Elizabeta Sheleva/ The Balkans as Europe’s Point Zero

 

Elizabeta Sheleva was born in Ohrid (1961). She is professor at the Department of General and Comparative Literature, University in Skopje. She is the Chairperson of the Independent Writers’ Association of Macedonia Sheleva has been the manager of the scientific and research project ‘Doubled Otherness – Balkanism Gender Aspects’, and has also been a visiting professor at the post-graduate studies school ‘Feminism in Transnational Perspective’, in Dubrovnik, Croatia. The text we are publishing is her Address on the Occasion of Announcing Ana Blandiana as The 2019 Winner of the “Golden Wreath” Award of Struga Poetry Evenings, won previously by Pablo Neruda, Eugenio Montale, Rafael Alberti, Yannis Ritsos, Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Brodsky, Yves Bonnefoy, Seamus Heaney, Margaret Atwood, etc.

 

The Balkans as Europe’s Point Zero

by Elizabeta Sheleva

  1. The Home of Theory

At the beginning of this text, it is indispensable to provide a framework answer to the crucial question: is it at all possible to establish a post-colonial criticism of the Balkans, and if it is, then, what (exactly) is it looking for? Before we even indulge in an argumentation regarding this issue, we also ought to face the existence of a riddle regarding to the thing, which metaphorically, we will designate as the “home of the theory”. Does it undoubtedly exist, where is it situated and which is the home of the theory today, does that (home) have one and only location and how hospitable and open it is towards the other?

 

Now, I would draw your attention to a theoretical bestseller, essential for the initial clarification of the ABOVE question – “Imagining the Balkans” by Marija Todorova, which was first published in English in the USA in 1997. This book, since the moment of its publication has immediately drawn the broad readership interest and within the framework of the cultural theory it has managed to install a new category, bound to one of the most acute (in terms of the historical events, very dynamic) fields in the world today, the category “balkanism”. To begin with, my question would be posed this way: Would this book, provided it was published in the Balkans, have the same fortune, even this “glasnost” (voicing), which has contributed it to be taken as our starting reference?

 

It has been known that knowledge on the Balkans has mostly been imported (delivered) from abroad! That the Balkans, as a rule has been citatingly oriented, that the citation is the Balkans’ destiny, taking into consideration that the Balkans, in a large number of domains appears to be a “perfect consumer” (said by Svetlana Slapsak[1])! Therefore, I would add one more assumption, that the unhindered and quick circulation of this theory has come as a consequence of the fact that the author of this work is a Diaspora intellectual who lives in an (say, voluntary, but still) exile, displaced from her motherland. Would her work cause such a boom if Todorova, as a Bulgarian, who has come to live and work in the USA, did not belong to the increasing and respected group of “mascots”, this time, not coming from the Third World, but from the Balkans?

 

However, for the moment we will leave aside these intriguing thoughts in order to get back to the legitimacy of the introduction of the postcolonial perspective when it comes to studying and understanding the Balkans.

 

In the introductory chapter of her book “Balkanism and Orientalism”, Todorova herself was forced to provide at least a framework answer to this question. Considering the justification of the application of the postcolonial perspective, regarding the “semi colonial, quasi colonial, but certainly not the pure colonial status” of the Balkans, Todorova briefly (only on page 38) delves on two arguments: the geographical, and the historiographical. The former alludes to the self-understanding and the priori set geographical state of the Balkans as “Europe, or a part of Europe, even though the Balkans, according to general belief in the past centuries, has become its province, its periphery” (1999; 38). The latter argument comprises the objection of Todorova to put in the same basket on the one hand the historically defined and temporally limited categories like colonialism and imperialism along with the broadly understood notions of power and obedience on the other hand, which are not historically limited.

 

Todorova’s arguments are correct to a certain extent, but considering the current historical events in the Balkans, it can already be said that it has CERTAINLY come to belong to both sides of the imperial division.

 

On the other hand, Edward Said, when speaking of the West, exclusively refers to “metropolitan Europe”, unlike the Orient, which is considered its colonized category. The trend of intensified orientalization, however, directly concerns and relates to the Balkans, which has been previously sanctioned as the European otherness. Hence, the Slavist, David Noris, regarding the distribution of the so-called “Balkan myth” into the West, concludes: “The Balkans may be regarded as a European territory, but it has been excluded from the European culture” (2002:27). However, I will discuss at the length in the text to follow.

Yet, we face the unstoppable dissemination of the attribute “post-colonial”. As it usually happens with the key terms of the cultural and theoretical sphere, the historically limited meaning of this attribute all the more has been diffusely applied to a broader array of events than in the beginning, so that now it has been absorbing connotations of the current, anti-global trend.

 

 

  1. The ambiguous rhetoric of centre and periphery

 

Spivak’s research, which covers interestingly conditioned mechanisms incorporated in the process of the margin production, are especially using in understanding the Balkans, and they make ambivalent and problematic even its own  imagologically confirmed status of a periphery.

 

“The margin is established to meet the conventional conveniences of the colonizer” (1998:95), “the center wants to establish a margin which can be indentified” (1998:90).

 

This advises us to pay due caution when interpreting the existing analyses which ensue from the model centre-periphery. Namely, the governing hermeneutics of the centre, in its basis, results from the imperial optics (and perspective): according to which, the center is the place of order and stability, whereas the periphery, in turn, is a source of disorder, instability and threat.

Hence, the reflections upon a major issue of typologisation between the cultural centre and the periphery and consequently of the pathos of the cultural boundary. The Balkans is really a part of Europe, but what is its status today? Regarding the current political situation, the analysts are already talking about an additional internal separation of Europe into a geographical and political Europe. It refers to the conspicuous asymmetry between the geographical and political belonging of the Balkans, too. Namely, for the time being, what remains obvious is the historical and political exterritorial position of the Balkans, with reference not only to Europe, but also to itself, through the newly launched syntagm, West Balkans.

 

Indeed, the Balkans today find itself in the middle of “a life political situation: (B. Sarkanjac, 2001:14): it swarms with all sorts of refugees, displaced persons, emigrants, immigrants: real and virtual; acute and chronic. I say virtual, having in mind the numerous potential refugees who otherwise permanently long for emigrating from here, long for living outside the Balkans. I say chronic, having in mind the innocent victims of the identity conflicts (such as the Aegean Macedonians, the Bosnians, etc.), who instead of settling/setting up a home, and not to their own desire, constantly circulate around and outside the Balkans.

The state of permanent behomedness, borderness, displacedness, interexistence, which Homi Baba describes with the least theoreticised syntagm “people with no addresses”, fully relates to the current events which have taken place in Macedonia, the former “oasis of peace” (as our ex-president mostly referred to it).

 

Earlier, we stated a quotation taken from the book by Todorova, we pointed at the fact that the Balkans, by rule, is considered a periphery of the (European) socio-political and cultural centre. We should not shun the fact that this is owing to certain broader historical circumstances as well as to a new historical constellation: which occurs by displacing the cultural and political centre, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic (since 16th century to date). This former status of a center, which this area used to enjoy in the past, by the crucial part it used to play in the animation of Europe, is by and large the principal motive of the current resurrection of the nostalgic hermeneutics and emblematic of the “navel of the world”, particularly in the sphere of art and culture.

 

All this in fact confirms the axiological dimension of the production of the axis center-periphery, which is all but naïve and innocent, politically conditioned an diffusion-of-power determined, and takes place after one engages into someone’s (only ostensibly geographical or spatial) positioning, either in the center or the periphery, and then what follows is sanctioning of the political asymmetry. In other words, the geographical sides of the world have acquired quite certain political connotations today, which have been proved by the current domination of the East/West axis, instead of the previously preferred North/South.

 

However, the accurate cultural “location” designates only the beginning of a long and painstaking process of identity self-processing. The issue becomes complicated to the maximum, once it has undergone the test of “belonging”.

 

In other words, could one’s identity (and determination) be solely reduced to the predetermined component of origin and unreflected belonging? Are we, because of the very fact that we belong to (live in) the Balkans, definitely becoming clinched in the determination “Balkanians”?

 

In order to answer that question, for a moment I will borrow a statement by Derrida, which excitedly repeats my dilemma: “my cultural identity is not only European, it is not identical to itself” (2001:58). If Derrida can compromisingly define himself by the syntagm “a European among other things”, then what prevents me (and all of us) to reach out for the same formulation, but in an altered, “Balkanized” version, quite legitimately pointing that I feel like “a Balkanian, among other things”?! All the more, as the very Balkan is in an extremely ambiguous position: it simultaneously belongs to both sides of the imperial division – to the colonizers and the colonized. Quite appropriate to the confession made by Edward Said on the constitutional meaning of his identity incompleteness: “I belong to more than one history, to more than one group, but to none completely” (2001:18).

 

Although for pragmatic reasons, overly supported, this very striving towards homogenisation of identities (through the prism of origin and belonging), should however be disclosed for the sake of its colonizatory effect. Namely, it aims at essentialising the very fact of origin (kinship, racial, ethnic or class) and by that to justify/sanction the acquired privileges and the “Darwinist” domination of the (momentarily) stronger.

 

Therefore, regarding the Balkans as a region, in which today a “culture of origin” (indigenousness, originality) has been extremely favored, what appears more than necessary is the very process of decolonization of the narrative (or the mentality) of the centre, as well as the very (discursive) struggle for the culture center. The (useful) efforts to distinguish between the origins and the (manipulatively aimed) act of its unconditional absolutisation – by all means differentiate between themselves considerably (even indicatively). Namely, if we speak today of the Balkans, it indispensably includes the paradigm of the “balkanism”, which establishes the Balkans as an epistemological object, whose role is to be the “rest” the “residue” of Europe. At that, this and thus set object, in the accordance with the requirements for legitimization of certain political enterprises carried out by the “center” step by step, consistently, it turns into an abject.

 

 

  1. The Balkan as a Heterotopy of the Abject

 

Spivak, in one of her texts, warns that “the center longs for an object”, for “a margin, which could be identified” (1999:98), and that that process is conditioned (in favor and coincides with) the relationships of power.

These relationships, on the other hand, are primarily concerned about finding optimum forms of self-justification and self-legitimisation. When it comes to the mechanism of generating imagological patterns about the other (which in this case refers to the Balkans as an internal European otherness), it is useful to remind ourselves of Homi Baba, who warns that: “the representative forms taken, are such that build a picture of the other which present colonization as justifiable, even indispensable.”

 

Therefore, the people of the Balkans are continuously treated as manipulative costs and spare parts, necessary for the functioning of the huge “Balkan industry”, which constantly gains profit in a paradoxical way: by orders placed by others and in a favor of others’ well-being, it obediently makes losses: wars, refugees, crises.

 

Being aware of these assumptions, it seems that we could far more appropriately probe into the enterprise called “West regarding the Rest” – in an effective disclosure of, for us, intriguing contours of the Balkans as the rest (waste).

 

During the past year I have had the opportunity to have a look at several art catalogues, which are thematically related to (the perception of) the Balkans or its art production. By means of these catalogues, I was able to see the image of the Balkans in a direct, visual form – and to interpret (analyze) them from my slanted perspective of a literary critic. It is a matter of catalogues that are published in English: “In Search of Balkania” (Graz, 2002); “Understanding the Balkans” (Skopje, 2002); “(Bound)less Borders” (Skopje, 2002). All these titles share one explicit mark, which overtly directs the perceptive logic of the reader towards the taxonomic determination “The Balkans” and its dark biography.

 

In summary, we may single out two basic (imagological) tendencies in the stated art presentations:

  1. a) One group comprises the works (and authors) that offer various heterotypical exotisms and, generally, the semiotics of the trash (waste);
  2. b) The other group would comprise those works whose authors present themselves with the exhibitionally toned and ruthless Balkan asceticism.

 

Presenting the Balkans heterothopy in a form of an abject, these works are to manipulatively confirm the colonisatory, “safari” optics of the Balkans in the form of abjective litter and “waste”. In other words, they point at a phobic model of the Balkans, which is supposed to assure the image of subordination to the others’ reality and its coincidence with the otomanized stereotype. In passing, the stereotype is founded in a “syntactic” operation (metathesis), when the epithet becomes the essence. It also flames the concoction of the descriptive and the normative, particular to ideology (Pagot, 2002: 109). The stereotype applies the tautological principle: and it merely “naturalises” the previously launched “mythoid aggregate”. In the case of the Balkans, the mythoid aggregate is effectively disclosed through the popular syntagms “powder keg” or “dark vilayet”. The art catalogues, thematically devoted to the Balkans ,are aimed at peeping at the other side of Europe, facing its (Balkan) de-homogenization, the justification of the currently drawn up, taxonomic separation of the Balkans with relation to Europe (according to Todorova, the Balkans are the obvious example of a transformation of a geographical denotation into a very pejorative, political label 1999, 21). In this respect, the unavoidable impression is that the example of the Balkans proves the sustained logic of the “orientalism”, which implies “imposing an identity in opposition with the other, western identity” (1999: 28). In the balkanism example, we can notice the functional confirmation of the “binary oppositions”, incorporated in the matrix of the imperial divisions, which were first pointed by Said.

The images of and from the Balkans in fact offer a priori demarcated subversiveness, carefully dosed provocation, doubling a scandal (by emphasizing it). The Balkans are maximally orientalized (prone to an alien identification and domination), its reality is the inferior reality of the open markets, fairs, remains, down and outs, outcasts. Here, the operational role is assumed by the already recognizable in the theory, mechanism of (theatrilazation), which in fact presents such, thought of “images, which change the nature and the culture of the other into a spectacle” (Pagot, 2002:128).

However, here we can trace the contours of a carefully carried out sanitary operation: the spectators (luckily) remain completely safe and intact by the abject. But also by the overwhelming knowledge, which the writer Luan Starova, in his recently published novel (“Balkan Scapegoat” (2003), expresses through the pregnant image of the Balkans as “the largest European sacrificial alter of all times”.

 

An additional confirmation of this decidedly established fact about the sacrificing character of the Balkans can be also found in the resignedly expressed opinion by the Albanian art critic Edi Muka, a participant in the project “Bound/less Boundaries”, when he bitterly concludes: “it has been well known to us, that we have been abused for some kind of a political show” (2002:17).

 

The disclosure of the sacrificing logic, which governs with and on the Balkans, on the other hand, encourages the resistance to the established, generalized judgments (one-sided generalizations) about it. This kind of resistance arouses in us especially when the art is also expected to provide examples and confirmation of those previously set imagological patterns which govern the cultural hermeneutics of a given space.

 

The same thing happens to the “commissioned” perspectives in these few art catalogues, which, for the purpose of this type of attribution, probably performed in this form for the first time, also appropriately select (and interpret) the submitted material. When facing these images we should never ignore the statement made by Pagot, that the interrelations between the original and the perceived culture are always acknowledged as “hierarchical”. In this respect, the Mexican artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña is fully aware of this hierarchical denotation: “The new objective is to watch the crisis of the outsiders in a voyeur’s manner, and/or to borrow their artifacts and to exhibit them in museums. As for the global impresario, who has sat on an eternal artistic safari, there are yet a number of extreme boundaries and dirty realities which are to be disclosed, documented and brought back in the galleries, biennales or the film festivals” (2002:30).

 

In the end, such is the curator’s “hunt” of the recently accomplished Balkan (art) safari. But also, such are the recently published results of the awarded works of the latest film festivals, including the one in Montreal. As a rule, the priority in awarding was given to those works, whose optics only additionally reinforces the attitude in demand, “the voyeur’s attitude to crisis, “the dirty reality” of the otherwise safely distanced heterotypical outsiders. Compliant with the general imagological logic described in the work of Pagot, we can consider this to be an indicative example, when the European EGO is attempted to be denied by the Balkan ID. And, accordingly to the perverted economy of the modern, above all consumer and beyond, inevitable heard-it-all, seen-it-before Look, the dirtier and more extreme and repulsive, the better, more effective and wanted!

 

The Balkans have undoubtedly become one of the academic “mascots”, as, alluding to the declaratively expressed interest in the west academy for the authors of the Third World, was mockingly referred to by Spivak herself. The problem with mascots, as she formulates it, lies in the threat in their being superficially and simplifededly fetishised. By a one-sided and uncritical generalization.

 

This is why it would be on the one hand unjust, on the other theoretically intolerable, to reduce the Balkans merely to itself.

 

By means of the very postcolonial criticism, the Balkans ought to be freed from that type of slavery, which is perhaps the most difficult to detect and prevent. Joan Copjec, in her imagological study of the black American mentality, calls this type of slavery “a slavery to oneself”, finding in it the very important (at this moments fatal) trap, named “idealization of discontent” (2002). In the case of the Balkans, it is documented by the tough persistence of the fatalistic and suffering mentality of the victim. The passive object – the waste!

 

It is my firm belief that this very idealization of discontent along with the voluntary self-colonization (by the pattern of the reduction “balkanisms” and their respective essentialisation of the Balkans, but also in the origin, including gender), is one of the components of the devastating epistemology of the Balkans.

 

 

Refrerences

 

Дерида, Жак (2001):  Другиот правец, Темплум, Скопје.

Копејц, Џоан (2002): Фројд за расите и историјата; во:  Идентитети, Скопје, бр.2

Даниел Анри Пажо (2002): Стереотипи, во:Општа и компаративнакнижевност, Македонска книга, Скопје

Саркањац , Бранко (2001):Македонскиот катахрезис, 359*, Скопје

Pena, Gilermo Gomez (2001): Nova globalnakultura; in: Gest, Podgorica, br.8

Edvard Said (2001/2):Kulturai imperijalizam, in: Novi Izraz, Sarajevo, br.10/11

Spivak, Gajatri (1997/8): Marginalnost u ucecojmasini; in: TRANS, Novi Sad, br. 6/7

Спивак, Гајатри (2003):  Постколонијална критика, Темплум, Скопје

Todorova, Marija (1999): “ Imaginarni Balkan ”, XX vek, Beograd

 

[1] Outstanding Serbian dissident living in Slovenia (editor’s note).