Eurovision 2017 was a contest with politics much further in the background than many viewers would have expected at the end of last year’s show: the 2016 contest saw Jamala win Ukraine the right to host the following Eurovision with a song that commemorated Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944.
Russia’s last-minute selection of a contestant, Yuliya Samoilova, who had visited Crimea in 2015 without crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border and would therefore be ineligible for entry under Ukrainian law, generated almost a month-long stand-off before Russian television decided in mid-April not to accept any compromise solution or broadcast the show. This meant the greatest reverberations of the Russia–Ukraine conflict for Kyiv 2017 had subsided before they could preoccupy the bubble of journalists, bloggers and fans that generates many of the framing narratives for every Eurovision during a fortnight of rehearsals in the host city.
While visitors to Kyiv were surrounded by architectural and visual reminders of Ukraine’s increasing cultural separation from Russia and the memory of coexistence in the USSR, Ukrainian nationhood in the broadcasts themselves came across largely through citations of folk tradition. There was no equivalent of the moment in Eurovision 2005 where President Viktor Yushchenko, presenting the winner’s trophy, reminded viewers that the Orange Revolution had only ended four months before. Even the Ukrainian entry by rock band O.Torvald had abandoned the ticking countdowns, flame and rubble concept of its early performances – calling to mind iconic photographs of the Euromaidan – for an abstract, utilitarian design.
The European Broadcasting Union, for its part, contributed to the politics-free atmosphere by preventing Portugal’s Salvador Sobral, who had been urging European governments throughout the week to accept more refugees, from wearing an ‘SOS Refugees’ sweatshirt in his last press conferences on the grounds that it broke Eurovision rules against ‘political or commercial’ messages. This was despite the fact that last year’s Eurovision had contained a segment, the acclaimed ‘Grey People’, which was no more and no less political in its depiction of the dangers refugees subject themselves to in order to reach the very ‘Europe’ that Eurovision viewers are celebrating.
The nature of live television nevertheless creates occasional ruptures in this increasingly tightly regulated ideological space. Israel’s spokesperson Ofer Nachshon’s farewell to Eurovision from the soon-to-be-closed Israel Broadcasting Authority left many viewers wondering if he was also announcing the departure of Israel itself. Perhaps the most alarming moment I can remember on a Eurovision screen occurred during the interval, when a man wearing an Australian flag climbed on stage and dropped his trousers in front of Jamala as she performed her new single, ‘I Believe In U’.
While no-one was readier than the internet’s Australians to take self-deprecating credit for the display, the man was a Ukrainian ‘prankster’, Vitalii Sediuk, with a long track record of confronting and assaulting mostly female celebrities in public. With Ukraine in direct conflict with another country where opposition politicians and journalists are liable to become targets of attacks in the street – and with tennis fans in the Yugoslav region especially likely to remember a spectator’s attack on Monica Seles in Hamburg 24 years ago – the fact that a member of the public could get this close to any performer on stage, let alone as politically symbolic a figure as Jamala, overshadowed a contest where in many respects the politics remained off screen.
In May 2007, just before Helsinki was about to host its first ever Eurovision Song Contest, a group of media and performance researchers gathered at the University of Helsinki for a symposium on ‘Queer Eurovision!’, later written up as a special issue of the Finnish queer studies journal SQS.
The aim of the symposium, wrote its co-organiser, Mikko Tuhkanen, was to take stock of the ten years since the ‘open secret’ of gay and queer presence at Eurovision had moved from a private subtext behind the show to an inescapable part of the text, starting with the first performance by an out gay man (Páll Óskar from Iceland) in 1997 and written into Eurovision history when Dana International won in 1998.
Many young, and some older, trans viewers of Eurovision were able to see in Dana International’s confidence and glamour the first aspirational representation of trans femininity that film and television had ever offered them. To Eurovision’s much larger number of cis viewers, meanwhile, her identity as a trans woman and her roots in the Tel Aviv’s gay nightlife – at a historical moment where LGBT activists were starting to win limited but important victories by lobbying European institutions – seemed to confirm: yes, Eurovision was gay.
Or as Tuhkanen wrote: ‘With Dana International, the disclosure was complete.’
A few days later, Marija Šerifović would win Eurovision 2007 for Serbia with a performance that the symposium’s other co-organiser, Annamari Vänskä, would persuasively read as an example of ‘lesbian camp‘. Šerifović’s victory took Eurovision 2008 to a country where the government’s failure to provide sufficient security for Belgrade Pride marches to take place had become a symbol, both at home and in European politics, of how far ‘European values’ were or were not embedded in Serbia.
Eurovision 2008 would open up a new chapter of the international politics of queerness and LGBT rights at Eurovision – one where queer people’s equality and security in host states would be heavily scrutinised when the contest took place in postsocialist, eastern European countries (but taken for granted during contests that were held in ‘the West’), and one where sexual orientation and gender identity were becoming matters of foreign policy for many countries in the global North and some (like Brazil and Argentina) in the South.
Šerifović’s victory, in other words, marked the start of another new phase in the queer politics and history of Eurovision – one where, increasingly outside Eurovision as well as inside, tolerance and respect for LGBT rights were about to become a new symbolic boundary in the imaginative geography of ‘East/West’ divisions of Europe that dated back even further than the Cold War.
Of all the contributions to ‘Queer Eurovision!’, the one most often cited in the subfield of ‘Eurovision research’ that itself started growing like a snowball after around 2007 and 2008 is Peter Rehberg’s article ‘Winning failure: queer nationality at the Eurovision Song Contest‘. Rehberg had noticed that the celebrations of queer (above all, gay) identities at Eurovision were an almost unparalleled occasion where fans and viewers did not have to choose between their queerness and their nationhood in order to experience belonging – a rare thing when nationalism, as an ideology, had historically been so hostile to homosexuality and transgressions of traditional gender roles.
(That past tense matters: by the mid-2000s, ‘LGBT-friendliness’ was itself becoming a symbolic value in some accounts of national identity, helping to define nations such as the Netherlands, Sweden or Britain in terms of cultural differences from supposedly ‘more homophobic’ parts of the world – a new way of expressing Europe’s imaginary east/west divide, and sometimes even of creating a troubling, simplistic hierarchy setting ‘the West’ above ‘Islam’ or ‘Africa’.)
Rather than fans celebrating their membership of a transnational gay or queer community instead of nationhood, Rehberg argued that Eurovision allowed them to celebrate as people with queer identities and as members of nations – ‘a rare occasion,’ in his most-quoted line, ‘for simultaneously celebrating both queerness and national identity’ (p. 60).
Ten years on from ‘Queer Eurovision!’, the song contest and queer geopolitics have become even more tied together.
As I’ve writtenherebefore, the years between 2008 and 2014 enmeshed Eurovision in the same political struggles over international events, LGBT rights and human rights that are most familiar from controversies over the Beijing and Sochi Olympics (which themselves book-end 2008 and 2014): Belgrade’s hosting of Eurovision in 2008 followed by Moscow in 2009, where the mayor of Moscow sent in police to break up a ‘Slavic Pride’ march on Eurovision final afternoon; the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organises Eurovision, again accused of complicity with a repressive and homophobic regime when Baku hosted in 2012; London’s attempt to distance itself from Beijing through how it performed national identity at the 2012 Olympics echoed at Eurovision by Malmö 2013’s self-presentation as the antithesis of Baku 2012, with equal marriage among the many symbols of Swedishness celebrated in the interval; moments of celebrity activism like Krista Siegfrids’s on-stage kiss with another woman, beamed out across Europe while sending a more specific message to Finns before a parliamentary vote on an equal marriage referendum; and, after the Russian parliament criminalised the promotion of ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ to under-18s in June 2013, the cycle of Europe-versus-Russia representations around that symbolic boundary of LGBT rights that ran organically from the human rights campaigns before the Sochi Olympics into the meanings of ‘Europe’ and Eurovision when Conchita Wurst took part.
The hinge between queerness and nationhood that Rehberg found at Eurovision would widen in some countries, at least conditionally, with expansions of marriage and family rights and even – after much more struggle – tentative improvements in mechanisms for trans people’s gender recognition: provisions that add up to a greater sense of ‘citizenship’, or the ability to actually exercise the same rights as other citizens, for queer people, or at least those queer people whose race, ethnicity, nationality or religion don’t remove them from that sense of citizenship in other ways.
And yet frictions between the celebration of queerness and the sovereignty of nationhood would persist at Eurovision itself. In 2016, the EBU embroiled itself in unnecessarily awkward dialogues with LGBT fans over whether or not rainbow flags would be allowed in the Eurovision arena (if they were being used in a ‘political’ way, leaked instructions to security staff at the arena suggested, they shouldn’t be allowed – and yet the rainbow flag’s origins in political protest are still, for many but not all LGBT people, inseparable from its meanings in the present), and expected the more specific identities symbolised by the wider family of pride flags (like the bi and trans flags) to be accommodated in the all-encompassing rainbow.
Meanwhile, it had to be aware both that its Russian member broadcasters were under LGBT-phobic pressure to withdraw from Eurovision – so that Russian families wouldn’t have to watch examples of ‘Western decadence’ like Conchita Wurst – and that the very celebrations of queerness many viewers would expect from Eurovision, indeed be disappointed if the contest didn’t show, might now be ruled illegal to broadcast in Russia under the laws that a coalition of neo-traditional politicians and the Russian Orthodox Church had steered through parliament with Putin’s approval in 2013.
Since 2007, in other words, that hinge between queerness and national belonging that Rehberg had found one expression of at Eurovision had acquired three new dimensions: its vulnerability to being instrumentalised as a way of constructing tolerant and progressive Western and European national identities against backward cultural ‘others’; the hardening of a symbolic boundary between ‘Europe’ and ‘Russia’; and the realisation, as Russian queers saw in 2013 and Western queers themselves have had to come to terms with after seeing the Obama presidency’s steps towards LGBT equality reversed in a matter of weeks, that the greater sense of national citizenship and belonging that some LGBT people have been able to win can always be assaulted and lost again.
Come into me from within, we can be as one in the sin
The vagaries of Eurovision qualification – where almost 40 entries will take part in two semi-finals and only 20 go through to the grand final on Saturday – mean that this year’s most interesting example of how queerness and nationhood can combine at Eurovision, Slavko Kalezić’s ‘Space’, has already gone out of contention. Hidden away in the Tuesday semi-final, the 2017 entry most conscious of, and most adapted to, the homoerotic male gaze of gay spectatorship didn’t come from any self-imagined north-west European stronghold of gay rights, but from Montenegro – and depended on specifically post-Yugoslav ways of reinventing masculinity rather than any denationalised model of the ‘global gay’.
The presentation of Kalezić’s preview video for ‘Space’ in March left no doubt this was a song and performance aimed at the gay and bisexual male viewer in the sense that their likely pleasures are more embedded in the song than any other. Entering through a neon galaxy (with echoes perhaps of Lady Gaga’s ‘Mother Monster’ phase), the camera takes viewers to a dark disco and a dramatic rocky landscape where Kalezić is dancing shirtless, often singing directly to the viewer in extreme close up, as we hear lines like ‘Wet dreams, wild nightmares, I surrender / Come into me from within / We can be as one in the sin’.
The rest of the lyrics are filled with callouts to ejaculation and orgasm, mixed with a fluidity of gender roles (‘I’m Venus and Mars of the hour’), and fans were quick to interpret a line about ‘I’ve got my suit on, no need to worry’ – ostensibly, of course, about a space suit – as standing for using a condom during safe sex.
Even as Eurovision entries go, ‘Space’ is remarkable in its commitment to the codes of double entendre. Moreover, the lyrics put Kalezić in a receptive role, the riskier and queerer position for a man who has sex with men to take in many binaries of male sexuality that view receiving penetration, as opposed to giving penetration, as a much more threatening act for masculinity (thus feminising and stigmatising passive sexual role): it’s the thought that men can enjoy being penetrated that really unsettles many homophobes.
While Kalezić’s unabashed enthusiasm for male/male sexuality has rough Western equivalents – a Frankie Goes To Hollywood or, especially, a George Michael – ‘Space’ is far from an import of Western gay aesthetics – and that needs saying all the more loudly when so much public and state homophobia, the ideology behind the Russian ‘gay propaganda’ laws or the far-right and Church mobilisation against LGBT activism and Pride marches in Serbia, Ukraine, and many other countries, is grounded in imagining that the authentic masculinity of the nation can never accommodate being gay or taking pleasure in sexual acts performed by other men.
Throughout the introduction of LGBT-phobic legislation in Russia, the current persecution of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya, or the ongoing harassment and violence of LGBT activist movements and Pride campaigns, discourses of nationalism and sexuality hold that – supposedly – it’s against the authentic morals of the nation for men to behave like this. Opposing moves to recognise LGBT rights as human rights as the United Nations, the Russian government has argued that the West has sought to impose LGBT equality on Russia in the face of Russia’s authority to determine its own moral code: in the Russian nation as Putin imagines it, ‘non-traditional’ sexual relations should stay out of sight.
The hostile comments Kalezić received from Montenegrin social media users after his video was published similarly included references to ‘Western decadence’ or the remark that ‘Njegoš would be ashamed.’ The epics of Njegoš, the 19th-century prince-bishop and national poet of Montenegro who wrote (with graphic violence) about the heroism of Montenegrin highland clans fighting the Ottoman Turks, are at the core of Montenegrin myths of national masculinity.
In response, Kalezić told the Montenegrin web portal CDM: ‘if Njegoš were alive, he’d actually support me. Those of you who are mentioning him, if you’ve read The Mountain Wreath or A Night Worth A Century [his two major works] should know that in fact he was an exceptional thinker and empath. Full of symbolic energy and the energy of life.’
Beyond queering Eurovision or queering the nation, Kalezić was doing something even more threatening to Montenegrin heteronormativity: queering Njegoš.
Moreover, the way Kalezić – in his video more than his Eurovision performance – embodies genderfluidity and male/male sexual desire reflects a tension for queer people across most of the globe: how to find modes of sexual difference and gender non-conformity that don’t require total separation from national tradition, that is, how to situate oneself in the linguistic and cultural material of a nation to which one should be able to belong.
The questions are the very stuff of global queer politics – including in Montenegro, where (as Danijel Kalezić writes in his contribution to Bojan Bilić’s recent volume on post-Yugoslav LGBT activism) non-heterosexual and gender non-conforming people question whether their activism and organisation necessarily needs to follow the Western European and North American model of Pride, why anyone should expect queer identities to develop with the same categories or timescale they have in the West, and where there might be Montenegrin queer histories to reclaim.
‘Space’, on video, contains visual nods to Byzantine iconography and also, in the whirling of Kalezić’s robe and hair, something of Sufi tradition: a reference which, at least to me as a spectator, brings to mind another gender-non-conforming post-Yugoslav singer from Bosnia, Božo Vrećo.
Vrećo, seen here in his own enrobed whirling through a dramatic landscape, has succeeded in what Tea Hadžiristić described in an article for Balkanist as ‘queering sevdah’. In singing and writing this form of traditional Bosnian folk music, Vrećo speaks both as a woman and as a man. His gender expression, both in and out of performance, actively reuses Bosnian traditions across gender boundaries: among his tattoos, for instance, are symbols on his hands that Bosnian Catholic women used to tattoo as protective bridal charms. Vrećo neither uses nor needs Western or Anglophone categories of sexual and gender variance to present himself. As a result, Hadžiristić writes:
Vrećo eschews ascribing Western-style identity categories to himself that allows him to be celebrated by Bosnians as a star and emblem of Bosnian talent, while at the same time enacting his own brand of queer gender presentation. Outside of a context where LGBT rights are seen as part of a modernization package leading to EU accession, his queerness is accepted because it is seen as Bosnian rather than a threat coming from the ‘outside’. In itself, this has radical potential because it demonstrates that queerness is not a Western import and that it can and does exist naturally in Bosnia and jive with ‘Bosnianness’. A Bosnian queer is possible.
So, Kalezić shows, is a Montenegrin queer. So is a Serbian queer: Marija Šerifović, Serbia’s Eurovision winner in 2007, came out in 2013 (after years of public speculation about her sexuality during which she was only photographed with one boyfriend, Slavko Kalezić), and in gender expression is indistinguishable from male stars in the same field of Serbian pop – though doesn’t subvert dominant ideologies of Serbian nationhood in other ways (after all, Serbian women, or women anywhere else, are not necessarily left-wing committed anti-nationalists just because they’re queer).
The aesthetic codes that ‘Space’ as a video depend on are already well-established in Belgrade-based popular music production for the post-Yugoslav linguistic and cultural area: in fact, its director, Dejan Milićević, is none other than the foremost video director for Serbian pop-folk music or what’s still sometimes called ‘turbofolk’.
Milićević’s videos employ what Balkanist‘s pop blogger Eurovicious (in his ‘Queer as Turbofolk’ series) calls a ‘tricky balancing act’ in which ‘the queer subtext must be subtle enough to pass over the heads of the straight audience, but explicit enough to maintain the interest of the gay male audience’. This example, for a Danijel Djokić video in 2012, is as good as any:
Milićević’s signature devices of lingering on the exposed male body and visualising the male singer’s inviting gaze back at the viewer – all filtered through the conventions of fashion photography – are an established aesthetic in post-Yugoslav music. For Marko Dumančić and Krešimir Krolo, in fact, they help to suggest that the Belgrade school of pop-folk music has produced a – however commodified and objectified masculinity that differs importantly from how the same music used to celebrate the masculinities of paramilitarism and organised crime.
The Milićević aesthetic taken into Eurovision sees a localised homoerotics, in which queer men in and around Serbia and Montenegro are already taking pleasure, meshing with other queer, and straight, gazes situated elsewhere. Indeed, Macedonia’s preview video for Tijana Dapčević’s entry in 2014 relied on the same presentation of the male body and the same scopic pleasure of looking at the male body even though it was directed by a different director, Mert Arslani:
For better or worse, the Macedonian team didn’t bring the video’s homoerotics of the Macedonian Air Force into the live performance (or even get Tijana to wear the white glasses that she’d showed to every journalist who met her during Eurovision week) – and Eurovision viewers didn’t get to see half as Montenegrin a setting for ‘Space’ as Kalezić’s preview had been able to conjure.
The braid stays, but the robe is off within less than fifty seconds (Kalezić is wearing sparkly jeans underneath), and the high-resolution video backdrop is showing galactic patterns or blow-ups of Kalezić’s body rather than the mountain landscapes that Montenegro’s preview videos can be guaranteed to show off: I do wonder whether the more localised elements from the video (even if many viewers elsewhere in Europe would just view them as ‘more Balkan’) might have helped the song stand out better in a semi-final that contained at least one other south-east European pop song based on astrophysics and the return of Moldova’s Epic Sax Guy.
Once the EBU releases the semi-final results and the breakdown of how expert juries and the public voted in each country, it’ll be interesting to see whether Kalezić’s points were simply relatively low all round or whether he encountered the obstacle that made even Conchita Wurst’s scores not as high as they might have been: that five music professionals per country have more influence than a member of the public, by a magnitude of thousands, over whether a performance that plays on queerness as much as Kalezić or Conchita is going to get any points. Both homophobia, biphobia and transphobia on the part of a juror, or pressure from the broadcaster or elsewhere, can have a disproportionately high impact on the votes a jury gives.
Indeed, this isn’t just a problem of the 2010s: Páll Óskar’s ‘Minn hinsti dans’, in 1997, scored only 18 points and came 20th out of 25th – but 16 of the 18 points came from countries that were experimenting for the first time with a public televote, Austria, Sweden and the UK.
Conchita, in 2014, didn’t suffer a mass rejection among public voters even in Russia, but expert juries ranked her noticeably lower than the public, leading to eastern Europe countries appearing to have given her relatively fewer points than the West.
With Kalezić out of the running for the grand final, however, the most significant hinges of queerness and nationhood at Eurovision 2017 are likely to be behind the scenes rather than on stage.
Repainting the rainbow arch
Ukraine’s public diplomacy, since 2014, has striven not only to inform the world that Ukraine still has sovereignty over Crimea and eastern Ukraine but also to show that Ukraine belongs to a different, European community of values than Putin’s Russia – a political and cultural separation not unlike the move with which Croatia in 1990-5, before and during its war of independence, sought to separate itself (sometimes coercively) from Yugoslavia.
One of several important differences between the Croatian case and Ukraine’s, however, is that there was no incentive for the 1990s Croatian regime not to double down on homophobia in its political compact with the Catholic Church. For Ukraine, on the other hand, being able to demonstrate progress on what diplomats take as the benchmarks of LGBT rights (such as whether Pride marches are being held safely) could – at least when LGBT rights were the foreign policy issue that they were under Obama and still are to some governments – help to create a clear moral boundary in Western eyes between Ukraine and Putin’s Russia.
If Russia had not withdrawn from Eurovision after Ukrainian security services banned the Russian contestant Yuliya Samoilova from entering the country (in 2015 she had visited Crimea without first legally entering Ukraine), public awareness of the organised disappearances, torture and killing of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya could well have elicited more hostile reactions from viewers than Russian competitors faced even in 2014, the first Eurovision since the ‘gay propaganda’ law went into force, or 2015 – perhaps not even a contestant able to win as much goodwill from fans as Sergey Lazarev would have been able to do much to hold it off.
The potential diplomatic value of publicly performing support for LGBT equality sits uneasily with the patriarchal homophobia of the Ukrainian far right and paramilitary movement – a potential insurgent force that continues to overshadow the Ukrainian government.
The impasse was symbolised by the outcome of an initiative to repaint the Arch of the Friendship of Peoples, a Soviet monument built in a large Kyiv park in 1982. The Arch is among the monuments that the Ukrainian government now plans to remove under a ‘decommunisation’ law introduced in May 2016 (bringing Ukraine, two and a half decades after the collapse of the USSR, closer to the memory politics of early post-Yugoslav Croatia).
First, however, Kyiv city council decided to repaint it in rainbow colours as a temporary Arch of Diversity in time for Eurovision and Kyiv Pride – as if taking up the street-art aesthetic that since 2011 has regularly been seeing Sofia’s Monument to the Soviet Army repainted so that the soldiers are wearing American superhero costumes, bright pink uniforms or even Ukrainian flags.
The rainbow symbol, and ‘diversity’ itself, contain a non-specificity and deniability which often frustrates queer and LGBT people who want their identities and experiences to be named as such; ‘Celebrate Diversity’, the slogan of Eurovision 2017, is so broad it could be celebrating nothing at all (while performing a celebration of diversity, as Sara Ahmed writes, is so often a substitute for institutions actually making the difficult structural changes necessary for their workforce to be meaningfully diverse). That very slipperiness, however, also creates the space of manoeuvre in which the painting of the Arch of Diversity could take place without the city council having to openly name the rainbow as queer.
The arch was in a half-painted state last week when members of far-right groups including Right Sector and Svoboda threatened municipal workers and ordered the painting to stop – calling the rainbow ‘gay propaganda’, in the same terms as LGBT-phobia in Russia. On 4 May the mayor of Kyiv, Vitaliy Klitschko, announced, in what was widely seen as a symbolic concession, that the rest of the arch would be filled in with ‘a Ukrainian decorative pattern.’
The bands of orange, yellow, green, blue and purple that currently rise from the base of the arch, leaving blunt interruptions of grey metal near the top, could as an aesthetic choice have captured the viewer’s gaze and forced them to think about why the progress was incomplete, better than the full rainbow would have done: in that sense, designing such a rupture into the arch might have expressed the contingency of queer politics better.
Enforcing the rupture from outside, however, means that the unpainted metal of the present arch and the traditional national pattern of its future – likely based on the same handicrafts that have given Eurovision 2017 much of its visual identity – also represent the material power that the far right in Ukraine can exert over what degree of LGBT equality, visibility or public presence they are prepared to allow.
The half-rainbowed arch under which many Eurovision fans, of different genders and sexualities, are photographing themselves this weekend in Kyiv is not only, therefore, a symbol of transnational ‘rainbow’ politics or an instrument of national public diplomacy. It is a sign of the contingency and insecurity of queer existence: the knowledge, as immediate or distant as it seems, that even official commitments towards equality can still be met with violence and still bargained away.
The idea that time’s imaginary arrow can go backwards – that even if you can belong more to your nation than you used to do, the time may still come when the nation and its state turns on you again – is not just an experience of queerness in Russia or Ukraine: it is one that queer people in the West are also confronting, after only a few years where it started to feel possible to forget.
There’s a moment, or many moments, in Belgium’s performance at Eurovision this year where, even though the singer Blanche as far as anyone knows isn’t queer, the song captures a mood of insecurity and doubt that queer, and feminist, politics in 2017 knows very well.
In a voice so uncomfortable that a lot of viewers – including myself the first time – initially heard it as stage fright, yet selling the song to enough voters for it to qualify from the semi-final, Blanche keeps returning to the same refrain: ‘All alone in the danger zone / are you ready to take my hand? / All alone in a flame of doubt / are we going to lose it all?’
Rather than fulfilling the same storytelling momentum that recent Eurovision winners have increasingly been able to convey through digital staging that sometimes seems to tell an almost mythological story of command over nature or technology, ‘City Lights’ is caught in indecision. It doesn’t offer the climax of the young-adult dystopian narratives it seems to draw from, where we know that sooner or later the young heroes will make their break, escape the city and join hands; instead, it cycles back to hesitation.
Its last seconds, where Blanche repeats the same line three times before the lights and music suddenly drop out as she crosses her arms, would be an even bleaker winner’s reprise than the end of Jamala’s ‘1944’ – and yet, for some viewers, the words are already on their minds:
The working seminary building, with bishops’ portraits hanging in the corridors and a six-foot crucifix nailed to the back wall of the conference room, that I visited in April to take part in Maynooth University’s conference on ‘The Eurovision Song Contest in a Changing World: Culture, Geography and Politics’ is one of the less likely venues for giving a talk on the Song Contest – especially one about how the Contest got tied into the international politics of LGBT rights – and yet somehow felt very much in the Eurovision spirit.
To understand what might be so ‘Eurovision’ about using a room surrounded by the iconography of a traditionally homophobic, biphobic and transphobic institution to talk about European LGBT activism, Dana International’s impact on trans history, and the symbolic role Conchita Wurst took on in 2014 for people who foresaw a renewed cultural ‘Cold War’ between Europe and Russia involves understanding that Eurovision has always meant, for many of its LGBT fans, a way to rewrite heterosexual community and ritual into something special to them.
To many of the LGBT fans, especially gay men, who have historically been so heavily involved in Eurovision fandom, straight society’s annual rituals of celebration and family reunion have at best assimilated them and at worst been actively oppressive.
The World Cup and the Olympics both assemble fans celebrating national success and (above all at the World Cup) national masculinity; Christmas, the queer theorist Eve Sedgwick wrote, is when all the social institutions where homophobia resides ‘are speaking with one voice’ to remind queer people that the idealised family excludes them. Even before Eurovision became an LGBT celebration on stage, with historic performances in 1997–8 by Páll Oskar and Dana International, Eurovision was already giving thousands of queer people an annual focal point for getting together with community and family.
Or as one ‘out-of-office’ graphic that’s gone around Facebook in Eurovision week over the last few years, asking forgiveness if fans are taking a long time to keep up with email, frames itself in the language of a religious festival: ‘This is because we are celebrating Eurovision.’
For someone who researches popular culture, nationalism and conflict since the end of the Cold War, the Eurovision Song Contest represents the one moment in the year when the general public in the UK or Ireland is likely to be interested in something as obscure as controversies over what narrative of national cultural identity should be the basis for Croatian popular music – the subject, more or less, of my first book, which I wouldn’t have written if wanting to find out more about Croatia’s 1990s Eurovision entries hadn’t been the very first step towards what became a PhD project on the politics of popular music in Croatia after its separation from Yugoslavia.
(The controversies over Severina’s Eurovision entry in 2006 – in many ways the ‘We Are Slavic’ of its decade – ended up giving me a case study I hadn’t even expected when I’d started the PhD in 2005. A spin-off paper I wrote on the Ruslana/Željko Joksimović mode of ethnopop at Eurovision, which I’d initially just planned as background for explaining Severina’s ‘Moja štikla’, has consistently been my most cited article since it came out in 2008, just as networks were starting to form around what’s now become an academic subfield of Eurovision research.)
In fact, talking about the politics of Eurovision from a perspective that starts with the cultural politics of the individual countries that participate is an opportunity to show there are more interesting cultural dynamics than just ‘political voting’ behind why East European countries seem to vote for each other at Eurovision all the time – and maybe to get people to rethink how they mentally divide the continent into ‘east’ and ‘west’.
Today, one of the big ‘symbolic boundaries’ in that imaginary east/west division involves LGBT rights and state homophobia/biphobia/transphobia. This was already emerging in the late 1990s, but really entered public ‘common sense’ in the twenty-first century as LGBT movements won important legislative struggles for LGB and sometimes even trans equality – leading to widespread stereotypes in western European countries that ‘Eastern Europe’ is somewhere ‘more homophobic’ than the West. (The same stereotypes are often, just as simplistically, applied to ‘Africa’ or ‘Islam’.)
Traffic-light maps of LGB rights in different European countries, like the ILGA Rainbow Europe Map, tend to come out looking green in the west and red in the east, giving an instant visual impression of which countries are supposedly further ‘ahead’ or ‘behind’. (The Trans Rights Europe Map, interestingly, is rather less spatially coherent.)
These indexes simplify a lot of legal and social complexities into a yes-or-no checklist of rights, and create an illusion of western European progressiveness and eastern European backwardness that east European queer scholars have taken the lead in pushing back against. Contemporary homophobia, biphobia and transphobia is not just international but transnational, with US pastors inspiring persecution of LGBT people in the Caribbean and Uganda, and French and Polish groups campaigning against LGBT equality exchanging slogans and symbols with each other. Nevertheless, opponents of LGBT equality have been more successful in some countries than others in persuading governments to follow their ideas and rhetoric – notably in Russia, where the federal parliament passed the so-called ‘anti-homopropaganda’ law in June 2013.
Eurovision is cherished by many fans as a site of gay, trans and queer celebration and even citizenship – a rare occasion, Peter Rehberg wrote in 2007 shortly before Marija Šerifović’s heavily queer-coded ‘Molitva’ won that year’s contest, for queer people to be able to feel that the nation being celebrated includes them. At the same time, it’s broadcast across (and beyond) a continent where public broadcasters in different countries will have very different ideological positions, and even be in very different legal positions, towards representing sexual diversity and gender non-conformity on screen.
Vitaly Milonov, prime mover of the ‘anti-homopropaganda’ law in Russia, has also argued for several years that Russian television should not broadcast Eurovision – precisely so that Russian families would not have to watch the ‘Europe-wide gay parade’ and ‘Sodom show’.
What I wanted to talk about at Maynooth was the problem of ‘transnational spectatorship’, or, taken out of academic language, the fact that audiences – and broadcasters – in different countries watch Eurovision from the perspective of some very distinct national cultural politics, and yet the same contest has to satisfy them all.
Something which is the stuff of everyday Saturday-night entertainment in one country, like the kiss between two men when the Swedish comedian Petra Mede officiated a same-gender ‘wedding’ during her interval act in 2013 (marking gay-friendliness as a Swedish national value), or a direct expression of activism in another, like the kiss between two women with which Krista Siegfrids attached her performance of ‘Marry Me’ that same year to the campaign for an equal marriage referendum in Finland, could now be legally questionable under laws like those currently in place in Russia.
Much as Eurovision organisers like to insist that the contest is a non-political event, the social and political struggles in every European country over giving LGB and trans people access to the same rights that their straight and cisgender citizens take for granted show that an event that has become so symbolically associated with LGBT belonging in Europe is not actually outside politics at all.
The language of ‘diversity’ and ‘family’ with which the European Broadcasting Union describes Eurovision is unthreatening and non-specific. During 2016’s ‘flags controversy’, where Eurovision producers’ instructions to security staff at the venue initially stated rainbow (and EU) flags would only be allowed ‘providing they will […] not be used as a tool to intentionally make a political statement during the show’, the EBU eventually said that the rainbow flag ‘technically represents diversity which is a core symbol of the EBU’ (and didn’t give other flags in the Pride family, like the trans flag, the same recognition as the rainbow flag).
This is far from the understanding of the Pride flag as a symbol of political struggle that many activists today would still insist on – but perhaps a necessary fiction, from an organisers’ point of view, to avoid a larger confrontation with broadcasters who might object more strongly to rainbow flags on screen if the EBU itself politicised them.
The language of a ‘family’ show, meanwhile, has resonances to many queer viewers that straight people may not even appreciate – because we know how often describing television as ‘family viewing’ has led to queer lives being erased from what children are able to see. ‘Family’ as a broadcasting standard can alarm queer viewers even while it sounds completely innocuous to most straight and cisgender people – who could disagree with something as everyday and happy as the family is supposed to be?
And yet the ideology of family, in homophobic hands or even hands that are just trying to balance homophobia and demands for LGBT rights in a false equivalence, seeps easily into withholding queer representation from children on the grounds that they should be allowed to grow up ‘naturally’ and that LGBT experiences are in and of themselves an ‘adult’ theme. The false assumption that young people are only led towards ‘alternative’ sexualities because media have exposed them to same-gender affection and transgressions of gender norms is ultimately what lies behind legislation that criminalises promoting ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ to under-18s, the phrasing of the legislation in Russia.
Yet this is not to suggest that conceiving of Eurovision as ‘family entertainment’ necessarily closes down space for it to be a queer celebration, even though the language of family does contain within itself a hinge where that could occur. Eurovision is, and has always been, a show watched by families: so many viewers’ first memories of Eurovision come from watching it as children, on such an out-of-the-ordinary night you were allowed to stay up past yourbedtime, hearing languages you’d never heard before.
Most people who remember how better queer representation in media when they were young could have made it more pleasant to grow up in their own families want there to be ‘family entertainment’ – but family entertainment that affirms all kinds of queer identities and experiences, the ones that could have shown us what we were earlier and the ones that could have shown us what a diversity of possibilities for experiencing sexuality and gender – for forming family – was actually around us.
If Eurovision, with its long LGBT history, has the potential to bridge queerness and national belonging, can Eurovision also bridge queerness and family?
In 1992, when 1,000 Bosnian refugees were housed aboard an adapted container ship in Copenhagen while the Danish government decided their asylum applications, 12-year-old Vladimir Tomić could not have known either that he would grow up to make an acclaimed documentary about the protracted wait to begin his life in Denmark or that 25 years later the arrival of refugees from the even more extensive conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa would become one of the most divisive issues in European politics.
Tomić’s Flotel Europa, based on refugees’ own video tapes from the ship, documents a moment in European refugee history that now serves as a comparison, contrast and example for experts debating whether and how more than a million Syrians and other refugees can be integrated into European societies.
A recent study by the Centre for European Policy Studies, rating the integration of Bosnian refugees in Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden as successful, attributes the success to host countries opening up their labour markets to them – sooner or later – and to the high levels of education with which most Bosnians arrived.
Today’s refugee crisis, in contrast, is much more than a socio-economic policy challenge: in the eyes of the transnational populist far right which has moved its arguments about Islam as a threat to European culture into the political centre (the culmination of a process that started well before 9/11), Muslim refugees are so unable to culturally integrate into European cities that their resettlement would endanger Europeans’ public safety, secularity and democracy itself.
If European perceptions about the integration of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, the majority Muslim, were so different from today, this is not just a matter of labour market policies – but also of how the politics of European racism and Islamophobia have categorised each group of refugees.
Indeed, the very nature of ‘temporary protection’ measures extended to Bosnian refugees like Tomić when they fled to Western European countries independently or through organised resettlement programmes shows the extent of European welcome in the 1990s should not be overstated. Germany, in particular, was keen for its 320,000 Bosnians (the largest number accepted by any European Union member state) to return home as soon as Bosnia-Herzegovina could be declared ‘safe’ again; the British government haggled for months before receiving a much smaller quota of 2,500.
Western European governments had already tightened their asylum policies in the 1980s, undoing the relatively relaxed attitude they had shown to individual political defectors during the Cold War, in recognition that refugees were now arriving in larger numbers and from crisis zones in the Global South which could be expected to lead even more people to migrate. Khalid Koser and Richard Black obliquely noted in 1999 the fear that these migrants might have been ‘the harbingers of mass North–South migration in the face of uneven economic development’ (p. 525): in other words, Lucy Mayblin suggests, asylum rules tightened as soon as the typical asylum-seeker came from somewhere Europe had colonised and was non-white.
Popular imaginations of near-future disaster in the 1990s pictured vast waves of impoverished African, Middle Eastern and South Asian migrants – racial ‘others’ to the traditional whiteness of Europe, and targets of a pervasive cultural racism – clamouring to flee to Europe in order to escape savage conflict and environmental catastrophe; indeed, the very language of ‘waves’ of refugees and ‘savage’ conflicts fed into alarmist visions of the ‘coming anarchy’. ‘Fortress Europe’ policies, the antecedents of today’s FRONTEX and militarised EU borders on land and sea, were the result.
Bosnian Muslim refugees faced the anxiety and disempowerment of life in abeyance while they waited to find out whether they would be allowed to start new lives in their home countries – or whether they wanted to – but very rarely had to contend with the blanket Islamophobia that stigmatises every Muslim refugee as a potential terrorist today.
The reasons why Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks (a term that became much more widespread in the 1990s), were not subject to the same suspicion as Middle Eastern Muslim refugees today depend on how narratives of identity, religion and security inside and outside Bosnia have combined then and now.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, news images of Palestinian hijackers and Libyan and Iranian state-sponsored terrorists, mediated further by the stereotyped terrorist villains of Reagan- and post-Reagan-era Hollywood, had mapped the security threat of Islam on to brown, male, vigorous bodies of ‘Middle Eastern’ appearance, and more specifically on to ‘Arabs’ (no matter that Iranian ethnic identity is not Arab at all).
These Islamophobic representations catch today’s refugees in their net but exempted Bosnians. Light-skinned Bosnians wearing Western clothes were not ‘visibly Muslim’ in European symbolic politics, even when they were Muslim by religion and ethnic heritage, and did not resemble the stock figure of the Islamic fundamentalist and militant.
Bosnians themselves strongly distanced their form of Islam from the image of the Arab terrorist: the Yugoslavia they remembered was no rogue state, but a modern and diplomatically successful European country. The fundamentalist had been an ‘other’ of the 1980s in Yugoslavia as well, and indeed became an imaginary devil in the propaganda of Radovan Karadžić’s Serb Democratic Party, which sought to convince Serbs they were at risk of genocide by painting Bosniak nationalists as a second Taliban.
Many Bosniaks from middle-class urban backgrounds viewed religious practice in general as an outdated countryside tradition, within the politics of cosmopolitanism and secularity under Yugoslav state socialism. Those who did actively participate in religious customs believed perhaps even more strongly that Bosnia had been the cradle of a different kind of Islam, with an admixture of European culture and Bosnian tolerance that separated it utterly from the radical Islam of the Middle East.
By the time most of Bosnia’s 1.2 million refugees were fleeing, hundreds of thousands of Croats and Serbs had already been displaced by ethnopolitical conflict in Croatia, many arriving in Western Europe (though more ending up in Serbia or other regions of Croatia, depending on their ethnic identity). Bosnian Muslim refugees could easily fit into the same category as Croats as subjects of public sympathy and victims of Milošević’s aggression.
The second large group of Muslim refugees from the Yugoslav region – many of the Roma and Albanians who fled Kosovo (though Albanian ethnic identity accommodated Islam, Catholicism and Orthodoxy at the same time) – also largely escaped the framing of Islamist terrorism (again thrown against them by Serbian propaganda) when they arrived in western Europe in 1998–9.
This is not to say that Kosovars escaped xenophobia and racism. In Britain, at least, their resettlement was much more controversial than Bosnians’, and the arrival of 24,000 Kosovars came at the same time as a tabloid panic about ‘bogus asylum seekers’ that primarily targeted Romani nationals of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania.
The anti-Roma prejudice, or antiziganism, directed against these migrants and refugees carried over towards Kosovars. Some were Roma themselves, while many others had an ethnically ambiguous appearance that semi-racialised them as ‘other’ to more of an extent than the smaller number of Bosnians in Britain had been in 1992–5. The ‘racialisation’ of east European migrants in Britain as targets of xenophobic prejudice, which would intensify after the British government opened its labour market immediately to citizens of the new EU member states in 2004, began with the confluence of refugees from antiziganism in east-central Europe with those from the Kosovo War.
The Muslim refugees arriving in Europe now, in contrast, are from the very parts of the world which, since the waning of fears of nuclear destruction at the end of the Cold War, have represented the most immediate threat to European security in the geopolitics of racism and Islamophobia: the Middle East, Africa, Iran and Afghanistan.
They enter a political and social climate where, within the wider European economic and constitutional crisis, tabloid and far-right discourse has pushed back against the very category of refugee. Remarks like those of the Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović in September 2015 that ‘[w]e know that […] there are also people with forged Syrian passports, who are not real refugees, but have other aims in entering the EU’ exemplify a fear that refugee and terrorist are in practice indistinguishable – a myth which, when a very few terrorists (like two perpetrators of the November 2015 Paris attacks) have indeed entered the EU by claiming refugee status on forged passports, affects how more than a million people are perceived.
The imagination of Muslim refugees in general as a security threat, therefore as an existential risk to European life-as-we-know-it who cannot be allowed to settle in any European city, gained extra force after the Paris attacks – ‘Paris changes everything,’ said the Bavarian finance minister Markus Soeder in calling on Angela Merkel to reverse Germany’s large-scale resettlement of refugees. The implication that Christians and Muslims cannot coexist in European cities suits the polarising purposes of ISIS as well as the far right.
It became more emotive yet after the mass sexual violence on New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne, strengthening forms of nationalism that operate as masculine or liberal-feminist performances of power by turning away refugees and policing borders in order to protect white European women and their freedoms from Muslim men.
Indeed, while European media represented Bosnian and Kosovar refugees as multi-generational groups dominated by women and children, plus smaller numbers of old men, the most widespread images of today’s Muslim refugees – in photographs such as the UK Independence Party’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster, unveiled during the Brexit referendum hours before a neo-Nazi sympathiser shot the MP Jo Cox – are of men as an undifferentiated mass.
The different patterns of migration during the Yugoslav wars and today, with more families resettled together from Bosnia and Kosovo and more men in the current crisis travelling ahead on the dangerous crossing into the EU to make arrangements for their relatives to join them, are the missing context behind these different representations: but so too is how ideas of race, nationality and religion have intersected to imply that integrating Middle Eastern, North African and central Asian Muslims should inherently be more difficult than welcoming white European Bosnians 25 years before.
These comments are adapted from my opening remarks at the ‘Teaching the Yugoslav Wars Two Decades On’ roundtable at the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies convention today, alongside Fedja Burić, Dragana Cvetanović, Tomislav Longinović, Christian Nielsen and Sunnie Rucker-Chang – thanks to them all and to everybody who contributed their own impressions from the audience.
I originally organised this roundtable and another session with the same title at this year’s International Studies Association conference after writing my introduction to The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s and having to think through what I wanted to be able to do in my teaching, what I wanted others to be able to do, and how the contexts have changed since I was an undergraduate and postgraduate in London 8-15 years ago.
It’s a different chronological context and, as has become even sharper since Yugoslav Wars came out, a different political context.
Originally I was going to talk at the roundtable about what it means to teach about the Yugoslav wars in Britain, in the mid 2010s, to students who at Hull are nearly all white and British, and nearly all of what they encounter about Yugoslavia or its successor states in their general lives will have been premised on the idea that Yugoslavia was ‘somewhere else’.
That Yugoslavia on one hand, and Britain on the other, are part of separate spaces which have been defined by very different historical and political legacies; that Britain is at the centre of how things can be expected to be, and the Yugoslav region was outside that or lagging behind that.
I’ve always wanted to de-centre that in my own work, probably before I could even put into words that that was what I wanted to do.
In the days before the Brexit referendum and even more so after it, hearing accounts of racist and xenophobic violence and harassment increasing, I had a crisis of confidence. I’m someone whose teaching ought to have contributed to people being able to intervene in the kinds of cycles of polarisation and exaggeration that have been ramped up throughout the campaign. I and dozens of other people teach about the break-up of Yugoslavia and how the mainstream media moved an open politics of ethnic entitlement and resentment into the political centre, where it didn’t have to be.
Does any of it matter? Has anyone stepped back from looking at a UKIP poster or a Labour ‘controls on immigration’ pledge and thought differently about its messages because of the things we do when we teach 20th-century history and international politics? I think so, and I want to think so. But how does anyone know?
We strive to equip students to see across perspectives they might not have considered; to equip them for acts of everyday resistance to authoritarianism and hatred, and for recognising when there is a call for them; to equip them to account for violent historical legacies without succumbing to ascriptions of collective guilt, and to live in a society where others may have more knowledge than them of the effects those legacies have had.
British public culture exhibits the ‘never again’ reflex in its abstract, every Holocaust Memorial Day, which in Britain annually takes in Srebrenica alongside the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide; and yet the process of the break-up of Yugoslavia from ‘crisis that still feels like business as usual’, to something like the outbreak of full scale war and ethnic cleansing in 1991 in Croatia or 1992 in Bosnia, towards something of the scale of Srebrenica in 1995, is so poorly understood.
In 2014 I was asked to contribute to a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Hull Guildhall with a talk about the Bosnian Genocide. Rather than mobilising a sense that ‘we’ have to prevent mass violence and genocide ‘there’, I wanted to leave the audience with the question of: if this is how it seemed for Muslims in Visegrad, or for Srdjan Aleksić (the young Serb man in Trebinje who intervened in an act of ethnicised violence by fellow Serbs and saved the victim’s life at the cost of his own), what would the equivalent be for you, for us, here? And when would you know that you were starting to recognise it?
This is part of why I felt a resigned, saddened, but not shocked kind of alarm as the Brexit vote came closer, when I heard that a far right extremist had assassinated an MP, Jo Cox, who had called for Britain to accept more refugees (I thought at once of Josip Reihl-Kir, the moderate police chief of Osijek assassinated in July 1991 who had tried to de escalate violence when that was not in the interest of extremists on either side).
As the US vote came closer, it felt like no coincidence that people like Aleksandar Hemon or Charles Simic were among the first white writers in the US to warn that Trump was not a joke and to warn of what else can become possible very quickly once so racist, xenophobic and violent a register of political speech starts to be normalised. (Another, Sarah Kendzior, is an anthropologist of political repression in Uzbekistan.)
Knowing historically that 1990 was a turning point for the origins of the Yugoslav wars, but then reading Croatian newspapers from the beginning of 1990 which were not on anything like the crisis footing that they would be, brought home to me as a white English student how fast everyday life could fragment and be turned into something else – the pace of the ‘destruction of alternatives’.
Understanding that and understanding that Yugoslavia is not some inherently different place from Britain, has left me with part of my back brain that goes: don’t think that authoritarianism or violence can’t happen here.(I’ve written elsewhere about how that intersects with my identity/experience as queer.)
I didn’t live through the Yugoslav wars in any way that affected me, I don’t feel the echoes of the break up in the visceral way that my friends and colleagues do who did, but my window for what can happen in a crisis is closer I think to many of us here than perhaps to many of my colleagues and students in my own department.
What else then can we achieve by teaching about the Yugoslav wars, as well as educating students about what happened ‘in that part of the world’, because it is about so much more than that? What do we want students to appreciate – what do we want students to be able to see or do differently?
We can teach the skills the public need to be an informed and critical citizen of a democracy; and through what and how we teach, perhaps we can pass on to our students enough of that early warning system that we ourselves have so that they might intervene where they might not have done, so that they might speak out or educate others where they might not have done, so that at least some of the things our early warning system catches might not come to pass.
And as I said at the end of the roundtable: let’s get on and do it.
Six years after I finished my doctoral research at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, two years after I had briefly returned to SSEES as a teaching fellow leading Masters modules about nationalism and ethnic conflict, students at UCL launched a campaign against Eurocentric and institutionally racist structures of thought within the curriculum that they termed ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’.
The campaign, which began in 2014 and spread to other UK universities including Leeds, Birmingham and Warwick, framed its title as a challenge which, if a teacher were to answer it, would involve unpicking a complex of assumptions about rationality, modernity, and which people and places have become entitled to set themselves at the intellectual centre of producing knowledge about the rest of the world. Exposing the ‘unmarked nature’ of whiteness in the design of teaching and learning, and the unquestioned assumptions about which scholars represent the theoretical heart of a discipline and which are added on as marginal radicals or providers of empirical area-specific knowledge, would thus be the first step in ‘dismantling’ the white curriculum and starting to decolonise the university, alongside confronting structural racism in the academy itself (as a panel discussion at UCL organised by Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman had asked earlier in 2014: ‘Why isn’t my professor black?’).
The ‘House of IR’
The subtle dynamics of reproducing whiteness through the hierarchies of authority that teachers construct when suggesting the centres and margins of their field are illustrated by Anna Agathangelou and L H M Ling’s evocative metaphor, well-known to decolonial, postcolonial, feminist and queer scholars in International Relations, of the ‘House of IR’. Agathangelou and Ling consciously model their illustration on a colonial home: the intimate exclusions within/outwith the domestic compounds of Dutch-colonised Indonesia and French-colonised Indochina that the global historian Ann Laura Stoler has detailed in her own work.
The House thus has its founding fathers (individualist, masculinist realism), its good liberal mothers and daughters, its rebel critical-theorist sons, its fallen daughters (postmodernists and queers), its acknowledged and unacknowledged descendants inside and out, and its downstairs, where the ‘servants’ – IR’s ‘non-Western, nonwhite sources of knowledge, traditions, or worlds’ – ‘live, work, and produce for the House of IR’ (Agathangelou and Ling 2004: 27, 30).
Anticipating the #RhodesMustFall protests of 2015–16 about the unacknowledged legacies of colonialism and slavery on elite campuses in South Africa and Britain, and the ongoing struggles at US universities to confront the material and symbolic legacies of slave-owning benefactors, the UCL ‘Dismantling the Master’s House’ group also drew attention to the presence of the colonial past of their specific institutional setting: the commemoration of Francis Galton, who founded eugenics as a scientific field at UCL, in the 21st-century university’s public culture.
The ‘House of South-East European Studies’
If I had still been teaching at SSEES in 2014–15, how would I have answered the question ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ when looking at my own modules, or connected the history of an east European studies institute (founded in WW1 by scholars who were lobbying the British government to support Slav national liberation movements’ struggle against Austria-Hungary, later part of Britain’s Cold War infrastructure of knowledge, intelligence and research) to the colonial legacies of the university that SSEES had joined in 1999? What texts would someone need to add in order to bring race into the centre of the discipline’s debates, alongside its central paradigms of ‘nationalism’ and ‘ethnicity’ – or even to integrate histories of people of colour in central and south-east Europe into the core narrative of the region that an undergraduate historian would take away?
Did this subset of area studies, about a region of Europe which had been repeatedly occupied and which had never been the metropole of an overseas empire itself, need to reckon with whiteness and the global history of ‘race’ to the same extent as the history of Britain or America, the Netherlands or France?
Yet at the same time the ‘House of South-East European Studies’ – especially the interdisciplinary south-east European cultural studies/history/anthropology in which I positioned my doctoral work – would give critical inquiry based on postcolonial thought much more space upstairs than its equivalent ‘House of IR’. Since the early 1990s, a research agenda translating the premises of Edward Said’s Orientalism to south-east Europe, first developed by Milica Bakić-Hayden (with Robert Hayden and alone) and Maria Todorova, has suggested that the politics of differentiating a civilised and urban ‘Europe’ from a backward ‘Balkans’, a fundamental identity-making project both outside and within the region, depend on symbolic hierarchies similar to, or perhaps part of the same structures as, orientalising oppositions between ‘Europe’ and ‘the East’.
Questions of essentialisation, othering, stereotyping, exotification and mis/representation are inescapable in the study of post-socialist identities – with immediate opportunities, in the majority white and Anglophone classrooms where I teach, for reflecting on similar (perhaps connected; perhaps, too, not automatically identical) dynamics of othering and periphery-making directed towards the Middle East, Africa, South or East Asia, Latin America, Islam, or even Ireland.
For me, however, the construct of the ‘House of South-East European Studies’ I’ve postulated is a retrofitted house. The disciplinary conversations I was part of during my PhD were parallel to, but largely separate from, those taking place in other fields that grounded their knowledge in specific languages and regions.
(That sentence avoids the term ‘area studies’ deliberately: in 2010, at an applied linguistics conference where I was to talk about my postdoctoral research on language intermediaries and peacekeeping in Bosnia, I told a Brazilian colleague in the audience of a panel that I had done my PhD at SSEES, an ‘area studies’ department. For all the postcoloniality that my doctoral research had started to train me in – and SSEES itself is more engaged in rethinking ‘area studies in the 21st century’ than it was 10 years ago – I had still failed to appreciate how much more heavily the ‘area studies’ of a white English-speaking woman from and educated in London would ring to her ears as an extractive, colonising term.)
Situating South-East Europe in Global Dynamics of ‘Race’
Unlike contributors to this forum for transregional research who have positioned themselves in International Relations throughout their careers, I began engaging with IR (to which I had first been drawn as an undergraduate via the possibilities it offered for studying women and war, even if it meant reading against the grain of an intro syllabus largely devoted to explaining the English School) first because its critical and feminist studies of peacekeeping offered a conceptual language for connecting south-east Europe as a site of international intervention with the rest of the world, then because its emerging and hard-fought aesthetic, experiential and queer turns helped to explain why many of my interests in cultural politics had run together.
While it has taken extensive struggle by postcolonial and decolonial scholars to make race and racism a theoretical lens within IR, my own re-entry to IR – giving me a mental map where the margins of Agathangelou and Ling’s House look more like a centre – is what persuaded me, once the Why Is My Curriculum White? group posed the question, that situating south-east Europe in a global International Relations or a global history of anything else must involve situating the region in global dynamics of ‘race’ – a concept which, in contrast to ‘ethnicity’ or ‘postcolonialism’, is more isolated from the central conversation in the first discipline to which I belonged.
South-East Europe – like ‘central Europe’, ‘eastern Europe’ or ‘the former Soviet Union’, but also part of a transregional ‘post-Ottoman’ space – sits in an ambiguous position in the global history of race and imperialism. Ruled by the Ottoman, Habsburg and Venetian empires, cast into the periphery of ‘Eastern Europe’ during and after state socialism, and with the deepest colonial legacy in the region (that of the Ottoman empire) being left by a power that in northern/western frames of Europeanness was either on the margins of Europe or outside Europe altogether, it was never the metropole of an overseas empire.
Migrants from south-east Europe moving to postcolonial European countries or settler-colonial states have been subject to changing and conflicting frameworks of identifying with and ascribing race: having to ‘learn to become white’ (and to become complicit in whiteness, racism and settler colonialism) like other southern Europeans in early 20th-century North America, with access conditional on politics (not being a Communist or anarchist) as well as phenotype; being told ‘At least you’re the right colour’ by white neighbours offering – extremely conditional – acceptance to Bosnian refugees in late 20th-century Australia; being incorporated into the racialised category of ‘east Europeans’ in post-EU-enlargement Britain; and these are only three examples of the conjunctions between race, ethnicity, class, migration policy and history encountered by south-east European migrants and diasporas.
A common European antiziganism, inflected by distinct but comparable national identity discourses, marginalises Roma in south-east Europe and when they migrate to the West; while some Romanian migrants in western Europe deploy antiziganist constructions of Romanian nationhood in order to distance themselves from Roma in their host society’s racialising gaze.
The subaltern identification that adaptations of postcolonial theory has given south-east Europe can explain much about the region’s peripheral position but also sits uneasily with the investments in whiteness as well as Europeanness that postsocialist national identity projects have made, from widespread antiziganist media and everyday rhetoric, to occasional but unquestioned appearances of blackface performance on entertainment television, to the Slovenian and Croatian governments’ emphatic stance during the current refugee crisis that their states should be countries of managed transit – or no transit at all – not countries of settlement.
Research like Miglena Todorova’s PhD ‘Race Travels: Whiteness and Modernity Across National Borders’, on Bulgarian identity and global formations of race throughout the 20th century, completed in 2006 (the same year she published an article on National Geographic and the Balkans), exemplifies the questions about race I wanted to incorporate into my teaching about ethnicity and nationhood at SSEES in 2011–12 but did not have the architecture to properly build. Academic publishing’s economics of ‘market’ that render small nations and ‘niche’ topics supposedly uncommercial are part of a politics and technology of knowledge production that restrict the opportunities for innovative scholarship about and from peripheralised regions to be made widely available in book form, while unmarked methodological nationalism among readers, instructors and reviewers can produce an exceptionalism of its own. ‘Connected histories’ thus fail to be connected not even because connections are never made, but because connections are made, missed, remade, and liable to be missed again.
During a collaboration with Jelena Obradović-Wochnik on ‘the nexus between peacebuilding and transitional justice’ – two fields where critical research asks similar questions about knowledge/accountability gaps, ‘liberal peace’ assumptions and the structural inequalities between international intervention agencies and local residents, yet which rarely seem to engage with each other – we had initially been surprised to find so little theoretical bridge-building between the fields when perspectives ‘from the ground up’ (knowledges based on everyday discourse, oral history, ethnography) made the shortcomings of peacebuilding and of transitional justice appear as two instances of the same problem. The theoretical connections we needed were already ‘there’, in the work of Chandra Lekha Sriram and Rama Mani; but neither had been extensively cited into the conversations about the liberal peace where we began.
Global IR– Not new, but a lens
Working transregionally in south-east European studies overlaps with, and may often be informed by, the ambitions of Global IR. As a researcher located at and educated in a centre of knowledge production ‘about’ the rest of the world which has that status as a legacy of colonial-era higher education and research, however, I do not wish to suggest it is a ‘new’ lens, far less to impose another hierarchy of progress and temporality in suggesting that in some way the field ought to ‘catch up’.
Instead, it is a lens that the centre of the field has failed to see through to the same extent as it has seen through lenses of ethnonationalism or even postcoloniality – and a lens that can permit old as well as new histories and solidarities to come into view.
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.
‘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)
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.