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.

The eighteen-month-long millennium: when Britain and Europe weren’t meant to look like this

I wrote the second part of this text almost a year ago, in July 2016, at a loose end in central London after the March for Europe, and didn’t post it until a documentary about Geri Halliwell in the 1990s – which ended with her becoming a UN Population Fund goodwill ambassador – reminded me again about the memory that prompted it in the first place – a Model United Nations based around the UN Millennium Development Goals that I went to in April 2000. Then something else happened, so I didn’t post it then either, and now it’s Article 50. 

Sometimes these last few years have managed to be mind-bendingly resonant with their counterparts from twenty years ago – who would have thought my old school would start offering its gender-variant students recognition in a way I could never have imagined then (when I didn’t even know there were other things to be recognised as) – but when it comes to ‘Europe’ it’s the kind of looking-glass where everything’s shaped wrong.

This is going to get worse as 2017 turns to 2018 turns to 2019, and to Brexit, when 1997 turned to 1998 to 1999 and turned to future, politically, but also for my late teenage self as well.

The late 1990s were when I developed my lived experience of ‘Europe’ in a way that was an important part of my identity for a long time – as a language learner, as someone who belonged to literary and musical cultures beyond the nation and linguistic area I’d grown up in, as someone who expected to be working in another European country one day.

The optimism of those few years is already outside the living memory of most of the students I teach – who very soon are going to have been born after the Millennium, and a year or two after that will mostly have been born after 9/11.

By 2000, I’d visited other European countries five times, all since 1996. The first was a family holiday to Greece, to the most meaningful places my parents had visited in the 70s, when Britain must have only just joined the EEC and the Greek military junta must only just have come down; being 14, I moped for two weeks over that summer’s confusing friendships and gave the impression of paying as little attention to my surroundings as I could get away with. Needless to say this didn’t go down well.

We still used travellers’ cheques, which you queued up at the bank to cash every few days. I didn’t have a passport until that holiday; the covers were red, and as far as I knew always would be.  The only problem about being in the European Union was that when you visited another member state they didn’t stamp the page.

Everywhere else I travelled was through the school. I hadn’t asked to go on a foreign trip before, conscious of the cost, until our Spanish class was due to go on an exchange to Barcelona in 1997. I used to say that I came out in Barcelona, or rather, had to accept while I was there that I was going to need to. I brought a necklace back from Barcelona that I wore for years, until it fell off at work; it’s still there (I’ve just seen) in photos from the first academic conference I ever took part in, in Dubrovnik in 2004 where I had to give a presentation in Croatian about my Masters research in front of a woman who had been head of the communist party in Serbia until 1972.

catdbv2004
I have no idea where the rest of this photo went.

Two years later we had another exchange visit to Spain, in Murcia, where I wanted to spend my time so differently from most of my classmates that it felt like I wanted to distance myself from Englishness and Britishness altogether, which lasted several years. (I write that now and think: is that a politically dangerous thing to admit, when our prime minister has described ‘people who believe they’re citizens of the world’ as ‘citizens of nowhere’ and when even wanting to be mobile is a symbolic social boundary that didn’t used to mean so much?)

My exchange partner’s older sister gave me a novel in Spanish that perfectly matched my tastes then, probably even better than she knew, Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s El club Dumas; I acquired all the rest of his books, and anything else like it, from the European Bookshop on – I think on Warwick Street, before you could order them reliably online and shops like that were still spaces of discovery.

The last summer at school I had the chance to go to Moscow/St Petersburg and, my first time through the Channel Tunnel, Paris: I’d left the country three times in a year.

The next encounter with Europe was Europe coming to me, at what felt like the beginning of a new moment in history but now feels like a millennial dead end.

*

I’m writing this – of course I’m not writing this now; this is still July 2016, when we could still joke that Vladimir and Estragon ‘do not send the Article 50 Notification – a few metres away from the International Maritime Organization’s headquarters in Vauxhall, after walking in the March for Europe – bigger than anyone who came seems to have expected, still probably too small on its own to ever count.

It was a young march. Whiter and more middle-class – just going by the people and accents around me – than a march representing London ought to have been; but most marchers younger than me. Some of that is me getting older. (I’m in London for a birthday celebration put back by a week for several reasons, one of them being to keep it at least somewhat separate from the referendum.) Some of it isn’t.

Many of them would have been young people anticipating using their freedom of movement rights, in either direction, along routes they might not even have thought of as constrained by nationality until the question was suddenly thrown open, until now a week later the front-runner for the Conservative leadership is even sounding as if she’s prepared to play poker with the long-term residency rights of EU citizens who are already living here.

Not quite as many other European countries’ flags as you’d see in a Eurovision audience, but getting close. (I tried to play flag bingo: Denmark, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, Poland with the biggest flag of all, Romania, Italy and Sweden holding hands, the Czech Republic, one Catalan separatist flag with a Union Jack taped on, and a baby in a red and white checked hat I’m calling for Croatia because you never know.)

I’m struck by how many of them might have been queer, in ways that young people in London might be legible as queer (and obviously more of them will have been queer than that), with far more confidence and expressiveness and diverseness of expression than I remember being surrounded by at the same age at all; now about to have rights they’d taken for granted taken away in at least two ways at once.

Why have I walked down here. Partly to circumvent weekend engineering works that no mayor of London, not even last-hope-of-the-Jedi Sadiq Khan, has managed to do anything about; partly (I realised from the bridge where I saw the tall red building with its light blue flag and its whiteboard-marker roof, just as I used to look out for when Waterloo trains passed Vauxhall) because this is where Europe as a thing, not just Europe as a collection of other countries, first started being something I lived in.

I’d travelled to Greece once, Spain twice, Paris for a weekend, and even Russia, but my first experience of Europe in a slice of its complexity was the year our school’s debating society entered a team to the Model United Nations that was going to be held to celebrate the signing of the Millennium Development Goals by modelling UN committee work to agree a Millennium Declaration of our own.

This must have been organised by the UN (I could find out which agency if I waited to write this until I’m back in Hull, where I still have the programme from it somewhere).

I did have the programme: I tweeted a few pages from it after the Geri documentary. I’m even in one of the photos, obliquely, not really looking like myself-in-2000 yet at all, but holding up a large ‘Croatia’ sign. 

catmun2000

The keynote speakers were Geri Halliwell (these days, it would probably be Angelina Jolie-Pitt; you get a more famous calibre of celebrity humanitarian this half-generation), an Irish peacekeeper, and the writer Zlata Filipovic, five years after publishing her childhood diary of the siege of Sarajevo, who we met during a break and who might have looked at me more guardedly than I remember when she saw that I had the Croatian seat.

There might have been a hundred participants – or maybe they did fill every last member seat – all supposed to be 18 or thereabouts, because this was the generation that was going to go out and change the new millennium. (The young men not much older who flew their hijacked planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon less than a year and a half later would do much more towards that than us.) I was still 17, without a vote in the coming or just-passed London mayoral elections, to the consternation of some of my classmates when it came up in a History seminar.

(I can’t remember when the elections happened in relation to this. These pieces come out differently when I’m not online.)

About two thirds were from the UK, the others from pretty much everywhere else in western and northern Europe. There might have been a few Poles and Hungarians – or maybe there was a parallel Eastern European one of these? – but not the greater number who’d have been able to afford to come after the low-cost airlines (what were those bright orange things?) really got going.

Croatia had just elected a liberal president and the tide seemed to be turning against authoritarian nationalism, which made them timely to represent, if not as challenging for a historian as it would have been to have to intuit the positions of an ideology with which I profoundly disagreed.

But that didn’t seem to be what anyone was doing (except a few performative moments in committee if someone had, say, Belarus). The mood among this group of young Europeans – all from schools that had heard about this thing and could afford to send students to it, let’s be clear, we weren’t a demographic cross-section of the continent by any means – was: let’s come up with something that is fit for purpose and expresses that strange intangible sense that just because the first digit of the year has turned around it might mean we could do something differently.

I could probably find the final text, which they sent us in a commemorative binder two or three months later, and tick off the resolutions: that one hasn’t happened; that one hasn’t happened; that one… yeah.

These days now I know people who actually do discourse analysis of UN documents, it’s a piece of historical evidence, isn’t it: a snapshot of a young people’s history and geography of internationalism, part of the only eighteen-month-long Millennium there’s ever been.

(A car stuck at the lights is playing ATB’s ‘9 am Till I Come’, wasn’t that 1999?, and that would be an interesting time slip. You know what book you’re going to have written last year? That’ bit went all right. The rest of the world around it… not so much.

Except a few of the songs I had taped on to a cassette for the train into Vauxhall were already from Croatia, Vanna’s ‘Kao rijeka’ which had nearly been picked for Eurovision and which I was just beginning to have enough language competence to realise was probably about the Millennium (it was), with a leaving-the-past-behind-us motif which from 1999-2000 Croatia sounds now as if it could only be about one thing; except that in a lot of places people felt like that.)

Within all that, the effort of will that it took Catherine at 17 to even begin speaking to a delegate from Portugal who, a few years later, a friend of mine looking at the commemorative folder from this thing would go on to mistake for me but who I could never even have begun to compare myself with at the time.

Would I rather have been 17 then, or 17 now and entering the next stages of a global crisis (which, I didn’t appreciate then but came to understand, has many of its longest-term roots in the legacies of the dominance through which my own country got rich in the first place)? I’d be in a position, assuming the same complex of identifications and insecurities, to understand much more about my self and sexuality-and-gender than I could have then. Maybe I would have done better, half a generation later.

But in terms of being able to access the conditions for a life that promised to be fulfilling and have some advancement in it in the long term even when things temporarily fell down – I worry that half a generation makes a difference that is already hard to repair. And will get harder to repair now that the result of the referendum has added an extra layer of instability to those already facing Britain and the rest of Europe. [And then there was still more.]

So much for the Millennium, and its goals, and whatever it was we voted to develop anyway; except that, as any pedant with a calendar will tell you, millennia really start themselves in 2001.

*

Will young people growing into their late teens in Britain now have the same opportunities to get to know that the cultures you can belong to don’t just depend on where you were born, or what language you grew up with as your first one?

The Europe I believed in at that point was a liberal fantasy anyway, and I didn’t understand how much privilege I moved through it with. Opportunities for me weren’t opportunities for everyone. But at least we hadn’t gone through the rejection of Britain’s European future that the referendum result in 2016 implied, the escalation of xenophobia against white EU citizens as well as the people of colour it already stigmatised, or the symbolic politics that mean if I speak about attachment to Europe now some people might hear it as she doesn’t want to listen to us.

The answer will probably look very different from each of Britain’s four nations – to an extent I’d also have found unimaginable in 2000, except that by studying the end of Yugoslavia I was already imagining it after all.

How to write a conference abstract: a five-part plan for pitching your research at almost anything

One of the things about academic life that, when you’ve done them a lot, you start forgetting you didn’t always know how to do is writing conference abstracts.

Answering a conference’s call for papers will nearly always involve writing an abstract, or a summary of what your talk is going to be about, to a word limit the organisers have set – usually 200, 250, 300 or 500 words.

(Some may ask for other things, like a biographical note or a short CV, and some will choose papers on the abstracts alone – so make sure you know what else to send, and what word limit you’re working towards for a particular one.)

Some large conferences, like the ones scholarly associations hold in different subject areas, will ask for this almost a year in advance, which makes it even more difficult to know what to put in the abstract – since, especially if you’re a postgrad, you probably won’t yet have done the research.

I’ve probably been writing 5-6 of these things, with a success rate of more than 90%, most years since 2006, when I was in the middle of my PhD (on a topic – popular music and narratives of identity in post-Yugoslav Croatia – that followed on from my Masters, so I already had well-worked-out arguments to talk about) – most of these presentations will have needed abstracts written for them, aimed at audiences with different disciplinary and thematic interests (even the ones where I’ve been invited to give the talk, the organisers have usually asked me for an abstract so they can tell their networks what it’s going to be about).

Before I’d had to write most of these, I’d also been involved in selecting abstracts for a large postgraduate conference that a group of PhD students in my department organised in 2006 – so I’d read a whole spectrum of abstracts from stunningly clear and exciting to utterly baffling or, once or twice, so off-topic I wondered if it was meant for something else.

Smaller conferences often circulate all the speakers’ abstracts in one document before the conference or put them in registration packs; larger conferences usually make them available through their online system. Most abstracts at academic conferences that were high enough quality to be accepted have a similar structure, as you’ll probably start to see if you look through your next conference’s abstracts book.

Their purpose once they’ve been accepted is so people at the conference can work out which papers and panels they want to hear. Their first purpose, on the other hand is to persuade the organisers that they want your paper – and you – to be part of the discussion they’re having about their conference topic, in a context where they’ll almost certainly have more submissions than they can accommodate.

They don’t just want you and your research to be there – they need you and your research to be there – or that’s the impression your abstract ought to give.

The five-part structure I’m going to go through here would make sense to organisers throughout the humanities and social sciences (I’ve used it for abstracts that needed to fit into history, politics, sociology, geography, media or cultural or popular music studies, interdisciplinary area studies, anthropology, education, even conferences on topics my CV looked like I don’t study explaining why I did study them after all) – some of its principles probably apply in sciences as well, though your fields might have more formal requirements for what you put where.

This is an abstract I wrote in 2012, based on work from my postdoctoral project on translation/interpreting and peacekeeping in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for submission to a set of Feminist Security Studies panels at the International Studies Association conference in 2013. I’d been realising that my research about everyday intercultural encounters on military bases actually fitted in with what this expanding field of International Relations was doing, so I needed to emphasise topics that field was talking about (peace support operations) and concepts and approaches that the organisers would recognise as relevant (power and, since this was a feminist strand, above all gender).

Here’s the abstract, and then we’ll go through how each part works:

Gender, translation/interpreting, and the exercise of power in peace support operations
Dr Catherine Baker
University of Hull
cbakertw1@googlemail.com

Ethnographic perspectives on peace support operations invite us to view their  activities, and thus their exercise of power, as constituted by multiple acts of written and spoken communication between agents of foreign intervention and local people and institutions within the sites of intervention (Pouligny, 2006; Rubinstein, 2008; Higate and Henry, 2009). Yet since most military personnel in most interventions rarely speak the language(s) of their destination, this power rests in fact on multiple acts of translation and interpreting. To fully understand this dimension of international security we must therefore understand the experiences and positionalities of language intermediaries, not just of foreign military actors. Reflecting on 52 semi-structured interviews with foreign soldiers and locally-recruited interpreters collected during a project on peace operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, this paper suggests ways in which language and translation/identity are embodied, exploring nationality, ethnicity, military/civilian status and, primarily, gender. How did the discursive gendering of language and translation/interpreting structure recruitment and employment practices for language intermediaries? How did male interpreters negotiate the feminisation of their role? And how did the feminisation of translation/interpreting intersect with what has been perceived (with problematic essentialism) as a wider conceptual feminisation of contemporary militaries through peace support?

Here’s a model of the structure I mocked up for historian Stephanie McKellop when she was asking about abstract-writing advice on Twitter today:

abstractwriting

Let’s take each of those sections in turn.

Step 1: start with the current state of knowledge in the field you’re engaging with. What do we think we know? (What you put here is also a bit of a performance of who you think ‘we’ are, for the purposes of joining this conversation.)

Ethnographic perspectives on peace support operations invite us to view their  activities, and thus their exercise of power, as constituted by multiple acts of written and spoken communication between agents of foreign intervention and local people and institutions within the sites of intervention (Pouligny, 2006; Rubinstein, 2008; Higate and Henry, 2009).

Here I’m making a point that had already been well established by recent literature on peacekeeping and peacebuilding: all these operations achieve what they achieve because they happen on an everyday level, and all these interactions are made up of acts of communication.

I’ve even referred to some recent academic works that have contributed to showing that. I cite them in a way that suggests I’m familiar with them and I think the organisers and audience will be too – don’t overuse this, but it’s another way to signal that this presentation would be contributing to a conversation that’s already going on. (And yes, I’ve used author-date referencing; sorry, humanities. Footnotes in conference abstracts don’t work well.[1])

I could add a first line with a really eye-catching detail that expresses the point I’m making as Step 1, but either I couldn’t pick one or the word limit was too short, so…

Step 2: move the narrative forward: something is WRONG with what we think we know.

Yet since most military personnel in most interventions rarely speak the language(s) of their destination, this power rests in fact on multiple acts of translation and interpreting.

All this (brilliant, valuable) work on the everyday politics of peacekeeping has missed something super important: language, translation and interpreting. (Words like ‘yet’ and ‘in fact’ are your signals here for showing that the argument is changing course.)

Suddenly we have a problem that needs solving. Narrative tension!

Luckily, someone’s just done some research about that…

Step 3: offering a solution.

To fully understand this dimension of international security we must therefore understand the experiences and positionalities of language intermediaries, not just of foreign military actors.

Here, I’m pointing to what I think can resolve the problem: accounting for language intermediaries (translators and interpreters) as well as foreign peacekeepers themselves. It isn’t perfect (for one thing, there’s a clunky repetition that I should have caught), but in using phrases like ‘to fully understand…’ it signals that it’s about what we can do to overcome whatever Step 2 is. The narrative moves forward again.

I’m benefiting in this particular Step 3 from having two feet in different disciplines. There’s a well-known idea in Translation Studies of ‘the invisibility of the translator’ (thanks, Lawrence Venuti), which had motivated not just me but also the senior academics who designed the project to research language intermediaries in war and conflict in the first place. Taken into other settings where people don’t talk about the invisibility of the translator so much, it’s one of those ideas that can stop people and make them say ‘oh, of course’ – which is exactly the kind of feedback I got after I gave this talk.

Even if your research doesn’t have this kind of background, though, there’s still something about the concepts, theory or literature that you use which will help cut through the problem you posed in Step 2 – and that’s part of what makes your research original.

(Remember that you’re much more used to the material you draw on most closely than most of your audience will be – what seems to go without saying for you now you’ve been reading about it for months or years can seem much more original to an audience who hasn’t.)

So what are we going to do about this? The next step tells them.

Step 4: methodology. What did you do (or what will you have done by the time the presentation happens) to solve the problem like you said you would?

Reflecting on 52 semi-structured interviews with foreign soldiers and locally-recruited interpreters collected during a project on peace operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina,

This is where your research volunteers as tribute. Summarising your methodology (was it interview-based? archival? creative? quantitative? What sources and data did you use?) shows that the findings from the research will be rigorous, and produce the kind of knowledge that the audience expects – or maybe the kind of knowledge that the audience doesn’t expect, because their methodologies have been too limited all along as well.

This was quite familiar methodology for my audience, so I didn’t spend much time on it – really just to specify the size of my collection of material, and something of the scope.

If you’re doing something unconventional with methodology, like Saara Sarma who uses collages of internet images to expand the boundaries of how International Relations experts think about world politics, you’ll want to spend relatively longer here. It’ll need more explanation, but it’s also one of your biggest selling points, so make sure you’re telling a strong story about that throughout the abstract: it’ll grab the organisers’ attention, but they’ll also want to know how the innovative thing you’re doing fits into or changes something about a field that doesn’t normally do that, and if you don’t make this clear you’re depending on how well or willing they’ll be to extrapolate from what they are able to see.

This may well be the hardest part of the abstract to write if the conference is many months away. Don’t worry if some things about your methods, sources or data change between now and then; conference audiences are used to that, and explaining why that happened can often become part of the talk.

By now the narrative’s really moving along. There was a problem; you Did The Thing; and now we’re somewhere different than we were before.

Step 5: RESOLUTION. We got there!

this paper suggests ways in which language and translation/identity are embodied, exploring nationality, ethnicity, military/civilian status and, primarily, gender. How did the discursive gendering of language and translation/interpreting structure recruitment and employment practices for language intermediaries? How did male interpreters negotiate the feminisation of their role? And how did the feminisation of translation/interpreting intersect with what has been perceived (with problematic essentialism) as a wider conceptual feminisation of contemporary militaries through peace support?

This is your hypothesis or conclusion, depending on what stage the research is at – either what you expect to find, or what you found. Frame it in a way which shows the reader what you’re contributing, in a way that resonates with what already matters to them because of what field they’re in.

Here, for instance, I’ve made some suggestions why gendered perceptions of translation and interpreting could tell us something about wider issues feminists and International Relations researchers would be interested in (gender inequalities in employment and the military; experiences of men working in jobs that are usually gendered feminine; an ongoing debate about how far peacekeeping might have been changing the gender politics of international security itself).

This part could have been a lot better: it ought to end in a more emphatic sentence, rather than a question, about how this research will change the part of the field you’ve seen that it could change. It still did enough to get the abstract accepted, because Steps 1 to 4 had made a compelling and original case – and it also gave me the basic structure for my talk.

You can use this structure to pitch almost any piece of research for almost any conference – once you’ve worked out what story it can tell.

[1] Unless, of course, you’re writing an abstract in a field where you’ve already seen a lot of other conference abstracts that look like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

alphabetumilr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of 2015 publications round-up

I’m supposed to write one of these a year and this time have actually done it – here are the various new things I published in 2015…

Next on their way in 2016 or soon after – print publication of an article on the reuse of ‘found footage’ and built environments from the Yugoslav wars in a Hollywood adaptation of Coriolanus which will be appearing in International Feminist Journal of Politics (which has already published it online) – something else I want to extend in future; hopefully the volume on Gender in 20th-Century Eastern Europe and the USSR (including my introduction, and a chapter of mine giving an overview of transnational LGBT politics in the region(s) after the Cold War), depending on how long it takes to go through review and typesetting; a short piece on writing about militarism and embodiment as a form of translation, developed out of part of a talk I gave at the International Studies Association conference this year; and maybe other work that’s still under review…

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

Since 2013 I’ve been working on a new kind of book project for me: an introductory text on the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, which I spent most of 2014 working on intensively and which is now due for publication later this year. (Indeed, it’s close enough that the publishers have been showing me options for the cover design; I’m happy with the one we’ve chosen, and am hoping it’ll be going public very soon.)

The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s will be very different to my previous two books (a research monograph on popular music and struggles over national identity in post-Yugoslav Croatia, and a co-authored monograph on translation/interpreting and peacekeeping during and after the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina). Firstly, it’ll be going straight into paperback, meaning there’s a good chance more of its potential readers will actually read it.

Secondly, it puts me in a very different relationship to its subject matter; Sounds of the Borderland and Interpreting the Peace were both the result of multi-year research projects after which I was the only person (or with Interpreting the Peace part of the only team) to have been able to write those books that way. With this book, on the other hand, several dozen scholars would have the subject knowledge to be able to write a book fitting the general remit I had when I began the project: a 50,000-word book aimed at a reader who is new to the topic and which fits into a series that puts ‘a strong emphasis on the different perspectives from which familiar events can be seen’.

(And it’s the right time to be doing a book like this; despite the volume of new research that continues to be published about the wars and their consequences, it’s still hard to find an up-to-date book to recommend to a reader who is new to the subject that will help to open up all the other books for them.)

Why should I do this, then, rather than anyone else?

In a post last year I talked about some of the micro-level decisions I was having to make while I was writing the book – choices, for instance, about organising events into a narrative, imposing an order on events by breaking them up into chapters and periods, making sure the reader can understand what’s at stake in essentialist or anti-essentialist representations of nationalism and ethnicity, and trying to make visible what truth claims are based on. I hope some of those thought processes will still be visible in the text (I wish I could have worked meta-commentary on my own narrativisation into the book in a much more structured way, but just didn’t have the word count to do it).

I set myself three objectives at the beginning of the writing process, which I think I have fulfilled – though ultimately the people who read and (I hope) use the book will be the judges of that.

First of all, I wanted it to help the reader understand research that is happening right now. The last few years have seen a new wave of archival studies about the core history of the wars, such as Josip Glaurdić’s The Hour of Europe: Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia or Robert Donia’s new biography of Radovan Karadžić, but also research that has been trying to expand the angles from which historians and other scholars might look at the wars (such as Bojan Bilić and Vesna Janković’s important edited volume, Resisting the Evil: (Post-)Yugoslav Anti-War Contention), not to mention work that takes a position on the longer-term human consequences of the wars and the collapse of Yugoslav socialism (for instance, Damir Arsenijević’s edited volume Unbribable Bosnia and Herzegovina: the Fight for the Commons, which was published earlier this year in response to the Bosnian ‘plenum’ protests of 2014).

Another objective was for the writing to show the reader how scholars make interventions into fields of knowledge, by giving some examples of how authors have set out to reinterpret or reassess elements of the histories of the wars. And a third – which perhaps can’t be entirely disentangled from the second – is to make explicit to the reader that their own beliefs and values are going to form part of how they (or the authors of any of the books in the bibliography, or me) go about interpreting and evaluating the events.

The book has eight chapters, beginning with a chapter on the long-term historical background to the wars, then chapters that cover the ‘1980s crisis’ in Yugoslavia; the independence of Slovenia and Croatia; the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina; and the Kosovo War plus its implications for Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia as well as Kosovo. (Already that’s slipping the boundaries of the 1990s – but then I’m a ‘lecturer in 20th century history’ whose research regularly ends up going into the 2010s…)

The last chapters (which are also informed by the teaching and research I’ve done in different disciplines) introduce ways in which the consequences of the conflicts have been researched and show how these research questions can feed back into understanding the 1990s: from debates over peacebuilding and reconciliation, through the prosecution of war crimes (an activity which has itself helped to shape historical knowledge about the recent past), into the cultural and linguistic legacies of the wars.

The long-term chapter was almost the most challenging part of the book to write, and the one that’s changed most dramatically since the first draft of the text (where it was twice as long, and much more detailed bibliographically – but when the full draft of the book started pushing 75,000 words in September, I had to accept that the first chapter couldn’t stay that way without pushing out another chapter later on).

I say ‘almost’ the most challenging part of the book because the most difficult – appropriately, perhaps – was the conclusion. Within 1,500 or so words – because the book length in this series just wouldn’t give me any space for war – I had both to sum up an account of the conflicts that I found most convincing and to show the reader the approach to historical narrative that the book had taken.

At times I wasn’t sure if I’d even improved on David Campbell’s classic review article ‘MetaBosnia‘ from 1998, which compared how ten works written in the mid-1990s had presented 32 political events that took place between 1990 and 1992 in Bosnia-Herzegovina; I hadn’t even been able to get into Campbell’s level of detail, or the level of detail that (with quite a different philosophy of knowledge) Sabrina Ramet was able to employ in her 2005 book about academic interpretations of the wars.

Moreover, as someone who aims to deconstruct notions of collective identity and narratives based on them, I need – like every other scholar in this area – to balance that against the responsibility of writing about real lives and deaths.

Ultimately, this needs to be a book which equips the reader to read more books, rather than being the first and last thing that anyone should read. This is not supposed to be even close to the final word on the Yugoslav wars, and indeed the format of the series precludes it from being that – which is one of the reasons I felt comfortable taking up the opportunity to write it at all. (It could however help open up discussion on how we teach, and how we might teach, the history of the wars from the point of view of two decades later – something that there’s a lot more scope to think about than I could cover here.) Mainly, it’s the book I’ve wanted to recommend as a starting point but which didn’t previously exist – which is usually a good reason to write anything…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When representations recirculate through us

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

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

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

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

ISA 2015 slide 6

…and in contexts where you might not…

ISA 2015 slide 7

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

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

ISA 2015 slide 9

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

A digital argument?

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

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

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

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

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

End of 2012 publications round-up

In lieu of two more posts on public memory of war in the UK which I haven’t yet had time to research, here’s a quick post rounding up several publications that have come out over the last few months:

  • ‘Prosperity Without Security: the Precarity of Interpreters in Postsocialist, Post-Conflict Bosnia-Herzegovina’. Slavic Review 71:4 (2012): 849-72. Exploring how interpreters working for foreign military forces were socioeconomically positioned in the context of post-socialism and of global practices of security. This link works with subscription access, alternatively look here.
  • ‘When Bosnia was a Commonwealth Country: British Forces and their Interpreters in Republika Srpska 1995-2007′. History Workshop Journal 74:1 (2012): 131-55. Identifying common experiences in the narratives of interpreters who worked for British units within IFOR and SFOR that were based in Republika Srpska. Access as text or PDF.
  • ‘The Afterlife of Neda Ukraden: Negotiating Space and Memory Through Popular Music After the Fall of Yugoslavia’, in Music, Politics and Violence, ed. Susan Fast and Kip Pegley (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012): 60–82. Discussing the Bosnian and Croatian reception of a singer with a Serb background who moved from Sarajevo to Belgrade in 1992. For various reasons this has been on my in-press list for a while, and I’m delighted to see it in print.
  • It’s still less than a year since Languages at War: Policies and Practices of Language Contacts in Conflict, ed. Hilary Footitt and Michael Kelly (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) came out. I have one chapter in this on British perceptions of what was then called Serbo-Croatian during the Cold War, another chapter giving an overview of interpreters’ work in peace operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and two exciting joint chapters – one with Simona Tobia comparing the working identities of language intermediaries in/after WW2 and in the Bosnian operations, and another with Hilary Footitt exploring the shifting meanings of ‘fraternisation’.

Beyond this, there’s more in the pipeline for (hopefully) 2013, although book chapters sometimes have a way of taking a bit longer than expected:

  • My co-authored book with Michael Kelly, Interpreting the Peace: Peace Operations, Conflict and Language in Bosnia-Herzegovina, is due out from Palgrave Macmillan in the New Year – a more in-depth look at the histories of language support and the experiences of interpreters/translators that I’ve spotlighted in several articles. (Of course, now that I’ve posted it as forthcoming, watch them get it out before the end of the year!)
  • An article on discourses of music as a weapon of war during the post-Yugoslav conflicts (awaiting peer review).
  • An article on English/Croatian code switching in Croatian dance music during the 1990s (in press).
  • A book chapter on the problems of framing and identity in oral history interviewing, thinking particularly about the frame of ethnic identity (submitted, editorial revisions done).
  • A book chapter on the language politics of peacebuilding (submitted, editorial revisions done).
  • A book chapter on post-socialist and post-conflict mobilities and the exercise of power during peace operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina (reviewer reports received, under revision).
  • A thick handful of book reviews.
  • Further down the list: a pair of articles on precarity, post-socialism and the international organisation sector in former Yugoslavia, which are still seeking homes.

I’m also looking forward to speaking trips or conference visits to Munich, Halle, Manchester, Newcastle, San Francisco (ISA 2013), possibly Sussex, and quite likely more to be determined…

Can civilians learn from the military about learning?

On the same day that the British education secretary, Michael Gove, announced an initiative to encourage ex-military personnel to become primary and secondary teachers,the Centre for Policy Studies proposed a free school in Manchester that would be staffed entirely by former servicemen and women.

Gove’s announcement isn’t new: his department’s White Paper on schools in November 2010, which introduced the controversial ‘English Baccalaureate’ concept of a core set of GCSEs, had already mentioned sponsoring the tuition fees of ex-Forces graduates entering teacher training and investigating whether Forces non-graduates could take accelerated degrees.

The CPS’s brochure on the Phoenix School may fall on open ears at the Department  for Education: the authors criticise Labour’s early-years intervention programmes (Every Child Matters and Sure Start). Tempting fate, they argue that their solution, which ‘will categorically reject the concept of moral relativism’ and ‘the charade of “personalised learning”‘, will support the government’s policy of moral restoration:

And, as a beneficial side-effect, the next time that riots break out in Britain, we should expect that few, if any, participants come from such schools.

The proposal has come in for sustained ridicule: as with any free school, which is allowed to employ unqualified teachers, why should non-specialist teachers be in schools? What place does the demeanour of the archetypal regimental sergeant-major have in a contemporary classroom? Is this really where the 2,000 Army and RAF personnel made redundant yesterday are expected to go?

But is there anything civilians could learn from the military about learning?

The military is a complex organisation that supplies its own version of much of the infrastructure in civilian society: transport, mail, telecommunications, media, food supply. The British Army’s recruitment website advertises ‘over 140 different jobs’; its US equivalent talks about more than 150. Fewer soldiers serve in the ‘combat arms’ (infantry and cavalry) than in ‘combat support’ (Artillery, Engineers, Signals and Intelligence) or ‘combat service support’ arms.

‘Combat service support’ designates the functions furthest away from the primary infantry/cavalry business of closing with and killing the enemy – mechanics, medics, logistics and many back office functions, including education and training.

Soldiers in these corps deploy to front lines, of course, either in their own units or on individual postings: Army educators with language skills, for instance, tend to be the first to volunteer for operational language training and deployment as ‘military colloquial speakers’ on six-month tours.

If an army contains so many professional dispositions, what makes a soldier? Rachel Woodward and K Neil Jenkings have argued in a recent issue of Sociology that soldiers express their military identities ‘with reference to the specificities of their professional skills’. Sometimes, but not always, those skills are in the disciplined use of force:

The military, according to the classic (Weberian) definition, is the state-sanctioned body with the authority to use lethal force. The exercise of lethal force defines military personnel as such. Our interviewees fleshed out that idea by talking about the constitution and expression of their military identities with reference to the specificities of their professional skills. For some, these skills were clearly identifiable as military tasks: accuracy in marksmanship, for example, or surveillance and observation skills, or the deployment of technical knowledge in the act of patrolling hostile urban areas.

Yet, they find, other soldiers base their soldier-ness in mastery of skills that aren’t to do with force (being first to put down heavy-duty electronic cables; survival and endurance outdoors; performing complex marching band manoeuvres). Military identity lies in the specifics, such as technical knowledge of military equipment and being able to operate in difficult or dangerous conditions where civilians would not work:

The skills of vehicle repair and rescue could be seen as similar to those required in civilian mechanic occupations. What was significant to this interviewee was the possession of not just technical skills but also an aptitude and willingness, specific to the military, to use such skills in extreme and hostile environments, for the sake of a wider military objective. So even when individual skills may be generic, and held by civilians, their application is not.

During my research on international intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I’ve met a number of soldiers from one of the less well known military populations, Army educators. The Educational and Training Services, which had existed as a separate corps between 1845 and 1992, deal with adult learning, basic skills training, staff development and needs analysis for the Army’s 110,000 soldiers. Among the enlisted personnel will be soldiers who have enlisted with few or no formal qualifications. ETS officers aim to equip them to take GCSEs and vocational qualifications, and ‘lifelong learning’ is even a selling point in Army recruitment material today.

Following Woodward and Jenkings, we could expect the ‘military’ in military education to rest in what you teach, how you teach, and where you teach it. Military language training for operations (the short courses that produce ‘colloquial speakers’ with basic competence in selected areas) differs from the civilian classroom in many ways. Courses emphasise military vocabulary and use authentic military texts for reading and listening practice; scenario-based learning, where students apply their language knowledge to situations based on recent operational experience, is the norm. Practical classes are often held outdoors and are reinforced when the language students take part in field exercises. No matter how difficult British society believes language learning to be, soldiers with very few formal qualifications have been able to learn entirely new languages (Bosnian/Serbian, Arabic, Pashto) to a usable colloquial standard through military educators’ training methods.

The civilian education system rarely taps into military ideas about education. In 1995, the Higher Education Funding Council for England published a report on what east European language needs the United Kingdom would have after the fall of communism and the crisis in former Yugoslavia. The report contained contributions from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but not the Ministry of Defence, which had decades’ experience in teaching Russian and had been teaching and using ‘Serbo-Croatian’ on operations ever since 1992.

Being a military educator does not map into success or comfort in school teaching. Far from it. One of the educators I met had entered school teaching after leaving the Army in the mid-1990s only to find the environment conflicted so badly with their previous experiences that they moved out of the profession.

Yet might there be a reserve of knowledge in the military about alternative teaching methods for students who learn best through doing, outdoor learning, or teaching a functional level of basic skills to people who have disengaged from formal education?

There might; but this is not what the debate is about.

Instead, the government initiative to encourage former soldiers into teaching is being launched within a frame of discipline: increasing ‘male role models’ in schools and reducing bureaucracy that deters teachers restraining students with physical force. Gove’s undertone is a retraditionalisation of society to restore adult and legitimate authority, using the August riots as proof of a moral collapse. Only a body with masculine power and military training, he implies, can provide the necessary discipline and physicality.

There is a conversation about learning that the military, and military educators in particular, might be able to take part in. We are not having it yet.

Language and Nationalism and language and nationalism

One of my jobs for next year will be to take over teaching several postgraduate modules in nationalism, ethnic conflict and social research. The first step, not that I’ve even started work at that institution yet, is to revise each module’s syllabus.

(The first first step is to choose a consistent way of pluralising ‘syllabus’.)

I hope to post more on this process as each syllabus develops, but today’s post is about a discussion about language I won’t be able to have with my students because, between us, we won’t have a common language to access the material.

I’m going to be teaching these courses at a school of eastern European area studies, meaning that students will be applying the theory I teach about to eastern European case studies and the staff who teach them will all have research interests in eastern Europe. That includes me, one of many people there with research interests in the successor states of Yugoslavia.

The most controversial book on nationalism in former Yugoslavia to have been published in the last few years is Jezik i nacionalizam (Language and Nationalism) by Snježana Kordić, a linguist from Croatia who works in Germany. Kordić had received a grant from the Croatian Ministry of Culture supporting the publication. When it appeared, the director of the Croatian Cultural Council laid a complaint against the Ministry for financing the book:

‘[The complaint] states that the book ‘Jezik i nacionalizam’ is directed against Croatian culture, Croatian cultural identity and the Croatian language, and that it therefore should not have been financed from the state budget of the Republic of Croatia (RH). The book compares the contemporary democratic Croatian state with Nazi Germany, contradicts the RH constitution in the section about official usage of the Croatian language, and denies the right of the Croat people to call their language by their own popular name.’

Kordić is aiming to show that the policy to define or redefine the ‘Serbo-Croatian’ language as ‘Croatian’ after Croatia became independent from Yugoslavia was linguistically unjustified. Instead, she argues that the development of linguistic standards that drew Croatian ever further away from Serbian after 1991 was a deliberate effort to differentiate Croats from the group who became the national enemy, the Serbs.

Her case is that Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin are still so mutually intelligible they’re not separate languages at all. Linguists recognise the idea of polycentric languages – languages spoken by several nations or states, which may even have more than one national body codifying them. We talk about speakers of ‘English’, not speakers of ‘American’, ‘Australian’, ‘Indian’ and ‘Canadian’ – even though, if the right disposition existed in one of those countries’ politics and academia, it’s always possible that one day we might be asked to do just that.

By this point, Kordić has already compared the linguistic purists of 1990s Croatia with Nazi German language policy on the very first page.

There’s a lot of detail about how the literary standard for Serbo-Croatian was brought together in the mid-19th century, how ‘the Croatian language’ didn’t always mean the language of a nation-state, and how contingent the whole process was, which draws on the same constructivist theorists of nationalism that my students are going to be reading.

(In summary: the Croatians who standardised their language in the 19th century agreed to base it on the štokavian dialect, not the kajkavian dialect spoken around Zagreb, because štokavian would make it easy to communicate with speakers in Bosnia, Herzegovina and Serbia.)

Not so much drawing on the perennialist theorists of nationalism that my students are also going to be reading, which would argue that nations do pre-date the modernisation of the state, but then that’s something we could discuss. That is, if we could all read it.

Even if my students never intend to study Croatia (and most of them won’t), I’d like them to be able to understand how this book has been received and why. Studying language and writing about it with academic authority has consequences in the real world – that ‘impact’ that we’re now supposed to identify in every research funding proposal. And they may not be the consequences that researchers like.

But Kordić, like many of the German-speaking linguists she cites, rarely publishes in English. Her bibliography contains three titles in Croatian, three titles in German, and a short English-language descriptive grammar of Serbo-Croatian published in 1997. Her articles and reviews are usually in German or Croatian, with a few in French, and the critical responses to her book – like this article by Mario Grčević, who systematically takes issue with her use of sources and descriptions of prominent Croatian linguists – are, of course, in the language of the public and scientific community they’re addressing.

So, as a class group in a UK university, we’re stuck, until or unless there’s an English translation of the book, or a research article comes out on the controversy in a few years. It ought to be translated, and ten or twelve years ago when ‘the Balkans’ had a cachet to academic publishers that they don’t today, maybe it’s more likely that it would have been.

Last year I designed a module on the breakup of Yugoslavia. Its ghost syllabus – the one I’d use if everyone’s head contained a babelfish, including mine – contains books on the visual culture of the Croatian state at war and cultural practices of resisting nationalism in Belgrade and Zagreb that I’ve never been able to use with undergraduates because they never had an English translation, only a summary article, maybe.

Some of the translation gap lies in my own shortcomings as an instructor. Decades ago, acquiring a reading knowledge of German would just have been part of getting socialised into the identity of ‘serious academic’ in the UK. I could have followed up Kordić’s references in German to inform my lectures; and I could have assigned her German-language texts, confident that postgraduates would have been able to digest them.

Given the multinational student profile at my institution, there’s a good chance many of them are able to operate in German and English, but that won’t help me if I teach similar courses elsewhere, or when I revive the Yugoslav wars course next semester with a group of predominantly British undergraduates.

Back to the syllabus mines, for now.