcribe it – is how it distils arguments I’ve read Enloe make over the space of whole book chapters into the kind of fluidity or clarity that… does not characterise me when I talk about my own research in public at the moment. (There’s the one of me who digresses, there’s the one of me who can’t even finish a sentence, and, usually, the one of me that misses a step I’ve known about so long I take for granted, so that the whole thing falls down in front of anyone else.) Obviously someone at Enloe’s career stage has racked up thousands of hours more practice than anyone at mine, but as I start loping into that ‘early mid-career’ point (and what on earth is that) I worry that that’s only going to get worse not better the greater the range of things I start to know.

Here is Enloe cutting across International Relations theory, cultural history (I’m reminded of Graham Dawson’s work on British boys’ identification with militarised play post-WW2, which I also need to write about at some point), international economics, education research, fashion theory, asides that transform how listeners think about things they might have taken for granted, and questions that coming researchers could develop into whole books or PhDs even over and above the ones there already are, when an audience member asks her a question about toy soldiers:

Do you know that the first toy soldiers which were lead, lead soldiers, you can still see them in museums – they were made to train elite boys in monarchical systems at an early age about their duty as a future soldier for the regime. So militarised toys, and that socialisation of boys into the naturalness of soldiering, or at least the admiration of soldiering, starts very very early. And here again, women as mothers oftentimes feel that they really are responsible for their sons growing up to be quote normal boys, whatever that is, are the ones who take the boy by the hand down the aisle with the military toys. And the military toys are usually right next to the dump trucks. You know, that is the masculinisation of play can look very unmilitarised. You know. How many little girls really play with dump trucks? Well, dump trucks are great. They’ve got all those moveable parts and you can mix the… you know – but somehow, at that early age, dump trucks are thought to be a boys’ toy, versus any child’s toy. I love dump trucks. Because they’ve got all those moveable parts and you can make up games and stories and…

The big toy companies, like Mattel and Hasbro, they’re major companies, if you – you know, you all have very different aesthetics around your curiosities. Not everybody wants to study a playgroup, although that would be a really good thing to do. If you watch pre-school teachers trying to take the gender out of play, even though the gendering of play has started at home. Or you find the playgroup is very gendered, and a well-meaning mother or father is then trying to de-gender the play when the child comes home. But if that’s not really where your research skills or your research tastes lie, take on a big toy company, and do a history of GI Joe. I mean, did anyone here have a brother or oneself that ever had a GI Joe toy? Ta-da. […]

The Barbie phenomenon, and the GI Joe phenomenon, these are globalised toys. They are made in very particular parts of the world. So if you’re interested in the globalisation of production, go find where really popular toys are made. Find out what you can reveal about the gendering of toys in the production of them, the masculinisation or feminisation of them, the marketing of them… So you’ve got a lot of different tastes in what really strikes you would be interesting to do as research. Find the level, in this case, from the everyday play, to the international production of toys, find some place to come together with your tastes and reveal it. Mattel is the producer of Barbie, and Barbie now has a couple of very spiffy military uniforms, a dress air force uniform. And you can cite exactly when that happened, exactly when Mattel’s toy designers decided that Barbie would be more attractive if one of her outfits was a military uniform. It wasn’t at the beginning. You can historicise anything, and when you historicise something you find where decisions are made. And when you find where decisions are made, you reveal politics. That’s one of the reasons to ask historical questions.

The Gap – by the way, I ask these questions so that you all write about them and then send them to me. That’s really what I’m doing here. The Gap introduced camo. Do any of you have a camouflage tank top, or a knapsack, or a pair of sneakers, or is this too embarrassing to ask? Did any of you once? Right, there you go. All right. But camo – and now it’s abbreviated to camo so that it won’t sound so militarised. That was the fashion industry that did that. They took ‘camouflage’, in garments, and then abbreviated, so most of us would forget it’s really about being invisible so that you can shoot somebody. That’s what camouflage is about. I mean, why do firefighters wear bright red? Because they want to be visible. Right? Camouflage is to be invisible. The Gap corporate designers, and marketers, made a very specific decision, in about – I used to know this for sure – about 2001, that they would introduce camo into their fashion line. Then they made, the next year, a decision to introduce camo into their Gap for Kids. But children actually don’t buy clothes in the kids section of The Gap. Mothers do. So every child, and I’m always – this is terrible, you get infected with this and you just see it everywhere – but when I see a child with a little camo outfit on, I wonder what – I really want to know. I truly want to know. What was she thinking? But, I mean, truly. What is she thinking? That it’s just a beautiful pattern? I mean, why not checks? Because The Gap’s profit depends on her making some association that she thinks that camouflage is a cute outfit for a child. So look for decisions. And the way you look for decisions is to watch something over time that didn’t exist, and then watch when it does exist, and then ask who made what decision when. And that’s all because you asked this great toy question.

My transcription, so my errors, and certainly my line breaks (don’t rely on this as a citation), but about as clear an exposition as possible of what Enloe has called in her later books a ‘feminist curiosity‘ – an eye so well acclimatised to the problems and structures Enloe wants to reveal that an everyday detail like a clothing pattern or the arrangement of a supermarket aisle sets off a cascade of I truly want to know, and full of subtle reframings like her description of the purpose of military camouflage (how much more often do you probably hear about it as there to prevent soldiers being shot, rather than to hide them so that they can shoot somebody?) – the analytical turns that have started making me wonder what a feminist aesthetic curiosity applied to such cultural and everyday dimensions of international politics might be.

And this is only a spontaneous answer to an audience question after the talk she’d planned to give – a lecture where she sets out the taken-for-granted, normalised (but in no way inherently normal) ideas about danger, protection and gender that make it so easy for societies, universities and people to start becoming militarised – and that make those beliefs so difficult to unmake, at least without being able to look underneath the surface of things like this…

‘A place calling itself Rome’: Coriolanus, military masculinities and a feminist aesthetic curiosity

This post originally appeared at the International Feminist Journal of Politics blog on 20 September 2016, accompanying my article ‘”Ancient Volscian border dispute flares”: representations of militarism, masculinity and the Balkans in Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus‘ (International Feminist Journal of Politics 18:3 (2016): 429-48).

In the first duel between the two feuding generals who serve as protagonist and antagonist in Ralph Fiennes’s cinema adaptation of Coriolanus, a bloodied Roman commander in grey-green digital camouflage uniform, bulked out by tactical pouches, radio equipment and the personal paraphernalia of US forces’ urban combat in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, confronts the leader of the barbarian Volscians, a bearded paramilitary in plain green fatigues whose irregularly dressed and lightly equipped forces resemble countless still and moving images of fighters from a very different yet equally ‘post-Cold-War’ conflict, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

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The contest between Coriolanus, the Roman war hero who turns away from political acclaim to fight alongside the very barbarians against whom he won his battle honours, and Aufidius, the Volscian leader who moves from admired adversary to counterpart to the agent of Coriolanus’ death, is a historical rivalry from the early stages of Rome’s wars with the Volsci in the 5th–4th centuries BC, adapted into a tragedy by William Shakespeare, and understood by Fiennes (both director and star of this 2012 adaptation) as a narrative that purports to reveal timeless truths about men and war.

The materiality of the film’s production design, on the other hand, could hardly be more time-bound: not only are the identities of each army and polity conveyed through resemblance to forces from a different newsworthy war, but Fiennes and his production team visualise the competition between the two men through directly opposing two military masculinities, the combat soldier of the post-9/11 War on Terror (representing a state that US liberals have been likening to Rome since its founding days) against the paramilitary of post-Yugoslav ethnopolitical conflict, as pictured in news photography including Ron Haviv’s famous ‘Blood and Honey’ series.The choice to make the film on location in Serbia and Montenegro meant that ruined post-Yugoslav locations in Belgrade, Pančevo and Kotor add verisimilitude for any viewer who remembers news images from the Yugoslav wars, as sites supposed to have been devastated by the Roman–Volscian conflict – even though the destroyed hotel where Coriolanus and Aufidius fight their first duel is none other than the (now refurbished) Hotel Jugoslavija in Belgrade, which owes its ruins not to either side in an ethnopolitical conflict but to a NATO air strike during the Kosovo War in 1999.

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Archival news footage from (on almost every occasion) the Yugoslav wars (one early riot scene contains a clip from a protest in South-East Asia; none of it comes from the war in Iraq) further localises the action in not so much the material Western Balkans but the imagined space of ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ into which one of the two most prominent Western discourses about the wars transformed the Yugoslav region.

The blurring of ‘found footage’ and scenes staged and designed in resemblance to it sees, in one exposition sequence, Gerard Butler’s Aufidius and three other Volscians cheering and waving rifles as they drive into conquered or liberated territory, above the rolling headline which gave my International Feminist Journal of Politics article the first part of its title: ‘“Ancient Volscian Border Dispute Flares”’. The caption does not give us the ‘ethnic’; alongside these images juxtaposed with concepts of ancientness and territory, it does not need to.

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With the built environment and the thematics of exposition situating the film’s imaginary space so much more within (a certain Western construction of) the Yugoslav wars than within any post-9/11 conflict – and with a Serbian costume designer, Bojana Nikitović, and the Serbian actors portraying several supporting military characters contributing their own awareness of the aesthetics of the Yugoslav wars – the chief means of distinguishing the Romans and Volscians becomes the aesthetic differences in the embodied military masculinities of each side.

Indeed, the psychological narrative of Coriolanus’ rivalry with and admiration of Aufidius – which will end in Coriolanus’ death at Aufidius’ hands after his wife and mother have persuaded him to make peace and return to Rome – is visualised through the transformation of Coriolanus’ and Fiennes’s own militarised body into a persona that several UK film reviewers independently likened to ‘a Balkan warlord’.

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Coriolanus’ death at Aufidius’ hands, after his wife and mother have persuaded him to make peace and return to Rome, thus becomes simultaneously the resolution of the tragedy, the blade finding (as Fiennes explains in his director’s commentary) ‘its place of penetration’, and Fiennes’s imagination of a ‘weird ancient tribal blood rite of embrace and sadness’ (the hero slain by his dualistic rival yet again?) – a homoerotics given thematic unity by the enactment of ‘ancientness’, killing and tribalism in a ‘Balkan’ setting.

Coriolanus, the film, reached nowhere near as many viewers on release in 2012 as blockbusters such as The Dark Knight Rises or The Hunger Games; however, like both those films in different ways, the aesthetics of its design depend on the evocation of resemblance to (and sometimes direct incorporation of) images from recent conflicts to incorporate narratives about the nature of war and violence in the present or recent past into the texture of a speculative setting.

Such evocation in Coriolanus primarily occurs through the conjunction of material space and the costumed, performing body. Much of what this adaptation can tell scholars of international politics would not therefore be contained at all in the elements of audiovisual narrative, such as dialogue and story, with which researchers accustomed to written texts who study popular culture may be most comfortable. Similarly, much of what this adaptation can tell scholars of international politics would not be perceptible at all without applying a ‘feminist curiosity’ (to quote Cynthia Enloe) and a ‘queer intellectual curiosity’ (Cynthia Weber), to start perceiving how its constructions of war and violence are constituted by ideas about gender, masculinities, desire and the body.

The combination – what we might call a feminist aesthetic curiosity – could reveal much about the continuum between representation and imagination, mimesis and speculation, through which creators, spectators and even military institutions produce and contest ideas about violence, gender and war.