If you don’t get it, if you, if you don’t get it: Eurovision 2021 and the struggle for racial justice (part 2)

Eurovision 2021 saw a record number of Black performers, from backgrounds that represented a wider range of Afro-European histories than ever, and offered a home entry that made a more direct reckoning with the legacies of racism and colonialism in the host country than the contest has ever witnessed before – and yet the voting results brought the uncomfortable evidence that every single Black entrant appeared to have underperformed on pre-contest predictions, especially on the public televote.

Benny Cristo didn’t qualify from his semi-final (and neither did Australia’s Montaigne or Austria’s Vincent Bueno, this year’s two entrants of Filipino descent), and apart from Tusse, who got a relatively mid-table 63 points from the public, every Black contestant would have finished near the bottom of the Eurovision scoreboard if results had been televote-only as per most of the 2000s: Senhit and Flo Rida only scored 13, Eden Alene 20, Destiny 47 (despite ranking third in the jury votes), and for all the creative power and virtuosity Jeangu Macrooy brought to ‘Birth of a New Age’, the public vote awarded him no points at all.

No Black entrants placed on the left-hand side of the final scoreboard except for Destiny, who finished 7th, but the announcement of such a low televote total for what had been one of the pre-contest favourites was a crushing moment in what should have been the high-energy lead-up to Måneskin’s thrilling win.

We could point to reasons why each individual act underperformed: Cristo has given better vocal performances of his song than he did in the semi-final; the government of Alene’s country had just been at the centre of international condemnation; expensive American guest acts have flopped at Eurovision before (ladies and gentlemen, Miss Dita von Teese?); Tusse suffered from arguably the worst spot in the whole grand final running order by having to follow Måneskin; Destiny’s kiss-off hook might have relied too much on French slang (‘je me casse’ – ‘I’m out of here’) and a humorous English idiom (‘excuse my French!’) to connect with voters who are mostly second- or third-language speakers of both; the concept of Jeangu’s staging, breaking through a backdrop of oppressive concrete to reveal the joyous colour of his Sranan Tongo words, was slow to build and left him surrounded by a cold, bare background for those all-important first thirty seconds and more. (Imagine the same performance surrounded by a digital version of his video’s backdrops in the Rijksmuseum?)

Yet if every single Black artist in 2021 struggled in the public vote, including the one who jurors voted third best overall, is that evidence of something more unsettling in how voting audiences react to Black singers representing countries at Eurovision?

The 2021 scoreboard makes it most glaring because the final contained so many Black performers in the first place, but in fact since the current voting system was introduced in 2016, Black finalists have received an average of 123.4 points from juries but only 46.6 points from the public vote – and the contest has still never had a solo Black winner.

Accordingly, the contest’s communities do need to confront the likelihood that racism is having an effect on how audiences react to Black performers at Eurovision, and even in more subtle ways than viewers deciding not to vote for a Black singer because they are overtly prejudiced – modern Eurovision’s cardinal sin.

As well as conscious prejudice, which the majority of viewers interested enough in Eurovision to vote would probably distance themselves from, racism also manifests in less conscious forms of assumptions and bias.

Along with the beliefs about their backgrounds, attitude and appearance that Black creators and professionals have to fight against in essentially every sphere of public life, the context of Eurovision brings with it the idea that the show is celebrating European cultural traditions – and this is a ‘Europe’ commonly, though wrongly, thought of as a historically white place, where people of African descent have only recently started living and so are not part of its cultural traditions. Their own cultural traditions, in the same way, seem less ‘European’.

Applied to voters’ tastes at Eurovision, where viewers are being asked to make emotional connections with 26 different songs one after the other, this might invisibly contribute to viewers sensing that Black musicians’ entries are less what they enjoy in a Eurovision context even if they’d never come close to putting that thinking into words, or finding Black sound or dance too confrontational to connect to.

It likely has an impact, too, on how people react to particular Black performers – especially Destiny, who’s been being criticised since the final as overconfident even though her whole delegation was promoting her so heavily before the contest that they bought ads on social media campaigning for her to win. As a Black woman with a larger body shape, Destiny has borne the brunt of diverging from European beauty standards, and celebrates her ability to enjoy her body in her own song – yet a groundswell of remarks about the very same thing was going on behind her back at the very contest where she was supposed to be getting her message across.

Moreover, the conventions of beauty that Destiny stands out from are products of both racism and sexism at once – since the standard of preferring women to be thin dates right back to the era when being thin demonstrated white women’s ‘European’ level of self-control and distinguished them from curvier Black women, a trope we still see in hostile reactions to fat Black women performers like Lizzo today.

This would make Eurovision yet another context where Black people have to work ‘twice as hard’ as their white counterparts to achieve the same success, and where straying away from a white norm to pursue Black traditions of cultural expression is an extra creative risk.

(Without taking away from the example of representation that Tusse wanted to set on stage as a Black soloist with all-Black dancers, which he’s spoken about never having had when he was growing up in Sweden as a child refugee from the DRC, what he’s achieved in breaking through in Swedish pop, or how more accessible his message of liberation seemed to be on grand final night, it’s notable when we’re talking about how Black entrants’ songs resonated with the voting public that, musically and lyrically, ‘Voices’ hits all the beats of typical Swedish Eurovision production, to the point that it shares its hook line with Russia’s partly-Swedish-written runner-up from 2015.)

Another, even more subtle, way that racism in its structural sense influences how viewers connect with Black music and musicians at Eurovision is through something that philosophers of racism call ‘epistemic ignorance’ – or, very simply, what we’ve been trained not to know about our own society and our own history when it has to do with racism, slavery and empire.

Until Black historians and campaigners, and their counterparts from other racial minorities, started challenging it, the status quo in predominantly white societies was for schools, museums, media and other institutions that deal with the past not even to mention the violence that European colonisers inflicted on people of African descent and the inhabitants of other territories they colonised – and certainly not to deal with the material and psychological consequences for their descendants in society today.

How far that is being challenged in each country, and from what starting point, is a complex matter – and it’s far less on the agenda in countries that didn’t have their own overseas colonial projects, or where national history between the 16th century and the First World War was mostly a matter of being ruled by other empires themselves.

In countries which did have their own systems of colonial exploitation, but perhaps also when it comes to thinking about ‘Europe’ as a whole, we have to set that past and its consequences aside to be able to feel proud of our shared history – but the privilege of not having to know about racism or the history behind it doesn’t extend to Black Europeans or members of other racial minorities, who experience the disadvantage from it every day.

In my last post on Eurovision and the struggle for racial justice this year, I talked about how ‘Birth of a New Age’ could be compared to Jamala’s ‘1944’ in the way they both express their singers’ emotions about violence against their ancestors and what that means in the present. But compared to how ‘1944’ played out in 2016, where Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was common knowledge, many viewers had strong feelings of injustice about it, and most viewers would have heard Eurovision commentators explaining that her grandparents were Crimean Tatars, colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade don’t figure as a living history to most white Europeans – nor, therefore, does the full resonance of how ‘Birth of a New Age’ calls into being its resistance to injustice.

Jamala enjoyed a wall of press coverage before her Eurovision in which she could explain Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944, describe how her own grandparents were suffering in occupied Crimea, and invite viewers to make the historical connections for themselves (all to the benefit of Ukraine’s public diplomacy, even before she’d won).

Although pre-contest media coverage was more limited this year due to Covid restrictions, the pandemic can take only some of the blame for how few viewers would have approached the grand final knowing and feeling as much about the history behind Jeangu’s song as they would have known about Jamala’s – and, with the Netherlands going through its own reckoning with the legacies of its colonial past (including what may at last be the phasing out of blackface Zwarte Piet, and the Rijksmuseum acknowledging the significance of the Atlantic slave trade to Dutch history in an exhibition that opened in the very same week as Eurovision), it’s not as if there wasn’t an epic scale of story to tell.

(Many more viewers will now know at least a small amount about Dutch colonial oppression against enslaved Africans and their descendants in Suriname thanks to Jeangu’s performance in the final, which shouldn’t be underestimated – but even in countries where commentators were linking the song to Black Lives Matter, how many viewers even now know the basic lowdown of what happened when?)

With more racial diversity behind the scenes in how Eurovision is covered – including, as Alesia Michelle has been pointing out, in fan media accreditation and the online press room – we might have seen more journalists asking the questions that would have let Jeangu and his delegation draw the nuances of his story out… and fewer of the unpleasant, disproportionately critical comments about Destiny’s rehearsals that reportedly marred the atmosphere of the online chat there.

What would it take, then, to improve awareness of the historical, institutional and structural dimensions of racism – or increase what’s sometimes called ‘racial literacy’) – across the Eurovision world in general? A priority would surely be strengthening racial literacy, and indeed sheer racial diversity, in Eurovision’s reference group itself, where incorporating more invited members with relevant lived and professional experience could compensate for the other pools of potential members still being wholly or predominantly white.

Besides a stronger ability to spot potentially problematic song concepts before they reached the televised stage, we could expect stronger support for other initiatives as well:

  • What more could Eurovision as an organisation do to spotlight the histories of racial and ethnic minorities in host cities, working against the misperception that Europe and its constituent nations have only ever been historically white?
  • How can it ensure that Black contestants and Black music are fairly served in the narratives that build up around the contest and help viewers connect with entries every year?
  • What can Eurovision do to see that cleaning, hospitality and security staff at its venues, who in many countries are more likely to belong to racial minorities, are being fairly treated?
  • What leverage could Eurovision use to support other struggles for racial justice in European television, such as the tide of resistance to blackface performance in many countries that may finally be turning?
  • And how can Eurovision ensure that its physical and digital spaces are as welcoming to fans, workers and participants of African and Asian descent as they are to anyone else?

It’s when organisations don’t get it that those most affected, and their allies, end up saying: je me casse.

Your rhythm is rebellious: the struggle for racial justice and Eurovision 2021 (part 1)

Alongside the grief and isolation of 2020, which hit the communities that gather around Eurovision in its own way when the contest was cancelled, and the solidarity and creativity of inventing new forms of digital togetherness – which Eurovision knows something about as well – 2020 was also a year of protest.

Historians of that first pandemic year will surely ask why George Floyd’s murder on 25 May, out of all the police killings of Black people there have been, sparked such a global mobilisation for racial justice, just as the first wave of Covid-19 was subsiding in many places, and why these protests were the ones to make many institutions around the world take sudden action towards the cause of racial equality. As the first Eurovision since the beginning of the pandemic opens in Rotterdam, we might ask: would this legacy of 2020 change Eurovision in any way?

In a contest which has still never had a solo Black winner, Eurovision 2020 would have involved a record number of contestants of African descent, and the contest’s most diverse set of Afro-European histories as well. Benny Cristo from the Czech Republic was the son of an Angolan who moved to what was then Czechoslovakia; Destiny Chukunyere was the daughter of a Nigerian footballer who moved to play in Malta; Eden Alene belonged to the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel; Senhit, making her second appearance for San Marino, came from an Eritrean family in Italy; The Mamas, from African-American and Afro-Swedish backgrounds, had won Sweden’s Melodifestivalen after supporting John Lundvik on backing vocals in 2019; and the singer-songwriter Jeangu Macrooy, hotly tipped for his introspective song ‘Grow’, was born in Paramaribo, embodying the history of colonial oppression linking West Africa, Suriname and the Netherlands.

Almost all these contestants have returned for 2021 (and, as of the semi-finals, Senhit has even been joined by Flo Rida): while The Mamas didn’t repeat their Melodifestivalen victory, this year’s Swedish entrant, Tusse, came to Sweden as an unaccompanied child refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, part of a very recent and still continuing episode in Europe’s Black history. (For the first time ever, Eurovision 2021 also has two contestants of Filipino heritage, Australia’s Montaigne and Austria’s Vincent Bueno; unfortunately for the Filipino diaspora as well as all their fans around the world, neither made it past the semi-finals this week.)

Performance scholars looking at Eurovision critically, like Katrin Sieg, have sometimes questioned wondered whether even its famed moments of multi-racial inclusion actually offer audiences an illusory, comforting moment of thinking about Europe as post-racial – somewhere that has overcome racism, or that has never known racism in the same way as the US. When we watch Dave Benton singing with Tanel Padar in Estonia’s winning song from 2001, or Madcon leading their flashmob in the interval of Oslo 2010, are we actually being offered a fantasy of inclusion that distracts us from seeing ongoing racial injustice in Europe – and is there space within the traditions, rules and constraints of Eurovision for Black music to represent at least some of the critique, anticolonial resistance, and radical thought that thinkers like Paul Gilroy see in the Black diaspora’s musical creativity?

While the format of a commercialised and televised international song contest will always constrain the radical and political potential of performance to some extent (if only through the threat of financial sanction for breaking the rules, as Iceland’s Hatari found out in 2019), Jeangu’s return entry, ‘Birth of a New Age’, might have come closer than ever before to using Eurovision to advance the cause of racial justice in a material way.

As singer, lyricist and main composer of ‘Birth of a New Age’, Jeangu both celebrates the struggle of the Surinamese people and their Sranan Tongo language, and appeals to a collective Black history, remembering the violence that European enslavers wrought against the bodies, languages, cultures and religions of the ancestors of millions of Black Europeans – with a video asserting that Black style, dance, hair, customs and worship, and Surinamese traditions of them more specifically, all belong inside the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Jeangu’s very first line, ‘Skin as rich as a starlit night’, speaks a promise to recover Blackness as the centre of beauty, and his chorus in Sranan Tongo – ‘Yu no man broko mi, yu no man broko mi, yu no man broko, broko mi (mi na afu sensi)’, carries into Eurovision a traditional Surinamese odo, or saying of wisdom, translated as ‘You can’t break me, I’m half a cent’ – the smallest Surinamese coin, but the hardest to break.

As a creole language, with elements of English, Dutch, Portuguese and West African languages, Sranan Tongo has its origins in how enslaved Africans in Suriname, torn from many parts of West Africa and banned from learning Dutch, learned to communicate with each other and hide thoughts from their enslavers; when the Dutch authorities abolished slavery in Suriname in 1863, they forced children in compulsory education to learn only Dutch, hoping to stamp Sranan Tongo out. Even in contemporary Suriname the creole has a stigmatised history, and the official language is still the colonisers’ Dutch.

For those who want to see it, this year’s Dutch entry and the amount of creative input Jeangu has been able to exercise over its presentation do stand as an assertion of Black aesthetics in a mass entertainment context, albeit with all the tensions and limitations that implies. In the context of Eurovision, it might play the same creative role Black Panther does within the Marvel Cinematic Universe; its video’s high-fashion dialogue of resistance with how Black people were represented in Dutch and European art at the time the Rijksmuseum was built and filled simultaneously, also seems in conversation with how Beyoncé and Jay-Z staged their ‘Apeshit’ video in the Louvre in 2018 – following on from Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’, a project that inspired an entire Black feminist syllabus. (The choreographer for ‘Apeshit’, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, is Flemish-Moroccan and directed the interval act of Thursday’s Eurovision semi-final featuring ballet dancer Ahmad Joudeh and BMX rider Dez Maarsen, ‘Close Encounters of a Special Kind’.)

In Eurovision press conferences, Jeangu has also spoken of how important it is to be on the Eurovision stage as a queer black man (and one with Billy Porter levels of red-carpet style):

The song itself started out as a poem Jeangu wrote in the aftermath of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, which he has said he couldn’t have written if he hadn’t lived through 2020; even on a technical note, it couldn’t have sounded the same in any other Eurovision year to date, since the rule against more than six people performing (relaxed this year for Covid reasons so that delegations could send pre-recorded vocals and limit the number of people they’d needed to bring to Rotterdam) has always prevented soul, gospel and other collective Black musical traditions from being fully heard on the Eurovision stage. This year, Jeangu can be backed by the sound of a full choir (in fact laid down by Jeangu and his backing performers singing the vocals many times – among them Jeangu’s brother and ex-bandmate Xillan).

Put all this together, and Jeangu stands as one of the Afro-Europeans of his generation who, as Olivette Otele writes in African Europeans: an Untold History:

have shown an appetite for reviving the empowering stories of their ancestors. They are actively seeking these pockets of knowledge by engaging with virtual learning, online debates, social media […] They are also generating new narratives of resilience and diving into activism, from pushing for action on climate change, gender equality, and LGBTQ rights, to dismantling racism, islamophobia, antisemitism and other forms of discrimination.

Jeangu’s poetry communicates – to listeners who have felt the pressure of colonial legacies on their own bodies and to listeners who might have thought empire was just in the past – the violence that colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade inflicted on the minds and cultures of future generations, as well as on the bodies of those enslaved:

They buried your gods, they imprisoned your thoughts
Your rhythm is rebellion, your rhythm is rebellion
They tried to drain you of your faith, but you’re the rage that melts the chains
This ain’t the end, no, it’s the birth of a new age

Where narrating histories of violence and their legacies in the present at Eurovision are concerned, ‘Birth of a New Age’ deserves comparison to Jamala’s ‘1944’, which – two years after Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 – narrated Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars.

Both are narratives of historic oppression against their performers’ ancestors, the legacies of that violence for their communities, and how those communities have fought for their identities to survive – both, indeed, reassert that survival by switching into the oppressed language in their chorus. A response to Black Lives Matter at Eurovision could just have remediated images of Black American protest; here, instead, is a distinctly African European narrative, representing a nation which is undertaking its own reckoning with its colonial past and its legacies of racism today.

All this, indeed, has come from a delegation that (not necessarily with the same team involved) wasn’t equipped in 2018 to recognise that raising Waylon above four black breakdancers who might have been dressed like farmworkers looked incredibly like it was evoking racist tropes from the American South.

Even before 2020, the struggle for public reckoning with racism and the colonial past in the Netherlands had been putting more and more pressure on Dutch institutions: organisations including city councils and the broadcaster NTR have finally stepped away from the traditional Advent blackface character Zwarte Piet, and even the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said two weeks after Floyd’s murder that he had been persuaded Zwarte Piet was not just an innocent tradition.

In the very same week as Rotterdam hosted Eurovision, the Rijksmuseum opened its new ‘Slavery’ exhibition, in development since 2017, which affirms that ‘the history of slavery and the history of the Netherlands are bound together’ – chipping away at the myth of ‘white innocence’ that, Gloria Wekker writes, has characterised the prevailing responses of the white Dutch public when challenged to consider Dutch colonial history and racism in the Netherlands today.

Much more still needs to change (not least at the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn, which mocked Jeangu’s chorus and deflected its message by running an online advertisement for broccoli) – yet this degree of critical reflection on Europe’s colonial past and its links to racism today has never been as present at Eurovision as Jeangu has made it in 2021.

Sitting with ‘Yugosplaining’: explaining political experience I have and haven’t lived

A tale of two bars in 2016:

It’s the Saturday night of the Millennium journal’s conference on race and racism in International Relations, and four of us from our panel on race, Yugoslavia, India and Non-Alignment have walked up the back ways of Holborn in the October night looking for a place where we can sit and drink; a cramped, semi-underground Indo-Chinese cocktail bar has its back door open (I later found out it was called ‘Bollywood Stories’), and we settle around a small cellar table under the stairs, Srđan, Jelena, Aida and I, one candle flickering between us, contemplating what we don’t have to say out loud about the vote there’s just been in this country and the vote there’s about to be in the USA, and where what we know about what we don’t have to say comes from;

Four months earlier, it’s the day after that referendum, I’ve been away in Newcastle at a feminist international relations conference, up till 4.30 am until I couldn’t take any more of Nigel Farage grinning about bullets ten days after a white nationalist had shot Jo Cox dead in the middle of the street, and the group of us from my department who sometimes go for a drink after work have mutually agreed we need one tonight. We’re all white men and women from various parts of England, two from Hull, one from Derbyshire, me from the South (or maybe there are five of us, and our colleague who’s Australian is there as well); and soon after I’ve dropped my bag at home and found them in the large back room of one of the pubs near work, we’ve got on to constitutional implications, and I’ve said ‘Scotland’s gone’ without missing a beat; and someone or everyone says ‘Really?!’ because my consciousness has made a leap theirs hasn’t yet. (A few days later I think through all the resonances of constitutional fragmentation and ethnicised polarisation from the break-up of Yugoslavia that the atmosphere before and after the referendum is evoking, in an essay for LSE’s European Politics and Policy blog that comes out in one sitting about fourteen hours long: it comes to about 7,000 words.)

The astonishingly wise, frank, raw, and honest series of daily blog posts that Aida, Jelena and Srđan have edited all month at The Disorder of Things calls a foreknowledge based on living through the disintegration and destruction of Yugoslavia ‘Yugosplaining’:

At the time, the Yugoslav wars and their extreme violence were viewed by the West as idiosyncratic, isolated events, unrelated to broader process of political and economic transformation in the world – the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of communism. Indeed, they were just outright inconvenient for the world that celebrated the end of history. Yugoslavia, once deeply entangled with both the East and the West and even more so with the Global South, was all of a sudden isolated from history – including its own.

Yet now, as the West (and the allegedly democratized East) unravel under the weight of their own unresolved histories – and not just of the successive lost wars, financial crises or the pandemics – it seems that the ghosts of the 1990s are back to haunt us. Nationalism, ethnic and racial violence, populism, militias, lies and conspiracies can no longer be viewed as “the Balkan” phenomena. Instead, “the Balkans” now appears as the vanguard of a common catastrophe (Subotić, Hemon).

Concluding the series, they wrote yesterday:

The aim was twofold: first, to use the authors’ lived personal experience of Yugoslavia as a way of explaining our lived political experience elsewhere. Second, to reclaim the narrative of our own lives rather than be made subject to outsiders’ accounts.

Decades after its demise, Yugoslavia continues to act as an open wound. We live what Saida Hodžić wrote in her essay – “if home is a wound that splits open the world, the world neither stays open nor heals over.” Therefore, this series was not designed to explain what Yugoslavia was, what it meant to whom, who it included or excluded, or how it came apart or why. It was, instead, designed to explain our current moment – that world split open – through the experience of our past.

These are knowledges that, working in the Western academy, the contributors have seen painfully silenced again and again by Western presumptions about what happened in ‘the Balkans’ and what ‘the Balkans’ must have been like for it to happen there, as Aida, Azra Hromadžić and Saida Hodžić all painfully record.

I felt none of Yugoslavia’s break-up on my body. My experiences of the wars were mediatised backdrops to everyday pre-teen routine, as a racial- and ethnic-majority subject of a nation that was setting itself up as a humanitarian donor, diplomatic negotiator and conditional peacekeeper (which measured its contributions by the risk to British, not Bosnian, lives): a newsreader on my mother’s radio in the kitchen saying tanks had crossed the Slovenian border; the War Child appeal and ‘Miss Sarajevo’ on Top of the Pops; an Evening Standard headline about Srebrenica at the station, and footage of disarmed Dutch soldiers on the six o’clock news by the time I came home from school.

And yet the ways I’ve tried to understand how the wars became possible and what they did to everyday life have done something to my subjectivity, to the deep premises I know about how societies and international politics work, about how people come to see others as enemies, and the myths they tell about the future and the past.

As a PhD student, I wanted to understand how a music industry like Croatia’s could have separated itself from Yugoslavia so quickly, and how it had been part of transforming everyday public consciousness in the ways that the Croatian anthropologists and ethnomusicologists I’d started reading during my Masters had documented at the very beginning of the war. Stitching together the Croatian war of independence and its aftermath, day by day, over one long spring and two long summers in Croatia’s national library (year by year in reverse, so 1990 came last every time, and then it was back to the then-present with another newspaper or showbusiness magazine), the slippage of political deadlock into armed clashes into something ever worse was not the sudden blaze of Western book covers and documentary title screens; how would I know if this were only a few months away?

More of what I know about living through those years comes from deep listening. In my postdoctoral work, I interviewed thirty-odd Bosnians and other ex-Yugoslavs about the work they’d done as interpreters and translators for foreign peacekeeping forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, during and after the war. Some would have been direct contemporaries of Danijela Majstorović, who wrote about her own and her research participants’ migration in another of the Yugosplaining essays; we somehow missed each other during my research visits (we’re still not sure how). I must have been in Priština, where I’d gone to interview a former British military linguist for another strand of the project, just as former Bosnian interpreters were responding to a post I’d made in a Facebook reunion group about setting up interviews later in the year, when I was coming back from meeting an ex-KFOR interpreter someone had connected me to and the thought came to me: many of the people I’d been meeting had been languages students or languages graduates when the war came; so were most of my friends at the time; if something like this had happened where we lived [in a completely different global configuration of languages, statehood and power, of course; but that only came later], is this what we’d have done?

These are acts of imagination, just as everything I know about the region that used to be Yugoslavia is in some way a construction. It only sits inside my mind through scholarship; it does not sit in my bones. What do sit in my bones are the experiences and sensations of the scholarship itself – the work, the research, the presentations, the listening, the conversations, and all the imaginative backchannels that run while my frontstage does those things. Among the authors are friends, contemporaries, authorities, table-of-contents mates and tablemates, people to whom I strive to make my representations of Yugoslavia and its aftermath authentic and accountable, to whom I owe a responsibility to depict as much complexity as they can see.

In essays such as the piece by Dženeta Karabegović, Slađana Lazić, Vjosa Musliu, Julija Sardelić, Elena B Stavrevska and Jelena Obradović-Wochnik, writing as the Yugoslawomen+ Collective and using their own experiences as knowledge-producers and subjects who have waited to cross borders to think through how rhetoric about ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ migrants has changed since the 1990s, I hear echoes of dialogues that I’ve joined in as well in conference corridors and email exchanges, working through this last decade’s reckoning with racism and the global legacies of colonialism from where we each are:

The post-Yugoslav space from which people once fled, and from which they still continue to migrate, is now also known as a ‘transit’ zone for those fleeing ongoing violence elsewhere. The region once known for ‘the Yugoslav wars’ is now ‘the Balkan Route’, the EU’s imagined ‘Badlands’, the outer periphery where border security funds are channelled to prevent the onward migration of racialised ‘others.’ The so-called ‘Balkan route’ became an alternative once the sea crossings were deemed too dangerous; today, it has become so entrenched in the violence of EU’s border-keeping that just one monitoring group in the region has recorded more than 700 reports of police brutality and asylum denials, with 70% of incidents reportedly taking place in Croatia.

Countries of the former Yugoslavia, most notably Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, whose ‘good migrants’ have often managed to leave the region and arrive in relative safety to countries of the Global North, are now implicated in the EU’s border-keeping to the extent that they regularly participate in the violent ‘push backs’ of men, women and children from the EU’s external border. Their aspirations to ‘Europeanness’, understood primarily as EU membership, are exercised through the protection and legitimization of the European superiority, even though their own citizens’ mobility within the EU is limited. […] The region is, thus, simultaneously othered and implicated in further othering in migration discourses. These racialised and classed hierarchies of people on the move are perpetuated, despite thousands of people from the post-Yugoslav space continuously lining up in front of EU and other Global North countries’ embassies or looking for ways to get EU citizenship so they can migrate more easily.

Something has, or somethings have, committed all of us to perceiving Yugoslavia and the violence of its collapse, and the systemic violence emanating in all its global forms from Europeans’ enslavement of Africans and colonisation of Indigenous lands, as part of the same world.

(The very question of who feels able to write themselves into a ‘Yugoslav’ past is shaped by such power relations, as Vjosa noted at the beginning of the series when explaining why she had participated in it as an ethnic Albanian from Kosovo, and as Jelena, Srđan and Aida acknowledged in their conclusion: almost all its contributors came from South Slav backgrounds, and Yugoslavia’s failure to confront ‘the longer history of anti-Albanian bigotry’ in the region undercut its aspirations to ‘brotherhood and unity’ even before we weigh up how well it balanced the rights and interests of different South Slavs.)

Later in Azra’s essay, she writes of discussing her wartime experiences of being labelled as a Bosnian Muslim with inner-city Philadelphia schools, and trying to comfort disoriented students on her ‘Peace and Conflict in the Balkans’ class immediately after Trump’s election, as ‘openings’ that defy the ‘closings’ that have pressed on her in prestigious academic spaces: these openings are ‘transactions in sociopolitical life when “structures of feeling” were somehow transmitted and felt, almost understood, across the sociopolitical, geographic, and historical spectrum’. My own knowledge and I are the outcomes of many such openings, and are measured by them as well.

Three weeks after Srđan, Aida, Jelena and I sat together in Holborn, the US election result came in: overnight for them, first thing in the morning for me. Whatever else I’d been meant to do that day, the only thing I could do was write, a messy 3,000 words on coming to terms with how quickly queer people’s newborn rights could be taken away overnight, and why the result filled me as a queer woman with dread even an ocean away. (I re-used part of it when Cai Wilkinson was editing a special section of Critical Studies on Security and invited me to rework it as an essay I ended up calling ‘The filter is so much more fragile when you are queer’.

(One line I added to the piece for Cai has kept coming back into my head, this pandemic year: ‘There are people I know or used to know who will be dead in four years’ time.’)

My consciousness of my own nation and its past would not be what it is without learning about post-Yugoslavia for so long. Jelena (Subotić) writes, in her essay on citizens’ moral implication in the violence of Milošević’s Serbia or Trump’s USA, of our ‘larger, metaphysical responsibility as citizens who still benefit from structural racism or from structural inequality, or from structural anti-immigration policies. Even if we oppose them, by our own position in society we are implicated in them – an argument that goes at least as far back as Karl Jaspers’. To hope for a transparent reckoning with the past in Croatia or Serbia (I’d understood by the end of my PhD), it would be a double standard not to work towards the same in Britain – a country whose imperial and slave-trading past had systemic consequences around the world.

Knowing about post-Yugoslavia through the ‘openings’ I’d been part of for years, I suggested at the end of the queer in/security pieces, had made me more able to understand that Britain was not immune to the kind of authoritarian, nationalist future that now seemed to be coming to pass:

I know without having lived it that ethnopolitical conflict works like that.

The anxieties over ‘dilution’ or ‘undermining’ national cultural values that racists and xenophobes intensify in order to mobilise public support for restricting immigration work like that.

[…] Studying the Yugoslav wars since my early twenties, when all that preoccupied me at the time they were happening was making sense of the confusion with which I entered my own queer teens: I know identities wax strongest, turn from individual to collective, description to politics, when people believe or are led to believe that that identity is why they’re under threat.

I know it through compressing acres of wartime newsprint into weeks of research, through collecting hours upon hours of memories, through years of friendship and listening and solidarity, all breaking down my own filter of it-can’t-happen-here.

But I’d also suggested that having grown up queer, knowing that my belonging to the respectable majority would only ever be conditional, had made that filter more fragile and perhaps helped me to feel the solidarities I do:

There are freedoms I have in England or would have in America, which I didn’t even expect to enjoy as a teenager but which my queer elders won for me. In doing so, I gained a strange kind of everyday security with an uncanny contingency underneath – which I could lose again in ways that, if they were proposed for straight people, would be the stuff of dystopia, ‘some Handmaid’s Tale shit right there’.

(Dystopia still happens. But it takes so many more guns.)

Did knowing these kinds of insecurity with my own body make me more detachable from the idea that the territory–nation–culture nexus I was born in should automatically be a place of safety, progress and inspiration to the rest of the world – an idea that has so readily slipped into many Westerners’ belief that their knowledge is the most authoritative on ‘Balkan affairs’? I am wary of saying that queerness alone is enough to create an alliance – and yet if anything in my life has predisposed me to step away from the Anglophone West being at the centre of the world, that must be what it must be. (Did failing to fit the norms of heterosexual and class success at a school that was supposed to train girls to join Britain’s institutions of power do that?)

Without directly experiencing the Yugoslav wars, my consciousness of history, politics and security – of what can happen, and how it starts, and where it ends – has still been Yugosplained. Jelena, Aida and Srđan warn in their concluding essay, as our mood seemed to when we sat together:

Yugoslavia also carries a message for our friends and colleagues in the countries we now find ourselves in – believe in your exceptionalism – at your own peril; ignore your past – at your own peril; do not listen to Others amongst you – at your own peril.

My thoughts sit there too. And that sits in my bones.

‘Who designed these uniforms—Tom of Finland?’: the real story behind these viral photos of Spanish soldiers

This post appeared on Prospect Online on 24 March 2020.

They are musclebound and tanned, with sage-green shirts open to the chest, bulges below their black leather belts, and chinstraps curiously slung along their chiselled jaws.

They are the elite troops of the Spanish Legion, and on an internet desperate to be distracted from pandemic lockdown, they are English-language Twitter’s latest thirst trap.

After the Spanish military was deployed to cities at high coronavirus risk, New York writer Jill Filipovic tweeted “Spain, hi, can you deploy some of that in our direction?” above photos of parading legionnaires. Thousands of Twitter users joined her in desire, some informed her of the Legion’s fascist origins, and others remarked on how homoerotic their uniforms seemed.

Yet the history of the Legion makes those three things no contradiction at all.

We are tomorrow’s gender history: integrating gender into historical research today

This post originally appeared at LSE Engenderings on 10 October 2018.

The faces are clean-shaven, the top hats are gone, and the photos are in colour, but the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995 had one major thing in common with the Paris Peace Conference in 1919–20 besides its participants’ power to turn maps of ethnic majorities into internationally recognised borders: all the figures around both negotiating tables were men.

At the workshop on Integrating Gender into Historical Research that History PhD students at LSE invited me to join earlier this year, this was a dilemma for diplomatic historians approaching gender for the first time, especially those researching periods when diplomatic services were closed to women: what do you do when all the individuals in your sources are male?

There, of course, is precisely where you start.

First, as four decades’ worth of feminists researching international politics have learned from Cynthia Enloe, scholars can ask where the women were. Behind the scenes of those ceremonial photographs from Versailles, for instance, how did the conference depend on women’s work?

Gender analysis reveals the maids who maintained the diplomats’ palatial spaces, the laundresses starching those collars, the entertainers they watched at night and the sex workers some of those men on business in Paris would undoubtedly have hired – not to mention the women’s movements lobbying to be involved in peace-making, or the wives who affirmed married diplomats’ senses of self as men with the authority to decide which nation-states and empires should rule over which people’s lives. And while the Dayton agreement lacked women’s voices, it was largely through ex-Yugoslav women’s mediation as interpreters that its male signatories made themselves heard.

Gender analysis shows historians they can question what factors made women so absent in their sources or the institutions that generated them, and what other sources might show women’s participation in diplomacy, war and peace.

But studying gender is more than a matter of ‘add women and stir’: historically-situated ‘regimes’ of gender, entangled with other systems of social identity and power, are frameworks that all individuals negotiate as embodied selves, and ideological structures for the institutions where diplomacy and all other human activity takes place.

Using ‘masculinities’ as a tool of gender analysis opens up even all-male institutions – perhaps especially all-male institutions – to a ‘gender lens’. How did norms of ‘manly’ conduct and behaviour, and taken-for-granted notions of authority and leadership as masculine domains, influence how diplomatic men framed and approached the Paris or Dayton peace conferences, and how could we read that from the documents they left behind? How were their imaginations of how states themselves related to each other gendered? How did perceptions of different national and imperial masculinities influence how negotiators related to each other or made territorial deliberations, and what embodied performances of national masculinity did they make themselves?

Setting diplomatic masculinities in the full context of coloniality, nationalism, territory, violence and identity in the 20th century, of course, requires seeing how those masculinities were simultaneously racialised. To the ‘Council of Four’ and their aides at Versailles, it seemed natural to enshrine ‘national self-determination’ as a geopolitical principle in Europe while denying it in the Middle East, Africa and Asia; and the ideas about civilisation, morality, hygiene, bodily normalcy and cultural reproduction that made that double standard feel natural were imbued with interdependent colonial constructions of gender, sexuality and ‘race’.

Besides what gender analysis can reveal in historical evidence, the fact that historians’ own gendered experiences have already formed them as scholars means that gender is always already present in analysing the past.

Women, and trans people whether they are women or not, have had to be more conscious of gender than most cisgender men, socialised not to perceive the sexist and patriarchal structures that put their experiences at the centre of the story. Race and other systems of oppression interlock with gender and sexuality to shape what individuals perceive and fail to notice: as a queer white woman, during my own History degree at LSE, I asked myself many queer students’ question of ‘Where might there have been people like me in the past?’, which led me into feminist International Relations and its study of gender and war – but whiteness stopped me noticing race, which would not have been the case in the same country for a queer woman of colour the same age.

The very skills of critical thought needed for historical and social research, nevertheless, equip (or should equip) scholars to see beyond their own positionality: one can ask what Joan Scott, Susan Stryker or Angela Davis would have said about one’s evidence without having to have lived the life of Angela Davis, Susan Stryker or Joan Scott.

Part of the actuality of integrating gender into historical research stems from the questions scholars bring into their research agendas from the rest of their lives – all the more so when feminist thought is part of their life already. My own ideas, and even terminology, for understanding my own embodied history of gender non-conformity and non-normative desire have been vastly expanded because of the transformations in queer politics and queer expression that have taken place in my lifetime; I would not have started questioning south-east Europe’s position in the global politics of race if not for the digital feminism of the 2010s. Flavia Dzodan’s writing on the coloniality of securing the borders of ‘Europe’, for instance, first made me question whether south-east European nationalisms’ aspirational ideas of ‘Europe’ also contained identifications with coloniality and whiteness even though these nations had been imperial subjects, not imperial rulers, in the past. Postgraduates and more established researchers, reading popular works that expose the global and the intimate pervasiveness of structural racism, or the past and present complexity of gender variance, are all the more likely to be driven to address such questions in their own research.

But another dimension of the actuality of integrating gender into historical research stems from the actuality of the politics that surround us – what future scholars will call the historical context of how gender was being struggled over in our own time.

Already a target of right-wing press campaigns and organised online harassment, gender studies teaching and research in several countries is now under direct government attack. Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán, for instance, has made George Soros (the founder of Central European University in Budapest) the scapegoat for everything that Orbán’s populist ideology imagines to have dragged Hungarian national greatness down – including multiculturalism, solidarity with Muslim refugees, feminism, and queer and trans liberation.

All these are important research themes for CEU’s gender studies department, a world leader in researching the connections between postsocialism and postcoloniality. Early in 2016, I visited CEU to hold a workshop on race and whiteness in south-east Europe which had a decisive impact on writing Race and the Yugoslav Region later that year, and also gave a lecture on the politics of LGBTQ rights and ‘European’ belonging in the Eurovision Song Contest. A future historian researching the Orbán government’s confrontation with CEU might use both those events, among many other activities, as evidence of the postcolonial and queer gender scholarship it since has tried to repress.

Orbán’s government has tried to shut down CEU for more than a year, taken control of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences budget (just before a pro-Orbán magazine published a list of social scientists doing Academy-funded gender and sexuality research, exposing them to harassment and implying they did not deserve to be funded by the state), and this summer proposed to ban gender studies degrees in Hungary entirely. A Bulgarian research team, meanwhile, reported that the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and education ministry had blocked their project on gender equality in education from a UNESCO funding programme, while right-wing media accused them of trying to introduce a ‘third sex’ into schools.

These are national manifestations of the transnational ‘anti-gender’ movement. Gender scholars across central and eastern Europe are already familiar with being called Soros’ lackeys or mercenaries when they challenge patriarchal ideals of gender and family or criticise genocide denial. The same triangulation may now be confronting feminist, queer and postcolonial scholars doing the equivalent work in the UK of unsettling hegemonic and right-wing ideas of gender, nation and race. In February 2018, the Daily Telegraph ran a front page accusing Soros of bankrolling a secret plot to persuade British voters to reject Brexit, a frighteningly anti-Semitic conspiracy theory to be on the front page of even a conservative national newspaper, implying Soros was exerting a sinister influence over society to turn it away from what it should ‘naturally’ believe.

Among anti-trans campaigners organising on Mumsnet, a few have argued that Soros’ Open Society Foundation, which has published briefs on young people’s access to gender recognition, is responsible for forcing schools to teach about trans equality. The arguments of the UK Independence Party’s children and families spokesperson that educators teaching primary school children about trans people are ‘messing with young minds’ are in essence the same discourse that persuaded the Russian Duma to criminalise the promotion of ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ to under-18s in 2013. The spaces through which people and organisations committed to anti-gender politics learn from each other across national borders are sometimes public and formal, as with the recent World Congress of Families held in Moldova (where organising against trans rights was a major theme). Often, though, they – and the movements they oppose – are part of a shifting online terrain that future historians will have to recover using whatever platforms and data will have survived deletion, obsolescence and surveillance, processes that might yet make the digital record even more fragmentary than paper archives of the past.

This international anti-feminist and anti-queer mobilisation against ‘gender ideology’ as a pillar of today’s racist populism makes gender scholarship all the more contentious – especially gender scholarship that reveals how gender and other systems of oppression have been intertwined. As scholars, writers, learners, or simply as embodied selves, we are the stuff of tomorrow’s gender history – and the findings and conclusions of our own research, about international history or any other kind, will be part of future historians’ evidence about how gender was contested in our own times.

Don’t forget, and face the shadow: what has Eurovision got to do with remembering the dead?

Late last year, some colleagues who were organising an international conference on memorialising the dead at my university asked me if I could contribute a talk about some of my research. Being in between two projects, I didn’t know what to offer them, until: Eurovision, I thought. I can talk about Eurovision.

Pointing the telescopes of queer politics, international relations or the history of nationalism at Eurovision has helped me explain things like why people get so bothered about ‘bloc voting’, what makes Eurovision political even though the rules say it isn’t, how Eurovision’s idea of ‘Europe’ tried to accommodate the financial crisis, how Eurovision and LGBTQ rights got entwined with each other, how they got even more linked together after Conchita Wurst won, how countries have used Eurovision to portray themselves as multicultural nations, how queerness and nationhood can work together at Eurovision in ways it might be harder for them to do elsewhere, and, most recently, the shadows of European colonialism that hang over celebrating ‘Europe’ in an annual song contest. Surely there must be something to say about remembering the dead?

The past couple of Eurovisions had included a French song commemorating the dead of the World Wars, Armenia’s entry marking the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, and the winning Ukrainian song in 2016 which narrated Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 with a heavily implied message about Russia’s invasion of Crimea. That would be more than enough. I wrote them up an abstract of the talk.

Then a song remembering the victims of urban terrorism won the Italian final, and France chose an entry retelling the rescue of a newborn refugee girl from the Mediterranean, where thousands of other refugees from Africa and the Middle East have met their preventable deaths.

What does Eurovision have to do with remembering the dead? In 2018, possibly, more than ever.

‘Performing’ national and European identity

Eurovision is a tradition, celebration, and a party; it’s also an occasion with a particular structure, which influences what viewers expect to see and how they make sense of the performances they watch. Each three-minute song, chosen by a national broadcaster and created by a team of musicians, songwriters and designers who might or might not come from the country they’re representing (that’s up to each broadcaster to decide), symbolically represents the whole of its nation when it’s offered up for a Eurovision audience, or put in front of what we could call a ‘Eurovision gaze’.

Each country’s votes, too, come through on screen as one national opinion: in fact, Eurovision compresses institutions and people into the image of ‘the nation’ voting, and ‘the nation’ taking action. Eurovision entries aren’t just competing on behalf of the nation, like in an Olympics or a World Cup, they’re literally ‘performing’ national identity (a phrase that Judith Butler first used almost thirty years ago to describe the everyday signals everybody in society sends about their gender).

(In fact, we could say athletes in an Olympics or players in a World Cup are performing national identity as well, forming or playing against spectators’ expectations of what a Russian or Jamaican runner will be like, or how ‘the Germans’ and ‘the Brazilians’ each play football…)

Eurovision entries perform national identity in terms of showing what national musical cultures are like, choosing how much national musical tradition or how much accomplishment in globally popular styles of music to display, choosing how to show off a national language or a singer’s fluency in global English, and even selecting what to represent as national tradition (more than one national Eurovision selection has ended up as a proxy face-off between two hotly-contested interpretations of what national cultural identity should be).

Eurovision entries quite literally ‘perform’ the nation – and that’s part of the spectacle viewers expect.

In the same way, producers, journalists and viewers all project transnational political narratives on to Eurovision too. In the early 1990s and again in the early 2000s, Eurovision seemed to symbolise the course of post-Cold-War European enlargement: broadcasters from the first ex-Warsaw-Pact countries started competing for the first time in 1993, as did three successor states of Yugoslavia, the only state socialist country that had taken part in Eurovision (in fact, keen to show how Soviet it wasn’t, Yugoslavia had been competing ever since 1961).

In 2004, the year of the EU’s first and largest expansion into ‘eastern Europe’ (plus Cyprus and Malta), Eurovision went through its own enlargement by adding a semi-final, meaning every broadcaster (symbolically, every country) that wanted to participate could send a song to Eurovision every year. Wins for Estonia, Latvia and Turkey in 2001-3 had added Tallinn, Riga and Istanbul to Eurovision’s map of host cities: Ruslana’s victory for Ukraine in 2004 kept up the cycle, with the small unanticipated matter of an Orange Revolution before Kyiv hosted in 2005.

Even though Eurovision isn’t organised by the EU or any other European political institution (the EBU is independent), viewers make sense of it through the lens of political developments – the reason ‘Europe-Russia’ relations get an added bite at Eurovision, where the contest’s strong LGBTQ connections run up against the ideology of state homophobia, biphobia and transphobia that Putin has chosen to stand for (and whose fiercest advocates in Russia don’t even want Eurovision broadcast there).

Eurovision organisers still insist – it’s written into the rules – that Eurovision is not a political event, and entries with political messages are not allowed. But what counts as ‘political’ at Eurovision?

It’s simple to say entries can’t promote political leaders or parties, though one or two have tried (including the disqualified Georgian entry from 2009 after the Russian-Georgian war, ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In’). Beyond that, we hit one of the biggest questions in cultural politics: what is political and what isn’t, and who has or claims the power to decide?

Is it political, for instance, to sing about protecting the environment or stopping nuclear war, which have both been uncontroversial themes for Eurovision songs, yet are also subjects of political protest? Is it political to bring a rainbow flag? Is it political to sing about a particular war in a nation’s history, on a broadcast that will also go out to nations it fought against? And we can even ask, if we’re thinking about commemoration: is it political to remember the dead?

Thinking that through starts to reveal what kinds of memorialisation get framed as political in European memory cultures and what don’t, and what kinds of memorialisation potentially can’t be memorialised in a space like Eurovision at all.

Coming home: personal tributes at Eurovision

A lot more remembering the dead goes on at Eurovision than people who don’t watch Eurovision would probably think. Indeed, as the contest’s own history has lengthened, one form of memorialisation has been paying tribute to famous Eurovision performers who have died: it’ll be surprising if the hosts of the grand final don’t commemorate the Swiss singer Lys Assia, who won the first Eurovision in 1956 and died this year aged 94. (At one point this winter, fans were fearing the contest could even be overshadowed by the loss of last year’s seriously ill winner, Salvador Sobral, who’s now recovering from a successful heart transplant.)

Another form is when contestants use Eurovision for their own personal commemorations, remembering a family member or loved one who has died in a way that a hundred million viewers will see. (Germany’s entry this year, Michael Schulte’s ‘You Let Me Walk Alone’, is inspired by Schulte’s complex feelings about his father’s death.) of his father.

Intimate backstories like these (if viewers know them) give a performance authenticity, arguably popular music stardom’s most valuable currency, and all the more so in a setting as competitive as Eurovision – even though, since the early 2000s, talent-show producers have turned personal grief into emotive plotlines for contestants so often that the dead or dying family member has also become a reality TV cliché.

In 2011, even the story of how Iceland’s song got to Eurovision was an act of memorialisation: the singer Sjonni Brink, about to compete in the national final Söngvakeppnin with his song ‘Coming Home’, died of a stroke in January, when the Söngvakeppnin heats were already under way. Six of his musician friends undertook to perform for him instead, and won.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apc_qJf3nws

Even as Brink had written it, ‘Coming Home’ was about a man who couldn’t wait to get home and see his lover to tell them all the things he wants to say, because no-one knows when their time’s going to run out; after his death, they became even more poignant, crying out to be interpreted as a tribute to the band’s close friend who had passed away.

But Eurovision has also been a space for collective memorialisation – and that’s where the politics really come in.

Don’t deny: facing the shadow of genocide and the World Wars

Commemorating the dead in a way that’s significant to a collective community is often about national commemorations, but could also be the imagined European and transnational public – or even the international queer public, remembering those they’ve collectively lost to HIV and AIDS. (Austria’s entry in 2007 obliquely commemorated the AIDS crisis by looking to the future as the official song of that year’s Vienna Life Ball.)

Collective remembering, linked to political communities, is where we’d expect more controversy over the politics of commemoration, and even whether a theme is appropriate for Eurovision at all – as two contrasting examples from 2015 show.

2015, when Eurovision was held in Vienna, marked the centenary of the Armenian Genocide and was continuing to witness the string of First World War centenary commemorations that would stretch all the way from 2014 to 2018 – or longer in nations where conflict didn’t come to a clean end with the Armistice.

An extensive Armenian public diplomacy initiative during 2015, involving celebrities of Armenian descent like Kim Kardashian, was campaigning for international public awareness of the genocide and for foreign governments to pass declarations recognising it as genocide, in a context where the Turkish state still operates a policy of denial. Armenia’s Eurovision entry commemorated it as well.

 

Genealogy, the group chosen to sing the song, united five singers from the Armenian diaspora in different continents with a sixth (Inga Arshakyan, one-half of the Armenian entry in 2010) who still lived in Armenia – even the group’s composition was a message of persistence and survival, drawing attention to why the Armenian people had been scattered around the world.

Originally, Genealogy’s song was called ‘Don’t Deny’. Their video, released in March, evoked the beginning of the 20th century and the theme of family in the performers’ outfits, its aesthetics of antique photography, and the pins with pictures of their grandparents that the singers wore. The song’s title, the group’s name, the lyrics’ themes, the video’s image, and the history behind them all combined to frame the song as commemorating the Armenian Genocide: would this break the rules against political messages at Eurovision? even though there’s no political content in the song’s words themselves. The ethnonational reading is almost unavoidable and has been very knowingly created. Did this break the rules against political messages at Eurovision?

Four days after the video appeared online, the songwriters announced a title change to ‘Face The Shadow’ (another image from the lyrics), though the chorus continued to begin ‘Don’t deny.’

 

 

 

 

 

This was Eurovision’s most controversial collective commemoration in the ‘modern’ era, at least at the time – but, deep into what the historian Catriona Pennell has called the ‘centenary moment’, it was far from the only one.

Hundreds if not thousands of local, national and international public memory projects in 2014-18 have aimed at commemorating and reinterpreting what the public remember about that conflict and its unprecedented scale of battlefield death, which made wartime bereavement a mass, shared, national experience: WW1 commemoration has found its way to Eurovision too.

In 2014, for instance, Malta’s Firelight had used the video for their song (also called ‘Coming Home’), to remind viewers across Europe that Maltese soldiers and prisoners of war had been involved in WW1, and their Eurovision performance had projected a floor of red poppies across the digital stage.

France’s entry in 2015 was Lisa Angell’s ‘N’oubliez pas’ – or ‘Don’t forget’, alongside Genealogy’s ‘Don’t deny’. ‘N’oubliez pas’ commemorated war and its effects on the human landscape, of France and/or Europe. Angell sings in the voice of a woman remembering her village that has been left in ashes, ‘swept away by history … erased from maps and memories, when they arrived, hidden behind their weapons’ (‘balayé par l’histoire … effacée des cartes et des mémoires, quand ils sont arrives, cachés derrière leurs armes’).

This is a village wiped off the map by mass warfare, in a year when centenary commemorations would have made the Great War come to mind for many viewers as the answer to what happened there and when. In fact, the song’s video had drawn its commemoration towards the Second World War with flashes of the American Cemetery in Normandy, blending the World Wars into one historical experience; the stage performance let it be read much more straightforwardly as WW1.

The song’s producers used the vast LED screen behind Angell to project the backdrop of an entire burned-out village behind her, then to show the village’s houses rebuilding themselves, and finally to surround her with an entire digital regiment of ghostly military drummers – circumventing Eurovision’s rule against having no more than six performers on stage.

 

 

 

 

Why was this highly symbolic, highly emotive, highly historicised presentation, with essentially the same narrative trajectory as ‘Face The Shadow’, not swept up in the same arguments about whether it was too political? Not because of its own content, I’d suggest, but because of the wider contexts around them: the memory of the Armenian Genocide is contested in international relations, but the process of Western European integration after WW2 – where nations seemed to publicly put WW1 behind them as a war that had been equally devastating on both sides – has produced an international political consensus about the meanings of the Western Front.

But what would happen if the themes and images of ‘N’oubliez pas’ were applied to a contemporary conflict, as they could equally have been? Eurovision would find out a year later, when Ukraine (which hadn’t participated in 2015, and picked its 2014 song before the Russian invasion of Crimea) made its first song selection since the Russia-Ukraine conflict began.

‘1944’ by Jamala, whose own heritage is Crimean Tatar, went on to win Eurovision 2016. The very title would have suggested, to listeners with even the slightest knowledge of  WW2 on the Eastern Front, that it would draw parallels between Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 and Russia’s behaviour towards Ukraine in 2014. Its first lines described strangers who ‘come to your house, they kill you all and say “We’re not guilty”’, in a context where it was important for Ukrainian public diplomacy to persuade foreign publics and governments that Russia was the aggressor in Crimea.

The first verse could just as easily have been about – and therefore was effectively about – Russian relativism and obfuscation over the violence in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and the lengths the Russian state had gone to not to seem responsible.

Making it known in interviews that her own grandparents had been among Stalin’s Tatar deportees until Gorbachev allowed the Tatars back to Crimea, and that they had only been able to speak on Skype sinxe 2014, Jamala brought her own embodied authenticity to the performance – not just as a speaker of Tatar (the language of the chorus) but a descendant of victims of forced deportation, which Tatars have campaigned to have recognised as genocide themselves.

 

 

 

Just as Genealogy had appealed for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, ‘1944’ allusively appealed to the audience to share its emotional narrative about Tatars’ and Ukrainians’ suffering in the past and present; it didn’t describe anything Lisa Angell hadn’t, except the killers who then say ‘We’re not guilty’. Musically, its wailing breaks gave its singer much more opportunity to express what viewers would hear as raw emotion – but the EBU would have been in a very difficult position if it had banned ‘1944’, given the precedents from the previous year.

Collective memorialisations like Genealogy’s, Angell’s or Jamala’s were particularly visible in 2014-16, but aren’t a new phenomenon at Eurovision: in 1976, Greece famously dedicated its entry ‘Panagia mou, Panagia mou‘ (‘Virgin Mary, Virgin Mary’) to commemorating Greek victims of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and Croatian and Bosnian TV both used their country’s first Eurovision entries as sovereign states in 1993 to draw viewers’ attention to the ongoing war in Croatia and the siege of Sarajevo.

The interactive experience of watching today’s Eurovisions and commenting on them on social media at the same time might make it easier for this form of Eurovision diplomacy to spread its messages – but Eurovision as a contest was giving collective memorialisation a platform well before 2014. Nevertheless, this is a moment where many Eurovision delegations have been realising that Eurovision can be a platform for public diplomacy through memorialisation of the dead – or at least some dead.

Mercy, mercy: whose lives and deaths can Eurovision remember?

Whose deaths are chosen to be memorialised – and by whom – are themselves political questions, which come down ultimately to whose lives society considers worth grieving or not… and these go on in the shadow of histories of racism, which are ultimately about who is and isn’t going to be considered human. Isn’t this kind of political theory a long way from anything to do with Eurovision?

Especially when two of this year’s finalist songs are acts of memorialisation concerning current political issues in Europe which are entangled with struggles over multiculturalism, it might be closer than it looks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The French song ‘Mercy’, by Madame Monsieur, is named after the refugee girl born on a Medecins Sans Frontieres boat in the Mediterranean. If we’re talking about Eurovision songs not being allowed to be political, MSF is one of the most politically outspoken humanitarian organisations in Europe by design, including on the question of rescuing refugees at sea. MSF’s name and logo are nowhere near the song’s presentation, and wouldn’t be allowed to be, but the whole entry is framed by its organisational values and its work.

Like one of Stockholm’s semi-final interval acts, ‘The Grey People‘, it starts to confront the reality that Eurovision is celebrating ‘Europe’ at the same time thousands of refugees are risking death to cross the borders that the European Union has fortified against them. It ends, like ‘The Grey People’, with an uplifting image of new life (reinforced when French journalists found Mercy in a refugee camp in Sicily earlier this year).

Meanwhile, the Italian song ‘Non mi avete fatto niente’ (‘You haven’t done anything to me’) by Ermal Meta and Fabrizio Moro offers a narrative of resilience against urban terrorism. The many sites of terrorist attacks they name in the verses include Cairo, Barcelona, a concert in France we probably understand to be the Bataclan, London, and Nice: placing one site in the Middle East might partly acknowledge (without completely subverting) the narrow boundaries of the ‘#PrayForParis’ style of hashtag memorialisation which often elicits sympathy for attacks in Western Europe, North America and Israel but not for the much more frequent attacks in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan than European cities even now. Presenting a list of sites without Oslo or Utøya, meanwhile, restricts the list to sites of Islamist not white nationalist terrorism even if the lyricist had only thought they were choosing cities that had suffered attacks in the same couple of years.

 

 

The video depicts sites of grassroots and official commemoration including street shrines and war cemeteries, opening out into a utopian hope that humans will stop hating and killing each other, with subtitles in fifteen languages (including Chinese, Turkish and Arabic) adding to the cosmopolitan effect.

In fact, both videos make their appeals to a cosmopolitan and racially diverse public, with their multiracial crowds assembling at iconic places which add up into a map of an imagined transnational community, just like the opening videos of Eurovision finals themselves often do. The songs contrast each other, maybe, when it comes to the question of who speaks for the dead. The French song is written in the first person, as Mercy, who is ‘all the children the sea has taken’ (‘tous les enfants que la mer a pris’) -significantly, its agent of death is the sea, while the visa regimes and border security practices which meant the children had to cross the sea that way, and the policies that made governments insist on them, are so immutable they’re outside the story altogether. Its first-person voice does leave a white woman in the position of singing in the voice of a young black girl, and some viewers will question whether she ends up speaking over the girl she is professing to speak for.

Meta and Moro may be closer to their subject matter, as inhabitants of cities like the ones that have witnessed recent attacks, and more to the point as working musicians, aware that concert halls and stadiums have been favoured targets for ISIS-inspired and white nationalist terrorism. The last thing a musician might want to call to mind on an arena stage, you’d think, might be the Bataclan; even as a spectator, dwell on the concert attacks for more than a split second and the fantasy of Eurovision falls apart.

The presence of one vast group of dead, however, goes unmentioned amid the celebration of Portuguese navigation, maritime heritage and crossing cultures across the sea that has given Eurovision 2018 its slogan ‘All Aboard!’: the millions of enslaved Africans forced on to European ships between the 15th and the 19th century, in a trade that Portuguese navigators expanded at a very early stage. No Eurovision has ever been held in a site more closely connected to the history of the Atlantic slave trade (London probably comes nearest), and Lisbon has been confronting its own history of complicity in enslavement this year after residents voted to build the city’s first public monument acknowledging the slave trade at the end of 2017.

Indeed, the biggest silence of all might not even be around the memory of the slave trade but the memory of the connection between enslaved Africans and the refugees who have died reaching Europe today. The history of racism, which dates back to the discourses with which white Europeans legitimised the capture and enslavement of other human beings, lies underneath the racism and xenophobia that encourages EU governments to tighten the external border yet further and minimise the numbers of refugees who can settle in the EU.

Perhaps the dead who cannot be remembered at Eurovision are those whose histories would make the logic of its shared fantasy collapse: that Europe isn’t the place where politics can be set aside like the celebration invites us to temporarily imagine it can be.

Where did it all go wrong? The Windrush myth after London 2012

This post originally appeared at Imperial and Global Forum on 25 April 2018.

Six years ago, in 2012, the dramatised arrival of the ‘Windrush Generation’ provided many British viewers with one of the most moving moments in the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games. The dozens of black Londoners and the giant model of the Empire Windrush, which had docked at Tilbury in June 1948, entering the stadium during the ceremony’s historical pageant stood for the hundreds of thousands of black Britons who had migrated from the Caribbean to Britain, which was then still their imperial metropole, between 1948 and 1962.

The moment when the ‘Windrush Generation’ joined the pageant’s chaotic whirl of characters drawn from modern British social and cultural history symbolised, for millions of its viewers (if not those people of colour with more reason to be suspicious of British promises), a Britain finally inclusive enough to have made the post-Windrush black presence as integral a part of its national story as Remembrance or Brunel. Today, however, members of this same symbolic generation have been threatened with deportation – and some have already been deported – because they have been unable to prove their immigration status despite living in Britain for more than fifty years. The Daily Mirror’s Brian Reade was far from alone in wondering where it had all gone wrong since 2012.

What kind of British government would deport the children of the Empire Windrush? Not the openly fascist regime that the National Front took to the streets for in the 1970s, or that Alan Moore imagined taking control of a near-future Britain in his 1988 comic V for Vendetta (written at the height of the Thatcher years). Rather, as most of the British public only realised after the revelations of the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman connecting dozens of individual stories into a chilling pattern, the answer lies with the Conservative government of Theresa May.

Suddenly, in mid-April, public sympathy mobilised in support of the ‘Windrush Generation’ alongside an eviscerating parliamentary intervention from David Lammy MP, who has taken up the cases of dozens of black Britons who have lost jobs, been refused medical treatment or even been deported. Lammy’s challenge in parliament (and ongoing pressure through Twitter) would force the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, to admit that the government’s actions have been ‘appalling’ in forcing potentially thousands of Windrush-era citizens to prove their right to reside in Britain all over again by requiring evidence none ever anticipated they would have to provide.

On 23 April, Rudd promised to help the Windrush generation ‘acquire’ citizenship by waiving application fees and test requirements, though Lammy continued to emphasise that their citizenship had been ‘taken away by your [Rudd’s] government, not something that your government is now choosing to grant them.’

Much of the white British public had not appreciated the harsh realities that black families had seen hitting their elder relatives for months until the plight of the ‘Windrush Generation’ became national news. The policy of extending border immigration controls into everyday life, which government officials themselves termed the ‘Hostile Environment‘, has caused dire consequences for this historic and symbolic group of citizens. Members of the Windrush Generation have lost their jobs because they could not show a UK passport; they have been charged thousands of pounds for NHS care under rules targeting ‘health tourism’; and some have even been detained awaiting deportation to countries they have not visited for fifty years. An unknown number of people, the immigration minister Caroline Nokes suggested last week, have even been ‘deported in error’.

The crisis has even been linked to at least one death. The mother of Dexter Bristol, a Londoner born in Grenada who died suddenly last month aged 57, blamed government racism and the ‘hostile environment’ policy for the stress her son suffered after losing his job and access to benefits: ‘My son is British. We didn’t come here illegally… No one expected this country to turn into what it is now.’

Why has public sympathy mobilised so quickly around this group when thousands of others, including younger migrants from the Caribbean, have been caught up by these regulations ever since Britain’s ‘everyday borders‘ started to tighten? Largely because the Windrush Generation is already a national myth that the British public had been invited to rejoice in celebrating – never more spectacularly than at London 2012.

Yet if the Home Office’s attack on the Windrush Generation feels like a shocking and disorienting reversal, this is because the ceremony’s triumphant story about Windrush was not even what the whole country believed in 2012 – rather, the difference between 2012 and 2018 is a matter of which narrative has had more power to be heard.

By 2012, Windrush had already been worked into many versions of Britain’s national myth – part of a liberal, ‘post-racial’ UK public commemorative culture, a mythic voyage at the beginning of a story about tolerance and progress where Britain’s colonisation of the Caribbean and its enslavement of the Windrush Generation’s ancestors could be absolved.

This progress, one must remember, had been hard-won. Black activists had had to campaign for years for Windrush to be taught in schools and marked by local councils, before public institutions began to take it up. Arguably, Windrush commemoration gained momentum after the 1999 Macpherson Report, which had popularised the phrase ‘institutional racism’ to describe police inaction after the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993; museum and heritage professionals’ own anti-racist engagement combined with the impact of Labour equalities legislation to make institutions keen to show they were serving a diverse community by marking Windrush as the turning point (or, more problematically, the beginning) of black history in Britain. Even though in 2012 commemorating Windrush might have seemed like consensus, when black history campaigns first gained pace in the 1980s it had been a radical demand.

Commemorating Windrush as part of Britain’s national narrative meant telling a story about Britain where black Britons belonged on the same terms as white Britons – a story about a Britain which was comfortable with having a Commonwealth not an Empire, and had moved on from the racism the Windrush Generation had endured when they were young.

Remembering how Britishness had supposedly become multicultural and racism had supposedly been defeated, by celebrating Windrush, participants were invited to join in the happy feeling of how far ‘we’ had come.

The London 2012 opening ceremony was a pageant of history-from-below that imagined a nation made up of its oppressed groups as well as its elites: groups like the workers of the Industrial Revolution, like the suffragettes, and like the Windrush Generation. The ‘mosaic history’ Danny Boyle, with scriptwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, depicted through the ceremony, alongside celebrations of children’s literature, the NHS and a modern-minded Queen, readily lent itself to liberal readings. The arts critic Charlotte Higgins, for instance, wrote of Boyle’s ceremony the next day that it was an ‘impassioned poem of praise to the country he [and ‘we’] would most like to believe in.’

The heritage of this mode of representation was demonstrably left-wing, dating back to leftist traditions of ‘radical patriotism’ (including pageants) from between the World Wars, and to the socialist principles that inspired historians like Raphael Samuel to suggest the heritage of ‘ordinary people’ could be a leftist way of linking the public with the national past.

Indeed, one thread even links Samuel’s vision of the nation directly to Boyce: Samuel edited a three-volume collection on Patriotism: the Making and Unmaking of British National Identity in 1989, assembling suppressed and everyday heritage into a national past, and a young Boyce contributed a chapter on the I-Spy books while researching his English PhD.

In 2012, the BBC’s broadcast of a ceremony tugging quirky cultural heartstrings to a cheering stadium made it feel as if the whole country was celebrating the spectacle of a creative, confident and multicultural nation too. And yet, it wasn’t; the story of London 2012 was already being contested on the night itself, when Conservative MP Aidan Burley tweeted that it had been ‘leftie multicultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones.’

Where public narratives are concerned, the contrast between 2012 and 2018 is not so much ‘Where did it go so wrong?’ as ‘Which narratives had the strongest platform then and now?’

And narratives about Windrush do relate directly to the fact that the Home Office has deported black Britons who came to the UK with British passports before their islands became independent, because national identity itself is a story about who belongs. Or rather, national identity is a story about who belongs unconditionally on the land inside the nation’s borders, and whom the hosts might graciously extend the right to stay.

The Windrush Generation who came to Britain, and the children they have had there, spent decades hearing racists like Enoch Powell and the National Front openly call for them to be repatriated. The slogan of sending black and Asian Britons ‘back home’, to the Caribbean or South Asia, implied that they had no right to belong safely ‘at home’ in Britain at all.

The very members of this symbolic generation who listened with dread as young people to the possible consequences of Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968, had to relive the experience a few weeks ago when BBC Radio 4 had Powell’s words read in their entirety by a star actor: a broadcast that the journalist Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and many other British people of colour argued only normalised Powell’s rhetoric, empowered the far right, and represented a ‘particularly jarring… resurrection’ just as the Home Office was ‘unceremoniously booting out’ some of the very people who had arrived on the Windrush or the ships that followed.

Today, when many of the Windrush Generation have retired – and some might have looked back and thought they were living in a better country than the Britain they had known in their youth – tens of thousands of them now find they cannot prove their citizenship to the degree that ‘hostile environment’ policies require. After all, why would they have needed to before, outside dystopian nightmares? Not only has that nightmare become a reality; it might also grow more chilling yet with the news that, as long ago as 2010, the Border Force destroyed thousands of the very landing cards that could have proved when they arrived in the UK.

Their situation has moved the British public so much more than other inhumane deportations because of the power of the Windrush myth itself.

Aidan Burley, tweeting in 2012, had wanted to turn the clock back on multiculturalism. So did the UK Independence Party, on the ever larger platform the BBC gave it after the 2014 European Parliament elections; so did many of the voices backing Brexit. In 2012, the idea that that progress could be thrown into reverse, and Britain in a few years’ time could become ‘more racist’ not less, was very far from most people’s minds apart from those who longed to make it happen.

Yet visa rules for non-EU citizens became even tighter than New Labour had made them; Brexit stripped 3 million EU citizens of freedom of movement rights they had never had to think that they would lose; and Caribbean-born elders are facing now what Powell and the National Front threatened them with in their youth. The threat to deport the Windrush Generation does not just disturb the myth of multicultural Britain that grew between the 1990s and 2012 – it has torn it up, and some have watched the reversal of the myth with glee.

‘A technocracy of sensuousness’: music video in international politics

A citeable version of this article including an academic bibliography originally appeared at e-International Relations on 20 April 2018.

Music video reveals how people imagine world politics. This claim is hard to contest given the documented geopolitical influence of other popular cultural artefacts including superhero films and comics, counter-terrorism procedural dramas, military shooter video games, or satirical cartoons. On one level there is a politics of what examples of these popular cultural forms these media depict, as well as the geopolitical imaginations or militarised attachments that the pleasures of engaging with them might help to produce. On another level, such media forms have all allowed researchers of world politics and international security to derive new theoretical and interpretive insights from the kinds of artefacts they are and how their viewers, readers or players interact with them.

While music video has been a major popular cultural force since the (global) rise of MTV in the 1980s, it has been subject to little study within the popular culture-world politics (PCWP) continuum even when compared to popular music in general. Perhaps the art form (a combination of a recorded song with dance performances and/or short narrative or non-narrative film, which may or may not directly reflect any of the song’s lyrical content) seems bereft of enough meaning to be worth analysing, particularly in contrast to a big-budget Hollywood movie about US soldiers in World War II or a videogame that places virtual weapons into a player’s hands. That being stated, we should not ignore music video as a medium for providing narratives of military masculinity, American exceptionalism and the ‘Good War’ – or other significant narratives in world politics.

Perhaps part of the problem is that music video needs not depend on narrative for making sense. Moreover, its aesthetics have often been seen as a collapse of meaning, with its textual content being fairly simple and rendered in the form of lyrics that the images may dramatise. Even when popular culture and world politics research manages to account for images as well as plot and dialogue, many music videos might seem too trivial even for empirical analysis. Often, in commercial music video, all performers seem to do is dance or mime the words as if they were actual singing. And yet from feminist and postcolonial perspectives, the spectacle of bodies moving to music in a transnational economy of desire cannot but be political: the fashions and fantasies of music video exemplify societies’ gendered and racialised ‘cultural archive’.

Historically, conceptually, and methodologically, therefore, studying music video makes new contributions to the wider and wider literature on how popular culture and world politics are intertwined. It shows how the emergence of music video as a promotional and communicative technology was constructed by cultural critics as the manifestation of ‘postmodernism’ in practice, and how this imagination became a way of making sense of the confusing apparently new dynamics of conflict after the Cold War. It focuses our attention towards performance and stardom, and spectators’ affective relationships with the performing body, as often neglected aspects of audio-visual meaning. And, when we go on to consider how music video mediates spectators’ affective relationships to performing bodies, it reveals that geopolitical imaginations take their emotional charge from the intimate politics of identification and desire that popular music taps into even more effectively in audio-visual form.

Music Video, MTV and the Cultural Politics of the Late Cold War

The history of music video, for most scholars who deal with it, conventionally divides itself into pre- and post-1981, before and after the launch of MTV. Technologies for screening ‘illustrated songs’ had existed since sound began to be synchronisable with film, including the almost-forgotten Panoram visual jukebox of the 1940s. In fact, pop and rock bands in the 1960s and 1970s had increasingly filmed promotional clips  to reach international audiences that they could never have performed for in person. MTV represented a platform that affirmed music video as a specific type of cultural artefact, and an early global application of the medium of satellite TV, which possessed the potential to disrupt terrestrial broadcasting’s dependence on the nation-state as its main level of organisation (scholars of media and transnationalism would debate throughout the 1990s and 2000s how far it succeeded in doing so). It also represented, and did not even try to conceal, a mission of consumerist enlightenment and an expression of US soft power. From the start, its branding and visual identity connoted an ‘American’ militarised imagination of technological modernity and the supposedly inevitable spread of US cultural influence, famously announcing itself to viewers with the image of an Apollo 11 astronaut planting an animated MTV flag on the Moon.

During the 1980s, music video worked in tandem with film to communicate the aesthetics of the post-Vietnam ‘remasculinization of America’, broadcasting war and action movies to audiences outside as well as inside the USA. Amanda Howell has written that the heavy presence of electric guitar on the Top Gun soundtrack associated its imaginary of jets, flight and US technological dominance of the air with the ‘rock masculinity’ of Tom Cruise’s motorbike-riding pilot: the circuit of associations flowed back to let the legitimacy of US air defence spending benefit from the cool factor of the leather flight jackets and Ray-Bans whose sales were poised to soar. Clearly, the duo of music video and film was responsible for popularising Top Gun’s style. Top Gun pioneered the use of music video as an additional form of film advertising (using film footage in three smash-hit videos for Kenny Loggins’ ‘Danger Zone’, Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away’ and the ‘Top Gun Anthem’ itself), meaning many viewers encountered these invitations to gaze on the eroticised masculine cool of US airpower through music videos before they even saw the film (as the videos were meant to entice them to do).

In many instances, music video was interwoven with cinema to inject this stylised militarism into the popular geopolitics of the late Cold War. However, the cultural imaginaries that music video could document and help to generate were not confined to America: the sexual revolution of the movida madrileña in post-Franco Spain, and the last burst of Yugoslav socialist consumerism amid the economic and constitutional crisis after Tito, were mediated through the medium as well. Via  similar cultural translations associated with television formats, transnational media history demonstrates how national pop industries filtered the aesthetics of MTV through local cultural meanings of style and consumption to signify aspiration and modernity however those were locally understood.

The aesthetics of Anglo-American music video in the late 20th century readily equipped it to symbolise postmodernism as a practical aesthetic. Its heavy use of montage and jump-cut techniques, its often-dizzying sense of context collapse, its frequent intertextuality and its attitude of pastiche were an everyday manifestation of what theorists such as Frederic Jameson seemed to be talking about. Critics such as E Ann Kaplan bound MTV in particular to the idea of ‘postmodernism’ so successfully that by 1993 postmodernism had become what Andrew Goodwin called the ‘academic orthodoxy’ for scholars of music television. As Goodwin and his fellow editors of the Sound and Vision music video reader argued, this was often at the cost of engaging with music video’s place in the wider music industry’s political economy. At the same time, war itself was starting to appear postmodern, by differing from Cold War expectations of ‘modern’ and ‘conventional’ war.

Music Video and ‘Postmodern’ Conflict: New Aesthetics for ‘New Wars’?

Notions such as Mary Kaldor’s ‘new wars’ drew from conflicts at the dawn of the 1990s, when both the first Gulf War and the apparently multiplying number of ‘civil wars’ and ethnopolitical conflicts seemed to epitomise as postmodern warfare. The Gulf War, relayed as spectacular entertainment by the international news network CNN, famously made the arch-postmodernist Jean Baudrillard argue that the war had been constituted by its televisual representation to such an extent that it effectively had not taken place. The ethnopolitical violence and urban warfare of conflicts such as the Yugoslav wars also seemed to fit their own postmodern script: such wars and their causes appeared jumbled and surreal both to Western eyes accustomed to perceiving those regions as unknowable, and to citizens of the countries where everyday life seemed to have turned into a baffling new reality almost overnight. Boundaries between civilian space and the front line had been blurred, laws of war were being violated by design and the strategies belligerents used to forcibly change the ethnic map looked very different to the large-scale clashes of regular state armed forces under nuclear shadow that Cold War strategists had anticipated. The surreal mixture of globalised youth culture – symbolised by MTV – and ethnic hatred that confronted war correspondents interacting with many of these wars’ rebels and paramilitaries seemed just one more layer of this conceptual frame for explaining what seemed to be changing about global security and war.

Music video, in tandem with advertising and fashion photography, had meanwhile circulated styles and masculinities transnationally to which participants in post-Cold-War conflicts could turn in defining cultural identities of ‘self’ and ‘other’. In fact, the media on different sides of these conflicts that represented combatants and other participants in conflict, aggregating individual experiences into collective narratives in the process, perhaps used these transnational frameworks of style as a basis for contrasting ‘self’ and ‘other’ more often. The young volunteers who Croatian media turned into patriotic symbols of a nation with a modern, Western cultural identity rising in self-defence supposedly went to the front with Guns ‘n’ Roses songs on their lips and Walkman headphones in their ears as readily as British Tommies in the First World War had (just as mythically) marched towards the front line singing ‘Tipperary’.

The image of Sarajevo’s underequipped defenders as a highly-motivated, ragtag band of peace-loving rockers forced into war was not untruthful – rock music was already a symbol of the city’s cultural identity, and the Sarajevo rock scene in the 1980s had given rise to nostalgically remembered last-ditch attempts to reinvent multi-ethnic Yugoslavia – but quickly became myth, first through the work of local and foreign war photographers, then via Danis Tanović and Zvonka Makuc, the director and costume designer of Ničija zemlja (No Man’s Land) [2001], who dressed Branko Đurić’s reluctant Bosniak soldier in a mismatched uniform and tattered t-shirt bearing the logo of the Rolling Stones.

Today’s configurations of what James Der Derian has called the ‘Military–Industrial–Media–Entertainment Network’, meanwhile, do not even require music video to be transmitted through broadcast television. Online video platforms, with YouTube chief among them, have decoupled music video from TV and catapulted it into the realm of digital media. Just as popular culture and world politics research has inseparably become research into digital communications and new media, music video scholarship has also taken a new digital turn.

Music Video and Digital Media Today

The frequency with which journalists compare the editing, pace and soundtrack of ISIS recruitment videos to MTV as well as Hollywood starts to reveal that, without realising how music video’s aesthetic practices engage the viewer (via an affective, embodied politics of spectatorship that feminist film scholars already understand), it is hard to grasp how these audiovisual artefacts which so perplex security services create the bonds of identification that persuade sympathisers towards militancy. This goes equally for Islamist networks and the far-right and white supremacist groups that synchronise videos of their mobilisation and training with tracks from the libraries of epic ‘trailer music’ that give video game and film trailers their characteristic soundscapes.

Yet digital media’s effect on how music video operates in world politics reaches further than networks of extremism and militancy. YouTube has supplanted MP3 blogs as the chief site of music micro-archiving – an important practice of digital memory and postmemory for many diasporas, including post-Yugoslav ones – offering users new audiovisual possibilities for creative remembering by synchronising audio with their own montages of still or moving images depicting their community or nation. Digital video cameras and editing software render it much simpler and cheaper to make, let alone disseminate videos, democratising music video production: hip-hop musicians, above all, have been able to use digital platforms to record and spread their simultaneously globalised and intensely localised affirmations of identity and expression and social critique.

Music video’s increasing convergence with other forms of audiovisual media (including YouTube and digitally generated cinema) is even being said to have produced a distinctively new audiovisual and digital aesthetics. The music video scholar Carol Vernallis calls it the ‘audiovisual swirl’, while Steven Shaviro has theorised as ‘post-cinematic affect’, a new structure of feeling emerging from how digital as opposed to analogue technologies depict and stimulate experience. The digital music video, Shaviro argues, blurs the traditional boundary between filmed action and post-production, ontologically altering what it means to construct and (re)produce audiovisual meaning (even if audiovisual meaning in analogue music video was already more obviously artificial and less mimetic than in other media). This will have its own implications for spectatorship and its embodied experiences, which – games researchers such as Matthew Thomas Payne have led the way in showing – are part of the political.

Throughout these decades of change in technology platforms, the economies of media and international politics, music video exhibits all aspects of what researchers argue makes popular culture political. It plays a role in popular geopolitics, offering frequently fantasised depictions of space and place, though (Vernallis notes in Experiencing Music Video) differently to many spatial settings in film and television: while narrative audiovisual fictions usually aim to represent an identifiable existing or imaginary geographical location, even if it has to be filmed elsewhere, music video very often conjures a type of place, as cultural imaginary or ‘place-myth’. A video set on a beach has (normally) been filmed on one particular beach with its own spatial location and history, but represents its action taking place at the beach, a spatial trope on to which viewers project their cultural imagination. The beach, the luxury hotel and the club are all characteristic settings in music video; at certain moments and in certain genres, so to have been the military base or the spaceship. To break the norm, spaces have to be directly marked as extant material locations, such as sites well-known to ‘tourist gazes’ or places extra-textually known to be the performer’s home town. Music video is therefore one more form of media through which viewers produce popular geopolitics and the politics of desire that, as Cynthia Enloe and Debbie Lisle both argue, create the fascinations around militarised and fantasised tourist sites that they do. But all popular cultural forms can do this – is any world-political work particularly characteristic of music video?

Embodied performance, Stardom and Celebrity in World Politics

One element of meaning particularly prominent in, though not exclusive to, meaning-making in music video is stardom and celebrity. International Relations scholarship seems more able to talk about celebrities as political operators off screen (especially as humanitarians), than either the labour they do as performance or the influence that narrative understandings of stars and their personas have on how viewers make sense of the characters and performances that stars embody. Music video need not of course feature the music’s performers at all, especially for musicians and genres claiming an alternative ‘cool’ which generates subcultural capital from rejecting commercial ‘celebrity’: MIA’s controversial video ‘Born Free’, directed in 2010 by Romain Gavras, was a short film depicting the rounding-up and execution of white ginger-haired men by US paramilitary police where the singer did not appear on screen at all, though it conformed to other music video genre conventions by cueing the editing of its action to the song. When performers appear, as in commercial pop, R&B and hip-hop they are most likely to do, videos produce their imaginative space by combining costume and place, mediating setting through the embodied performances of actors and dancers but even more so through those of their star(s).

Andrew Goodwin, whose early 1990s writing on music video may have outlasted some other studies from the MTV era more concerned with the aesthetics of the postmodern, drew on Richard Dyer’s work on film stardom to argue in his 1992 book Dancing in the Distraction Factory that one of the most important ways viewers interpret music video is through the ‘metanarratives’ of stardom and identity that stars’ images and bodies bring. Star personas are built up over time as the sum of their most iconic performances plus the most recirculated representations of their image off screen: many musicians’ persona-making images will be the styles of their most famous music videos, in tandem with or separate from the look of their most famous albums, tours, or publicity campaigns. Music video has contributed more and more to the on-screen dimension of star image as the physical album’s importance in music sales has declined. Goodwin argues that ‘the storyteller, rather than the story’ is what constitutes the ‘central fiction’ of popular music, a form of entertainment that leverages the authenticity of feeling listeners are supposed to perceive in vocal expression. Viewers thus make sense of music video both by using their knowledge of a star’s persona to make narrative connections between videos’ interleaved sequences of many videos, and also by wondering what contribution the image of this video is meant to make in the ongoing story of the star.

Using popular culture in a ‘narrative’ or an ‘aesthetic’ approach to security studies – especially if that narrative or aesthetic approach already, like Annick Wibben’s or Laura Shepherd’s, constitutes itself as feminist – means therefore that part of the narratives and aesthetics in front of us is this metanarrative of star persona, in any popular cultural form where an economy of stardom is at work. Neither meaning, nor the affective pleasures of spectatorship, come solely from what is happening and being said on screen, or how it looks and sounds; they also come from who is performing it and who is watching. They ask us therefore to take account of the politics and emotions of identification and desire (indeed of the desires that identification invites) that feminist and queer gaze theorists already seek to explain. Combining music, audiovisual fiction, performance and fashion photography, not to mention less or more concealed forms of advertising, spectatorship in music video involves the affective relationships sustained by all these cultural forms.

Making stardom and the politics of spectatorship more central to how we think about music video (and other popular culture) thus helps ask deeper questions about common ‘popular culture and world politics’ themes seen in music video, such as its mediation of war memory and its often contradictory position in and/or against dynamics of militarisation.

Music Video and Militarisation

Music videos may depict war as adventure or duty, war as trauma, or even create an imaginary space that invite the viewer to feel powerful affects towards war but in contradictory directions, what Cynthia Weber might term perversely ‘and/or’. Cinematic conventions of war narrative reverberate through music video, from the small-town-to-boot-camp-to-Iraq narrative of Green Day’s ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ (and most US Iraq War cinema), to the cinematic–literary interplay of Metallica’s ‘One’, released in 1989, which remediated the pacifist tragedy of the 1971 film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun but as a song in live performance introduces itself to the audience with recorded machine-gun fire, explosions and other ‘belliphonic’ sounds of war (and according to Jonathan Pieslak was a favourite of US troops in Iraq reading themselves for danger during vehicle patrols). The ambiguity of how distanced or immersed the listener is ‘supposed’ to be from imaginaries, ideologies and masculinities of war is arguably metal’s stock-in-trade, from the heavy metal era to millennial folk and power metal or the relativistic military-history-making of Sabaton, affectively manifesting the and/or.

Amid the ‘increasingly explicit visualisation’ of warfare that Lilie Chouliaraki and others detect, and the ‘qualitatively new’ expression of older ‘feedback loop[s]’ between military and civilian technology that Der Derian argues digital media provides, music video and its strategies for representing spaces and bodies are not quite like any other cultural artefact within what Rachel Woodward and Karl Jenkings call ‘popular geopolitical imaginaries of war’. There are the videos we would expect to be embedded in these imaginaries because their songs’ themes are already nationalistic or patriotic, like the just warrior/beautiful soul storyline that accompanied Jura Stublić’s video ‘Bili cvitak’ (‘White flower’) during the Croatian war of independence (the soldier’s bereaved girlfriend ends up joining a fictional, victorious Croatian peace monitoring force), and those we might not: nothing in the assemblage of music and lyrics that formed Cher’s song ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’ in 1989 would have determined that its video needed to be filmed as a staged concert to hundreds of cheering US sailors on board the USS Missouri, or that Cher needed to pose straddling one of the ship’s guns, yet there in her fishnets she unquestionably is.

Video also permits musicians to mediate gendered histories of nationhood and war by taking the roles of soldiers or other archetypal participants in significant national wars from the past, again whether or not the song itself has a patriotic theme. The Armenian singer Sirusho inserts herself into a continuum of ancient, late-19th-century and post-Soviet heroism by leading a band of armed men in (neo-)traditional feasts and dances in the mountains in her 2015 video ‘Zartonk’ (‘Awakening’); while the Czech model-turned singer Mikolas Josef plays a fallen Czech soldier (from WWI, being buried under the Czechoslovakian flag and/or today’s identical Czech one) and a contemporary young man in a 2016 song ‘Free’ that imagines a dream of world tolerance (including Putin waving ‘the flag of the gay’ to reconcile with a Pride parade) but has nothing ostensibly to do with Czech nationhood or Czechoslovak liberation during the First World War. Their ideologies of gender, war and nation could and do appear in any popular cultural form: yet how they depict them, via the singing, costumed body of a performer who invites the viewer to make sense of this persona as an image within the star’s metanarrative, is distinct to music video.

At more apparent distance from actual conflict, but not from militarisation in Enloe’s broader societal sense, are videos that become vehicles for the affirmation of camouflage and uniform as fashion (where Enloe encourages us to start unpicking what has made people think that camouflage prints and military references are attractive things to wear). The fashion industry and the construction of popular music stardom are interdependent, as much in the remediation of historic and contemporary military uniform into fashion as in anything else (take Jimi Hendrix, Sgt. Pepper, The Clash and above all Michael Jackson; the vehicle for women’s tops with padded shoulders and militaristic epaulettes to transfer from the Balmain catwalk into high-street fashion in 2009–10 was above all the star image of Rihanna). To queerly ‘trouble the soldier as an object of desire’, as Jesse Crane-Seeber does in rethinking the relationship between actual soldiers’ bodies and the state, involves understanding the militarisation of desire, identification and self-fashioning outside as well as inside the military – and music video, as what Goodwin called a ‘technocracy of sensuousness’, helps form this framework, albeit in complex configurations of irony and resistance. If Jane Tynan suggests that fashion photography referencing military uniform and activity invites its viewers to identify with imaginaries of war by recreating ‘images of social and sexual power’ through the ‘seductive qualities’ of elements of military uniform, the more multisensory involvement of audiovisual spectatorship makes the invitation to identify more intense.

The glamorous female combatant indeed became a stock character for music video treatments in the 2000s and 2010s, just as ideas about women’s capacity for violence were being contested across political and cultural spheres. Katy Perry’s ‘Part Of Me’, Rihanna’s ‘Hard’ and Beyoncé’s ‘Run The World’ each position themselves differently towards the embodiment of US militarism (Perry’s character is a jilted lover who finds empowerment in joining the Marines, in a video made with Marine Corps cooperation; Rihanna’s self-proclaimed ‘couture military’ video is set in a hyperreal, desert battlefield and advanced the narrative reconstruction of Rihanna’s persona around fantasies of female excess, revenge and violence after she had survived intimate abuse; Beyoncé’s places in her in a post-apocalyptic setting, commanding a defiant, high-fashion, black-led women’s rebellion against heavily armoured male police) yet produce stills and animated gifs which, abstracted from the narrative, move even more flexibly along the and/or. Their configurations of race, gender, nation and mimesis/fantasy belong just as much as the television dramas Laura Shepherd discusses in Gender, Violence and Popular Culture within an aesthetic approach to gender and security.

As well as being representations with transnational origins, they also have a transnational and potentially global reach. The singer Helly Luv, part of the Kurdish diaspora in Finland, filmed two videos in 2014–15 in Kurdistan using a similar bank of sonic and visual imagery to the aesthetics of ‘Run The World’ or MIA’s ‘Bad Girls’ but incorporating real peshmerga fighters and equipment and dramatizing a fight against terrorism and repressive fundamentalism, celebrating peshmerga women at a time when their image was already the subject of problematic fascination in the West. Western journalists covering the Liberian civil war, Katrin Lock writes, often compared the style of the Liberian female militia leader Black Diamond to stars of hip-hop, soul and Blaxploitation cinema, and indeed the girls in the militia ‘adopted the symbols of this global and universal visual language, which is so familiar from music videos and Hollywood films’, in fashioning themselves for war.

As popular geopolitics, as war memory, as vehicle for the political economy of fashion or desire itself, music video is already world-political. At the same time, as digital communications have become part of statecraft, state and non-state actors (from ISIS to the manufacturers of fighter jets) have become increasingly skilled at using techniques that mark audiovisual artefacts as music video to enhance the appeal and impact of their own political and strategic messages. Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca Stein describe the Israeli military’s production of content tailored to the visual aesthetics of digital media platforms, intended to be shared organically and virally through social networking, as ‘digital militarism’. The Chinese military recruitment video released with a nu-metal style soundtrack in 2016 uses music video conventions such as the slow-motion introduction of a hero dressing themselves in uniform, and the synchronisation of a missile hitting its target with a musical break, which even to a non-Chinese-speaker show the video aiming to attach its intended audience’s identificatory pleasures of spectatorship on to the Chinese military.

Music video, therefore, is not just useful for understanding popular culture and world politics because it increases the number of interesting popular cultural texts to analyse, because it offers historical insights into how people were imagining the apparently changing nature of conflict and security at the turn of the 1980s/1990s, or because ‘MTV-style’ is still a buzzword for the translation of aesthetics from entertainment media into propaganda and diplomacy even though MTV’s major contributions to audiovisual culture since the millennium have been reality TV: it also shows how deeply connected aesthetics, visuality and emotion in international politics are. Popular music is and has long been a nexus of visuality, identification and intimate affect, as well as a cultural form so intimately connected to the politics of sexuality and race that a ‘queer intellectual curiosity’ ought to recognise it as even more important to IR than it has already been said to be.

Music Video and Studying World Politics

The relatively small international politics literature on music, as Matt Davies and Marianna Franklin noted in 2015, has been slow to take up any objects of study beyond song lyrics with overtly political messages or state treatment of politicised musical movements, let alone the ‘embodied affects and experiences of sonic, audible worlds’ that distinguish music from other cultural forms. Even Davies and Franklin, however, do not theorise the nexus between sound and audiovisual aesthetics of music video. And yet it is clearly embedded in the pop-cultural ‘archive’ where gendered understandings of war, violence and security are produced and contested; in the networks of capital, ideology, technology, representation and power in which the defence and entertainment industries are mutually implicated; in the ‘everyday geopolitics’ of militarism and anti-militarism that Critical Military Studies research brings to light. Music video, arguably more than any other popular cultural form, puts the political economy and aesthetics of fashion, style and desire, and the narrative dimensions of celebrity and stardom, into the fore. Recognising what is political about them requires more than transferring typical questions about film and television to music video: it also proceeds from largely feminist and queer inquiry into the relationship between spectator, audiovisual image and performer that could usefully be brought into studying more conventionally ‘narrative’ audiovisual forms as well. Music video is a technology of fascination, fantasy and desire which, if we are seeking to explain the ‘fascination with militarized products’ that so troubles Enloe, condenses the militarising potential of audiovisual narrative texts on to an aesthetic and stylistic fulcrum; it animates the seductions of empire that so alarm Anna Agathangelou and L H M Ling.

Music video thus not just encourages but forces us to follow Roland Bleiker’s encouragement for scholars of music in world politics to go beyond the places ‘where references to the political are easy to find’, that is beyond the layer of text and language which conventional ways of knowing about global politics find most accessible. Bleiker resolved this for himself by studying instrumental music, asking explicitly ‘What can we hear that we cannot see? And what is the political content of this difference?’ Music video is conversely about what we can hear and what we can see at the same time, and the political content of these senses’ convergence rather than their separation: it is the synchronisation of editing with sound, Matthew Sumera suggests while discussing soldiers’ own amateur digital montages of war footage set to metal soundtracks, that creates music video’s unique aesthetics and affects. While music’s ‘embodied affects and […] sonic, audible worlds’ certainly offer more scope for incorporating music into IR’s ‘aesthetic turn’ than if musical lyrics simply counted as another written text, it is not even just the sonic and audible dimensions of musical worlds which matter: music video’s symbiosis of moving image and sound, and its intimate political economy of stardom, identification and desire, create modes of imagining international politics which are not quite matched by any other cultural form.

 

 

Monstrous regiment: how should we talk about those who dressed as men and went to war?

This article first appeared at the History Today website on 17 April 2018.

Whether the stories come via a 17th-century ballad, a 19th-century newspaper or a 21st-century tablet, the public has been fascinated for centuries by tales of women who put on men’s clothes, take a male name and run away to join the army – or to go to sea.

Mark Stoyle, Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Southampton, is the latest scholar to add to these entangled histories of war and gender. His forthcoming article, ‘“Give mee a Souldier’s coat”: female cross-dressing during the English Civil War’, is based on the study of hundreds of printed works and original manuscripts, and unsurprisingly drew The Guardian’s attention.

These stories of transgression have, as Stoyle writes, an ‘intrinsic human interest’ as well as a ‘peculiar elusiveness’ and have captured the imaginations of women dreaming of life outside restrictive gender norms. Feminist writers such as Julie Wheelwright, author of Amazons and Military Maids: Women Who Dressed as Men in Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness, have written dozens of ‘cross-dressing soldiers’ into a history of women’s collective struggle for emancipation, which they themselves project back on to the past.

Yet does calling all these individuals who went to war in men’s attire ‘cross-dressing women’ account for all the possibilities of how they might have viewed themselves?

Historians as a profession are, rightly, reluctant to draw conclusions about the interior lives of people who left no first-hand evidence of how they regarded themselves, or to project modern ways of thinking about gender and the body on to the past. The concept of being ‘transgender’ as an identity is the historically and culturally specific consequence of 20th-century medical science and, later, community activism: it would be anachronistic to believe any of these cross-dressing troopers understood themselves as ‘transgender’ as someone might today.

And yet, as Christine Burns writes in the introduction to her recent collection Trans Britain, behaviours suggesting people were living outside the gender identities they had been ascribed at birth can be found in sources dating back to ancient history.

If gender non-conforming people have always been finding their precarious ways around the social identities they would have been expected to live in, during peacetime as well as war, the possibilities for how ‘cross-dressing’ soldiers might have lived are wider than history has usually allowed them to be.

Acknowledging that trans histories exist as a principle is different from being able to know for certain that individuals whose behaviour transgressed the extremely fixed gender structures of early modern England ‘were definitely a woman’ or ‘would be called a trans man today’. Stronger conclusions about the social identity of any ‘cross-dressed’ soldier would depend on evidence about whether they took steps to be socially recognised in an identity that was not female after wartime, or whether they immediately put men’s clothes aside on leaving military service. It does not erase historians’ knowledge about soldiers who did live as women to allow for trans possibilities in other lives.

Evidence of gender non-conforming soldiers’ postwar lives is scant enough for the 19th century, where DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook (authors of They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War) found at least 250 such individuals serving on both sides of the US Civil War. The strongest example is probably the Union soldier Albert Cashier, who carried on living as male until doctors at the asylum where he died in 1915 forced him to wear women’s clothes (his ex-comrades campaigned for him to be brought back to the old soldiers’ home where he had lived before). The Edinburgh-trained army surgeon James Barry lived his whole adult life, public and private, as a man, yet his most recent biographers in 2016 still called him ‘a woman ahead of her time’.

Whether or not historians choose to represent Cashier or Barry in the same terms that they presented themselves to the world, their stories are only known today because they were put on display during or soon after their lifetimes. Trans histories’ great irony is that those who most successfully ‘passed’ in times when gender transgression was against the law, and were never ‘outed’ by physicians or in court, have taken their full selves to their graves – just as those who sought secrecy in their lifetimes would probably have wished.

Often, the available sources will not even tell historians what became of a soldier after the wars they fought in, let alone give access to their interior lives. Yet, even then, and even with historians’ proper caution against imposing modern identity labels on the past, history can accept some people have felt such deep incongruity with the gender they had been born into that they took whatever options were available within the social, medical and spiritual frameworks – the very structures historians strive to uncover – to live differently.

For an unknown but, in the popular imagination, striking number of people in 17th-century Britain, those options included putting on men’s clothes and going to war.

There are many reasons why someone brought up as a woman might have enlisted in a man’s name. Some women likely made the choice through economic necessity: their husbands had been killed, the army was in camp and they needed pay. Ballads have popularised the trope of women taking on a man’s identity to serve alongside a husband or lover – especially at sea, where a woman could not slip in alongside the female camp-followers who supplied the army’s logistics needs on land. (The ballad tradition is affectionately parodied in Terry Pratchett’s novel Monstrous Regiment, which follows ‘Polly’, in the guise of ‘Oliver’, into a company of soldiers who all turn out not to be men.)

For others, an army filling its ranks was one space where someone who sought to live in society as a man could be what they were.

Indeed, early modern armies like the royalist and parliamentarian forces, which depended on women camp-followers for much of their logistics and supply, pose the question: why would people go to such lengths to present a masculine identity while there were ways to stay close to the army while dressed as a woman?

Comparative historians of war and gender, as well as specialists in early modern Britain, will find Stoyle’s article invaluable because of the weight of historical evidence it assembles about the extent of ‘cross-dressing’ in the Civil Wars – or rather, how surprisingly little firm evidence there is to corroborate the balladeers’ (and King Charles’) belief that it was widespread.

Importantly, it also sets wartime gender transgressions in the context of a vibrant prewar cultural imagination surrounding women in masculine dress in early Stuart London. ‘In January 1620’, Stoyle writes, ‘the king had famously ordered his clergy to preach “against the insolencie of our women, and theyre wearing of brode brimd hats [and] pointed dublets [with] theyre haire cut short … and some of them [carrying] stilettos or poniards”.’

But here too, – once we understand that people lived lives that we might now call trans centuries before the 20th century named them as such – do we trust the king and clergy, hardly impartial observers of the social order, to know that every person they railed against as a woman in masculine dress understood themselves that way?

Even the article itself recognises that what the evidence can prove about gender-transgressive behaviour is not the same as the extent we might infer there had been. Charles, we discover, had originally apostilled a 1643 proclamation to include a memorandum ‘that no woman presume to weare mens apparell’. The amendment, primarily directed against sex workers whom they believed were putting on men’s clothes to get closer to soldiers in camp, was left out of the final proclamation.

Stoyle speculates that it might have been dropped because so many ‘women in mens apparell’ were marching with the troops and foraging that it would have been impractical to stamp it out, or because parliamentarian propaganda would have seized on the proclamation as proof that the royalist army was defying God through endemic cross-dressing (even, perhaps, because Queen Henrietta Maria herself had dressed up as an Amazon three years before in a court masque).

If ‘cross-dressed royalist women’ had not been that unusual, the article even hints, would we need to interpret the parliamentarian massacre of women royalist camp-followers at Naseby in 1645 as punishment for gender transgression by some of their number, as well as for being ‘Irish’ (the women had spoken Welsh) and ‘whores’?

All this could still be demonstrated, about the Civil Wars or others such, with space for acknowledging what we can know, and what we can not, about the people who come down to us through the sources as ‘cross-dressing women’. What is more, the possibilities of gender-variant lives in the past are not just an academic matter.

Adventurous women, and lesbians drawn to traditionally masculine style and dress, have long identified with historic figures like the soldiers in the manuscripts Stoyle studied, or cultural representations like the ‘Polly Olivers’ of early modern ballads. Trans readers of history might identify with these soldiers just as strongly. Many trans men and non-binary people might recognise parallels to their own experiences in the methods ‘cross-dressed’ soldiers had to use to ‘pass’ as military men, the unexpected acceptance they would sometimes win from their closest comrades and their fears of being publicly revealed. Most historical writing, however, has not offered trans people the same space to recognise echoes of their own lives that women have been able to enjoy.

To be repeatedly, wrongly assumed to be the gender that society projects on to you – as CN Lester explains in their acclaimed Trans Like Me – is one of the most painful experiences trans people have to contend with. Popular and academic history, unwittingly or not, has played its own part in trans ‘erasure’ by foreclosing the very possibility that some of these ‘cross-dressing’ histories might reveal trans lives in the past.

The same sources that show us women who cross-dressed also offer us glimpses of how people who might have distanced themselves from womanhood over a longer period of time got by, how those who felt equally at home in more than one gender role accommodated that fluidity, and how people with intersex conditions coped with a society where their bodies did not belong. They only rarely reveal which interior reasons motivated an individual’s behaviour: but the ways a woman who wanted to cope in a masculine space managed, and the way someone who wanted to put aside a ‘female’ identity for good managed, often looked indistinguishable from the outside.

The proclamations and ballads and court records that give us most of our evidence for gender transgressions in the early modern military will not distinguish how any ‘cross-dressed woman’ in the Civil Wars lived. But historians can interpret them in ways that let trans histories be possible, even when the evidence does not let them be known.

 

Postsocialism and whiteness: why the Yugoslav region was never outside ‘race’

This post originally appeared at Discover Society on 6 March 2018.

Race has worked its way into national identities around the globe except, as most studies of postsocialist Europe until very recently would suggest, in former state socialist societies such as the Yugoslav region. The Yugoslav successor states and other central and east European countries have the reputation of being historically white nations, which did not have overseas empires and did not therefore experience the mass postcolonial migration that western European countries witnessed after 1945. Indeed, their experiences of fighting what national histories remember as wars of liberation against foreign empires might seem to place them among imperialism’s victims rather than its agents. For all these reasons, sociologists, anthropologists and historians have rarely viewed national identity in the Yugoslav region as part of the global politics of coloniality and ‘race’ – while state socialism and postsocialism has seemed like one complication too far for most theorists of how ‘race’ itself has travelled and translated itself around the world.

Usually, social scientists and historians trying to make sense of ‘race’ in the Yugoslav region have either equated race with ethnicity – a category of identity which represents a powerful social fact dividing people into national majorities and minorities, no matter how socially constructed the boundaries between ethnic ‘selves’ and ‘others’ are – or dismissed race altogether. Even after accepting that racism and ‘racialisation’ (the process of projecting racial categories on to people, places and cultural symbols) are the products of structures of power that date back to European colonialism and the enslavement of Africans, rather than the result of individuals’ prejudice and bias, several factors might seem to put the Yugoslav region and similar postsocialist societies outside the global framework of ‘race’. Race and the Yugoslav Region, my new book for Manchester University Press, comes at a moment where the refugee crisis has revealed they are not outside that framework and scholars are increasingly trying to show that they have never been.

Why might the common sense of most experts on the Yugoslav region until recently have suggested that race did not matter as much in the Balkans or eastern Europe as it did in much of the West? For all but the last few decades of the era when European powers were exercising direct imperial domination over much of the globe, Yugoslavia did not even exist. Instead, the region’s people(s) had struggled for independence from three different empires (and one of them was the Ottoman Empire, which white Europeans often treated as non-European itself): if Yugoslavia had had no empire of its own, it surely had no historical accountability to render for the sins of empire, nor any reason for its non-white population to expand through mass postcolonial migration like Britain’s or France’s had. The skin colour of most people from majority nations in the region – though few of its own racialised minority, the Roma – would be described in most systems of ‘race’ as white. The Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova, whose Imagining the Balkans both popularised and criticised the idea of using Edward Said’s postcolonial theory of ‘orientalism’ to understand postsocialist identities as well, called the Balkans ‘white and […] predominantly Christian’ to explain why she thought denigration of the Balkans had turned into the last acceptable prejudice in the early 1990s. Yet, by the late 2000s, postcolonial social scientists such as Dušan Bjelić and Konstantin Kilibarda were already arguing that assuming the Balkans were white closed off opportunities to ask how ‘whiteness’, as a racialised ideology of identification with civilisation and modernity, might have worked in collective identity-making in south-east Europe.

One approach to ‘race’ in the region was therefore an implicit or explicit ‘exceptionalism’, which let it be widely taken for granted that south-east Europe could be studied perfectly well without ‘race’. Another, for some authors, was to draw parallels between how ideas of ‘the Balkans’ or ‘the East’ were stigmatised inside and outside south-east Europe (as being ‘less modern’ than ‘Europe’ or ‘the West’) and how the black diaspora was marginalised around the world. This mode of analogy was symbolised in the title of Nicole Lindstrom and Maple Razsa’s influential article on Croatia, ‘Balkan is Beautiful’ (playing on the reclamatory liberation slogan ‘Black is Beautiful’). It began to place nationalism and ethnicity in the region into a wider context of the global struggle for racial justice, yet still keeps the region oddly separate from the main course of world history where colonialism and therefore ‘race’ did shape identities: ‘Balkan’, it implies, is to south-east Europe as ‘black’ is elsewhere.

However, cultural sociology and postcolonial contemporary history were already starting to point to transnational reverberations of the legacies of colonialism (which include ‘race’ and racism) that extended (or could be extended) into the region. The scepticism Paul Gilroy showed in works such as Between Camps towards over-essentialised expressions of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ as categories of identity, for instance, resonated with an equally anti-essentialist turn that the anthropology of ethnicity and nationalism of south-east Europe had taken (e.g. pointing out how ambiguous the symbolic boundaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’ constantly being constructed around markers of cultural identity actually are, despite ethnic identities supposedly being ‘fixed’). But his approach to collective identity also involved the sense of postcolonial, transnational historical connectivity he had illustrated in an earlier book, The Black Atlantic. Can we say there are any traces of ‘the Black Atlantic’ in south-east Europe? The study of popular music gives an example of how to look for them. Most scholars would already describe popular music histories in south-east Europe as transnational, because the folk traditions that have influenced them cut across national borders (and were usually there before them). They are transnational in this sense, but – to the extent that music traditions of the worldwide African diaspora have also influenced them – they are also transnational enough to represent another echo of the worldwide history of colonialism and slavery, which had created the routes through which black diasporic intellectual and cultural resistance was expressed. The echo may be distant, but it should not go unheard.

Another essential foundation for tracing the global politics of ‘race’ in the Yugoslav region is to recognise that ‘postsocialism’ and ‘postcolonialism’ are not just words that describe the condition of two separate parts of the world. The geographer Sharad Chari and the anthropologist Katherine Verdery wrote what became a manifesto for a postsocialist and postcolonial contemporary history when they published an article in 2009 that challenged scholars of both the postsocialist and postcolonial ‘worlds’ not to see them as separate zones. Chari, a geographer of postcolonial development, and Verdery, among the anthropologists who had effectively founded the critical study of postsocialism, combined to argue that postsocialism was not simply a lens for making sense of former state socialist societies, nor was postcoloniality a lens that only applied to the former metropoles and colonies of empire. Instead, it mattered just as much to ask how the collapse of state socialism in Europe and the end of bipolar ideological competition between the superpowers in 1989–91 had affected societies more usually thought of as postcolonial, and how legacies of colonialism had affected what social scientists often still call ‘postsocialist’ space. Chief among those legacies – no matter how narratives of ‘benign’ imperialism deny it – are the reverberations of Europeans’ mass enslavement of Africans and the depth to which formations of ‘race’ were embedded in international political, social and cultural thought. ‘Thinking between the posts’, as Chari and Verdery put it, to connect the global legacies of colonialism and state socialism would have to account for south-east Europe’s position in global ‘raciality’ – Race and the Yugoslav Region argues – or it is not tracing colonialism’s deepest-rooted legacy at all.

To accept this argument, however, one first has to accept that ‘race’, slavery and colonialism are inextricably joined. Liberal understandings of racism as a personal prejudice and relic of the past, which hope that enlightenment and education will be enough to eradicate racism, do not require seeing race in the same ‘structural’ terms (and often, Alana Lentin argues, this more liberal model is how anti-racist movements have theorised race). When ‘race’ and racism are not seen as necessarily connected to colonialism, ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ (or ‘racism’ and ‘ethnic antagonism’) are probably easier to conflate. They do already have interwoven histories as ideas, and scholars such as Nevenko Bartulin, Miglena Todorova and Marius Turda have done much to show how transnational racial ideology was adapted and embedded into the history of defining central and east European ethnic identities in the first half of the 20th century. ‘Race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are mutually entangled, but they are not the same thing, and ethnic relations in the Yugoslav region (or elsewhere in postsocialist Europe) are not just the equivalent of race relations elsewhere: they have also been shaped by a history and sociology of ‘race’ that runs across the globe. That historical framework not only permits, but forces, the dynamics of south-east European self-identifications with ‘Europe’, ‘modernity’ and ‘the West’ (and the symbolic boundaries that position sociocultural and ethnonational Others in ‘the Balkans’ and ‘the East’) to be seen within the history of ‘race’ itself.

The symbolic binary oppositions that help to construct so many collective identities in the Yugoslav region are, therefore, not just mirror images of the symbolic binary oppositions (of modernity versus primitivism, civilisation versus wildness, reason versus unreason) that critical race theory perceives in hierarchies of whiteness and non-whiteness: they are part of the same framework, because the framework is already worldwide. Critical race theorists argue that colonialism’s way of dividing the world into civilised and uncivilised zones, and its way of ascribing cultural and personal characteristics to people and communities based on which of these spaces they are presumed to have descended from, produced a powerful racialised imagination. No part of the world has escaped the global racial hierarchy, not even – as Jemima Pierre argues in a recent study of Ghana – postcolonial Africa where decolonisation might have been expected to do away with colonial structures of ‘race’: their intimate, embodied politics and their continual transnational remediation have made them ‘stickier’ (in Sara Ahmed’s sense) than direct colonial rule. Why should the world’s only exception be the Yugoslav region, or the rest of central and south-east Europe?

Postcolonial approaches already give cultural historians, anthropologists and literary scholars a rich methodology for showing racialised cultural imaginations at work in European societies that had not yet colonised territory or experienced mass ‘postcolonial’ migration, and even in those that never went on to do so. Researchers such as Maxim Matusevich in transnational history, Kesha Fikes and Alaina Lemon in anthropology, and Adriana Helbig in ethnomusicology have shown through studies of African diasporic presences in Russia and Ukraine that encounters with racialised difference helped to constitute geopolitical and cultural identities during state socialism and postsocialism even though Communism displaced responsibility for racism and the very salience of ‘race’ on to the imperialist and capitalist influence of, above all, the USA. Gloria Wekker’s White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race refutes the exceptionalism of white Dutch perceptions that racism did not exist in the Netherlands before the era of mass migration and shows scholars working elsewhere how to collect evidence against the exceptionalist narratives they contend with as well.

In the historical sections of White Innocence, Wekker extends Edward Said’s notion of the ‘cultural archive’ from his own specialism of literature into historic sites of everyday knowledge about ‘race’. These include education, visual arts, medical and anthropological magazines and commercial advertising, as well as the spectacle of fin-de-siècle colonial exhibitions. In all these sites, Wekker finds more than enough proof of a gendered and sexualised racial imagination at the turn of the 19th and 20th century to expose the disingenuousness of mainstream Dutch professions of ‘white innocence’ about ‘race’. From the colonial tropes still embedded in coffee and confectionery branding to occasional but unquestioned instances of blackface performance on entertainment television, the Yugoslav region exhibits its own ‘cultural archive’ of racialisation dating back to the racial formations of the Habsburg, Ottoman and Venetian empires that used to rule it. These were already forming before the state socialist period when, as Jelena Subotić and Srđan Vučetić have recently argued, Tito and other Yugoslav Communists made their case for leadership in the Non-Aligned Movement by arguing that Yugoslavs, having liberated themselves from imperial oppression, were both part of and (more paternalistically) could lead African and Asian allies in worldwide anti-colonial struggle in the new international order that was emerging after the so-called ‘global racial break’. Even then, Yugoslav identifications shifted between the protagonists of anti-colonial struggle and the civilised modernity of the Europeans who had subjugated them. Topics like these have been hidden away behind the racial exceptionalism that has dominated central and east European studies.

This does not mean, however, that they were not already being researched. The postcolonial feminist Anikó Imre had, for instance, already unambiguously opposed the idea that eastern Europe was outside ‘race’ in a chapter for a volume on Postcolonial Whiteness in 2005, but her intervention (in a book that east Europeanists who were not already looking for work on whiteness and postcolonialism would probably not have read) did not change the direction of the field like the ‘balkanism’ debate (about applying ‘orientalism’ to the Balkans) had done in the 1990s. Research on antiziganism such as Imre’s has since led the field in connecting national ethnopolitics with the transnational politics of cultural racism in Europe to explain the situation of Romani people in south-east European societies. And yet the region’s identifications with ‘Europe’ and ‘modernity’ are linked to global formations of race and the politics of emotion that sustain them in even more ways than that. Spatialised hierarchies of civilisation and barbarism, of modernity and backwardness, of readiness to rule and capacity to be taught are, Charles Mills and Walter Mignolo both show, integral to the history of ‘race’ and racialisation. Critical race theory argues that this process was global. And if it was, the construction of social and ethnic identities around images of ‘Europe’ and ‘the Balkans’ in the Yugoslav region must already have been unfolding within this history.

Nevertheless, even most global sociologists of race have passed over the complexities of the Yugoslav region, central and eastern Europe, and state socialism. If many of the region’s future nation-states were not even independent when European powers were creating and administering their structures of colonial violence, how far are the ‘Europes’ imagined there part of the same ‘Europe’ being denounced by decolonial critiques of Eurocentrism – and why could individuals from the region still find points of identification with the coloniser? Were the answers different under state socialism, when Communist ideology held that racism only existed in capitalist societies, than during postsocialism’s so-called ‘return to Europe’, when the ‘Europe’ that liberals aspired to join was already fortifying its borders against migrants and refugees from the Global South? How far do the long-term and recent ways in which the region has been made into a periphery of Europe and (the post-Yugoslav New Left argues) kept in a relationship of dependency by the European Union complicate notions of ‘Europe’ or ‘the West’? A question resting underneath all these in moral terms might be what measure of historical responsibility for coloniality and racism the people(s) of the Yugoslav region and the rest of central and eastern Europe could be said to share. And yet, even when ‘global’ race scholarship travels all round the Atlantic, it stops so often at Europe’s Atlantic coast that the conversation further inland has only just begun.

It might have been easier to ignore these questions, at least from positions of so-called ‘white ignorance’, when the most urgent phenomena in the Yugoslav region that needed explaining seemed to be being produced inside it, through ethnopolitical conflict. Yet agendas that might have sufficed for explaining the Yugoslav wars were far less help in explaining how post-Yugoslav states and their neighbours responded to the ‘refugee crisis’ as it manifested in the Western Balkans in 2015, when 1 million migrants and refugees from the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan traversed the region on foot. The politics of how far national communities defined by cultural traditions and values might have welcomed or excluded refugees, and the structural position in the EU border project that European institutions had assigned the region’s governments, could not be understood without reference to how security and migration were and are racialised in 21st-century Europe. ‘Race’, not just ethnicity, governed official and public reactions to migrants who were perceived through a racialised transnational politics of security and Islamophobia. The spectacle of Macedonian police beating refugees at Gevgelia station as they rushed to board trains to Hungary (before Viktor Orban’s increasingly ethnocentric government could finish building an announced border fence) produced images of violent unrest in ‘the Balkans’ beyond the frame of conventional approaches to ‘Balkan violence’ which separated the Balkans from the world.

Moreover, the institutional and digital spaces in which scholars were researching and teaching about the Yugoslav region were also sites of decolonial protest and activism that influenced the questions students – and teachers – brought to class. Race and the Yugoslav Region is a book I would like to have existed when the BAME-student-led ‘Dismantling the Master’s House’ initiative at UCL (where I had done my PhD at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies) launched a campaign in 2014 called ‘Why is My Curriculum White?

And yet ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ is not the only necessary question for revealing the racialised politics of knowledge production surrounding south-east European studies or any other discipline: so is the other question that Dismantling The Master’s House posed, ‘Why Isn’t My Professor Black?’ Indeed, when 29 per cent of UK students beginning first degrees in England in 2015–16 were BME (‘black and minority ethnic’), why aren’t more of our students? A discipline that had largely left ‘whiteness’ in its own region, and its own academic literature, unexamined, might well have implied to prospective students of colour that their own everyday knowledge about race and racism would not be welcomed or recognised as part of their scholarship. If this is the case, then understanding postsocialism and postcoloniality as interlocking, not separate, things is not just necessary to make historical and sociological accounts of the region stronger: it is also necessary, in a multicultural postcolonial society, for giving studies of the area the conditions to thrive.

Race and the Yugoslav Region‘ will be published by Manchester University Press on 22 March 2018.