The Other Europe

Dragan Kujundzic ed.: The Other Europe and the Translation of National Identity. Social Identities. vol. 7 No. 4 (December 2001)

The name of that alterity is “Europe”. Why is Europe a cargo? And what is exactly so precious about Europe? Why does writing a critique of Europe – a project of translating national identities – amount to protection and betrayal, not protection or betrayal?

The Other Europe as the writers in the collection invoke it is tinted both by a Benjaminian melancholy and by a spirit of experimentation. On the one hand, modern and contemporary European histories are rediscovered, and societies are discussed as arenas of cultural and social exclusions, as a testing ground for Europe’s unending holocausts. On the other hand, the Other Europe is also explored for alternative citizenships, alternative modes of political engagement, alternative forms of social participation and alternative representations.

The Other Europe is a Europe eroded and invaded, washed, flooded by what she does not know she is. An image of “Metropolis awash,” a monolith of land whose solidity is dissolved at the fringes of its own history and economy, underlies the whole of the collection.

Julia Reinhard Lupton returns to the myth of a Europe prior to, and beyond, the national state: the homeland of European liberties and particularities, Venice, “a city of currents and currencies (p.484).” She reads Venice with an emphasis on the economy of the proper and the alien, the sovereign and the contractual, as these are represented in the conflict between Venice and its “contractual stranger,” Shylock.

Reading Shakespeare together with Hegel’s Philosophy of Rightz and Marx’s On the Jewish Question, she explores the laddered values of particularism and civil society and how they come to mutually extinguish each other as values in modern political thought. Of special importance is the factor of universality that philosophy tends to overlook in “particular religions,” the process of ghettoization of particularity within the civil society.

Looking into the historical relationship between faith and society, the author foresees the possibility of establishing, through “the religious dimensions of civil life and the civil dimensions of religious life,” what Vaclav Havel referred to as “a parallel polis,” a reconnection between the civil and the civic, a possibility for polity and civility to coexist without absorbing each other in the Hegelian or Marxian relations of hierarchy.

The Other Europe like that – “the Europe of the Gastarbeitern and refugees, post-Communist Europe, post-Holocaust Europe (p. 489) ” – raises the question of “inventing a citizenship for non-citizens (ibid) ” , as relevant for the political reality of today’s Europe as for today’s America.

According to David Wills, any attempt to delineate Europe’s identity is a “line drawn in the ocean.” Any frontier or delimitation thus produced, of Europe as a religious or geopolitical entity, would necessarily be a rhetorical one. The need for “rhetorical delimitation,” as well as an archaeology of its basic figures – “land” and “ocean” – is discussed in an analysis of the Book of Exodus, in which “land” or “territoriality” is tropically associated with law, the task of the institution of which supersedes in its significance the primeval forces of nature (the Red Sea dividing its waters to yield a solid passage for the Jews on their way towards Mount Sinai).

Wills discovers the same land/ocean metaphor to represent “civilization and its discontent” in Freud: here, the mount (of symbolic territorialization and order) is opposed to the fluidity, unboundness, limitlessness of desire, and its “oceanically deep and unlimited indistinction.”

Another continuation of this rhetorical game, a mutiny of “undelimited indistinction” against the solidity of law, is a discussion Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat,” a poem that combines nostalgia for a continental Europe with not only a drunkenness of the unbounded freedom of the ocean, but also drunkenness for colonial expansion.

Wills’ analysis ends up in the importance of rhetorical tropes as everyday commonplaces whose meaning is far from banal. In history and politics, these commonplaces represent “lines drawn clear through villages, through houses, through kinships, through bodies, making irrevocably solid distinctions that nevertheless serve to reduce villages and houses, kinships and bodies to seas of dust and bloodied sand (p. 537).”

As if to develop David Wills’ metaphor, other contributors to the volume also seem to confirm that Europe’s “hardness” is produced by the solidity of its representations, verbal or visual, by the hardness, the cruelty, the sacrificiality of its naming procedures, its routines of representation. To achieve an eventual “softening” and emancipation towards “the Other Europe,” one has to lay bare the delineations and distinctions that normally go without saying: those demarcation lines that are inbuilt in Europe’s metaphysical reflection about itself, its self-concept, self-image, and self-identity.

Complementing this critique of everyday routines of representation is Philomena Essed with an analysis of anti-racism. Essed denounces the concept that acknowledges racism only in its radical forms: racism, she insists, reposes in the very heart of everyday language and practice, against which anti-racism has no weapon.

She suggests a different apparatus of descriptive terms for Otherness: a recognition of non-essentialist and non-exclusive transculturality, a possibility of overlapping identifications and hyphenated identities. Racism’s location in the depth of everyday life is encouraged by politically promoted myths of monoculturalism. A non-racist policy would simply stop asking people questions about their “first identities” and proceed from the lived experiences of “individual idiosyncrasies and matrices of collective commonalities.”(p.503)

She also marks the paradoxical outcome of the human rights discussion, “Too often the emphasis of respect for human rights becomes an instrument for promoting western agendas.”(p.505) The content of the notions of human rights and democracy should be subject to permanent negotiation, including negotiation between various western and non-western political philosophies.

The constraints of monoculturalism are shown in Sari Pietikainen’s analysis of the representation of the Sami in Finnish news reports. The author confirms Essed’s conclusions when exploring the Sami’s “invisibility” created through the language of newspaper reports, “In the society represented in the news of Helsingin Sanomat (Finland’s national newspaper, the Sami barely existed.)”(p.653)

This “inexistence of the Sami,” however, has its roots in the tricky question of land property. The indigenous Sami in Finland were deprived of their traditional land ownership after the war, and the fight for regaining these rights, including the task of mobilising a collective identity, is waged by the rule of the dominant majority. The right to land has to be “confirmed” by a discourse of indigenous origins, linguistic and cultural autonomy, and so on.

As a result of this strategy, the Sami in Finland can only obtain restricted visibility if they appear as a compact group with a compact corpus of claims whose difference is entirely produced by the dominant political discourse and the current interests of the dominant population.

What is sacrificed in this struggle for identity is the Sami’s inner otherness to themselves. Constituting a third of the population of Finland’s Sami region, for instance, Finland’s Sami are not a homogeneous entity; “a linguistic dispute is going on how many Sami dialects of languages there are. The number given of the dialects or languages varies between 8 and 11, while the consensus is that variants of the Sami fall into three main groups, often referred to as three Sami languages. Half of the Sami speak Sami languages.” (Footnote 2, p. 654). It appears that the “hardness” and “solidity” of Sami’s “identity in transition” is constructed to better suit the rules of dominance: to qualify as a minor partner in it’s legal and media language games.

The aspect of language and the everyday as opposed to “fictitious nations,” as they are promoted by the myth of monoculturalism, is continued by Georges van den Abbeele in his study of Belgium. Here, the nation appears as a purely negative entity, a failure of a nation (the writer suggests Belgium might not be the only one). Belgium has “no common language, ethnicity or shared history.

No imagined community through print culture, modernization or invented tradition,”(p.512) it is a nation of “individuals whose official ‘identity’ is apparent neither by name nor accent nor physique.”(p.515) Immigrants are the only population that willingly identify themselves as “Belgians.”

While the question of national identity largely leaves its bearers indifferent, there is a veritable “civil war” between regionalisms and languages which the author explores with particular interest in the city of Brussels, the capital of the European Union. Belgium is located at the crossroads of linguistic, cultural, and religious diasporas, between two cultural worlds -Latinand German.

What is more important, Belgium is also historically situated between the two forces with a claim to the global, between the two imperial and colonial interests: the German and the French armies. The result of this complex situation, according to van den Abbeele, is that there is a strong support for the EU prevailing across all the regions and communities. Which, as he suggests, should not be attributed to the weakness of national identification, but rather to a weakness of the state in conditions of a multiethnic society.

When the rhetoric of the centralizing state is sufficiently eroded, as in Belgium or Italy, a multiethnic, multi-identifiable society is more attracted to an apparatus of a transcending and mediating supra-national governmentality-as one can see in the project of the EU.

The issue of the “hardness” of European demarcation through the rhetoric of nationality and identity as it is discussed above, is complemented by several analyses that focus on rhetoric’s new environments, the Internet and other innovative media. As was the case during the Nazi extermination of Europe’s

Others, in present-day European genocides the technological aspect of destruction is closely associated with its linguistic aspect, and it is not by chance that the atrocity of war is critically situated at the intersection between technology and language, e.g., along those lines of othering that are demarcated by communication technologies.

In this realm, however, the “innovative” aspect seems to be overrated. In his analysis of “the first internet war” in Kosovo, Thomas Keenan expresses legitimate doubts as to the ability of communication technology, however advanced, to transcend the political. He warns us against the hope that increased traffic of communication across the lines of military conflict would diminish the armed tension along those lines. The decentralized matrix of the Internet does not automatically produce a remedy against the “ominously silent” brutality of destruction of civilians.

In its helplessness against “the ominous silence,” the innovativeness of the Internet is purely mythical: there is nothing new in Internet warfare in comparison with the good old propaganda war. Just like language in warfare, the Internet functions as an additional battlefield; and just like language, it is easily dominated by the strongest. Even in its much-debated ability to de-realize war and to virtualize its atrocities, the Internet does not function in any way more innovatively in comparison with ordinary representation: Representation designates the presence of a bloodshed, but in doing so also produces its absence, at a secure, socially constructed distance from the addressee.

Information politics cannot bypass the interpreter to be managed by the media alone. Informational transparency is a noble project, but Keenan warns us against “the illusion that people in a democratic system never make a wrong choice … Media and new media, free information, even with their unprecedented opportunities are never enough for politics … With more of it (information) … we are once again confronted with the challenge of reading the texts that carry it.”

The introduction of new technologies of spectacular medialization on the theater of present day European warfare in no way annihilates the obscenity of war by making it more transparent for information exchange. Instead, it confirms modern Western strategies of othering and exclusion through representation.

In Tomislav Z. Longinovic’s essay, the sentimentality involved in the campaign of remote control bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 is analysed in terms of the “Gothic imagination” of the western myth of Dracula. Yugoslavia’s (Dracula’s) “need to avenge the shame of Kosovo … does not stop with Yugoslavia ” since it represents “the same logic of territoriality that underlies the imaginary of Modern Europe [that] informs the tendency to commit genocide in the name of one’s own country.”(p.583)

The Other Europe thus displays what Europe proper is trying to displace: “the insatiable hunger of the US-led West.”(ibid) The Gothic narratives of “blood” and “vampirism,” attenuated and amplified by information media, alienate the Western observer by safely positioning the massacre in the context of the “a European past.” The media represents the Balkans as a place of an imagined East-European vampiric tradition, and thus culturally relativize the horrors of destruction.

The spectacular medializationof the Balkan wars, the production of a remote (tele-) visuality in the coverage of its events also challenges representation at the point of witnessing. Lisa Parks analyzes the practices of Information Dominance of the US intelligence agencies in connection with the massacres of Srebrenica, namely the use of satellite images of mass graves in the condemnation of the Serb aggression against Srebrenica’s Muslims.

The remoteness of these images and their technological “objectivity” were to confirm their high status as documentary evidence of truth. In the meantime, what actually happened in Srebrenica is still unknown; pieces of witnessing from the surface of the earth tended to be disqualified in the public debate as inadequate compared to the objectivity of a satellite intelligence picture.

Moreover, when viewed from the altitude of a satellite orbit, those pieces of evidence strangely excluded, for the watchers, the fact and the reality of atrocities as such. Lisa Parks analyzes this misuse of intelligence for the production of “discursive antiseptics” that marks the US military media campaign.

Witnessing thus manipulated “became a fantasy of proximity.” To the hegemonic gesture of framing Srebrenica with the help of advanced media manipulation, one should respond with a project of “unframing”: “exposing the satellite’s invisible carving of the planet and being able to imagine the lines that it draws as open wounds.”(p.606)

The project of “unframing” also concerns national myths, whether generated inside or imported from the outside the subject of mythology. The West’s Gothic imagination of the Balkans as suggested by Longinovic seems to find a confirmation, or at least a response, in the mythology of the self as nation as it is produced by Serbian militarism in the analysis of Branka Arsic: “Since the period of national romanticism, Serbs have been enthralled by the image of themselves as those who are neither alive nor dead.”(p.561)

She provides a brilliant insight into the subconscious of a nation that is incapable of mourning the destruction of the Other’s and its own life, the ghostly image of national identity as ideology made of phantasmatic, spectral visions. When the work of mourning is inadequate, it tends to produce a spectral other: the one that easily – too easily – substitutes for the lost and real one. The trouble is that such an easy substitution also results in the spectralization of the subject’s self.

The structure of unaccomplished mourning applies to Serbia to a degree in which it applies to every subject locked in an unending civil war with itself. One recognizes in Arsic’s description the fundamental problem that is common for all the militant nationalisms throughout the post-totalitarian Eastern Europe, easily identifiable, for instance, in those scanty fragments of discourse that reaches us from beyond the wall of “ominous silence” around Chechnia. ” [T]his perverted subject of mourning sinks into constant self-pity, into endless complaining that it does not end in a final death.

Its basic problem, therefore, is not the impossibility of the return to life but the impossibility of dying.”(p.563) Post-national nationalism in Arsic’s analysis appears as a twilight state of collective mythology, more dead than dead and still not dead (or alive) enough to enjoy “the incredible beauty of the grave.”(ibid.)

This “un-deadness” as an effect of libidinal economy finds a counterpart in the sacrificial economy of name giving as it is described by Dragan Kujundzic. However, while the un-deadness of the nationalist Serbian vampire appears in Branca Arsic rather as a contextually defined perversion (the Balkans, a civil war), Kujundzic explores a common place of un-deadness in historical subjectivity.

Sacrifice is a condition of subjectivation; by sacrificing someone, the rest of us acquire a life (or at least an un-deadness) in history. Thus the life (of a community or a community’s nomenclature) is expanded, prolonged, and sublimated in a magical act of sacrificial exclusion: “nationalism, totalitarianism, Stalinism, ethnic cleansing, nuclear devastation or nuclear holocaust.”(p.614)

On the sacrificial grounds of such a symbolic economy, Heimat, with its blood and soil, meets with technology, which meeting results in a mechanically reproduced destruction of the Other, in a technologically engineered sacrifice of the individual. This is what happens, for instance, in gulag as seen through the prism of Russian Messianism in Dostoevsky, and this is what happens to the creature sitting in the very heart of hearts of European centrality: Kafka’s animal awaiting his slaughter in his technologically produced Blut-und-Boden of a Heimat, his Burrow.

In the meantime, at the outskirts of the European “empire of signs,” in the all-exterminating fire of the holocaust of Hiroshima (Margerite Duras’ Hiroshima Mon Amour), one seems to be able to discern the possibility of “a pre-symbolic semiotic system which refuses the metaphysical ¡K or ideological-political … appropriations,”(p.624) a language that protects the Other by remembering the Other’s pain without sacrificing the Other, and without building a historical subjectivity for the Self out of the Other’s ashes.

The translation of the Other, therefore, requires a critical assessment of history and a political determination in relation to “the empire of the signs.” Tomasz Warchol’s analysis of Istvan Szabo is a story of the self-determination of a master vis-a-vis the sign’s imperialism. It is a detailed account of Szabo’s evolution towards the understanding of the other Europeanness.

From the exploration of the empire and intellectual/artistic collaborationism in his trilogy of the 1980s (Mefisto, Colonel Redl, and Hanussen), he turns towards a chronicle of the catastrophe of the Hungarian Jewry in the trilogy Sunshine from the 1990s. Warchol’s argument is that it is precisely through the acknowledgement of the personal significance of the Holocaust (an acknowledgement that, as also testified recently by Imre Kertesz, is difficult to make in Hungary) that Szabo succeeds in attaining a truly European, international scale in his political, philosophic, and historical reflection.

According to Warchol, Szabo’s message is a reminder of the fact that “the Jews’ very presence in the pre-Holocaust Central Europe was once that region’s best hope for a symbiotic, polycentric, and transnational non-western Europe without borders. With millions of Jews no longer there, Central Europe…will have to take much longer to find its heart and redefine its cultural identity.” (p.673)

“A symbiotic, polycentric, and transnational non-western Europe” is what, in most general terms, this volume addresses. And probably, just like Szabo did in his Sunshine, a researcher of the Other Europe attains a “symbiotic, polycentric and transnational non-western Europe” inside her own self precisely at that moment when she reassesses her own national identity in the light of “possibilities that never happened.”

This volume is conceived as a book of personal experiences, and the authors do not try to conceal their own dismay at the individual encounter with Europe’s blood-soaked nominating practices, or the bewilderment when encountering the absurdity of its nomenclatures thus obtained. The vampiric and absurd Europe whose deconstruction is attempted in the book sits inside, not outside, the analyst’s own identity, and an attempt of deconstruction becomes a desperate choice and painful personal experience. The despair of the researcher and the painfulness of her research seem to have been chosen as the methodological principle in the book.

A Benjaminian melancholy that I discern in the collection probably results from a Benjaminian approach that he formulated in another comparable situation. While on a visit to the USSR in 1926-27, he was reflecting on the optics of his own vision, the vision of “an attentive European in Moscow.” A Benjaminian European, therefore, is someone who is attentive to the structure of the Other, but no less attentive to the structure of one’s own Europeanism.

The Other Europe has to be taught (and yet cannot be, as Dragan Kujundzic remarks); it has to be, and cannot be, learned. The important pedagogical component of such a project amounts to teaching (and learning) the care of the European self, of one’s “precious alterity”; the adequate care of such a European self is achieved through the betrayal of the European national myth,a dangerous translation as it is.

But when critique and lifestyle coincide, the deconstruction of Europe produces a discourse of that very “symbiotic, polycentric, transnational non-western” Europeanism, the loss of which is mourned in Istvan Szabo’s film. Europe, the myth of 19th century East and Central European intelligentsia, and Europe, the slaughterhouse of 20th century history, return and meet each other in an intellectual effort of the attentive post-modern analyst who is determined to oppose her national self by Europe’s otherness, by partaking of its pains and its pleasures, by sharing in the inhuman historical and political responsibilities that are implied in the pains and pleasures of thinking and being European.

An impossible task as it is, it also seems to be the only thing left for us to do.

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