Altered States: Language and Violence After Yugoslavia
Vladimir Dvornikovic, an enthusiastic Yugoslav, imagined the Yugoslav supra-ethnic entity as a collective voice of the South Slavic “blood and race.”
Since publishing his monumental study on ethno-psychology entitled Characterology of the Yugoslavs in 1939, that marker of identity has disappeared twice: in 1941 as a consequence of invading Nazism, and in 1991 as a consequence of imploding Titoism.
Blood and race were once again tied to language as a distinguishing marker of ethnic particularity.
The latter fragmentation of Yugoslavia through the formation of new state entities arrived as result of the differentiation of the Yugoslav idea through the notion of “civilizations” between discourses on “Mitteleuropa” and the Balkans.
This differentiation was followed by the sounds of new songs, whose specific “national” flavor bears the marks of the new incarnations of culturalism as a form of language based racism.
This type of discourse crossed local and global mediations of the Yugoslav conflicts, having free reign during the preparation and execution of the latest inter-Yugoslav confrontations.
This discourse was tied to the struggle for supreme masculinity, embodied by the vision of the West, and Europe as the fortress of collective identity.
There is a moving quote in Dvornikovic’s book by one of the singers he interviewed in Montenegro about the burden and pain of Balkan masculinity.
The man confessed that he sings not to have an aesthetic effect but to act as a tool for exorcising pain and suffering: “I don’t sing because I know how, I sing to get rid of my soul’s burden” (Dvornikovic 429).
This semantic “burden” of the Yugoslav soul was imagined as the ultimate voicing of unity among different ethnicities.
Ljubljana and Laibach
One of the most interesting cultural manifestations of masculine unburdening occurred in Slovenia right after Tito’s death in 1980.
The rise of the rock group Laibach, through the performance of totalitarian imagery within the context of the emergent punk and new wave scene of the former Yugoslavia, signified a return of totalitarian imagery from the repressed reservoir of the totalitarian past.
Singing exclusively in German and wearing dark Nazi-like uniforms, with stern expressions on their faces and mechanical bodily movements, the members of the group evoked tense laughter from their audience.
Since Laibach is the German name for the capital of Slovenia, the first reactions of the official communist establishment were usually understood in terms of denunciation in the use of German instead of its Slovene name, Ljubljana.
The rock group was part of a hierarchically organized artistic movement that called itself Neue Slowenische Künst, and included theatrical, dance, and visual art components.
The names of the individual artists were intentionally suppressed so that the collective would be placed in the foreground of this New Slovene Art movement.
Slovenism was offered as an escape from the Balkans, towards the promise of Mitteleuropa and perhaps, in the distance, to the ever-elusive future of Western Europe or Europe itself.
In the late 1980s, Slovene anticipation for Europe was expressed with the slogan “Europa zdaj!” (Europe now!), as if Yugoslavia was not already geographically a part of Europe.
However, a special brand of symbolic geography was at work in this strategy separating the Slovenes and later the Croats as members of a different civilized tradition; labels of the “east” and the “south” were associated with yet another label in the emergent racist discourse of the former Yugoslavia – the Balkans.
Although most of their performances were received by their contemporary cultural critics as a parody of the totalitarian legacy of both the left and the right, Laibach created a foreground in the desire for order, cleanliness, and the health and beauty inherent in the tacit racism of the emergent Euro-American culture, imagining the “West” as the ultimate achievement of world civilization.
Laibach’s parody of the socialist state through the post-punk performance of over-identification with the inherent totalitarian logic of the state was an early manifestation of a Slovene desire to distance themselves from the object of their parody.
This was distance achieved by disrupting the union with those who did not belong to the Mitteleuropean vision of tradition.
The formation of the artistic collective surrounding Laibach, which significantly bears a German and not a Slovene name, Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK), was one of the first symptoms of culturalism as a new form of racism in the region.
In an article by the Japanese magazine “Takarajima” the following passage depicts the ideological formulation of Laibach:
NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst) is an organized cultural and political movement and school established in 1984, […] as an organization active in the area between ideology and art. NSK unites the total experience of Slovene art and politics. Our cultural and political groundwork is the Slovene nation and its history […](New Collectivism, ed., Neue Slowenische Kunst, tr. Mario Golobic (Los Angeles: AMOK Books, 1991), 53.)
The cynical blending of politics and art in the Yugoslav context, which had overcome its own version of socialist realism by the early 1950s, achieves a double-edged effect.
On the one hand, it exposed the trappings of Tito’s soft totalitarianism and its effect on art and culture, not through critical distancing, but by satirical identification with its theoretical assumptions.
On the other hand, Slovene allegiance to and endorsement of Germanic Mitteleuropa remain as tacit acknowledgments of the white European supremacist discourse.
Cultural articulations of Slovenian supremacy appeared in Laibach’s pseudo-satirical performances during the decade preceding the latest Yugoslav war.
Yugoslav Titoist identity was built on the premise of fighting German Nazism, so the insistence of Slovene performers in giving themselves a German name was very controversial in Slovenia and the other republics.
With strong roots in conceptual art, Laibach’s musical performances featured over-identification with the political power in the form of military uniforms, calls for the abolition of individuality, and submission to the will of the state, abrogating any responsibility.
By invoking the Austrian and German colonial presences in Slovenia, the band caused an uncanny feeling among general audiences.
Most of the urban youth took Laibach’s ideology as sarcastic retro-fitting, while some of the officials protested, threatening bans and legal action.
By displaying swastika-like symbols and singing almost exclusively in German, Laibach not only emphasized Slovene cultural separation from the Balkans and its embrace of Mitteleuropa, but it also laid bare the trappings of communist totalitarianism.
The critical distance that rock culture nurtured in the sixties and seventies was replaced by the erasure of distance and satirical identification with the aggressor.
The following passage examines Laibach’s view concerning the Slovene character of their music:
The creative ability of the artist identifies with the national spirit. Every artist carries within him certain (ethnic) characteristics, which are the result of a common origin and kindred lifestyle of a group of people over a longer historical period. These characteristics are reflected in his work. It is impossible to imagine Cervantes or Leonardo as Russians, Voltaire and Verdi as Germans, Dostoyevski and Wagner as Italians or LAIBACH as Yugoslavs. (NSK, 43-4)
By identifying themselves as protagonists of Slovene and not Yugoslav art, Laibach offers the best articulation of cultural separation that would prevail in all parts of the country towards the end of the decade.
Laibach’s call became clear only after Slovenia demanded separation from the “eastern tide of chaos”: we are part of white Europe and the West, because “our,” Slovene music is much more sophisticated then that of the “primitive” Yugoslavs of the Balkans.
Interestingly, Laibach’s statement uses the same theories of “national character” invoked by Dvornikovic, except that the sense of “our” song as the voice of the race is now applicable only to Slovenes.
Slavoj Žižek’s placement of Laibach’s cultural mission is quite different. Coming from the same Slovene culture, he presents his compatriots exclusively as psychoanalysts who manipulate this cultural transference by performing the underside of the obscene superego of the socialist state:
“By means of the elusive character of their desire of the ambiguous nature as to ‘where they actually stand’, Laibach compel us to take up our position and decide upon our desire.”(Slavoj Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Women and Causality (London: Verso, 1994), 72.)
On the contrary, Laibach’s performances of totalitarian imagery were far from ambiguous and elusive for those who stood on the Balkan side of the symbolic boundary that began to divide Yugoslavia after Tito’s death in 1980.
Their satirical performances clearly articulated the Slovene supremacy within the disintegrating socialist state, provoking both laughter and pity.
The confusion arose in the field of reception, since many of the intellectuals could not directly confront Laibach’s performance because it was so blatantly racist.
If they could not decipher Laibach’s desires, it was not so hard for the political elites in “eastern” Yugoslavia to decide upon their own versions of ethnic suprematism, cultural superiority and embracing all means available for its achievement.
Although the Laibach phenomenon played a marginal role in the context of former Yugoslavia at the moment, it was clear that it was a warning: a dormant symptom of the emergent ethnic-based culture that was to dominate Yugoslavia in the eighties and lead to the war in the early nineties.
Since the very name of Slovenes proclaims their Slavic origin, the new nationalist leadership chose a new strategy that replaces the “genetic” identity with “culture,” which assumes the central emphasis in this new form of racism.
Laibach’s intentional or unintentional participation in this project was manifested in the choice of German language and names in order to claim allegiance with Mitteleuropa, thus playing into the Germanic dream of geopolitical domination of ‘Other’ Europe.
According to this reading of the Balkans, Slovenes and Croats belong to the West because of a culture rooted in Roman Catholicism and a post-colonial status as a former Hapsburg territory.
While the rest of the Yugoslavs are culturally inferior due to their domination by the Ottoman Empire and a culture rooted in either Christian Orthodoxy or Islam, South Slavic identity is consequently subdivided according to these new criteria of cultural belonging.
The question about Laibach remains open: Were some of the future ethnic cleansers in Croatia and Serbia listening?
Another complication in understanding the relationship between “blood and song” is added by the lack of any critical reflection on half a century of military-party dictatorship imposed under the title of “communism.”
After the emergence of Tito and the communist party as the leaders of socialist Yugoslavia, Dvornikovic’s “integralist” theory was seen as Unitarian and reactionary in the face of the new language of revolutionary terror, paired with the insistence on equality between ethnic groups.
Yugoslavism was no longer defined as a concept based on the “Dinaric race” shared by Bosnians, Croats, Montenegrins, and Serbs, but as a project which emerged from the common struggle against fascist occupation and the class interest of “workers and peasants” that joined in a “national-liberation struggle” during W.W.II.
The troubled history of racism fueled by Hitler’s doctrines transformed the 1941 Independent State of Croatia (NDH) into a mass extermination site for Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies as humans of lesser quality.
This oft-neglected aspect of the holocaust is what determined the recent shift in identity by ‘the Serbs’ outside Serbia.
These populations have been “racialized” as victims of the Nazis and Ustashe, who implemented their notorious solution of the “Serbian problem” by thirds: one third exterminated, one third converted to Roman Catholicism, one third expelled from the territories of Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina.
Those “borderline Serbs” who survived that neglected aspect of the holocaust during W.W.II have produced their own version of genocide against the Bosnian Moslems.
The hatred of “fascism,” a term that originally lumped together Croat Ustahe, Nazi Germans and Fascist Italians, was later extended by the communist ideology to include the entire world of Western imperialism.
Paradoxically, those populations were the backbone of the “national liberation struggle” against “foreign occupation and domestic traitors” until 1945, as they moved from their rural environments into Belgrade and other oases of civic culture.
After the war, communist propaganda never properly addressed the problem of mutual slaughter, making collective grievances almost impossible to openly discuss.
Tito’s soft totalitarianism imposed the official ideology of “brotherhood and unity” that managed to suppress dissidence and discussion in any direction.
This suppression explains why ‘the Serbs’ in Bosnia and Croatia saw any nationalist move towards the breakup of Yugoslavia as a return of “fascism” and subsequently implemented preemptive strikes against the renewed independence of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The genocidal revenge on Bosnian and Croat populations in the beginning of the latest war placed ‘the serbs’ into the category of “rogue nations.”
Is it possible that the Slovene call from the Alpine heights after Tito’s death coinciding with the frightening clarity of Laibach resounded across ethnic lines in the blood of other Slavs who stood in the way of Hitler’s “new European order.”
In contrast to Dvornikovic, the traditional ethnic heritage was the subject of communist cultural politics as a possible separatist or chauvinist tool, something that that could undermine political unity and lead to renewed mutual wars of extermination.
The “blood and soil” of the local, regional identity always repeated the same error of monumental and heroic masculinity.
In order to produce “proletarian culture,” Yugoslav communist establishment often masked differences by sponsoring folk music societies and professional folk singing and dancing ensembles as a means of building a hybrid culture of Yugoslavism.
Yugoslavs living outside urban centers usually identified with the local folklore heritage as the essence of their being and belonging, while the state tried to promote the concept of “Yugoslav” folklore through local “cultural-artistic societies.”
Their performances usually began with a “Yugoslav” number, which was supposed to accent official “brotherhood and unity.”
Each of the constituent nations was represented by a song or dance, which was then choreographed into a medley with musical transitions between them, forming what came to be known as a “plait of folk songs and dances.”
This musical version of the communist party platform was supposed to promote inter-ethnic confidence and understanding by blending the folk songs of various ethnic groups.
After the “fall of communism” the musical plait was disentangled along “civilization” fault lines, producing a new staging of mixed racial and cultural pride accompanied by mass political rallies of the late 1980’s.
The rise of turbo folk in Serbia was part of the same political current that countered the Titoist version of multicultural communism in the name of Pan-Serbian self-determination.
During the last decade of communist rule in Yugoslavia, belonging to a different cultural and civilized framework, came the central metaphor of a new type of ethnic totalitarianism with tacit racial undertones.
Naturalized cultural differences, which stood in the way of Dvornikovic when he tried to provide an inclusive definition of Yugoslav identity as a collective voice of the Slavic south, were resurrected as communist control over public life gradually weakened after Tito’s death.
Although all of the territory of former Yugoslavia was geographically situated in Europe, the imaginary geography instituted by multiple invasions, occupations and colonization structured a different identity for each member of a particular Yugoslav ethnic group.
For example, Bosnia’s horizon of identity could always be extended to include Istanbul as “one’s own” site, Croat’s to include Rome and Berlin and Serb’s to include Athens and Moscow.
This extension of Slavic racial identity made the Yugoslav breakup along “civilization” fault lines possible within a framework of this new “differentialist” form of racism.
Slavoj Žižek’s book The Indivisible Remainder opens with a statement of national belonging: “As a Slovene.”(Slavoj Žižek, The Indivisible Remainder (London: Verso, 1996), 1.)
This embrace of Slovene national identity seems to beat odds with his Marxist-Lacanian meditations that have earned him the reputation as one of the “hottest” postmodernist thinkers in the West.
It is especially unsettling to read this simple declaration of what is, without a doubt, a form of “postmodern nationalism” from a philosopher whose work had, until recently, been part of a broader cultural space: that of the former Yugoslavia.
The ease and speed with which Žižek could become a Slovene, as well as my own inability to give up the currently impossible and non-existent identity of the Yugoslav and become one of “the Serbs,” raises many questions regarding the position of national cultures as well as its producers and receivers in the context of the “New World Order.”
The need to study the specter of “the Serbs” that had been raised at the beginning of this decade by the global media outlets, has been acknowledged by Peter Handke’s statement concerning his wartime journey to the Danube, Sava, Morava and Drina rivers that traverse the lands of the South Slavs.
Coming from a person of Austrian-Slovene background, it represents the exact opposite to the theoretical posing of Slavoj Žižek.
According to the Croatian weekly Start, Žižek’s Slovenism was articulated when the Yugoslav People’s Army tried to stop the secession of its northwestern republic responding with the following exclamation: “Today I have become a Slovene.”
Žižek constructs his particular brand of ethnic belonging as a direct result of the aggression within the imploding socialist state.
Slovene escape from Yugoslavia was a response to the rise of “the Serbs” under Slobodan Milosevic, who were marked as an inferior culture due to their double cultural orientation: as post-colonial subjects of the Ottoman Empire and bearers of Orthodox Christianity tied to the heritage of Byzantium.(Following in the footsteps of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s book Heideger and ‘the jews’ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), I am using the common noun and quotation marks to qualify the collective identity of the largest Balkan nation in order to point to the fact that the nation in this particular case is no longer an essential, monumental and historically stable category. The implosion of Yugoslavia has deprived the Serbs of the common state and caused their division into a series of subcategories associated with the new Balkan states they were forced to live in, i.e. Croatian Serbs and Bosnian Serbs. Since the effort of the Serbian leaders to create a nation-state has degenerated into the “ethnic cleansing” of other ethnic groups, “the serbs” have been treated by the American-led West as a nation of outlaws. The ethnic cleansing of “the Serbs” themselves from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in Operation Storm was largely ignored by the international community. Both the self-glorification of the nation by some of the Serbian intellectuals, politicians and the “orientation” of the entire Serbian population by the West have created this phantasmatic collective construct which I call “the Serbs.” Since all the other nations of the former Yugoslavia (Croats, Slovenes, Bosnians, Macedonians) have been recognized as such by the international community, I will use their proper name in the rest of this article, except when referring to a comparable phantasmatic collectivity used to manipulate the identity of those ethnic groups. “The Serbs” therefore emerge as a figure and a reflection of a new form of racism which demands distance and separation between the protagonists of different civilizations within the same symbolic territory of Europe.)
“The Serbs” were a threat to the Slovene “European identity” because they had power in numbers and weapons, which would coerce the Slovenes to remain part of the abject cultural space of “the Balkans.”
The concrete political response to this threat was Slovenia’s adoption of a national flag that was identical to the flag of the European Union.
Belonging to Europe and the West was defined by a Roman Catholic cultural heritage, a separate Slovene language and nationalism based on civil society.
The racism of the Slovene position was not immediately perceivable to the proverbial “Western observer,” since whiteness, technological superiority, and universal humanism have all been incorporated into the specter of Europe as the symbolic foundation of the West.
The German push for the political recognition of Slovenia and Croatia by the European Union was a symptom of this “civilized” recognition of the northwestern Yugoslav republics as belonging to Europe, while the rest was forced back, south and east, into the realm of political immaturity, cultural inferiority and social abjection.
The byproduct of officially enforced Yugoslavism, an ideology based on a Titoist version of Marxian “class interest” and a quasi-racial similarity of the South Slavs was the long suppressed sense of belonging to larger cultural spheres that have been dominating their historical influences over the past centuries.
Epos and the Birth of the Nation
The painful creation of national identities has plagued most of South Slavic cultural elites ever since various Empires began to fade in the Balkans during the course of the nineteenth century.
The Balkan Slavs were forced to reinvent their cultural heritage in order to gain a sense of national identity.
This supposedly raised their morale in fighting the liberation wars against various types of domination, but at the same time laid a foundation for many of the nationalisms whose gruesome consequences were displayed by the global media during the Wars of Yugoslav Succession (1991-1995) and the Kosovo bombing (1999).
The disaster caused by Slobodan Milosevic who reused the heroic discourse formulated during the 19th century will haunt ‘the Serbs’ in the decades to come.
Activating the medieval prism of the Kosovo covenant, the language of nationalism invoked violence as one of the outcomes in the Yugoslav dissolution.
The reactivation of this messianic myth opened a gap between the abstract ideals of the nation (heaven) and the actual condition of the individuals who comprise its body (earth).
This rupture created a possibility for all kinds of political and ideological manipulations of “the Serbs” by the national leaders who were willing to reopen this perpetually festering ethnic wound.
The earthly death of “the Serbs” on the Kosovo field and their ascent to the eternal realm is what defines their collective identity as “heavenly people.”
Heaven emerges as an imaginary site where death guarantees the continuity of the nation and durability of its memory. Therefore, the national ideology of “the Serbs” plays with the idea that every individual member of the imagined community is dead before birth.
This ideology constructs a favorable atmosphere for leaders willing to use those individuals in wars, only confirming their “heavenly” death by imposing “earthly” death on themselves and their enemies.
The wretched postcolonial condition of ‘the Serbs’ in the 19th century, with a population of uncertainand hybrid racial identity, was supplemented by the emergence of secular literacy and popular literature.
In order to counter the process of political and cultural “orientation” that have been subjected to Ottoman colonial rule, “the Serbs” set out to create a culture influenced by the Herderian gaze of the German Romantics.
The popular oral culture, with its dominant heroic code and deeply entrenched epic imagination was transcribed by Vuk Karadzic with the aid of the Cyrillic alphabet to accommodate the “oriental” sounds present in popular Serbian speech.
From the very beginning, the literacy of “the Serbs” carried the presence of the “oriental” colonizer in the very structure of its written language.
The fathers within Orthodox church, who attacked Vuk for abandoning the linguistic purity of Old Church Slavonic, objected both to the inclusion of the “Turkish-sounding” dz and dj as well as the “Latin” j.
The 19th century conflicts concerning the language and the alphabet reflected a struggle between two different conceptions of national identity.
Vuk’s reforms codified the dominant popular culture of the Dinaric mountaineers by collecting and writing down hundreds of thousands of texts transcribed from the guslars, as well as from the peasant men and women he met on his travels throughout the Balkans.
The Central European cultural model, which was dominant among the urban populations under the Habsburg administration, proved to be unusable in the construction of the new national identity.
Since its emphasis was not on masculine heroism, but on civic responsibility, the model championed by Dositej Obradovic, a Balkan proponent of enlightenment and individual responsibility for the community, remained isolated and limited to urban settings north of the Sava and Danube rivers.
Vuk’s model was based on Herderian Volkgeist: the common folk wisdom expressed in the oral tradition, treated as the essence of the people’s soul.
The historical dimension of the struggle for independence was embodied in the metaphor of Vuk’s own transition from orality to literacy: he practiced writing with “pen dipped into gunpowder dissolved in water instead of ink” during the first Serbian uprising against the Ottoman rule (Djuric 265).
This arming of the letter in the simultaneous emergence of literacy and war during the course of their struggle for freedom, marks the practice of canonical writing among “the Serbs” ever since Vuk Karadzic established his populist vision of cultural identity.
This rationalization creates a foundation for the development of Serbian nationalist ideology ever since the battle of Kosovo.
Since the mundane realm is only transitory and temporary, the reality lies in the afterlife and its durability as the icon of national epic memory.
Lazar’s conscious choice of sublime death and defeat not only for himself, but for the entire nation, sets a precedent in which self-sacrifice for the future ideals of the nation is valued more than one’s personal happiness, self-interest and even present life in freedom from the slavery to Islam.
The discourse of revenge is the ultimate motivation of the Kosovo covenant, since sacrifice and martyrdom are built into community narratives to embody the victim of centuries-old slavery to the Islamic master.
Heroic masculinity conveys a sense of the imminent and bloody revenge for such humiliation, with the drastic reversal of roles of victims and persecutors.
For example, the oral epic that describes the duel between Marko Kraljevic and Djemo Brdjanin, who is obviously a Slavic convert to Islam, features this vengeful attitude through Djemo’s chaining by Marko after Djemo’s drink had been spiked with a sleeping potion by Janja the Barmaid (Krcmarica Janja), Marko’s blood sister.
As Djemo gradually awakens from a stupor, Marko mockingly invites him to drink wine with him.
Kad pogleda Djemo Brdjanine[When Djemo Brdjanin saw
vise sebe Marka Kraljevica
a na vratu sindzir-gvozdje tesko
skoci Dzemo na noge lagane;
sindzir-gvozdje zemlji pritezase,
On poteze rukam’ i nogama —
popucuju ruke iz ramena,
popucuju noge iz koljena;
al’ je tvrdo gvozdje uvatilo.(“Marko Kraljevic i Djemo Brdjanin,” in Vojislav Djuric, Antologija narodnih junackih pesama (Beograd: Srpska knjizevna zadruga, 1965), 303-308.)
Marko Kraljevic above him
and felt heavy chains on his neck,
he tried to jump up to his feet
and strained against the heavy chains but his arms tore at the shoulders
and his legs broke at the knees
as heavy metal caught his body]
This sadomasochist scene features dramas of masculinity faced with a repressed homoerotic desire for domination/submission through the quest for historical power.
In fact, this scene depicts in reverse an earlier scene in the poem when Djemo, eager to avenge the death of his Moslem brother Musa Kesedzija, catches Marko off-guard during his slava (a patron saint celebration) and bonds him with chains after a chase around lake Ohrid.
Djemo’s treachery is implied since no weapons can be borne during this kind of religious holiday and Marko has no arms with which to defend himself.
To further underline Djemo’s disrespect of Christianity, the epic bard turns him into a dark opposite of another patron saint Djordjije (St. George, the dragon slayer).
The pagan subtext of Christianity among ‘the Serbs’ is also manifest in this duel, since the feast of the patron saint, who is a mythical ancestor, replaces the pre-Christian rites that were designed to placate the vengeful return of what Veselin Cajkanovic has called “the ancient Serbian God of the netherworld” (Mit i Religija u Srba 323).
Indeed, the Djemo-Djordjije opposition seems ideal for the elaboration of one’s submission to the will of the Islamic master: Djemo Brdjanin is the obverse side of accepted cultural identity — both as a feudal lord and as a remnant of the undesirable pagan past.
It is highly indicative for the nationalist discourse of “the Serbs” that the conversion to Islam is regarded directly as a national treason, which the term poturcenje or turcenje confirms.
The term literally means “becoming a Turk” indicating the transformation of one’s national, not religious, affiliation. This also explains why the Moslems from Bosnia and Sandzak are regarded and referred to as Turks by the nationalists among “the Serbs.”
The abandonment of Orthodox Christianity is equal to the treason of one’s birth community. Throughout the nineteenth century a subject who converts to Islam is regarded as a national renegade worthy of immediate death.
The cursing of the mother’s milk that gives sustenance to a child who “crosses the cross” is the best illustration of the self-hatred “the Serbs” plunged into during their struggles against the Islamic master.
The internalized “heavenly” dimension of history creates a masochistic horizon of collective identity, which has the imaginary potential to recall the image of eternal suffering of “the Serbs” at any moment in the present or future.
This masochistic positioning is inevitably paired with a sadistic desire for domination of surrogate victims that fit the narrative of the Kosovo covenant.
Since they are perceived as the treacherous brothers, the Islamic populations are subject to the unwritten code of revenge in accordance with the Kosovo Covenant; a fact which became obvious both in the ferocity of the war crimes committed by “the Serbs” during the Bosnian War (1992-1995) and in the new language of violence emerging in war songs and turbo folk.
War songs foreground Freud’s “narcissism of minor differences” with horrifying symptoms of that particular European disease that burdens the soul of Balkan men. Ever since Yugoslavia began to come apart in the late 1980’s and imploded in 1991, folk song underwent a drastic redefinition.
An uncanny hybridization of musical forms and traditions has taken place as a result of new music technologies. While accordion and violin remain dominant instruments, musical arrangements now include electric guitars, rhythm machines and synthesizers.
An especially frightening hybrid entitled “Srbi supermeni” (Serbs Supermen) which could be characterized as a genocide rap, concludes a 1993 CD entitled Srpske omiljene ratne pesme (Serbian Favorite War Songs).
After the main theme has been introduced on the accordion, the rap segment with vocals and rhythm machine proclaims in a refrain: “We are Serbs supermen/we wage war against the whole world/we are ready for the holy war/even if it lasts a hundred years” (SORP 20).
These lines demonstrate how a culture nurtured on stories of racial and historical victimization can easily transform their status of “international pariah” into a position of “superhuman” strength.
This song is the most sobering example of what the unresolved consequences of World War Two genocide, present global isolation and Western diplomatic and military intervention have done to the collective identity of Serbs in Bosnia.
Regarded as main perpetrators of genocide in the Bosnian war, they further embrace xenophobic cultural values and prepare for the “holy war” against the rest of the world.
The notion of Islamic jihad has been assimilated into the culture of colonized Christian “serfs” during half a millennium of Ottoman rule in the Balkans.
The postcolonial appropriation of their master’s metaphors of domination becomes most obvious in war songs, as race and gender are performed as signs of one’s own superiority.
A subculture of ethnic war songs sprouted overnight, especially among the more extreme wings of the Serbian and Croatian paramilitary groups. The musical content was often very similar, with the texts offering diametrically opposed visions of the war.
The format for dissemination of war songs was the home-made audio cassette, which was easy to record and distribute by vendors on city streets.
Alongside the new arrangements of the Serbian Chetnik and Croatian Ustashe songs that were banned in socialist Yugoslavia, this genre contained newly composed war songs as well.
One of the pearls of Croatian home recording is UNPROFOR Big Band, whose cassette title invokes the vagina of someone’s mother, the most common curse in Serbo-Croatia: “Svima njima pizda materina.”
The illustration on the cassette cover shows a monkey with a blue United Nations helmet holding an automatic rifle, which is an obvious commentary of the authors on the racial composition of the United Nations Protection Force in the Serb-held territories of Croatia.
It is symptomatic that the Croatian authorities have even demanded that all UN soldiers from African countries be removed from Croatia, because of their “incompatible cultural values.”
The problematic masculinity, tied to ethnic identity, is revealed in these songs with frightening clarity. The songs of UNPROFOR Big Band are saturated with obscenities, whose gender component reveals some of the cultural mechanisms that have been deeply suppressed before the war.
The song “Oj, Seselju, pederska guzico” (Hey, Seselj, you faggot asshole), devoted to the leader of the extreme right-wing Serbian Radical Party, brings into the dialectic of war the play of the active-passive partners in a homosexual intercourse. “Hey Seselj, hey Seselj/ concerning Karlobag/you can get, you can get/a prick up your ass” (Lukovic 31).
The passivity and feminization of the political opponent, who is then defiled through rape, serves to enhance and strengthen the Croatian sense of masculinity and racial superiority.
The symbolic rape of Vojislav Seselj, whose aim was to incorporate the Serbian ethnic territories in Croatia and Bosnia, is a message of what is awaiting Serbs who do not submit to Croat rule.
The deeper cultural layer of homophobia reveals the affinity between the ethnic rivals; Croatian and Serbian right-wingers actually share the same set of values, which makes them lust for the racial other of the same sex.
This repression of homoerotic desire leads to the literal killing of those whom they lust for, since their “civilized” prohibitions will not allow such an interaction within the extremely patriarchal Balkan environment.
Another song from this cassette, devoted to the leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, “Karadzicu, majmune sa grane” (Karadzic, Monkey on a Branch), has a stanza that confirms this repressed homoerotic fascination with the racial “other”: “My prick is piercing the long-johns/hey Mladic, give me a blow job/ the flak jacket may save you/but certainly not from the back.” (Lukovic 30).
This time, General Ratko Mladic, the military commander of the Bosnian Serbs, is invited to perform sexual acts that are perceived as demeaning to his manhood and heroism.
While the Ustashe seem keen on demonstrating their masculine power to the Serbs, the Chetnik songs are usually saturated with a sense of resentment that gives rise to the historical alibis for their “ethnic cleansing” operations.
A song entitled “Znas, Srbine, kad smo bili mali” (Remember, Serb, When We Were Little) goes back to the First World War to finds roots of Serbian suffering: “You know, Serb, when we were little/in 1914 when we were whispering/we could not get together in groups of two or three/but had to say that we were all Croats” (Lukovic 31).
The song describes the situation in Bosnia during the Austrian occupation, when Serbs could not freely exhibit their national identity, but had to pretend that they were Croats in order not to be killed or sent to prison.
The singer, Veselin Grujic Vesa, insists on “Orthodox religion and the Cyrillic script” as the signs of national difference from the Croats.
Another singer, Baja Mali Knindza, sings that “ever since God created humans/always others come to judge us/always someone bothers the Serbs/that’s why in Bosnia there’s no peace” (Lukovic 30).
Most of the new “war songs” created by the Serbs have a tendency to assign the blame for the Yugoslav conflict to someone else who is usually outside the Balkans.
The central metaphor which informs the process of political and cultural “post-modernization” after Yugoslavia is a return to the neo-medieval conceptions of one’s own identity.
In Serbia proper, the new political elites who desired separation did everything to promote a return of identity based on patriotism, Orthodox Christianity and national pride.
At the same time, “new folk” music was intentionally given more air time on the radio and television at the expense of domestic and foreign rock music.
The triumph of nationalism caused not only a return to religious fundamentalism, racist stereotyping and intolerance, but a cultural domination of a new folk music which appropriated elements of rock and hip-hop idioms to broaden its appeal to Serbian urban audiences.
This process resulted in the appearance of turbo folk, a musical genre which prevails in Serbia today.
The most conspicuous fact about turbo folk is the ease with which it absorbs and blends cultural elements that appear to be mutually exclusive. The singing is almost entirely in the tradition of the “new folk” that was present in the Yugoslav popular culture since the nineteen sixties.
The rhythm is borrowed from techno and hip-hop, its abundant use of machines and synthesizers derived from the global influence of African American rhythm.
This is blended with the accompaniment of instruments typically used in traditional folk songs, dominated by the accordion and violin.
The preferred medium for the dissemination of turbo folk is music video, with an entire television channel (Palma) devoted to the songs of turbo folk stars.
Consequently, the image of the performers becomes much more important than it used to be in the “new folk” music before the nineteen nineties.
As a rule, the turbo folk singer is female with an appearance that fits into the race and gender demands of Western musical performers: short skirts, heavy makeup, heavy golden chains, rings and bracelets, with the local addition of the obligatory Orthodox cross around her neck.
To contrast this surface image of whiteness, the singing is distinctly “oriental,” with an abundance of vibrato punctuated by eroticized dancing in the combination of “folk” and “techno” styles.
Most of the music videos display a longing for European economic “whiteness” by grotesque emulations of the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” in a country of undeclared war and global economic embargo.
The dress of the performers is conspicuously “western,” modeled on images borrowed from foreign television commercials.
Music spots feature women taking foam baths, posing in front of the latest models of Porches or BMW’s, or revealing sexy black lace underwear.
By creating a tele-musical fantasy structure about ‘the Serbs’ as “heavenly people” who remain beautiful and vital despite all the hardships imposed from the outside, turbo folk enables men to feel they are participating in the “Western” construction of whiteness and Europe even though they are economically, politically, and culturally excluded from it.
The cathartic unburdening through song resurrects the violence inherent in the very notion of the nation.
If the performances of Laibach in the eighties carriedthe message of a culture grounded in the superior call of the Slovene nation, then the turbo folk of ‘the Serbs’ represented its literal application to those who stood in the way of the “heavenly people.”
The language of violence preceded the Yugoslav wars and became their integral component.
It is up to the young generations to come to terms with its deeply masculine legacy and find ways of working through the cultural models inherited from the triple burden of Balkan patriarchy, Titoist communism and the current ethnic-based paradigms of national identity.