Boyan Manchev

Unfriendly notes on “the Balkans”

Unfriendly notes on “the Balkans”
title: Unfriendly notes on “the Balkans”
year: 2005
place: Sofia
publisher: Institute of Contemporary Art – Sofia
ISBN/ISSN: 0861-1718
language: english
source: Balkan Reunion/Pub(lic) Conference, 2005, Sofia: Institute of Contemporary Art – Sofia, ISBN: 0861-1718

When we talk about “the Balkans”, we inevitably talk about “the western view”. Of course, the Balkans are a product of western perceptions. At the same time the notion that the metaphor Balkans introduces a phantasmal cultural and even anthropological Other (similar to “the Orient”, for instance), is an exaggeration that results from the traumatic appropriation of this external view into the space of “the Balkans”. Historically, “the Balkans” is a concept, or, to be more precise, it is a figure with political connotations, which asserted its presence due to politico-journalist exploitation at the time of the First World War. In other words, it is a figure that emerges in a specific historical and political context and this context motivates its ideological implications. To put it in the most general terms, the figure signifies the creation of small, belligerent states and it is not at all accidental that it becomes especially topical at the time of the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A propos, “the Balkans” remains a metaphor with a specifically Central European and, to use straightforward terms, xenophobic validity; therefore, according to its genesis, “the Balkans” is a xenophobic figure, which is conveniently restored in the 90s of the 20th c. In other words, the enforcement of this figure is undoubtedly a “rhetorical” protest, too, on the part of the “Great powers” against the self-definition of smaller national communities.

The definition “the Balkans” becomes irrelevant and is completely marginalized during the cold war. It is paradoxical – or perhaps not that paradoxical – that it is revived during the wars in former Yugoslavia. In fact, it can be said that to a great extent “the Balkans” becomes a metonymic reference to former Yugoslavia, which at the same time offers an immanent interpretive key for explaining the wretched events taking place in Southeastern Europe. According to the key, these events are the result of a belligerent, traditionalist, pre-modern culture (as though nationalisms were a pre-modern phenomenon). This interpretation reduces and even degrades the complexity of the socio-cultural, historical, political and economic situation in this part of Europe. The exceptional reductionism of what one presumes to be the “standard” view of the western media produces a simplified object. Such a reductionism, when it is self-referential, is emphatically impossible in the west nowadays. In other words, for the pragmatics of a reductionist explanation, a simple and stereotyped “small Other” is produced, and it is given the name “the Balkans”. This image, the image of an ontologically failed mode of cultural being, offers a convenient and easy explanation for the social, economic and political turmoil in this part of Europe, and at the same time it serves the ideal of an epistemological and political – and why not economic too – economy.

Once the empty signifier “Balkans” appeared on the big rhetorical stage, it started searching for its filling, for its significance. This was how the secondary anthropological myths, which were devoted to the “dark Balkans”, began to be produced. The production (or reproduction, resurrection) of anthropological myths at the end of the 20th c. is no doubt an extremely problematic and anachronistic practice, and it is the producers of the myths that this practice characterizes, rather than their assumed phantasmal object. Of course, myths are written within the space of the Balkans too, and this is done by appropriating the Big foreign stigmatizing view, which, however, is not at all foreign insofar as the Balkans cannot be anything other to “the western world”1. Rather, these myths are burdened with the role of the irreducible obscene residual necessary for laying the foundations of any identity.

Following the rhetorical gust, (a large part of) western institutional networks, non-governmental organizations and the fresh money intended for the exploration and development of the backward Balkans (unwittingly) serve the secondary production of a premodern anthropological culture. Thus, the majority of research projects about The Balkan Culture and scholarships for Balkan Art – in their positive civilizational impulse, (as an emanation of “the domestic electrical appliances of the western world destroying the non-transparent objects of the Balkan desire”, to use the words of Zlatomir Zlatanov in “Protocols about the Other”) – contribute to the creation of the phantasmal image of the Balkans (for instance, the artist or researcher with a grant to carry out a project about the Balkans, diligently tries to match the set of requirements for the project (often the very perspective of the topic suggests a discourse characteristic of the 19th c.) and thus produces “Balkans”: exotic traditionalisms, “natural” existence, folklore, colorful and vibrant mixture of cultures, ethnic stigmatizations, so on and so forth along the lines of rhetorical and phantasmal waste).

If we really have to try to describe the new myth about the Balkans, we must under no circumstances feel ultra determined by its superficial and commonly identifiable mythic-anthropological tenets. Instead, we must see this myth as a symptom of the contemporary socio-cultural situation in which it is articulated i.e. as a pure synthetic product of the present. It is in this perspective that the new myth about the Balkans will be defined as “a myth about the residual basic organicity”. At the basis of this myth – the myth of an entity increasingly permeated by the neutral power of inorganic society2 – lies the certainty that the organic quality is (or, rather, should be by necessity) somewhere there, deeply hidden like an essential ontological reservoir, as an a-political and a-cultural quality, as evidence of an obscene organic genesis. “The Balkans” turns out to be a symptomatic figure of the impossibility of the myth of genesis in the inorganic world. They are related to the fascination-repulsion of the unthinkable obscene of origin – origin as organicity, as pre-cultural nature. This symptom generates the new figures of a synthetic racism, the new racism that produces the figure of the Roma people, for instance, i.e. of the minority with a pre-cultural specificity. The problem is that the politically correct ideal for accepting cultural differences in fact inevitably produces the idea about cultural residue, which is always identified with nature as obscenity. Its unconscious aphorism is “The other culture is nature”. It is not accidental that the Roma minority is produced entirely in the mode of representing group organicity, it remains pure visual representation of a particular type of non-cultural organicity, and it is identifiable only in the medium of corporeal performance (dance, music, bodies bearing the imprint of the organic i.e. untouched by the comforts of the unlimited ideal of cosmetics, fashion and body building). This is why Roma people become the key image of the Balkans, the metonymy of the Balkans. The stereotypical visit of a western media team on the Balkans entails searching for Roma people: they are sought by the mechanical eyes shedding light everywhere, by the all-penetrating sight of the western public Logos with the certainty in the hidden ontological, substantive availability of formless organicity. This fascination is not “meta-racist”, it is synthetic. It is evidence for the approach of the era of synthetic racism or of synthetic eugenics; it has as its horizon the much more complex world and the phobias of the world of bio-technologies and bio-politics. This fascination expresses the intuition about an immanent, pure and ugly life as a guarantee for the possibility of a radical Otherness of the neutral world without otherness, the possibility of the other for the world of unlimited society and unlimited eroticism of cultural existence today. In other words, it is an expression of the double repulsion for the organic and the inorganic, which closes itself not so much in mythical as in synthetic, virtual visions. Indeed the use of anthropological “myths” is in itself backward and mythifying. The nineteenth century is over. Ahead of us are the synthetic myths of the twenty-first century.



1 To assume that there is a culturally homogenous reality such as the Balkans is simply preposterous. If we could say that a cultural community exists and unites the Greeks and the Croatians, the Bulgarians and the Romanians, or the citizens of Thessalonica, Tirana, Cetinje, Ljubljana and Cluj, then we could say that a cultural community exists and unites the Spanish and the Austrians, the French and the Swiss, the inhabitants of Carinthia, the Basques, the Flemish, the citizens of Paris and of Vienna, and so forth. And to say that the culture on the Balkans is pre-modern would be an outrageous statement given that the list of the established names and of some of the most radical artistic phenomena clearly dismisses such inadequate assessments; it seems inappropriate to even pay attention to such assessments, as this would suggest a lack of self-respect.

2 I use the word “inorganic” in a Baudelaire-like sense radicalized by Benjamin and Perniolla.

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