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When what we see isn’t what we’re meant to hear: you can lead an audience to Eurovision but can you make it think?
Early in the year for a Eurovision post, but February is when most participating broadcasters are busy choosing their entries (although the keenest, like Albania’s RTSH, wrap theirs up well before Christmas) and it’s when some of the most interesting examples of what an entry might do are going around.
The latest national selection to get underway is Slovenia’s EMA, halfway through cutting sixteen songs down to eight before a final next weekend and still nowhere near the size of a media-event behemoth like Sweden’s six-week Melodifestivalen.
This rather spectacular production by EMA standards stood out from the others in Friday’s semi-final:
Working around Eurovision’s performance rules (no pre-recorded vocals; no more than six people on stage), which were supposed to put poorer and richer broadcasters on level playing fields but haven’t kept up with the digital backdrop technology that has transformed Eurovision staging since the mid-2000s, the pop-opera group Tosca Beat put on a three-minute provocation about media manipulation which resembled a whole vein of utilitarian young-adult dystopias in recent Hollywood cinema, and definitely – we can tell from the group’s promotion before EMA – meant to reference George Orwell’s 1984.
Serendipitously helped by the huge girders that EMA’s producers decided to decorate the stage with this year, it even used some of the same visual codes as a musical/artistic project which started out as shock-value provocateurs in late socialist Yugoslavia and became edgy cultural heritage for an independent Slovenia: Laibach, the industrial band named after the German translation of ‘Ljubljana’ that pushed past Kraftwerk to mobilise totalitarian and fascist aesthetics to such a degree since forming in a Slovenian mining town in 1980 that listening to or watching their music is a continual process of trying to work out whether they actually mean it after all, and whether what you’re enjoying is really the wit of the parody or maybe the pull of what they supposedly subvert.
(And yes, that’s what happens when you translate the ‘One Vision’ of ‘Radio Gaga’-era Queen into German – where the sound of lyrics like ‘one man, one goal, one vision’ evokes a very different kind of charismatic relationship between leader and crowd than the supposed inspiration for Queen’s original, Martin Luther King.)
Or that’s how it came across to Eurovision blogger and punk rock singer Roy Delaney, who hadn’t expected ‘a post-industrial Laibach tribute act’ in an EMA semi-final but found one anyway:
Surely this can’t be an accident? Militaristic outfits, megaphones, situationist statements, stompy marching music and a deeper-than-mines voice croaking out between the high pitched choruses. It’s Slovenia’s biggest ever international musical export, toned down and made (slightly more) palatable for the Friday evening TV crowd.
It’s the brown blouse and crossed-over belts of the middle soprano Urška Kastelic, in front of the stark video backdrop, that do most to evoke the ambiguity of Laibach (who added their own uniformed female vocalist, Mina Špiler, in 2004) and make the viewer wonder should they really be doing that?
What resolves it for Tosca Beat, or ought to, is the white-uniformed megaphonist and keyboard player pulling on a set of angel wings (in a move that takes about ten seconds – this all goes much more quickly in the Hunger Games) and intoning what seems to be a warning about the seductive power of totalitarianism:
The rush for victory will be present at all times… The race for defeating a helpless enemy will become our number one priority… Don’t let it happen. It depends on us.
If the first two and a half minutes are having the viewer join in the pleasure of an aesthetic – a way of sensing things and feeling emotions through them – that comes to them first through the horrors of 20th-century European history and then through the inherently ambiguous (many, like Susan Sontag in her essay on ‘Fascinating Fascism’, would say too ambiguous) conventions of late 20th century provocative art, the ‘Don’t let it happen’ potentially reaches out to show how easily it does happen, while the spectatorship is still going on.
The politics of irony, memory and nostalgia in post-Yugoslav Slovenia, from the ‘Neue Slowenische Kunst’ (‘New Slovenian Art’ in German) art collective that emerged from the same alternative milieu as Laibach in the 1980s to parody the kitsch iconography of authoritarianism and state power, to the ‘nostalgic culture‘ around Communist and Partisan symbols among young Slovenes who did not even grow up in Yugoslavia, make acts like this crop up in Slovenian pop music from time to time – one of the stalwarts of Slovenian military bricolage, Rock Partyzani, even took part in EMA in 2011.
‘Free World’ hasn’t even gone on to make next week’s national final, meaning the audience for this dystopian intervention – or whatever it was – will likely be no larger than the 200,000-300,000 Slovenian viewers who might watch an EMA heat and the several thousand Eurovision fans who keep up with EMA live or on YouTube.
One song that will be on stage in Kiev and faces a similar challenge, however, is the winner of Italy’s Sanremo festival – Francesco Gabbani’s ‘Occidentali’s Karma’.
Even as the poetic conventions of Italian pop music go, ‘Occidentali’s Karma’ – which has been seen more than 18 million times on YouTube in ten days, plus another 1 million views for Gabbani’s performance in the Sanremo final – is an ambitious philosophy essay.
The title – ‘Westerners’ karma’, or il karma degli occidentali transposed into the possessive syntax of an English apostrophe-s – is already asking the listener to play a linguistic game which at the very least needs an anglophone to work out who are the occidentali anyway, then – if they’re going to understand what the lyricist wants them to – to work out what Gabbani might mean about their karma or the search for it or whether they can even access it or not.
The rest of the lyrics take a glossary to explain – something which the 40+ television commentators who have to introduce this song to Eurovision viewers in May won’t have the luxury of – and according to Gabbani’s fellow songwriter Fabio Ilacqua are supposed to critique the shallowness of modern life in the West and the way that Westerners have appropriated ‘Eastern’ spiritual practices to help them cope:
It describes the situation of Westerners, their models and their way of seeking refuge in the Oriental rituals for comfort. It’s a pretext to observe how are we as modern humans. Westerners are turning to oriental cultures like tourists who go into a holiday village. Oriental cultures are seen as an escape from the stress, but they were not born for this. It’s the trivialisation of something profound.
What the viewer first sees, unless the staging is very careful, is a white man dressing up in orange robes going namaste.
On stage at Sanremo, a line in the song’s lyrics citing the anthropologist Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape inspired its producer to bring a man in a gorilla suit on stage halfway:
‘Occidentali’s Karma’ is now, to the overlapping Italian and transnational communities of Eurovision fans, the early favourite to win the contest and/or that song that needs to come with an entire bibliography, and, to many more internet users, the viral video with the dancing man in the gorilla suit.
Within the lyrics, the line ‘the naked ape is dancing, occidentali’s karma’ (‘la scimmia nuda balla, occidentali’s karma’) is saying something about a search for meaning that Gabbani sings has weighed on human minds on levels from the high art of Hamlet to the Neolithic.
Outside the lyrics – to a viewer who doesn’t understand the language, or doesn’t grasp in the middle of a televised song festival what the hell is supposed to be going on – it’s a dancing gorilla, in a song about karma and nirvana.
Which when the gorilla was and is a symbol of African primitivity in so many European racisms (think how often the racist abuse hurled at black footballers involves gorilla chants), working so deep down in white imaginations as to be imperceptible to persuade white people to fear physically imposing black men, and when the superiority of Europe in biological and cultural racism is so much about civilisation and modernity – is not what Ilacqua says he means the song to be about.
The long history of stereotypes of Africa and primitivism in Western arts and culture (which have outlasted the overseas empires that European countries like Italy and Britain actually had, and permeated across Europe to countries that didn’t have them at all), and the colonial overtones to contemporary Western appropriations of ‘Oriental’ spirituality, are a huge structure of thought and feeling that could prevent some viewers grasping the song’s critical intent, leave others recognising the racialised meanings of the gorilla and interpreting the performance as one that just reproduces the same dynamics it set out to critique, because the immediate aesthetic impact of what the viewer sees comes more quickly and viscerally than the intellectual effect of what the viewer (if they can catch it) hears.
(I’d switch the gorilla out for a Flintstones caveman for the Eurovision final. Yes, it loses the ‘naked ape’ reference. ‘Neolithic man’ is in the lyrics as well. You get three minutes.)
Tosca Beat and Gabbani are at very different steps of the Eurovision pyramid, but both have tried to use the aesthetics of performance to ask the viewer to recognise something else underneath what looks like their visual presentation – and occupy an ambiguous relationship towards the visual culture of European fascism or colonialism as they do so.
Can a Eurovision performance engage an audience in the kind of spectatorial move that both these videos make? It can try – but the sources they reassemble still have such power in European and Western imaginations that there’s no guarantee it can succeed.
‘That’s all because you asked this great toy question’: Cynthia Enloe and how to historicise anything
In the spirit of spontaneity that impressed me about the piece I’m about to quote from in the first place – possibly one of my favourite answers from a Q&A after a public lecture, from a talk by the feminist International Relations scholar Cynthia Enloe that the University of Westminster, where she gave it last month, kindly recorded and put online.
Enloe, who’s been publishing on war, peace and women’s lives since the 1980s (after beginning her career studying the politics of armed forces’ ethnic make-up, which she freely admits these days she isn’t satisfied with because she hadn’t yet understood how to take women’s lives seriously in International Relations research), was one of two or three feminist IR authors recommended to me in the first lecture of an ‘International Relations 101’ course I crossed over into from my BA History during my first year at LSE, when the lecturer – probably Professor Chris Brown, whose own research didn’t touch on gender at all – was explaining what we’d be reading in the one week on gender that this intro module had. (In fact, most courses in UK universities used to run all year so it occurs to me that was probably in my first week.)
I’m quite sure what propelled me at 18 to the library to look up Enloe and Jean Bethke Elshtain (whose book Women and War I also found out about at this point) was mainly the thought that reading about women and war was likely going to throw up some histories of gender-non-conforming women and where else in my International History syllabus was I going to find out about those. (Elshtain delivered in this respect with an introduction that began with a story about her childhood identification and disidentification with Ingrid Bergman’s Joan of Arc; I’m from the generation that would either be beginning their war-and-gender books with a story about Milla Jovovich’s performance as the same, and/or a story about those first few paragraphs of Elshtain.)
What I found, and didn’t realise I was looking for because most of my syllabus wasn’t even suggesting it was there, was a lens that Enloe develops through books called things like Bananas, Beaches and Bases – and keeps up through the late Cold War, post-Cold-War and we can’t be in the post-post-Cold-War already can we? – for magnifying how apparently trivial objects, or spheres of life that seem completely disconnected from war, are actually linked into systems of thinking and feeling that make war, militarism and gender-based oppression possible at some very deep levels – a manifesto for overthinking that I didn’t know I needed but that has been helping me make sense of the world around me ever since.
I’ve already written on here about (and am still doing work inspired by) why it works so well when Enloe asks in Maneuvers, about a can of pasta shapes made to tie in with Star Wars, ‘How do they militarise a can of soup?’
What I like about this Q&A answer – which runs to almost 900 words, I realised once I’d started to transcribe it – is how it distils arguments I’ve read Enloe make over the space of whole book chapters into the kind of fluidity or clarity that… does not characterise me when I talk about my own research in public at the moment. (There’s the one of me who digresses, there’s the one of me who can’t even finish a sentence, and, usually, the one of me that misses a step I’ve known about so long I take for granted, so that the whole thing falls down in front of anyone else.) Obviously someone at Enloe’s career stage has racked up thousands of hours more practice than anyone at mine, but as I start loping into that ‘early mid-career’ point (and what on earth is that) I worry that that’s only going to get worse not better the greater the range of things I start to know.
Here is Enloe cutting across International Relations theory, cultural history (I’m reminded of Graham Dawson’s work on British boys’ identification with militarised play post-WW2, which I also need to write about at some point), international economics, education research, fashion theory, asides that transform how listeners think about things they might have taken for granted, and questions that coming researchers could develop into whole books or PhDs even over and above the ones there already are, when an audience member asks her a question about toy soldiers:
Do you know that the first toy soldiers which were lead, lead soldiers, you can still see them in museums – they were made to train elite boys in monarchical systems at an early age about their duty as a future soldier for the regime. So militarised toys, and that socialisation of boys into the naturalness of soldiering, or at least the admiration of soldiering, starts very very early. And here again, women as mothers oftentimes feel that they really are responsible for their sons growing up to be quote normal boys, whatever that is, are the ones who take the boy by the hand down the aisle with the military toys. And the military toys are usually right next to the dump trucks. You know, that is the masculinisation of play can look very unmilitarised. You know. How many little girls really play with dump trucks? Well, dump trucks are great. They’ve got all those moveable parts and you can mix the… you know – but somehow, at that early age, dump trucks are thought to be a boys’ toy, versus any child’s toy. I love dump trucks. Because they’ve got all those moveable parts and you can make up games and stories and…
The big toy companies, like Mattel and Hasbro, they’re major companies, if you – you know, you all have very different aesthetics around your curiosities. Not everybody wants to study a playgroup, although that would be a really good thing to do. If you watch pre-school teachers trying to take the gender out of play, even though the gendering of play has started at home. Or you find the playgroup is very gendered, and a well-meaning mother or father is then trying to de-gender the play when the child comes home. But if that’s not really where your research skills or your research tastes lie, take on a big toy company, and do a history of GI Joe. I mean, did anyone here have a brother or oneself that ever had a GI Joe toy? Ta-da. […]
The Barbie phenomenon, and the GI Joe phenomenon, these are globalised toys. They are made in very particular parts of the world. So if you’re interested in the globalisation of production, go find where really popular toys are made. Find out what you can reveal about the gendering of toys in the production of them, the masculinisation or feminisation of them, the marketing of them… So you’ve got a lot of different tastes in what really strikes you would be interesting to do as research. Find the level, in this case, from the everyday play, to the international production of toys, find some place to come together with your tastes and reveal it. Mattel is the producer of Barbie, and Barbie now has a couple of very spiffy military uniforms, a dress air force uniform. And you can cite exactly when that happened, exactly when Mattel’s toy designers decided that Barbie would be more attractive if one of her outfits was a military uniform. It wasn’t at the beginning. You can historicise anything, and when you historicise something you find where decisions are made. And when you find where decisions are made, you reveal politics. That’s one of the reasons to ask historical questions.
The Gap – by the way, I ask these questions so that you all write about them and then send them to me. That’s really what I’m doing here. The Gap introduced camo. Do any of you have a camouflage tank top, or a knapsack, or a pair of sneakers, or is this too embarrassing to ask? Did any of you once? Right, there you go. All right. But camo – and now it’s abbreviated to camo so that it won’t sound so militarised. That was the fashion industry that did that. They took ‘camouflage’, in garments, and then abbreviated, so most of us would forget it’s really about being invisible so that you can shoot somebody. That’s what camouflage is about. I mean, why do firefighters wear bright red? Because they want to be visible. Right? Camouflage is to be invisible. The Gap corporate designers, and marketers, made a very specific decision, in about – I used to know this for sure – about 2001, that they would introduce camo into their fashion line. Then they made, the next year, a decision to introduce camo into their Gap for Kids. But children actually don’t buy clothes in the kids section of The Gap. Mothers do. So every child, and I’m always – this is terrible, you get infected with this and you just see it everywhere – but when I see a child with a little camo outfit on, I wonder what – I really want to know. I truly want to know. What was she thinking? But, I mean, truly. What is she thinking? That it’s just a beautiful pattern? I mean, why not checks? Because The Gap’s profit depends on her making some association that she thinks that camouflage is a cute outfit for a child. So look for decisions. And the way you look for decisions is to watch something over time that didn’t exist, and then watch when it does exist, and then ask who made what decision when. And that’s all because you asked this great toy question.
My transcription, so my errors, and certainly my line breaks (don’t rely on this as a citation), but about as clear an exposition as possible of what Enloe has called in her later books a ‘feminist curiosity‘ – an eye so well acclimatised to the problems and structures Enloe wants to reveal that an everyday detail like a clothing pattern or the arrangement of a supermarket aisle sets off a cascade of I truly want to know, and full of subtle reframings like her description of the purpose of military camouflage (how much more often do you probably hear about it as there to prevent soldiers being shot, rather than to hide them so that they can shoot somebody?) – the analytical turns that have started making me wonder what a feminist aesthetic curiosity applied to such cultural and everyday dimensions of international politics might be.
And this is only a spontaneous answer to an audience question after the talk she’d planned to give – a lecture where she sets out the taken-for-granted, normalised (but in no way inherently normal) ideas about danger, protection and gender that make it so easy for societies, universities and people to start becoming militarised – and that make those beliefs so difficult to unmake, at least without being able to look underneath the surface of things like this…
This post originally appeared at the Forum Transregionale Studien (TRAFO) blog on 14 September 2016.
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.
Anikó Imre, writing on whiteness and antiziganism in postsocialist eastern European media (including her 2005 essay ‘Whiteness in Post-Socialist Eastern Europe: the Time of the Gypsies, the End of Race’, and more recently ‘Postcolonial Media Studies in Postcolonial Europe’), and Dušan Bjelić, in essays on Balkan involvement in the colonization of Palestine and on the identity discourses of Kristeva and Žižek, both argue that south-east Europe would not stand outside the dynamics of coloniality and race that Global IR can place at the centre of the discipline’s inquiry.
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.
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.
‘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.
Historians of sexuality on my Twitter timeline today have been discussing this post at Notches on the ‘Gay American History @ 40′ conference earlier this month, which Rachel Hope Cleves writes was marked by ‘passionate, and often painful, disagreement’ around the question of – and the implications of asking – how historians define the category of ‘lesbian’.
Cleves summarises the unease that she felt this question provoke as follows:
That disagreement did not finish with the close of the panel but continued through to the conference’s very end, and expressed itself along three related axes: anger about the historical erasure of lesbianism; distrust of the aggressive historicism applied to the category of lesbianism; and fear of the loss of lesbian identity within a trans futurity.
I was on the other side of the ocean from the conference and have never worked on the history of sexuality in the USA. I have, on the other hand, had to think about my own historical practice and the approaches I’d give to others through a number of projects recently, including editing a volume on gender history in 20th-century eastern Europe and the USSR (which has gone into production now!) and carrying out some pilot research on student perceptions of trans and non-binary inclusivity in their teaching (this was the background to it – I now need to write up the report).
Reading the Notches post gave me some initial thoughts as a teacher and conference organiser, and some wider thoughts as someone who also faces the responsibility of writing about people in the past whose lives involved diverse sexual practices and gender non-conforming behaviour, for readers and students whose own time is marked by struggles over the same things. (Is it necessarily ‘aggressive’, for instance, to want to historicise a category of identity?)
(I should say first of all that I’m younger than many of the conference delegates would have been and didn’t suffer from the historical erasure of lesbian identities in the same way as many older women; I also have a much more ambivalent relationship with the label, which I’ll say a bit more about as I go on.)
One of my first thoughts, as it should have been for anyone who might organise a conference or session where this could come up, is: what would I have done if this had happened at my panel.
The summary of the conference alludes to a number of unpleasant incidents, including one where a cisgender (not trans) gay activist reopened a bitter disagreement he had had with the transgender studies in general and the trans historian Susan Stryker (the keynote speaker) in particular. (Stryker, as Cleves notes, describes the background in her essay ‘(De)Subjugated Knowledges‘, part of the Transgender Studies Reader she and Stephen Whittle assembled in 2006.)
What would another historian who was trans – a PhD student in the history of sexuality, say, knowing they would need to launch themselves into this subfield’s disciplinary community in order to gain an academic job or recognition – take away from the discussions they witnessed, the summaries they read, or the ‘tension directed by older lesbian-feminists against younger trans masculine people’ that Cleves describes as ‘palpable’ throughout the conference?
How did panel chairs respond when any of this happened? What expectations about the atmosphere of the conference had organisers set out at the beginning, or as the event unfolded, or even in a pre-conference code of conduct (a practice which is still much more common at technology or fandom conventions than academic events)? How far was the ‘possibility that [lesbian and trans] affinities might overlap’, as Cleves writes, able to be heard beyond the appeal that Jen Manion, a trans and lesbian-feminist historian of early America, made at the beginning of their presentation?
I can’t know the answers to any of those questions (and they aren’t questions which arise just from this one conference and its incidents). They will play on the minds of trans and non-binary scholars who might attend similar events, especially those whose position in the academy is most precarious. As organisers, we need to show through our actions that they’ll be welcome.
Cleves also tries to understand the atmosphere ‘within the context of the historical denials of lesbianism, and the historicist erasures of lesbian continuities, that have left many feeling under assault’ – even within the history of sexuality, which (perhaps especially in studies of the USA?) has been dominated by studies of gay men.
(Cheryl Morgan writes at more length here, in her own response to the conference report, on the trans-exclusionary narrative that trans men’s possibilities for expressing their own identities has put the future of a lesbian identity under threat.)
Perceiving that there has been an ‘aggressive form of historicism directed by academics at the category of lesbians’, Cleves writes:
I wonder, as do many others, why writing about lesbianism in particular elicits such agonized concerns over historicism. I know from my discussions with non-academic audiences and readers that many lesbians, old and young, find meaning in connecting to historic predecessors. It hurts to hear that those women who forged lives together in the past, often at enormous cost, aren’t really yours to claim.
Anyone whose teaching has systematically or even accidentally created opportunities for gay, lesbian, bi, trans students – or students subject to social inequalities in any other way – to find out more about a marginalised past should understand the power of connecting with a history that includes you after all, even if they haven’t had to search for such a past themselves. There’s more than one reason why the hit film about gay life and the miners’ strike in Thatcher’s Britain was called Pride.
The liberatory, thrilling effect of reading that in the past as well there really were people like you, when you’ve had to struggle just to be recognised and accepted like that in the present – breaking against you like a huge reshaping wave when you least expect it in the corner of a library, the middle of a lecture, or scrolling through seminar readings on a crowded train.
(Mine were during my Masters, mostly; balancing on a window-stool in the old ULU cafe, looking out at a street that went pitch-dark by 5 pm, listening on at least one occasion to a mix-tape of post-Milosevic Serbian pop-folk.)
Do we have to share identity labels with our historic predecessors to recognise ourselves in them, them in ourselves, and put our roots down in the present through a historical continuum that has contained both us and them?
Maybe I won’t change the mind of anyone for whom the category and identity of lesbian has been the word they’d never heard before, the secret until suddenly joyous word, that explained everything unreconcilable about who they are. It wasn’t, for me; in my own communities ‘everybody knew’ what a lesbian was in the early 1990s, and in fact ‘everybody’ probably knew more about what a lesbian was than ‘lesbians’ did, whoever they were, even as I went to ridiculous, painful and damaging lengths not to be one.
Once I’d made it quite undeniable that it did apply to me, I used it, mostly too explain a complex of inclinations and disinclinations that seemed to (I’d later understand they didn’t have to) go together. I might use it today as a clumsy approximation of the wriggle-room I find there is on both sides of the axis of desire (who I am; who I’m attracted to) that ‘lesbian’ today – for me – seems like it might fix tight.
But I’m more ambivalent to it now, compared to 20 years ago, because the language and concepts I had available then were based on there only being two genders (I didn’t even understand bisexuality then, and said some hurtful things to bi classmates at university before I did). That means I’d explain my own gender and sexuality differently now, compared to then. And that’s just changed even in my lifetime. Different categories I might or might not belong to are available, compared to 20 years ago; and even figuring out which ones don’t apply to me, once I know about them, gave me finer-grained ways to interpret my own identity.
I’m still not aware of a word that captures all the things I know now about how I relate to gender and how that relates to the genders and gender expressions of the people I’m attracted to, for the even more specific category I sometimes see reflected back at me. The best I can say (and how different even that feels to half a lifetime ago) is that at least I know, even if I can’t fully express, the combination of things there ought to be a word for.
This is a very different account of gender, sexuality, language and identity than would come from a woman for whom ‘lesbian’, from the moment she first heard it, always sounded unquestionably right. I don’t want to take her history of identity formation away through explaining more about mine.
Though both of us would be part of the same historical moment – this frustrating, contingent, still sometimes exuberant early 21st century that future historians of sexuality will try to piece together.
For a long time, including most of the time I was at university when I had the most opportunity to find historic predecessors, I did think ‘lesbian’ was the only category I could fit into. I was engaged in lesbian history-making then even if I wouldn’t say that I am now. But even when I thought that was the only feasible category there was to belong in, I remember looking for experiences like mine, or practices I might have shared, more than identities – hints and traces of the combination of characteristics that I was coming to understand had something to do with identity and desire as I experienced it. Some of those feelings of liberation, I’m not the only one who felt or did that, through reading historical writing came from books with, on the face of it, nothing to do with lesbians at all.
The question of how historians write about people who might come down through the sources as ‘gender non-conforming women’ but who might have described their identities as transmasculine or non-binary if they’d had access to the language and worldview of early 21st century English-speaking queer movements has been confronting gender historians and historians of sexuality for some time.
I’m thinking particularly here of the more complex cases where evidence about a person’s life is ambiguous or scarce. When even sources in a subject’s own time were already representing him as male, as can sometimes be the case, it seems clear to me that writing him into history as a lesbian would erase what the evidence itself tells us about his past.
Nan Alamilla Boyd’s 1999 essay ‘The Materiality of Gender’ (also reprinted in the first Transgender Studies Reader) observed that (p. 74):
Both lesbian and transgender communities look to the past to recuperate individuals who proudly or cleverly lived outlaw sexualities or genders. However, because of the slippage between sexuality and gender, lesbian and transgender communities often spin usable histories around the same figures.
Boyd suggested that lesbian history-making in her own field, late 19th/early 20th American history, had based its understanding of who could or could not have been a lesbian on ‘birth bodies’, incorporating people with extensive histories of self-presentation as men while implying that trans women would never be able to fall into the category of lesbian.
Applied with this assumption (I don’t want to suggest that it always is or has been), even as ‘lesbian’ creates identification with the past for some readers, for readers who already know they are not women yet have had to struggle against a woman’s identity being imposed on them, the same category cuts off their access to the same thrill of connectivity with the past that lesbian history, hard-won, has offered many of its other readers.
Indeed, for a trans male or non-binary reader, ‘lesbian’ in his or hir own history of identity formation has often been a category that invalidates, when unwillingly applied to him or hir and to others like himself or hirself.
The same identity term that emancipates a woman for whom it means love and solidarity can be and has been, within another set of power relationships, an instrument of violence when it removes rather than sustains someone’s autonomy. The difference is in who claims which identity through language and who takes whose away.
What can historians do, then, about historical subjects whose gender they find hard to determine?
Judith/Jack Halberstam’s essay ‘Unlosing Brandon‘, critiquing accounts of trans men’s lives including Brandon Teena and the jazz musician Billy Tipton, framed the interpretive problem (p. 48) around a principle that has something to offer historians even if they disagree with Halberstam’s interpretation of the evidence around those men’s particular lives:
I will be asking here what kind of truths about gender we demand from the lives of people who pass, cross-dress, or simply refuse normative gender categories. None of the transgender subjects whom I examine here can be definitively identified as transsexual, and none can be read as lesbian; all must be read and remembered according to the narratives they meticulously circulated about themselves when they were alive.
What I take from this passage, held in tension with my puzzlement over why it might be hard to identify Teena or Tipton definitively as transsexual given the evidence historians do have about their lives, is its emphasis at the end on the work of historical interpretation: what is historians’ knowledge, derived from a collection of evidence, actually based on?
If this is ‘aggressive historicism’ when we ask it about the category of ‘lesbian’, I’m guilty of it – but from the point of view that any category is a container that humans have come together to construct, and we ought to be able to understand and historicise what holds it together.
I started writing about gender and sexuality in the first place in order to get at how those social identities intersected with my first specialism, identities of ethnicity and nationhood (which, like gender-and-sexuality, are two linked but still distinct categories themselves).
My question when teaching and then writing about a past more distant then the 1990s, where ethnicity and nationality – in former Yugoslavia and elsewhere – were publicly understood as categories and identities, has always been: how do we know someone’s ethnic identity in the past, and how do we know whether ethnicity meant the same thing to them as it would now?
South-east European history is one of many fields where population movements, historic religious conversions, and multi-ethnic everyday forms of belonging have left regions, territory, heritage and people open to being claimed by competing national movements, each with historical narratives that could seem to back them up.
Even for the late 20th century, some scholars (like Chip Gagnon or Dubravka Zarkov) suggest that ethnicity started being made to matter in late Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav society more than it had done – a precondition for the Yugoslav wars to have mass participation and support – because of how revisionist intellectuals, Slobodan Milosevic and others in reaction hardened ethnic boundaries through the media by emphasising ethnopolitical division and fear.
Even when we can determine a person’s cultural and linguistic affiliation accurately – if we have ample evidence of what language they chose to write in – this wasn’t necessarily the same kind of attachment to a political entity and to dominant accounts of that country’s values as it would more likely be today – if only because of the very historically specific relationships between religious collective identities, rulers and societies earlier in European history.
How do I know whether an individual in 16th-century Dalmatia – let’s say, in the spirit of this post, one I never encountered in the literature but could have done, in the image of Anne Hathaway as Viola in Twelfth Night – saw themselves as a Croat, an Italian, a Venetian, a citizen of the republic of letters, or anything else?
A historian writing in support of the long continuity of the Croatian nation would have one approach. A historian writing in support of the long continuity of the Italian nation might ascribe a different ethnic identity to our Dalmatian while still agreeing with their Croatian counterpart about how far historians can trace ethnicity back.
A deconstructionist historian – like John Fine, who called his last book When Ethnicity Did Not Matter in the Balkans – would write with less certainty altogether.
My own approach to ethnicity and nationalism is firmly anti-essentialist – which informed how I planned and organised the introduction to the Yugoslav Wars I published last year. My final chapter shows how scholars of culture and language have ‘denationalized’ south-east European cultural histories, but in doing so meets an ethical tension that runs throughout the book:
[A]utomatically choosing a specific nation as one’s unit of analysis could obscure developments that are difficult to study through a single national lens […] How far, however, could the project of ‘denationalizing’ history go when writing about the Yugoslav wars, when people were killed, tortured and forced from their homes because of what ethno-national group they belonged or were assigned to?
Yet compared to my first book, on popular music and national identity in Croatia, I’ve still put something of a brake on how far I deconstruct ethnicity. I owe that to some of the Bosnian participants in the oral history project I went on to work for, who claimed space for ethnic labels in their narratives even when I hadn’t added them, and to reading trans theorists’ accounts of the disregard that deconstructions of gender and embodiment by and inspired by Judith Butler had had for the realities of trans lives.
(Talia Bettcher summarises those critiques, especially those of Jay Prosser and Vivian Namaste, here; as does Julia Serano, whose critique of deconstructionism influenced how I wrote about ethnicity and interviewing in a chapter I contributed to a volume on oral history and mass violence.)
The coincidence of reading trans feminist literature at the same time as reviewing these interviewing experiences challenged me to work an attention to marginalisation and imbalances of power more directly into how I approach the deconstruction of nationalism and ethnicity from then on.
Too much deconstruction, Cheryl Morgan writes, prevents trans people making the same connections with their past that gay, lesbian and queer historians have been able to seek and reclaim:
To start with, just because the word transsexual didn’t exist in ancient times that doesn’t mean that trans people didn’t exist. As the above (very incomplete) list of identities shows, people lived lives outside of the gender binary in most (if not all) cultures throughout history. Where we have no evidence it is probably because such people had to stay under the radar for fear of their lives.
Trans historians, like lesbian historians, fear pasts being deconstructed out of existence. Sometimes – in the case of trans men’s histories, often – the deconstructors have been lesbians.
What does this mean for historians who share an identity with others who have carried out an ‘aggressively’ historicist deconstruction?
Ethnicity and sexuality, or ethnicity and gender variance, don’t map directly on to each other as categories of identity. Ethnicity as a concept has not been marginalised throughout history in the same way as same-gender desire, even as people have been persecuted (the driving force behind much European history in the so-called ‘age of nations’) because of what ethnicity they have or what ethnicity was ascribed to them; being able to conceive of having an ethnic identity has very rarely been punishable.
But there are parallels. One is that, in both cases, anti-essentialism and deconstruction are analytical tools with the potential to emancipate but also the potential to oppress. Deconstruction can diversify historians’ understanding of the identities and practices of gender, embodiment and desire and it can limit them. Deconstruction in the face of verifiable historical evidence about the facts of an ethnic conflict can become, and appear to legitimise relativisation of war crimes.
Categorisation and deconstruction are tools; their human users apply ethics to them.
Another parallel emerges if we go back to the idea near the beginning of this post – that marginalised readers of history seek historical predecessors with their own identities to be able to access the same kind of continuity with the past that a straight or cisgender reader could already take for granted.
How far do we need historical subjects, like our hypothetical Dalmatian, to have had the same concepts of identity as ourselves in order to be able to identify with them?
With ethnicity and nationality, perhaps, not much. The meanings of ethnic identity, the importance of ethnic identity, and even the ethnic identities that people might have claimed could all be very different in past centuries compared to today. Are they so distant that it’s impossible to imagine people who held them as part of the same community, connected through time, as ourselves?
‘How do we label our subjects’ ethnicity and nationality most accurately?’ and ‘How do we most accurately describe our subjects’ gender, therefore their sexuality?’ would be at a fundamental level the same question, had the categories of ethnicity and sexuality not had different histories themselves.
And what do we do when we’re not sure? This question does touch them both.
An anti-essentialist historian of ethnicity might reject present-day place names for past territories, or construct sentences to refer to individuals or organisations rather than ethnic groups. The comparable moment of decision in writing about gender and sexuality takes in as basic a unit of language as the pronouns. How do we know which pronouns to use for our historical subjects?
A radical question if you have never had to think about which ones to use for yourself or someone else you know – but a question that turns the lens of ‘How do we know what we know?’ on to something that you previously took for granted.
(What if historians didn’t use pronouns, when they weren’t sure?)
Identifying with the past – in acquiring a collective ethno-national past, a lesbian past, a trans past, or anything else – means seeing past differences across categories that would complicate the identification. It always will.
A figure you might identify with in the past might have spoken different languages, likely practiced a religion, held very different values from yours in all kinds of ways – and yet something, across all the differences a historian could identify, still resonates to make them perceptible as someone who was like you, yours to claim.
Historical identification is – will always be – partial.
It’s an exciting and – at least in the concepts of identity that we have, today – necessary part of building up identities in the present, fighting back against marginalisation, and creating a space where you can imagine that you exist and others like you exist and there’s a continuity of that.
Yet it’s a strategic, selective kind of identification. And it always will be, because they – whoever they were, whoever she or xe or he was – were in a different historical context from us.
To a lesbian in the peace movement, where might lesbians whose passion was for military adventure sit within her lesbian history?
To a religious lesbian, where might her lesbian history accommodate a lesbian who hated the Church?
Partially, problematically; but some space would be there.
As I was thinking about this piece this morning, I happened to read M. W. Bychowski’s essay on ‘Genres of Embodiment‘ and medieval transgender literature, prefaced by an account of a transphobic incident at another conference, the International Congress of Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo.
Bychowski writes of medieval transgender lives as ‘relics that we have forgotten how to read’, embedded as the evidence about them is in such different notions of religion and the body, and seeks ways not to erase the category of gender but to use the knowledge that gender variance exists to reframe medievalists’ perception:
Rather than demanding we set aside our history, a critical trans studies challenges us to do the potentially harder work of changing how we structure and understand our history.
The work of historical research is interpretation, holding past and present woorldviews in tension to make sense of evidence; acknowledging the limits of what we know, and the ambiguities of how we can know about it, but driven as well by whatever the historian perceives as their own responsibilities towards their present.
I’m trying to organise two panel proposals for the 2017 International Studies Association conference (in Baltimore next February) – one on War, Aesthetics and Embodiment (co-organised with Synne Laastad Dyvik at Sussex) and another on the international relations of the Eurovision Song Contest.
I’ve cross-posted the texts of both calls for papers in some other relevant places, but here they both are. Please email abstracts to me for the Eurovision panel and to both me and Synne for the war/aesthetics/embodiment panel.
Call for Papers: War, Aesthetics and Embodiment: Exploring Connections and Change
Convenors: Catherine Baker (University of Hull) and Synne Laastad Dyvik (University of Sussex)
Deadline extended to Sun 29 May 2016
This panel focuses on the connections and changes within two fields of study – aesthetics and embodiment – and how these together help us to understand war and processes of militarisation better. While studies of popular culture and aesthetic expressions in international relations and geopolitics have revealed the pivotal role these play in perpetuating militarisation and war, the connections between these and those that embody them remain underexplored. Yet there are many empirical instances where both lenses converge such as in consumer style fashion, music videos, military and police uniforms, the tattooing practices of military personnel, or forms of struggle against state violence that might constitute ‘counter-militarisation’. The panel invites papers focused on exploring a range of aesthetic embodiments that challenge, contest, resist and reaffirm the prevalence of militarisation and war in global politics. In so doing the panel wishes to chart changing technologies, bodily enhancements, art work, and manufacturing in relation to war and militarisation and how these are embodied and practiced by ‘military’ and ‘civilian’ bodies from a variety of locations. This can help reveal imaginative and changing circuits in the relationship between military institutions and wider militarised spheres. We are considering extending the submission into two linked panels and welcome contributions that seek to challenge hegemonic ways of ‘knowing’ and ‘perceiving’ embodiment, militarisation and aesthetics.
Call for Papers: Popular Culture, Performance and International Competition: the International Relations of the Eurovision Song Contest
Convenor: Catherine Baker (University of Hull)
Deadline Fri 27 May 2016
The annual Eurovision Song Contest, founded by European public-service broadcasters in 1956, is resolutely declared ‘non-political’ by organisers. Nevertheless, it both causes off-stage political controversies and becomes a site where viewers and participants apply and may even gain understandings of international relations and geopolitics. Recently, for instance, the 2014 contest’s winner Conchita Wurst became a symbolic figure in contestations over LGBT geopolitics (and a case in Cynthia Weber’s new study of Queer IR), while Armenian and Ukrainian political communication campaigns directly entered Eurovision performance (e.g. Ukraine’s 2016 winner commemorating Stalin’s deportation of Crimean Tatars) – yet the contest’s longer history also deserves attention. Contributions could explore themes such as: nation-branding, public diplomacy and ‘soft power’; sexual/gender diversity and popular culture in IR; war commemoration and genocide recognition; performance, embodiment, gender and nationhood; the contestation of ethnonational, transnational and other levels of cultural identity; symbolic geographies, boundaries and margins of Europeanness, including but not limited to ‘Europe/Russia’; Eurovision fandoms as everyday internationalism; the continuum between Eurovision and other international mega-events; the political economy of hosting, broadcasting, financing and securing Eurovision. The panel aims for its empirical evidence to contribute to wider conversations in fields such as popular geopolitics or Queer IR.
Please send 200-word abstracts to Catherine Baker at email@example.com by Fri 27 May.
…Those two things don’t possibly have anything to do with each other?
(It was either going to be that or Ruslana, and she’s already helped illustrate one post this week…)
‘Love Love Peace Peace’: so how did a song about mass violence and national trauma win Eurovision 2016?
Eurovision host broadcasters know they’ve done a good job if, after a three-and-a-half hour final full of immersive digital projection, political controversies, elaborate cosplays of characters that don’t exist yet, and a band called Young Georgian Lolitaz (not like that), one of the most talked-about acts is from your own half-time show.
Sweden’s SVT last hosted Eurovision in 2013 and brought a tradition of Sweden’s own Eurovision preselections into the grand final with a self-deprecating musical cabaret number called ‘Swedish Smorgasbord’, performed by the host (comedian Petra Mede) and as many personifications of quirky elements of Swedish national identity (up to and including some dancing meatballs) as would fit in.
The act made Mede a fan-favourite to return as presenter (alongside last year’s winner Mans Zelmerlow) when SVT hosted again. Organisers this year, however – preparing Eurovision at a time of hardening material and symbolic borders within as well as around Europe – were keen to find ways not just to call Eurovision an event where audiences ‘come together’ but to build moments into the contest that viewers could enjoy regardless of their own (geo)political position.
Part of that solution, in the first semi-final, was to acknowledge the refugee crisis through an interpretive dance performance, ‘The Grey People‘, which placed the viewer’s sympathies firmly with the refugees fleeing to Europe rather than with European governments whose immigration policies have made those journeys so deadly. (The BBC chose to opt out from this part of the broadcast, instead showing a comedy sketch about – as it happened – Swedish meatballs.)
The solution was to tell narratives of cultural identity around Eurovision itself – both in the ‘What is Eurovision?‘ number that Mede and Zelmerlow performed at the beginning of the second semi-final and, turning the style of ‘Swedish Smorgasbord’ on to 21st-century Eurovision in particular, the stand-out number from the grand final interval, ‘Love Love Peace Peace’.
‘Love Love Peace Peace’, or Zelmerlow/Mede’s guide to how to win a contemporary Eurovision, picked up on as many famous costumes and visual gimmicks as it could from Eurovision’s recent history – and could live on illustrating an awful lot of Eurovision researchers’ conference talks, including the ones about national identity and folklore, which happens to be where I came in.
My first piece of academic writing on Eurovision was about the strategy of incorporating ‘simulations’ of national folklore (dance, costume, singing etc) into Eurovision entries in ways that positioned a country as primordial and contemporary at the same time – timeless enough to be able to have those symbols yet modern enough to be taking the role of packaging them up for the European gaze.
The classic example here (what would be the Trope Maker if the TV Tropes website had a Eurovision section) is what we can now describe as Ukraine’s first Eurovision winner, Ruslana’s ‘Wild Dances’ from 2004.
(On stage, Ruslana channelled Hutsul folklore and Xena Warrior Princess, which through its theme song had taken some of its aesthetic from Bulgarian world music marketing in the first place; off stage, her materials talked about her music conservatory training in Lviv and her love of Deep Purple, and that was before the Orange Revolution or the Maidan protests even came along.)
This was particularly characteristic of eastern European entries at what turned out to be a very specific historical moment – the exuberant eastward enlargement of the EU and Eurovision, before financial crisis started re-fragmenting both spaces. Countries frequently imagined to be on Europe’s southern and northern peripheries had comparable strategies that played on imaginations of ‘Latinness’ and the Mediterranean, or on a kind of ‘northern exoticism', respectively.
‘Love Love Peace Peace’ is Eurovision telling its own contemporary history to itself – and quite a compendium it is, too:
- ‘Step 1: Get everyone’s attention with a powerful, majestic start. Maybe a battle horn of some kind!’ Or the trembita from ‘Wild Dances’. That’ll do.
- Drums played by shirtless men – as for Ireland 2013 and many more.
- Various shouts of ‘Hey!’ across the backing track. ‘Wild Dances’ is the Trope Maker again here.
- Or going ‘the exact opposite way – and use a grandmother’. Moldova’s Zdob si zdub, in 2005, both sang about and involved one who played the drums.
- ‘Show the viewers your country’s ethnic background by using an old traditional folklore instrument that no-one’s heard of before.’
Diplomatically, they attributed theirs to Sweden and made it up.
- Violinists, up to and including Norway’s 2009 winner Alexander Rybak. (That was really him.)
- In case the above makes the entry feel old-fashioned, ‘this can easily be fixed by adding a DJ who pretends to scratch’. Or, as Bulgaria’s Deep Zone Project and Balthasar said in 2008: ‘DJ, take me away.‘ (What were we saying about using folklore in a way that shows you know how to repackage it for a contemporary gaze?)
- On-stage costume changes. (Croatia, pace-setters for this one in the late 90s, added another but with 2016 production values this year.) Mans is dressed as Russia’s 2008 winner Dima Bilan; Petra as Sweden’s 1999 winner Charlotte Nilsson/Perrelli.
- Songs about love, or peace. Though Mans observes: ‘Abba actually won the competition with a song about war, with “Waterloo”, but this is not something we recommend.’
- Dancers running on stage with flags. (Serbia’s much-loved ‘Beauty Never Lies‘ from last year, among others.)
- The legendary baking grandmothers of Russia 2012’s ‘Party For Everybody‘.
- ‘A man in a hamster wheel.’ Ukraine 2014.
- ‘A burning fake piano.’ Austria’s host entry last year.
- ‘A Russian man on skates.’ Dima Bilan in 2008 again, who had Russian figure-skating champion Evgeni Plushenko and the Hungarian-Ukrainian violinist Edvin Marton with him on stage.
- A suggestively miming milkmaid who, without needing any description, is going to recall Poland’s 2014 ‘We Are Slavic‘ and will do for years to come.
- A blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Loreen.
- A mixed-gender pair of country dancers wearing Swedish blue and yellow.
Much like ‘Swedish Smorgasbord’, ‘Love Love Peace Peace’ turns a tried-and-tested aspect of localised musical comedy into a vehicle for entertaining a transnational audience and, this time, a container for transnational rather than national cultural identity.
(Swedish viewers will be used to this sort of thing – a spoof of Swedish schlager music by Melodifestivalen regulars Markoolio and Linda Bengtzing was one of the country’s biggest hits in 2007.)
Assembling any historical narrative means making choices about what to select in order to tell a particular story, of course: there’s nothing here from the small vein of songs about the European financial crisis, and (surprisingly perhaps) nothing except a lot of pyrotechnics to recall Conchita Wurst.
However, Zelmerlow’s tongue-in-cheek warning that songs about war, when it comes to winning Eurovision, aren’t ‘something we recommend’ went on to be disproved an hour later when Ukraine’s ‘1944’, powerfully performed by Jamala, won Eurovision 2016.
The historical reference its title leads listeners to expect is to Stalin’s deportation of Tatars from Crimea in 1944 – the experience of Jamala’s Tatar grandparents and 200,000 others, and the fate of many other ethnic minorities in sensitive regions of the USSR during the Second World War.
The song was one of several candidates in Ukraine’s Eurovision selection this year that could also be read as a commentary on present-day Russian territorial aspirations towards Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea and support for Russian-speaking separatist entity in Eastern Ukraine.
Whether this would break Eurovision’s rule against overtly political messages was a matter for the organisers’ reference group before the contest. (In 2005 they had asked Ukraine to remove lyrics about President Viktor Yushchenko from its host entry, which had originally become famous during the Orange Revolution; in 2009, after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, Georgia was asked to withdraw a certain ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In‘).
Only last year, however, organisers had set a precedent for accommodating contentious commemoration when the Armenian entry, a collection of singers from across the Armenian diaspora called Genealogy, commemorated Armenians’ endurance in the face of trauma in the centenary year of the Armenian Genocide.
Armenia’s public diplomacy, campaigning for international recognition of the genocide throughout 2015, involved popular culture not only through Eurovision but also, tapping into another vein of the music/television/celebrity nexus, an official visit from the Kardashian Republic. (Among the delegation: Kim Kardashian’s husband Kanye West.)
The song’s title changed from its original ‘Don’t Deny’ (to ‘Face The Shadow’) but left those lines in its chorus, while staging and whatever commentators might have told viewers about the context behind the entry helped sharpen its connotations.
The difference between ‘Face The Shadow’ and ‘1944’ is less subject matter, more that the state most likely to have objected to ‘Don’t Deny’, Turkey, hasn’t participated in Eurovision since 2012 – whereas the state against which ‘1944’ would most look like it was directed, Russia, remains in Eurovision and invests heavily in its entries.
Several recent Russian entries had faced booing from fans angry at state- and Church-driven homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in Russia, during live feeds that Russia as well as other Eurovision broadcasters would have had to transmit.
(That said, Russia’s likeable 2016 entrant Sergey Lazarev gathered much more goodwill than Russia’s other recent representatives before the contest, including positive comments about gay life in Russia – and a 2014 interview where he said he viewed Crimea as part of Ukraine might have been a strike against him by a Russian newspaper but still helped distance him and the entry from Putin.)
Framing ‘1944’ as a tribute to Jamala’s personal history, as the Ukrainian delegation seemed to be doing before the contest, struck the same balance between narrating family history and national trauma that had been acceptable for Armenia in 2015.
Between the semi-final and the final, however, Jamala explicitly linked the song to Tatar’s situation since the annexation in 2014:
“[If I win] it will mean that modern European people are not indifferent, and are ready to hear about the pain of other people and are ready to sympathise,” Jamala told the Guardian by phone from the Swedish capital.
[…] “Of course it’s about 2014 as well,” she said. “These two years have added so much sadness to my life. Imagine, you’re a creative person, a singer, but you can’t go home for two years. You see your grandfather on Skype who is 90 years old and ill, but you can’t visit him. What am I supposed to do: just sing nice songs and forget about it? Of course I can’t do that.”
The already multifaceted and contested politics of Ukrainian participation in Eurovision – variously depicting the nation as euphoric returners to Europe, participants of a democratic revolution, and the hospitable and multicultural co-hosts of Euro 2012 – take another turn with ‘1944’, but both Ukraine’s Eurovision winners, 2004 and 2016, will show historians just as much about how Ukrainian broadcasters and their delegation chose to represent the nation to Europe at an extremely significant moment in the nation’s contemporary history.
It remains to be seen whether Jamala will take as much of an off-stage role in politics and activism as Ruslana, who enthusiastically supported the Orange and Maidan revolutions and took her public diplomacy international after the Russian invasion of Crimea by lobbying the US senator John McCain.
Ukraine’s winning the right to host Eurovision 2017 nevertheless ensures that Eurovision’s position as a platform for national political narratives and public diplomacy will continue to be in the spotlight just as much next year.
Remember participating broadcasters all show Eurovision live – giving a host broadcaster remarkable control over what images an audience across Europe in general or in certain countries in particular will have presented to them during the live feed.
(Though an enterprising delegation, like the Armenian team who displayed the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh flag during a semi-final also shown in Azerbaijan, can take advantage of liveness too – and organisers are still to sanction Armenian TV over the incident.)
‘1944’ isn’t the first Eurovision winner to be so closely linked to the politics of its present: Toto Cutugno, winning Eurovision 1990 for Italy during a contest (hosted by Yugoslavia) that unfolded in quite a different historical mood, anticipated the supposedly ever-closer union of the EU’s Maastricht Treaty, due to come into effect in two years’ time, when he sang ‘Insieme [Together] 1992‘.
‘1944”s closest precedent in fact dates back as far as 1976, two years after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, when Mariza Koch represented Greece with the song ‘Panagia mou, panagia mou’ (‘My Lady, My Lady’ – that is, the Virgin Mary).
Greece in 1975, like Ukraine in 2015, had skipped its first Eurovision since the beginning of the conflict. Koch’s lyrics were as unambiguous and, by Eurovision standards, graphic as Jamala’s ‘When strangers are coming / they come to your house / they kill you all and say “We’re not guilty”‘:
Ki an thite eripia gremismena, oi-oi mana m’
The tha ‘ne ap’ ales, ap’ ales epohes
Apo napalm tha ‘ne kamena, oi-oi mana m’
Tha ‘ne ta miria halasmata tu htes
Ki an thite yi freskoskameni, oi-oi mana m’
The tha ‘ne kabos, ‘ne kabos karperos
Stavri tha ine fitemeni, oi-oi mana m’
Pu tus sapizi, sapizi o keros
And if you see shattered ruins, oh oh my Mother
It’s not from other, from other eras
It is burnt by napalm, oh oh my Mother
Since yesterday, there are countless crumbled rocks
And if you see newly dug land, oh oh my Mother
They’re not fertile fields, fields
There will be crosses planted on them, oh oh my Mother
Which will decompose, decompose through time
Combining the sharpness of ‘Panagia Mou’ and the symbolism of Eurovision victory that hindsight has only intensified around ‘Insieme 1992’ nevertheless makes ‘1944’ a historic, unprecedented moment for Eurovision.
I’d personally expected the simultaneous sympathy and unease around such an emotionally powerful and politically charged song might have cancelled each other out, and anticipated a reasonably high but not first-placed position on the scoreboard.
Is this the very kind of result that Eurovision organisers might have hoped to avoid by communicating such a strong theme of ‘Come Together’ and, for all its tongue-in-cheek-ness, ‘Love Love Peace Peace’?
It’s actually another move by the organisers, the ‘Grey People’ segment of this year’s semi-final, that might have created an environment in which ‘1944’ didn’t seem inappropriate for something as celebratory as the Eurovision Song Contest.
The reflective dance performance – closer to the feel of Akram Khan’s London 2012 performance honouring the victims of 7/7 than to that of most Eurovision intervals – injected a space of contemplation which is rare to find at Eurovision but which might just have set a tone in which ‘1944’ felt appropriate rather than incomprehensible.
Organisers, fans, participating broadcasters and the rest of us will be interested to find out how Ukraine balances national and transnational cultural narratives on its second opportunity as Eurovision hosts to depict Ukraine’s and Europe’s past, present and future.
 This phrase comes from an unpublished paper by the Finnish Eurovision researcher Mari Pajala – which I read during my PhD and which was one of the first things that challenged me to view transnational politics of representation in a context that would be wider than south-east Europe but still grounded in the specifics of particular places. And 10 or so years later here we are…