Balkan as Metaphor

Balkan as Metaphor. Cambridge/Mass: MIT Press, 2003, 382pp. $29.95

Balkan as Metaphor introduces new theoretical and conceptual tools for theorizing and understanding the Balkans. The essays continue the intellectual tradition of deconstructing and problematizing the region, by foregrounding when and how the West became complicit in the discourse on the Balkans.

While the common leitmotiv of these essays is that the Balkan is an intellectual construct, loaded with multivalent ideological meanings, the main aim of this volume is twofold: To disappoint and impress the Western gaze. This is accomplished through dense, theoretical discussions that often, implicitly or explicitly use psychoanalytic categories.

The trend initiated by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek with the 1989 book, The Sublime Object of Ideology, that incorporated Lacanian concepts such as fantasy, the Big Other, desire, or enjoyment to explain larger social phenomena, is the theoretical premise for many of the essays in this volume, revealing the undercurrent processes that make the West inextricably linked to the production and consumption of discourse onthe Balkans.(Slavoj Žižek. The Sublime of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.)

The essays in this volume plunge into the crux of the popular, political and academic representations prevalent in the West that have produced a specific framework on and about the Balkans: A framework closely tied to primordial violence, inefficient political leadership, or absence of social integration.

Thus, the “native” contributors to this volume show that not only are they competent to produce knowledge on the Balkans, but they are able to combine the domain of meaning interpretation with meaning production in a more complex manner than any of the Western scholarship on the Balkans has done before.

While the essays address different levels of ideological representation, the common denominator is academic-the authors are academics and speak to an academic audience. Indeed, the Academe has been complicit in disseminating conceptual categories that shape popular “worldviews,” both locally, within the Balkans, and globally, within and between the West and the rest.

Indeed, we have all witnessed the emergence of many “local” Balkan academic discourses, ranging from the Serbian intellectuals involved in producing the myth of Kosovo, the Greek archeologists’ claims over ancient history, the Albanian writers’ assertion of their autochthonous Ilirian legacy (preceding the Slavic tribes), to the Macedonian historians’ rewriting of the history textbooks since 1991.

It is Western academic discourse, however, that has been conducive to a global and widely circulated knowledge on the Balkans. Several essays in the volume underline the spatial component of the Balkan representation.

For instance, Vesna Goldswarthy’s essay pinpoints some of the recent books that have romanticized the Yugoslav wars, placing the Balkan region once again in a “fault line […] a permanent, or ‘natural,’ source of instability in Europe-the continent’s powder-keg-in the 1990s.”

Galdswarthy argues the link between the spatial demarcation of the Balkans as a bounded zone that continues to be a re-enactment of the imperialist fantasy of delineating borders without the danger of being accused of racism (because all the people involved are white).

In a similar vain, Milica Bakic-Hayden emphasizes Western academics that have made “Byzantinism” comparable to Balkanism and Orientalism in the conceptual mapping of various cultures and places in Europe.

Bakic-Hayden uses the art perception metaphor in explaining the larger ideological stance that the West has adopted towards the Balkans. By using Uspensky’s argument, Bakic-Hyden reminds us of an inverse perspective: The complex phenomenon characteristic of Byzantine art, predicated on a non-linear perspective. Hence, this perspective helps us to understand the complexities of reality, which is always ambivalent.

Moreover, Bakic-Hayden argues that it could be helpful for the West to learn how “to recognize and reconsider its various selves, including its ‘Balkan self.’ Since the Byzantium, the ‘in-between-ness’ and ‘neither-here-nor-there’ position of the Balkans has disquieted the West. The Western perspective that is single, external and static […] excludes the viewer from the space represented; inverse perspective includes the viewer within the space of representation.” (p. 74)

The Vampire metaphor used by Longinovic demonstrates Western “racism without race”: “where the vampiric phantasm of the ‘Serbs’ functions like a time delayed mirror image of the West itself […] The evil of real war crimes against those who are perceived as a threat to the territory of the ‘new world order’ causes displacement ‘literal and figurative’ of both the nomadic clones signified by ‘the Serbs’ and their numerous others. (p. 58)”

In the analysis of Romania’s impossible escape, Ciorianu explores the conceptual impasse of Romanians during the past 150 years. He highlights the Romanian desire to escape from the stigmatized region of the Balkans.

This desire for escape becomes a nightmare for those who seem to be concerned about the real or possible destiny of the Balkans. “[Y]et the Balkans keep on their heels, always rising from nowhere, when we expect them least (p.230)”

Ditchev’s task in the essay The Eros of Identity is to assess the politics of identity along the tension arising from the reversed role between the universal and the particular binarism that operates in the Balkan context. This reversal takes place due to the different waves of modernization, having special intensity after the fall of the Berlin wall.

Ditchev contends that “the Balkan nations had to take one more turn […] [I]dentity is no longer based on the universal breaking away from the particular, but on the aestheticized local resisting the impersonal global, where tactics of self-representation shift their directions, linking national homogeneity to arbitrary violence and selfishness.”

Ditchev’s analysis reveals the reversal of the “modernist figures of universalism who come from the region, such as dramatist Ionesco, literary theorist Julia Kristeva, or director Theo Angelopoulos, are [being] replaced by exclusive resellers of local color such as writer Ismail Kadare, muscian Goran Bregovic, or director Emir Kusturica.” (p.246)

Gourgouris makes a similar argument in the Hypnosis and Critique where he contrasts the music in the films of two Balkan directors: Angelopoulos and Kusuturica. The music makes the unconscious ground of their societies’ imaginaries sensible.

The music in Angelopoulos’ films composed by Karaindrou confirms the main orientations of the films-a “refusal to embrace history according to one’s ideological expectations [ ] is precisely what opens history wide within oneself; this is Angelopoulos greatest filmic achievement, and Karaindrou’s musical expression provides an additional sensory dimension.” (p. 334)

Kusturica’s films and the music composed by Bregovic, in contrast to Angelopoulos’s films, are laced with the most brutal realism. “The brutal imaginary that governs Underground makes nostalgia impossible….Bregovic boldly balkanizes the form, creating a moment when the ‘indigenous’ culture renders the invading culture in its own idiom” (p. 340).

Moreover, Gourgouris views this as Bregovic’s attempt to Balkanize American pop culture, which despite his genius to adsorb and appropriate, also ends up reifying and objectifying indigenous Bosnian or gypsy music.

One could argue that the theoretical discussions of the essays in the second part of the book Balkan Identity and Nationality rely on anthropological tradition in their attempt to destabilize the ideological meaning of the Balkans.

It is noteworthy to pinpoint the role of anthropology in the Balkan discourse, which has been central in producing the Balkans as an exemplary place in anthropological theory.

For instance, it is the American anthropologist Philip Mosely whose fascination with the zadruga-the extended Balkan family in the 1930s-introduced this concept to be an exemplary place where extended families, so distinct from the western nuclear families, captured the interest of Western anthropologists and created zadruga as one of the first metaphors for the Balkans.

Todorova’s critic of the zadruga marks an important turning point in the academic production of knowledge on the Balkans that identified the complicity of the Western gaze with the production of the region.(Maria Todorova. Balkan Family Structure and the European Pattern: Demographic Developments in Ottoman Bulgaria. Washington D.C.: American University Press, 1993.)

The 90s and the dismemberment of Yugoslavia introduced a new object of fascination with the Balkans-ethnic conflict and nationalism. This fascination was followed by a number of authors whose mission was to deconstruct, critique, and disclose the process of invention, imagination, or social construction.

They do not address the pre-constructed, however, just the domain where production takes place. Therefore, Mocnik’s essay that employs Levi-Strauss’ structuralist model introduced in the sixties deserves a special attention.

The structural model has been considered outdated for contemporary critical social theory. But Mocnik shows how Levi-Strauss’ thesis that “dualist social organizations spontaneously develop into ternary organizations” is very valid in understanding the Balkans.

According to Levi-Strauss, a non-functional zero-institution makes a society possible to exist. Thus, introducing a third component is structurally necessary. The zero-institution in the Balkans is national zero institution, exclusive in its homogeneous dimension.

Mocnik argues that in the Balkan context, which is so burdened with nationalist ideologies, negative stereotypes appear inevitably, but do not function within the semantic dimensions. Rather, they are a pragmatic discursive device.

Therefore, to understand the ideological mechanism that play a role in reproducing present Balkanist ideology by the West, one needs to understand the function performed by the Balkanist stereotype; a function that is primarily pragmatic and not semantic.

An essay that introduces a new way of theorizing the Balkans is Ananiadis’ Carl Schmitt on Kosovo. Schmitt, “the last great representative of the European ‘metaphysics of politics’” can help us rethink the categories of just war, the role of “politics in conditions of globalization”, where the wars in the former Yugoslavia are far from being an effect of “congenital Balkan barbarity” but a result of a “ruthless activation of the logic of sovereignty in the name of the ‘nation’: both central concepts of European modernity.” (p. 152)

Politics and Justice, Ananiadis reminds us, are inextricably linked. At least “not hierarchically as moralists insists but rather “politics […] presupposes the aporia of justice, and conversely, the certainty of justice cancels politic.” (p. 152)

One of the greatest strengths of this volume is its contribution to gender theories. Arsic, for instance, shows how the foundation myth of a Serbian town can help us understand the construction of gender and the symbolic importance of “queer” in the national imagination of the Serbs.

Catherine MacKinnon’s critique of the collective rapes in the Balkans is entangled in nationalist-driven intentions-“genocide by procreation”.

Kesic’s essay eloquently shows that women have been victims in all the Yugoslav wars-ethnicity/nationality and gender become confused categories erasing how gender and ethnicity are actually mutually constitutive. Kesic shows how the Yugoslav wars were contained a radically gendered component.

The political message goes beyond the academic merits of this volume. And yet, could one not make the argumentthat the weakest aspect of the book is the very stress on the Balkans that turns criticism into a counterproductive process?

The critical essays on the Balkans reinforce the stereotypes attached to a category that they attempt to challenge. But the semantic deadlock does not compromise the power of this book. The main intent to empty the Balkan metaphor seems to work effectively.

Was not the concept South Eastern Europe as a more politically correct term, introduced to avoid the reiteration of the stigma attached to the Balkan metaphor? Indeed, none of the authors raises the question of the metaphor itself or its substitution with a new term.

As Herzfeld points out in the Forward: “[t]he authors[…].have taken a notable risk in thus appearing to confirm……key aspects of the prevailing stereotype of the Balkans. Yet, their message is clear and critical: the topological representation of a geographically […] defined zone carries liabilities that must be addressed in a fortnight and analytical manner.” (p. x)

The act of disregarding the loaded category of the Balkans and replacing it with “South-Eastern Europe”-as many have done-might be more politically correct; but it is also intellectually dishonest.

Therefore, this is not an omission but rather a deliberate intent to pre-empty the existing meanings and symbolisms, to foreground the distribution and circulation of these meanings in the western academic, political and popular discourse.

This is an important volume that takes the critic of the Balkans in a direction that surpasses the inevitable epistemological impasse of the constructivist arguments: the inability to go beyond the revelation of the social construction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *