The Illyrian alphabet that wasn’t: how two centuries of European printers circulated an imaginary Balkan script

One of the joys of historical research is finding unusual things in old books.

One of the joys of social media once you link a whole lot of historians, linguists and literature people up with each other is finding the unusual things people have found in a lot of old books.

Like these pages from Josiah Ricraft’s The Peculier Characters of the Orientall Languages and Sundry Others, published in London in or around 1645, that Heather Froehlich encountered while looking at texts in languages other than English in the Early English Books Online collection:

(Make that The Peculier Characters of the Orientall Languages and Sundry Others, Exactly Delineated for the Benifit of All Such as Are Studious in the Languages, and the Choice Rarities Thereof, and for the Advancement of Language Learning in These Latter Dayes. That claim to precision with its millenarian twist at the end – the same combination that introduced readers of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens to an occult text called The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch – is exactly what you want in your early-modern-English-book-title aesthetic.)

Two of these scripts – the ‘Alphabet of the Slavs’ and ‘Alphabet of the Croats’ – are forms of Glagolitic, one of the scripts devised for writing down Old Church Slavonic by the early medieval Byzantine missionaries who spread Orthodox Christianity in eastern Europe. Cyrillic (named after one of the two most famous missionaries, Saints Cyril and Methodius) endured and became the basis of alphabets for eastern Slavonic languages such as Russian and Ukrainian, and for south Slavonic languages in nations with strong Orthodox traditions (Serbian, Bulgarian, Macedonian).

Glagolitic (somehow, it never got called ‘Methodian’) didn’t become the basis of any modern-day national language’s literary script, but as a liturgical and monumental script lasted longest in Croatia. For 19th- and 20th-century Croatian national movements, the 12th-century Baška tablet, discovered by a Croatian priest in 1851 when Croatian (and many other) national ‘awakenings’ were in full swing, has both symbolised the continuity of Croatian statehood and connected to layers of Croatian national myth.

The inscription acknowledges the historic King Zvonimir, who ruled the medieval Croatian kingdom until being betrayed by his own noblemen; moreover, it provides the first reference to ‘the national Croatian name […] in the Croatian language’. And it does it in Glagolitic.  (In the words of one of the most famous new patriotic songs that emerged in 1991 at the beginning of the Croatian war of independence, resonant with the karst landscapes of the Dalmatian hinterland, history is quite literally ‘written on a firm stone’.)

(Today, narratives and iconography of the Croatian national past that play on the ‘primordialism’ of ethnicity and tradition in the landscape continue to make Glagolitic script a symbol of Croatian ethnic continuity on the land, immediately distinguishable for a Croatian onlooker from the Cyrillic script which in the region’s late 20th/early 21st century language politics connotes Orthodoxy and Serbdom. It’s not uncommon on patriotic t-shirts and tattoos; some monuments commemorating 20th-century Croatian national ‘martyrs’ are inscribed in Glagolitic; and the Zagreb-based designers Vesna and Marija Miljkovic have used the script as detail for an entire clothing and accessories line.)

Ricraft’s fourth script, a version of Cyrillic, is the ‘Alphabet of the Muscovites’, inverting the balance of power between Russian and South Slav languages that most inhabitants of Slavonic languages departments will be used to these days.

It’s the first script, the ‘Alphabet of the Illyrian Slavs’, that looks hardest to place. Glagolitic-but-not-quite, Greek-but-not-quite, serpentine tails where you don’t expect them to go – tipping its ‘peculier characters’ into the uncanny valley between historic typography, modern-day invention and contemporaneous alchemical esoterica to which several decades’ worth of films and book covers have tied the aesthetic of early modern printing for a contemporary eye.

(Take a novel like Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Dumas Club, filmed as The Ninth Gate, about an antiquarian book dealer hunting a 17th-century treatise that can supposedly summon the Devil; just put up a woodcut on screen and the viewer should start to be smelling brimstone.)

Indeed, as a place-name Illyria itself is in much the same valley – the name of a historic tribe in south-east Europe who pre-date the migration of the Slavs, attached to a Roman province, Napoleon’s Adriatic satellite state and the first wave of the South Slav national ‘revival’ in the Habsburg Empire; part of an Albanian myth of national origin; and, as Vesna Goldsworthy records in her history of fictional Balkan countries, one of literature’s most popular go-to names for imagining the Balkans behind the one that gave her book its title, Inventing Ruritania. And then there was that time Joss Whedon named an ancient warrior demon after it.

To paraphrase Kieron Gillen’s line from The Wicked + The Divine about the mysteriously reincarnated goddess Tara (‘We don’t know if she’s Buddhist, Hindu or Tara from fucking Buffy‘), semidetached from its historic moorings the name has permeated literature so far that ‘we’ might be forgiven for not knowing if it’s from Shakespeare, Greater Albania or Illyria from fucking Angel.

Except the background to the Alphabet of Illyrian Slavs is less Ninth Gate, more in the equally time-honoured bibliographic tradition of printers messing about – with something to reveal about how north-west European typographers thought about foreign languages in the 16th to 18th centuries.

Ricraft’s was far from the only handbook to include the Alphabet of the Illyrian Slavs, according to the Slavonic linguist Sebastian Kempgen, collector of Slavic alphabet tables from 1538 to 1824. It’s there in Richard Daniels’s Copy-Book of 1664, also from London, and a Leipzig printing manual in 1740; it surfaces in France in 1766, in Pierre Simon Fournier’s Manuel typographique, and in Edmund Fry’s 1799 Pantographia. De Bry’s Alphabeta et characteres, printed in Frankfurt in 1596, contains several Cyrillic and Glagolitic alphabets, the Illyrian script and a Cyrillic ‘Moscovitian’, putting it into the same lineage as Ricraft. Several Italian handbooks, meanwhile, don’t have the script at all. Finally, Kempgen traces it back to Zurich: Urban Wyss’s Libellus valde doctus, elegans, & utilis, published for the edification of calligraphers in 1549, where Kempgen notes no other Slavonic languages were printed at all.

alphabetumilr

‘Illyrian’ alphabets in the later books, compared to the greater variations of Cyrillic and Glagolitic scripts, resemble the Wyss models much more:

These later copies reproduced the alphabet very faithfully, but it is obvious that, for 250 years, none of the authors of these copybooks had a “living” alphabet to check his engravings against, that there actually were no texts that could be used to sample these letters from, no speakers to correct anything etc. Whereas in all these typographic books the Glagolitic and the Cyrillic alphabets do exhibit certain changes over time as they changed naturally, this one alphabet seems to be frozen in time, as if it had been photocopied by one author after the other. (Kempgen 2015: 6)

Kempgen speculates that Wyss invented the alphabet himself, using Glagolitic as a model but adding embellishments of his own that matched the codes of what he perceived as exotic (something he also seemed to have done to his book’s ‘Egyptian’ alphabet):

Having no idea which parts of the Glagolitic letters were distinctive and which weren’t, he transformed the Glagolitic letters into fanciful designs that fit the rest of the exotic alphabets that he cut for his book […] In Zurich at the time, there would have been no one who could have given him advice on how to interpret the Glagolitic letters best – which parts were important and which of his ornamental additions or re-interpretations made them unrecognizable as Glagolitic letters. (Kempgen 2015: 11)

The ‘mysterious’ Illyrian script, in other words, belongs somewhere between the chain of early-modern biblical typos, litanies of unfortunately transcribed script tattoos, and the comedies of errors through which Google Translate error messages and out-of-office emails end up written on signs.

Moreover, it’s missing several important sounds that the alphabet of any Slavonic language would be likely to contain; and the Italian manuals, printed closest to the Adriatic where their readership was likely to be in most contact with the script, have no trace of the Wyss alphabet whatsoever. Esteemed typographers in north-west Europe, for two and a half centuries, still reprinted the ‘Illyrian’ alphabet as fact. As Kempgen concludes:

Due to lack of better knowledge, it has been faithfully reprinted for 250 years – but never anywhere near Slavic-speaking countries. (Kempgen 2015: 11)

Wyss’s alphabet circulated because it looked plausible; other Cyrillic and Glagolitic scripts were and had been in use, ‘Illyria’ already existed as a designation, the Illyrian alphabet looked like its neighbours, why shouldn’t it be there? It’s as if the Dothraki language, knowingly constructed by George R R Martin and David Peterson for Game of Thrones in evocation of the horse-nomads of Eurasian steppes, were actually to appear in a handbook on the languages of Central Asia.

Two centuries before the Venetian traveller Alberto Fortis was romanticising the nomads and bandits of the Dalmatian hinterland as ‘Morlachs’, a generation before Shakespeare was imagining his shipwrecked twins making landfall in Illyria, Wyss was playing his own part in the European imagination of the Balkans. Whether Ricraft regarded the Illyrian Slavs as speakers of one of his ‘orientall languages’ or ‘sundry others’, his woodcut contributed a small node to the network of representations that south-east European cultural theorists such as Maria Todorova and Milica Bakic-Hayden have often compared to orientalism, or the politics of imperialist Europe representing and exoticising the Middle East.

Similar fabrications, in the age of national ‘awakenings’, could sometimes inspire nationalist imaginations anyway; the poems of Ossian, a third-century Gaelic bard, were part of a cultural movement that moved not only some Scots but romantic nationalists in other countries to imagine a folkloric national past even when they turned out to have been written by a contemporaneous Scottish poet, James MacPherson, in the 1760s.

If the Illyrian alphabet has never lent itself to an invention-of-tradition move, it might be because the chain of transmission ends abruptly, according to Kempgen, with Pantographia; linguists active in the 19th-century national ‘awakenings’ put enough new material into circulation about their languages’ scripts that they stopped depending on handbooks in the Wyss lineage and the error did not persist into the 20th century. Its lack of the full complement of South Slavonic letters means it would be hard to adapt to revivalist purposes in the same way that Glagolitic itself, though out of daily use, lives on in contemporary Croatian patriotic iconography.

Benifit or not to any such as were studious in the languages, Ricraft’s perpetuation of the alphabet-that-wasn’t certainly stands as a choice rarity thereof; an insight, even if not the one he might have wished for, into the advancement of language learning in his own latter dayes.

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Call for papers (panel proposal for BISA 2016 conference):

Call for papers (panel proposal for BISA 2016 conference): Popular Culture and International Politics: South-Eastern Europe and the Globe

This panel organised by the British International Studies Association’s South East Europe Working Group for the 2016 BISA Conference in Edinburgh (15-17 June 2016) asks how popular culture research about/from south-east Europe can contribute to a wider research agenda in International Studies. How far can popular culture be said to have shaped, as well as reflected, the politics of south-east Europe, and what insights might current research questions in south-east European cultural studies be able to offer the research agendas around Popular Culture and World Politics, Visual International Relations and related areas?

Contributions to the panel might focus on any of the following areas, or other relevant topics:

  • Construction and contestation of national identities and other layers of collective/geopolitical identity
  • The politics of war memory and collective victimhood
  • ‘Banal nationalism’ and ‘banal militarism’
  • Post-conflict/post-socialist political economies of cultural production
  • International politics of sexuality/gender and popular culture
  • Popular culture and the ‘affective atmospheres’ of politics
  • Celebrity activism and humanitarianism
  • Post-9/11 narratives of international security
  • Transnational processes of racialisation
  • Popular culture, digital media and diaspora as political actors
  • Virality and visuality on social media
  • The global movement of people, capital, technologies and texts
  • Popular culture and the emotions in IR
  • Producing popular-cultural artefacts as an innovative methodology in IR

Please send paper proposals (including a title, a 250-word abstract, a 100-word biography and a contact email to Catherine Baker (cbakertw1@googlemail.com), with ‘BISA SEE WG popular culture panel’ in the subject line, by Fri 20 November.

Is writing translation?: writing about militarisation/embodiment and what else we can do

Over the last couple of years I’ve been revisiting some of my popular culture work, and indeed some of my interview-based research, by thinking about the concept of ’embodied militarism’ in the emerging field of Critical Military Studies – specifically, how bodily practices and representations of the body reflect and shape imaginations of war inside, around and outside actual armed forces.

In recent years interest in embodiments of militarism, and more generally in embodied experiences of war, has crossed from history and literature (think of Elaine Scarry’s book The Body in Pain or Joanna Bourke’s Dismembering the Male) and sociology (John Hockey’s sensory ethnography of the infantry) into International Relations (through works such as Kevin McSorley’s War and the Body edited collection or Christine Sylvester’s War as Experience). Importantly for me, this approach incorporates both the lived experience of war and the fictional or fictionalised representations of war that appear in popular culture – joining together both sides of my research interests in a way that I used to find hard to express.

In War as Experience (2013), for instance, Sylvester calls for war to be studied as the same kind of ‘social institution’ as heterosexuality or marriage:

In the case of war, the institutional components include: heroic myths and stories about battles for freedom and tragic losses; memories of war passed from generation to generation; the workings of defense departments and militaries; the production of war-accepting or -glorifying masculinities; the steady production and development of weapon systems; religions that continue to weigh issues of just and unjust wars instead of advocating no wars; and aspects of global popular culture – films, video games, TV shows, advertisements, pop songs, and fashion design – that tacitly support activities of violent politics by mimicking or modeling their elements in everyday circumstances. (p4)

Of course, feminist International Relations has already been able to work for a long time with Cynthia Enloe’s concept of ‘militarisation‘, which includes both the material involvement of armed forces with the rest of society and the economy, and an ideological dimension of persuading the public to internalise the values of the military and war – which, Enloe comes to argue, occurs just as much through popular and consumer culture as through any other social process. (As one chapter in Enloe’s book Maneuvers: the International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives (2000) is titled: ‘How do they militarize a can of soup?‘) In the last decade, dozens of scholars have been able to use the idea of ‘militarised masculinities’ to talk about gendered representations and embodiments of militarism in contemporary and historic conflicts. (We hear less about ‘militarised femininities‘, even less about ‘female militarised masculinities’, and next to nothing about any non-binary engagements with militarisation, but they’re there too…)

At the International Studies Association conference this year, I was part of a panel on ’embodiment, experience and war’ where I talked about the process of writing about militarisation and embodiment – something I’ve been thinking about since a discussion I had with Synne Laastad-Dyvik during ISA last year. She and McSorley (plus Jesse Crane-Seeber and Lauren Wilcox) were also on the panel, with Sylvester as our discussant, and I took the opportunity to think further about what we communicate and what we ourselves might do or sense when we write about embodied experiences of war or mimetic representations of them.

Do we need to worry, for instance, that something about embodied, sensory experience is being lost when we write about it (especially in the format of academic writing)?

Loss vs. translation (because I never want to hear the phrase ‘lost in translation’ again)

In the panel, I suggested that we could think about it less as loss and more as translation – which lets us see what Translation Studies’ close engagement with the process and politics of translation could bring to thinking about this common concern of ours.

Whose experience? Writer as intermediary (translator)? Reader/listener contributes to meaning too

We do run into a problem here – whether the concept of translation can actually be extended beyond the interlingual at all. Anthropology and comparative literature have both used and critiqued the idea of ‘cultural translation’, for instance, but does this stretch ‘translation’ too far beyond the distinct things about translating between languages? Mary Louise Pratt offers one useful resolution by casting attention back on the writer as intermediary, focusing on positionality rather than process:

What is gained by using translation not only as a referent, but also as a metaphor for characterizing the transactions, the appropriations, negotiations, migrations, mediations that give rise to it? Perhaps this question invites us to reflect on the power (not the task) of the translator, as the one who knows both the codes; the one who has the power to do justice, be faithful, yet also to capture, deceive, betray one side to the other, or betray both to a third. (Pratt 2010: 96)

And now we’re back to the concern with the social positioning, agency, visibility and ethics of translation (and interpreting) that Translation Studies has been showing since the 1990s. Mona Baker and Anthony Pym, for instance, have both written on what the ethical responsibilities of translators might be; even though they interpret them differently, they’re still both concerned with how an intermediary uses the power that comes from their understanding of how to communicate in a source language and a target language at the same time.

The choices translators make – what to translate? how closely to accommodate the audience expectations? how strategically to unsettle those expectations through translation? – are all, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay ‘The politics of translation‘ sets out, political – not least because the intermediary is always part of some kind of relationship of power towards the source-language audience(s) and target-language audience(s) they are responsible to.

Other fields – ethnography, postcolonial theory, feminist theory and oral history to name a few – may be further ahead in considering positionality, power and trust during the writing process, but there’s a useful focus on the how as well as the why, what and who of writing that Translation Studies puts into the spotlight (at least for me, after several years researching translation/interpreting and ‘language support’ in peacekeeping operations, when Translation Studies was part of the conceptual framework the research team I belonged to was working with).

It’s also interesting to compare writing about embodiment with the problem of screen translation or audiovisual translation; in some ways, it puts you in the same position as a subtitler. Henrik Gottlieb used the phrase ‘diagonal translation‘ to describe what subtitling does: it has to translate from one language to another, but also from one set of senses to another (speech you hear into writing you read – but staying associated with images you see), within a restrictive set of technical conventions for how much text can appear on screen and once and how long it’s supposed to stay there for.

Subtitling, necessarily, compresses meaning: the diagonal translation, as David MacDougall writes in Transcultural Cinema, ‘distils out of a range of implicit or possible meanings certain explicit ones’ (p. 174).

This is more or less where I’d got up to with the ISA paper when Mona Baker visited Hull to give a seminar on her new research about activist subtitling and the Egyptian Revolution. The activists she worked with have tried to translate in ways that already express changes they want to bring about and – while still restricted by some technical constraints – to experiment with format to convey more of the original than subtitling usually can (e.g. one video that moved subtitles around the screen to emphasise the rhythm of a protest chant).

This was an occasion for me to rethink the instances of militarised embodiment that I’ve written about: if I’m worried that something about embodied experience is being lost when I write, is there anything else I can do to mitigate the effect of that compression of meaning?

Thinking about how Saara Sarma has used paper collages of 2D internet parody images to build arguments about the international politics of nuclear warfare (as explained in her 2014 PhD thesis) – based on Sylvester’s theory of collage as a method where ‘‘[i]f there is a storyline […] “it” is one we [as the viewer] must provide’ (Sylvester 2006: 208), I started developing an idea I’d had in a footnote of an earlier version of the paper: is there anything I could do with video remix, for instance, that I couldn’t do with writing? But, if so, what?

When representations recirculate through us

Although I originally meant to talk about writing about embodiment based on interviews and writing about embodiment based on popular-cultural texts, I found when I was putting the paper together I had far more unanswered questions about writing and popular culture research.

This isn’t what I’d have expected if I’d thought about it. Interviews are the narratives of real people to whom I clearly have ethical responsibilities, and directly represent a person’s embodied experience of war; most of the cultural texts I deal with are audiovisual texts and performances, imagined representations at much more of a distance from what Sylvester and McSorley both emphasise is the core activity of war – injuring the body. They feel less real or material in an important way (though audiovisual texts need people to embody their characters in order to be produced, and have their own politics of production and labour; they’re not quite immaterial, either).

But interview-based and fieldwork-based disciplines already have scripts for thinking about the writer as an intermediary of other people’s experience and the responsibilities that writers then have. Whatever the problem is, someone else has probably had it before, if only you know where to look. Working with/on audiovisual texts doesn’t free us of ethical responsibilities or detach us from our social positions relative to others – a point Laura Shepherd reiterated later in the conference during an excellent paper on the ethics of researching and circulating (or not circulating) viral internet memes – but, then, what responsibilities and positions are they?

After explaining some of the ways in which I’ve researched militarised embodiment in popular culture – both in contexts where you’d expect it (like Croatian patriotic popular music during the Homeland War)…

ISA 2015 slide 6

…and in contexts where you might not…

ISA 2015 slide 7

…and making the point that even as we critique the recirculation of images and narratives, they recirculate through us (and bring with them, often very problematically, their own invitations to desire and identify), I finished up wondering whether – like the activist subtitlers in Mona Baker’s research – there are ways narrative approaches that might help get at this point more successfully than I can do in academic writing.

(A few other kinds of narrative that come to mind here: the use of fiction by IR scholars such as Elizabeth Dauphinée or Richard Jackson to communicate ethical questions about researching political violence; the narrative about fandom, desire and identification in the comic The Wicked and the Divine which within a few months, with the creators’ knowledge, had started inspiring fanart and cosplay of its own; the fact that whatever any of us academics write about critical engagement with popular culture, we’ll never reach as many people as Suzanne Collins has with The Hunger Games.)

ISA 2015 slide 9

So far, the closest I’ve come to an audiovisual research output is the Powerpoint of looped and paired images I used a couple of years ago to illustrate a paper I was giving on representations of militarised masculinities and the Balkans in the film adaptation of Coriolanus. (Which eventually became an article itself.) I’d seen Victoria Basham do this with one image per slide during a talk on popular militarism in the UK. For the Coriolanus slides (I’ll put up some of these in a forthcoming blog post about the article), I paired one image from the film and a news image from the Yugoslav wars in order to illustrate the points about resemblance, identification and recirculation that I was making, and had each pair automatically rotate behind me as I talked; it can’t convey all the information that a paper can, but is there anything a display like that can convey that an academic paper can’t, precisely because it forces the listener to take more of a part in making sense of what they can see?

A digital argument?

Feeling that this worked well but not quite knowing why, and being aware of what Sarma has already done with 2D collage, brought me to thinking about video remix.  Outside the academy, this has already started becoming established as a tool in cultural studies pedagogy: Jonathan McIntosh’s ‘Buffy vs. Edward: Twilight Remixed‘, which edits footage from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight together into a scene between Buffy Summers and Edward Cullen to comment on Twilight‘s eroticisation of an abusive relationship, has had more than 3 million viewers despite being temporarily removed from YouTube in a copyright dispute. Craig Saddlemire and Ryan Conrad’s ‘A.V.A.T.A.R.: Anglos Valiantly Aiding Tragic Awe-Inspiring Races’, which mixes lines from Avatar with lines from 16 historical films to draw attention to the persistence of ‘white saviour‘ tropes in Hollywood film-making, has 40,000 but could still do with more.

In some ways, this might not even be too far from what we do as academics after all. I’m interested by Virginia Kuhn’s concept of this form of remix as a ‘digital argument’:

[R]ecent attempts to categorize remix are limiting, mainly as a result of their reliance on the visual arts and cinema theory as the gauge by which remix is measured. A more valuable view of remix is as a digital argument that works across the registers of sound, text, and image to make claims and provides evidence to support those claims. […] [A]rgument is key to academic efforts, and as such, the term holds resonance for the scholarly community. Remix can be a scholarly pursuit: it cites, synthesizes, and juxtaposes its sources. Argument also contains connotations of the dialogic quality of communication that is not anchored to either speech or writing, and so digital argument can extend its features to writing with sound and image in addition to words.

But then, what sources are even mine to do things with, especially when I’ve been engaged in cross-cultural research? My gut sense is only those sources that I’m addressed by or maybe even that I’m marginalised by; but I’d like to see the fields I belong to do much more to develop the ethics of dissemination methods like these. And how, when we leave more of the meaning-making to the viewer, do we ensure that they can’t miss the critical engagement we want to bring about?

Thanks to my co-panellists at ISA, my colleagues in researching militarisation/embodiment generally, and to Sarah Maitland for conversations which have helped me develop this…

Disturbing material in the classroom: on content notes and trigger warnings in teaching

Researching and teaching about the Yugoslav wars means that, for more than a decade, I’ve been coming into contact with horrific material on pretty much a weekly basis. During my PhD, when I spent months reading Croatian newspapers from the 1990s, I was confronted almost every day with photographs of dead or wounded bodies, or newspaper testimonies about people’s suffering during the 1991-95 wars. Some of the documentary sources and academic studies that I assign when I teach about my specialist area, likewise, can contain a level of horror that these days I take as part and parcel of my work but which might be unexpected to students learning about this moment in history for the first time.

Alternatively – and here’s where it gets even more difficult for teachers – it could be all too much like something from their own lives.

For this reason, I’ve been following the debates about whether and how teachers ought to warn students about uncomfortable topics with particular interest. There have been articles by university educators all year about requests that students at some US universities have made for instructors to warn them in advance about material which could be upsetting to read or watch, especially when it covers topics such as suicide or rape. (And please be aware, if this matters to you, that I will discuss those in some more depth as I go on.)

This academic year, Oberlin College introduced a resource guide advising teachers to provide content notes or ‘trigger warnings’ to make classrooms as inclusive as possible for survivors of sexual violence, then rolled it back after journalists and some of Oberlin’s own staff criticised it as an attack on academic freedom. Meanwhile, the student senate at the University of California, Santa Barbara passed a resolution asking tutors to note content on their syllabi that might have an adverse effect on students with PTSD if they encountered it without being able to adequately prepare themselves.

The thinking behind these requests is about more than students just being ‘upset’, and recognises that, after someone has experienced trauma, certain sensory reminders of what happened can (though not ‘will’) make the brain prepare to experience it all over again. The term ‘trigger warnings’ originated from online communities formed by survivors of abuse and violence, where users warning each other about the content of posts made it more possible for people in a community to have discussions with each other.

It’s existed for long enough in social media and online fandom that some students in a contemporary classroom would have known about the convention of trigger warnings in those spaces before they ever came to class – which means that in one respect the whole current discussion about trigger warnings in teaching is part of a wider context about the digital literacies and textual practices that students may be bringing to the classroom now, and there’d be a lot of scope for educationalists to think further about this.

‘Warning: this report contains flashing lights’

The Oberlin and Santa Barbara cases made national news in the USA, and commentators who already disliked trigger-warning culture online saw the Oberlin/Santa Barbara demands through the same lens. Academics who blog have been discussing them extensively online ever since: the Chronicle of Higher Education website, for instance, has featured several posts arguing that trigger warnings are a form of censorship that insulates students from having to deal with the harsh world outside, as well as posts by instructors disagreeing with them because the impact of trauma on the body deserved to be taken seriously.[1]

However, even before this year, educators had already been confronting the problem of what to do about disturbing content: the American Philological Association, for instance, held a roundtable about teaching about rape in classical literature in 2009, and Liz Gloyn has written thoughtfully about how this has played into her teaching on Ovid.  (She’s also had a teaching note on the same topic in Classical World, which has a version without subscription here.)

Gloyn makes the point that, statistically, tutors should expect that every class will contain students who have experienced sexual violence: with numbers like these, it stops being a case of ‘what if’ material like some of what I teach affects a student personally, and starts being a case of how do I anticipate and mitigate the possible impact it could have.

The idea of giving a heads-up about upsetting content isn’t even an internet-age invention. In the UK at least, broadcasters have been using warnings for years – for instance, alerting viewers to disturbing images about to come up in news footage. After programmes that have represented topics such as abuse, eating disorders or suicide, they generally provide information about resources for viewers who might need support after recalling their experiences while watching the programme.

Perhaps the most direct parallel to content notes in teaching is with warnings about flashing lights. (Indeed, I have to remember to give one of these in class every time I show excerpts from the opening ceremony of London 2012.) It’s more and more widely accepted that television/stage audiences need to be advised about flashing lights in performances because they can set off seizures in people who are photosensitive. This is literally a ‘trigger warning’ – anticipating a harmful consequence because of a known risk, and advising viewers so that they can use their awareness of how it affects them and decide how to manage it.

Some theories and practices of content warnings

The most recent long academic post on content notes and trigger warnings is Jack Halberstam’s, which I’ve seen being both praised and critiqued all weekend. (My own thoughts on it are going to be much more by way of critique, not praise.) Halberstam argues that accusations of speech being ‘triggering’ are used to shut down discussion, and as such are ‘neoliberal rhetoric’. More broadly, he argues that the contemporary left has been distracted by ‘identity politics’ which emphasise individual trauma and offence.

Halberstam posits a curious generation gap between his generation of queer activists in the academy and the students they teach, and ultimately suggests that the individual demand to be able to feel safe will lead communities into complicity with state power and oppression, although I have to say that at this point I struggled with the analogy: is every student really in the same structural position inside and outside the academy (where, let’s not forget, most of them are paying for their tuition) that gentrifying white gay activists have held in relation to US urban space?

(His article dismisses, in particular, trans women who have asked other queer people not to use the T-word. Yet, as Morgan Collado, a trans Latina poet and writer, explained in response to his post, ‘The t-slur is used to dehumanize trans women, specifically trans women in the sex trades, and is justification for our murder […] The way Jack frames the problem as trans women being divisive by telling non-trans women to stop using the t-slur shifts the focus off the people who are actually being oppressive, namely Jack.'[2] It’s also worth reading Julia Serano’s response to Halberstam on the generational politics of US queer activism.)

The objection to content warnings which has given me most pause for thought is Brittney Cooper’s, which is much more attentive to the power dynamics inside and outside classrooms than many of them have been (and certainly much more than Halberstam’s has been):

[P]art of what we as educators, parents and students have to recognize is that classroom spaces in which difficult topics like trauma, rape, war, race and sexuality are discussed are already unsafe. When students of color who have endured racism have to hear racially insensitive comments from other students who are in the process of learning, the classroom is unsafe. The classroom is unsafe for trans students who are often referred to by the wrong gender pronoun by both students and teachers. The classroom is unsafe for rape survivors who encounter students in the process of learning why getting drunk at a party does not mean a woman deserves to be raped.

But learning about these topics are all necessary forms of education. […] Overwhelmingly students let me know at the end of each semester that though the discussions were hard, they are glad we had them.  Trigger warnings might have scared these students away from participating in discussions that they were absolutely capable of having. And in that regard they do more harm than good. So for the sake of my students, you won’t find them on my syllabi.

Cooper is concerned that students with ideological objections to material could use institutional mechanisms to have a reading removed or cause problems for instructors. In particular, she is anxious that students could get out of examining their own prejudices and privileges by saying they had been ‘triggered’ by material that challenged them.

All this is possible, which is why mandating them could be counter-productive. But there are still ways for content warnings to be good practice, if they’re understood not as censorship but as facilitation (or even, as Andrea Smith suggests based on her work in Indigenous social movements, as part of a collective rather than individual approach to reducing harm).

Sayantani Dasgupta, a practitioner of storytelling and medicine, takes this view in explaining why she’s used them in her classes (though she isn’t responding to Cooper, but to bloggers who have objected to trigger warnings much less thoughtfully):

[P]reventing little Johnny, José, or Jamila from getting a tad misty-eyed in a classroom is not, ideally, what trigger warnings are about. With their roots in the feminist blogosphere—where writers often want to give readers warnings before discussing explicit situations of sexual violence—trigger warnings in classrooms are about acknowledging that each student has her or his own specific life history, family context, identity, body—and that these realities have an impact on how a student understands and interacts with texts. […]

[D]oes my use of trigger warnings in the classroom mean I think my students are weak? Not at all. Rather, it’s because I respect my students, and know that they all come with varied life experiences of which I know only a fraction. Who in my class has a brother who was killed in a homophobic attack? Who in my class survived a sexual assault last year, last month, last week? Who in my class fled their homeland as a result of ethnic cleansing? I don’t always know, but I do know that my students did not somehow hatch, fully grown, the moment they entered my class. Rather, they live complex lives outside of my classroom, lives which bring richness to our collective learning.

The day after I originally published this post, the therapist Meg Barker posted a long essay that tries to get beyond a binary of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ content notes and trigger warnings by thinking through what they can open up and close down:

Perhaps the main point of trigger warnings is to open up the possibility for people to determine what they engage with, when and how. The idea is that, if we provide people with a brief overview of the kinds of topics and issues they are going to be confronted with (in a novel, a movie, a lecture, or a workshop, for example), then they can make an informed decision about whether they wish to engage with it or not. Advocates of trigger warnings regard this as a form of consensual practice, and a good way of modelling, and enabling, a more consensual culture than we currently have. It is also a potential way of recognising the structural constraints around agency. Not all people are as free as others, and one key limit on our freedom are the scars left by experiences of discrimination and oppression. Trigger warnings are one way of giving people greater agency within the structural limits on this. […]

However, there is also the potential – of course – for this approach to close down possibilities as well as opening them up. One risk is that, if taken too rigidly, we start to divide the world in binary ways between the powerful people who get to give trigger warnings, and the powerless victims who require them. […] This potential alerts us again to the risks in line-drawing between traumatised and non-traumatised, oppressed and non-oppressed. Perhaps instead it points us towards recognising the inevitability of traumatic experience during a person’s life, and the complex net of intersecting oppressions in which each person is located.

I have used content notes in teaching when necessary, and would certainly encourage other teachers to think about using them, because I take the view that when they’re used as part of a holistic approach to learning they can make students more able to participate rather than less. (I don’t use the specific wording ‘trigger warnings’, because if students haven’t heard the phrase before it might distance them from thinking about what’s in the note.)

I could still put them in a more prominent place – next year, I’ll try to – and I’m still experimenting with how best to actually run the sessions on the most difficult topics.

It obviously isn’t just the Yugoslav wars where these problems arise in teaching History: anyone teaching a first-year survey course on the 20th century, for instance, will have students who are reading, hearing and seeing more detailed depictions of the Holocaust than they will have done before. Dasgupta’s reminder about bearing in mind what students and those close to them might have experienced is one that every educator needs to think about.

So what can I do?

My own starting point for thinking about disturbing material and teaching is that other people know their own personal circumstances, and the psychological and physical effects those have on them, better than I do. Yes, there could be occasions when my research and professional experience might make me aware of a piece of context around what someone has experienced that they might not have thought about already. That still doesn’t translate into me knowing better than they do about how they actually sense it affecting them.

By defending content warnings, I don’t mean to imply that certain topics are too harmful to be taught. Quite the opposite. One of the most interesting new books on post-Yugoslavia that I’ve seen this year, for instance, has been Elissa Helms’s Innocence and Victimhood: Gender, Nation, and Women’s Activism in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina. It hadn’t come out when my Yugoslavia module began last year, but in this year’s module we could potentially do more with it.

Large sections of Innocence and Victimhood are about the activism of Bosnian women who were raped during the 1992-95 war, and how war rape has been used for political point-scoring (by Bosniak nationalists, and by Western liberal feminists). I’d like students to be able to understand Helms’s argument about gender, nation and narratives about collective victimhood in contemporary Bosnia-Herzegovina. I’d also like them to appreciate an even broader point she makes, which is that in order to understand the post-Yugoslav present we need to consider the effects of wartime violence and the collapse of Yugoslav socialism. Clearly, I’m not going to say that we can’t ever use this book because it discusses rape.

Yet if students are confronted with this material unexpectedly (and Helms’s writing is much less graphic or emotive in this respect than some of the earlier scholars she critiques), is there a risk that some of them wouldn’t be able to finish the reading or even participate in the class? That would work against my objectives as an instructor,  and so I ought to do the best I can to mitigate it.

(And of course Innocence and Victimhood is only one of many books on the Yugoslav wars where this would come up. Dubravka Žarkov’s book The Body of War, for instance, is a critical study of the wartime Croatian and Serbian media, examining exactly the kind of imagery that I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post; but in order to make her argument she needs to illustrate what was shown.)

The other reason I’m sympathetic to student-driven demands for content warnings is that, as teachers, we want students to be thinking deeply about what they’re learning. Being able to make serious proposals about changes to teaching means that students must have thought about what the content, structure and methods of teaching already are and how those knits together into a system of knowledge.

Last year, for instance, economics students at Manchester formed a society that called for a revised Economics syllabus with a greater and more critical range of theoretical frameworks, and SOAS students have similarly written a report asking for gender analysis to be integrated into Politics and Development teaching. To me, this is evidence of precisely the kind of critical thinking that the humanities and social sciences strive to develop, even though they’re uncomfortable situations for a department to be in.

Angus Johnston, a historian of US student activism, writes that after this year’s controversies, he’s decided to use content notes in his syllabi where appropriate – not in any way to change the way he teaches, but to clarify the approach that he already has. This is the way that I’d see content notes as well, and next year I’ll probably expand mine along his sort of lines to try and say more about what I aim for my teaching to be like. The purpose isn’t to signal to certain students that some of the module content ought to be off limits for them; rather, it’s to continue to meet the stated outcomes for everybody’s learning while making the material as accessible as I can.

[1] This has been continuing since I wrote the original version of this post on 6 July, so some of the links in this post now point to articles that appeared after the 6th.

[2] In the first version of this post I linked to Liam Bechen’s response at this point as a critique of this part of Halberstam’s argument. Collado’s post has appeared in the meantime and I’ve worked it into my text because she’s someone who has been directly harmed by the slur that Halberstam argues isn’t a problem. It’s also worth reading Tobi Hill-Meyer’s response to Halberstam which provides some more context about the specific incident Halberstam was referring to in that section.

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.

Is this digital humanities yet?: testing a new online resource for music and politics

Every researcher collects more data than they know what to do with, especially during a PhD, and especially if they’re the sort of person who never throws anything away. In my case, it was thousands of articles to do with music and entertainment from the Croatian press between 1990 and 2007 – which occasionally resurface when I search my hard drive and make me realise how much more there is that I didn’t use in my PhD and book – but also hundreds of Croatian song lyrics, mainly to do with national and regional identity, some of which have been hanging around ever since my Masters dissertation in 2004.

I’ve never really known what to do with these. Some extracts made it into the PhD thesis, got taken out again for the still-almost-over-its-contractual-length book, and got reinserted for the translated version, where they wouldn’t affect the word count so badly. But mostly, they’ve just been knocking about.

When I started creating my own content for a module on ‘music and resistance’ at Southampton (the origin of my deciding to develop a module called ‘Music, Politics and Violence’ at Hull), I assembled and translated a smaller set of lyrics, this time mainly from Serbia and Bosnia, for use in two of the sessions I was introducing. Some of these have carried over into Music, Politics and Violence, plus some of the material from Croatia. Even so, I still have an awful lot of material just knocking about.

For some time I’ve been wondering about making the whole lot available as a resource. What pushed this up the agenda was a lecture visit I made to Munich and Halle last month (expertly organised by Isabel Ströhle at Munich and Eckehard Pistrick at Halle, with support from the Schroubek Fonds östliches Europa), to give two talks on music and ethnopolitical conflict. In Munich I was talking to an audience of students, researchers and members of the public interested in south-east European culture and politics, whereas in Halle my talk had been fitted into the programme of an ethnomusicology module on south-east Europe. Hearing what the rest of the module had covered made me look again at these collected songs and think about how I could present it in a way that would be useful to other people who teach about or study these matters, as well as myself and my own students.

I don’t have experience of creating databases or hosting sites, so as a pilot project this month I decided to set up a WordPress.com site for the collection using whatever searching and browsing tools could be built into it. Each song is presented on a separate WordPress post, with a video embedded from YouTube, a note about the year of the song and the source of the video, its original lyrics, and a translation. At this stage there are approximately 300 songs in the collection, although the sample is still full of gaps and couldn’t be described as systematic in any way. The site is also accompanied with a bibliography (also incomplete…) and an index of topics, which compensates for some – but perhaps not many – of the limitations that using a blog structure rather than a database structure has imposed.

What I suppose I had in mind was something like an online version of James von Geldern and Richard Stites’s anthology Mass Culture in Soviet Russia. This makes it possible to incorporate popular-culture sources from Lenin’s/Stalin’s Soviet Union into teaching where neither the tutor nor the students necessarily know the original language (for instance, I’ve been able to provide lyrics to a terribly popular 1920s pop song about workers’ control of the brick factory, which I can then use as one of the examples in a lecture on music and the USSR).

I soft-launched the site, Music and Politics in South-East Europe, yesterday by posting about it on Facebook, where I’m connected to dozens of other people who teach in the same field, and asked for feedback. If you’re somebody who might use this material in teaching, might be or have been in a class that could use it, or are any other kind of user who might find the site useful, I’d be grateful for your feedback too: the site is still very much in a test phase (although realistically there are some problems that I may not be able to fix, at least not without re-hosting and re-designing the site, which is beyond my capacity as things stand).

There are many limitations I’m already aware of:

  • The test version of the site contains no contextual information (e.g. on the background of musicians, on political and historical allusions in the lyrics, and so on). In my own teaching, this would be provided through other material; I still need to know what contextual information others would need for it to be useful to them.
  • Limitations in regional coverage. There’s no reason why the site couldn’t expand to cover south-east Europe more generally, but I can only translate from Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, Serbian and Serbo-Croat. (They’re mutually intelligible, so that’s less impressive than it sounds.) Even as former Yugoslavia goes, there’s next to no coverage of Slovenia, Macedonia or Albanian-language music from Kosovo within the collection, and there’s also very little on Montenegro. Material from Croatia and/or relating to my own research interests is over-represented. With extra contributors, this could be changed, and I hope it will be, but the deeper structural problems of the site need resolving first.
  • Limitations in coverage of content. This relates to the non-systematic way in which I was stocking up initial content to get it ready for testing. In particular, there’s not enough hip hop as there needs to be, for the pragmatic reason that the texts are longer and my focus last week was on broadening the range of the collection so that I could get a better feel for how the navigation could work. There’s also not enough coverage of material in dialect as there should be (to do this properly, I’d need dictionaries that I don’t have).
  • I don’t have exact dates for many of the songs. The dating is much better with the Croatia material (where sometimes I even know the release day) than the rest of it. There are a number of songs from the Bosnian War that I can’t as yet find precise origin years for at all.
  • Consistency of translation seems good to my eye, but then that’s my eye. Others will probably spot inconsistencies or even errors.
  • Attrition of videos will be a problem over time. Sometimes users close their accounts; more often, YouTube closes them for them after copyright complaints. I’ve tried to provide official video sources or videos from channels that have been around and stable for several years wherever possible, but this is still going to be a risk. This in itself probably means the site wouldn’t be a fundable project, which means that I couldn’t for instance hire a research assistant to expand the collection into other languages, and I don’t want to develop this further if it would only be feasible through unpaid labour.
  • There are difficulties with search. Many south-east European words and names contain diacritical marks, so the site is full of these. The sidebar search box only works if the right diacriticals are typed in, and users may not know how to or be able to do this. This becomes an obstacle to looking up many places and personal names.
  • It would be nice to add custom text to the search box widget to remind people of this, and perhaps even provide buttons they can click to enter a diacritical character, but I can’t.
  • The site architecture is fundamentally that of a blog, not a database (which I wouldn’t have been able to create on my own). It’s not possible, for instance, to create advanced search options that would depend on querying a database, and on each post having suitable metadata. If you want to see ‘all songs that mention Kosovo and came out in 1999’, a database would be able to show you; this architecture can’t.
  • Content instead has to be organised through tags. Each post has a number of tags for themes, references, artists, years, places (place tags combine place of origin and place discussed – this may cause confusion). Clicking on a tag brings up a page of all posts tagged with that tag, in reverse chronological order. The problem is that these lists can’t be sorted, so a significant source that went into the collection early will be at the bottom of the list, and something more marginal will be on top. This currently worst affects the ‘Croatia’ tag, which has more than 150 items, but would get worse with other tags as the database scaled up.
  • WordPress’s default settings cause some problems. The header image is currently WordPress stock and needs replacing with something original. (It does vaguely resemble a south-east European river or lake, but probably isn’t one.) Also, the ‘older posts’ link at the bottom of the front page is currently infinite-scrolling rather than loading a separate ‘page 2’. I turned infinite scrolling off on the morning of the launch, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. This is a problem because eventually the page it generates becomes unmanageable.

And there must be more things I don’t know about. Have a go with it. Think of something you could do with it. See if you can do it. If not, tell me about it (leave a comment here or email catherine.baker at hull.ac.uk). I don’t know if everything is fixable, but I still want to see where this could go.

A small blogging milestone, or, what is this all for?

This blog hit a small milestone in January: the first time it received more than 1,000 visits in a month. Compared to much more frequent bloggers, institutional group blogs, or bloggers on the platform of a publication with its own audience, that doesn’t account for very much, but for an individual blog that still contains only thirty posts I’m still quite happy with it.

A lot of the hits this month came from a post on feminism and academic language that I wrote during the Suzanne Moore/Julie Burchill transphobia controversy. I’ve never had a post be shared so widely or for so long as this was, even though the posting time (early evening on a Sunday) broke all the rules I generally go by about the optimum time for posting blogs so that they get read (lunchtime or early afternoon on a weekday, with a follow-up on Twitter to catch evening and transatlantic readers).

This post had 400 readers in its first two days, was shared on some blogs and forums that I’d never heard of as well as by more Twitter followers than any other post of mine, and can still bring in a ‘long tail’ of 10-20 users on one day or another. It almost broke my record for hits in a day, and might have done if I’d posted it earlier. That record (353) still belongs to my post on the Olympic opening ceremony, which I wrote the very next morning and which benefited from lots of internet searches for elements of the ceremony from people trying to work out just what had been going on. The blog had 982 visits in July 2012, a record until last month. More interestingly, something started happening in July that has led to a long-term increase in reader and visitor numbers: before July 2012, I’d only had one month when the blog had had more than 500 hits (May 2012, when I’d written a series of posts on the politics of the Eurovision Song Contest), whereas since July 2012 every single month has had 600 hits (all right, 591) or up.

Maybe my Olympics posts in July brought in an audience who hadn’t been reading about cultural politics, languages and the military, or teaching practice, but who stayed around. (I did have a big bounce in Twitter followers and retweets after the opening ceremony post.) Also, though, I think the responses I had to my blogging in July must have started altering my sense of what I could use a blog for. Many of my posts in the rest of 2012 were about aspects of British public memory, national identity and remembrance. I’ve never researched these in the sense of having written academic articles or research proposals about them, but I have a lot of experience writing about the same themes in another society, and blogging has made me feel as if I do have something interesting to say.

(I used the Olympic opening ceremony as the basis for a taster seminar on national identity and public events during an Excellence Hub event that we organised at Hull last year for local sixth-formers who are doing History A level. Afterwards, one of their teachers asked me whether this was something they could do a module on. And, well, I’m working on it…)

In the long term, this may even end up adding to my academic publication strategy, as well as the ways that I engage with people through other forms of communication. In the Research Excellence Framework (the national evaluation of university research in the UK), 20% of a department’s score is based on ‘impact‘, or ways in which research has changed or benefited the economy, society, culture, policy or quality of life, in sectors outside academia. To get credit for ‘impact’, there must be a demonstrable link between the effect achieved and an academic publication. It’s not enough to have talked generally about the Eurovision Song Contest, let’s say; I’d also have to demonstrate that a research article or book of mine on the Eurovision Song Contest had an identifiable, impact-y effect. (In this case, luckily, I have one, but I would still need evidence that somebody referred to it and it then inspired or altered their actions.) So if there are topics I have the potential to be influential on, I ought to make sure – at least for the purposes of this evaluation exercise – that I have a piece of academic research published about them too. I might not have identified some of these possibilities if not for blogging.

The Journal of Victorian Culture‘s online arm recently ran an excellent blog post by Naomi Lloyd-Jones on ‘how to be a #socialmediahistorian’. (I don’t research the Victorian era, but I consistently find JoVC‘s posts engaging, which is a sign they’re doing it well.) I can only agree with her conclusions about why historians and other researchers can find social media platforms so useful:

Being a #twitterstorian is a brilliant springboard for wider work as a #socialmediahistorian. And, in an era when ‘presence’ is about far more than just attendance at conferences, being a #socialmediahistorian is becoming increasingly vital in constructing a well-rounded persona, and visibility, for oneself.