romanian literary monthly

~Aurelia Satcau:Culture of Flames keeping ludic at bay :The transitional/transactional Balkans after 1990

This chapter draws partly on Dina Iordanova’s 2001 seminal work on Balkan culture, film and the media, “Cinema of Flames”. Her study, together with other similar attempts to cope with, as yet, unacknowledged, unrevealed facts of culture in this area of Europe, is a must today, in the ludicscape of contorted or just delayed truths, or only half-truths, in the grip of a genuinely post-emotional connoisseur, whose task remains that of ludicizing a world and letting in the bitter taste of apocalypticism.

The account on Iordanova’s unique contribution to the understanding of the geopolitical perimeter we call the “Balkans’, translates smoothly in my recent work on the the notion of Ludic and a paradigmatic ludicscape as the apogee of a (Ludic) Postmodernism with its regime of excess, and whose expert managing of a certain jocularity was, no doubt, quite beneficial for those for whom, in Bakhtin’s own words, “the rhetorical dispute is a dispute where claiming victory against the opponent, rather than acknowledging the Truth becomes crucial”.

In my thesis on Ludic, I insisted on the mechanism by which a certain, indispensable today (as always) ideological construction of the real is obtained by managing, that which is distorting and eventually annihilating subjectivities destined, otherwise, to serve a genuine dynamic in history; so it is all to do with loss and false pretensions, with unnecessary cynicism, self-inflicted parody and self-denigration in good old Brunian fashion – see Giordano Bruno’s portrait of the Manipulator, required to have immersed and have indulged himself into the shallow waters of temptation, for then, and then only, is the Manipulator in perfect control of its victim. Ludic is, and will remain, the ultimate replacement, agent provocateur, and expert into self-deprivation and ‘stoic’ (sic) (pseudo)resistance. This paper will attempt at relating my theory on ‘Ludic’ with Dina Iordanova’s view on the Balkans..

Many signals have been sent from what Misha Glenny called “The Balkans”, one denomination used through several templates to define a disputed location: “the realm of ruins”.” maze of conspiracy”, “the empire of illusions”, “a house of wars”, “the city of the dead”, “prisons of history”. These are, of course, Glenny’s ironical positionings of the Balkans, suspended somewhere in the nowhere between Europe and Asia, in “the center of some sort of imaginative whirlpool” where “every known superstition in the world is gathered” (Glenny, xxi). This internalized image could be followed into a drastic, this time, although reluctant to any rhetoric, tone, by media and film theorist of Bulgarian descent Dina Iordanova, , with her work on the atrocities of the Jugoslav war, especially on the way a certain image is continuously shaped, re-shaped and shaped again by the manipulative western Media: “so much death and destruction has been filmed, and the footage of crippled children and desolate people is so abundant that it is easy to forget that behind each image there is the enormity of real suffering”(1); and she adds, touchingly optimistic: “Contrary to the commonly held opinion, I do not think that these images left audiences indifferent”. Iordanova’s more than five years spent securing for herself a good grasp of the everyday images of death and destruction, coincided with the birth of her son, an overlapping of life and death typical of the Balkan ‘survivor’ of history of today and of not so recent past.

Having left native Bulgaria in the middle of the 1990 events which shattered grand illusions of liberty for some, yet put up with (self) enforced blindness and long preserved innocence in some others, Iordanova reflects now from the comfort zone of the West, on barren realities left behind ten years prior: “A decade later, the region that I left behind looks like a place full of disorderly people overtaken by the petty concerns of the poor, and resentful of expatriates like myself for deserting the misery which they face on a daily basis. For a while I used to blame it mostly on them: the political and economic mess they had allowed to take hold, their inability to manage their own affairs, and the pointless effort to evade rules rather than live by them. All of these, I believed, was keeping them from leaping forward to an era in which the neat and pretty dreams of democracy and affluence, put on hold indefinitely by communism, could be fulfilled. .Everything that people in the Balkans were doing was inviting their fall from grace: they were voting the communists back into office, only this time freely, with no pressure or fraud; they were neglecting human rights concerns, allowing their countries to be blacklisted internationally; they were splitting up on all levels (parties, unions, churches, associations and friendships), and instead of voluntarily adopting the transitional template drafted for them by benevolent democracies, they were paranoidly proclaiming it to be a product of geopolitical conspiracies”(2-3). However, the Bulgarian academic’s distaste and assumed embarrassment for their wrongdoings was soon to be revisioned – half or completely burnt out houses, lining deserted streets going on for miles, women soaked in puddles of their own blood minutes after they were queuing for bread, young peasants with scruffy faces turned away from the camera, in grief over the body of their infant sons, holding a glittery green material as replacement for the casket, all these images of a distressing bestiary where fable is now overtaken by atrocious realities of pseudo winners and losers, in a battle just perfect to condense on western TV screens, become decisive in the exclusion of the Balkans from the geopolitics self-fashioned now as Europe.

Now, what really means “The Balkans?” Misha Glenny’s view on the matter is in clear-cut and leaves no illusion as to concessionings from beyond-politics negotiation: “Any serious consideration of the Balkan peninsula runs up against the unanswerable question of borders”, argues Glenny. Geopolitics relying on a mixture of the geographical, historical and the political, there seems no chance, whatsoever, to any differentiation between countries taken on view en block; thus, adds Iordanova, “conceptual contour of the region is left fuzzy and flexible”. In Iordanova’s extended and more updated view, the Balkans delineates a string of core Balkanic areas, including Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania. Somewhere there, due to enough historical common ground with the history of the region – with its legacy, heritage, and especially its self-conceptualization – there lie countries such as Romania, Moldavia, Greece, Slovenia, Croatia and the much disputed Turkey, with the later viewed as the source of Orientalism in the region, with the Ottoman invasion of Jugoslavia in the 14th century – a situation rebalanced carefully by newly appointed prerogatives and investments by the European bodies of resort pointing toward Turkey’s role in the ‘europenization’ of this entrance-gate to Asia.

Several are Iordanova’s arguments in disfavoring the Western pretense to ‘manage’, to contain the Balkans:

1. Balkans benefits a unique position, stranded, however, between ‘marginality’ (the ‘margins’ of Europe, at the Gate of the Orient), and cross-road, or bridge, connecting diverse cultures. This hovering over an assumed, on the one side, and allocated, on the other, nomenclature, testifies over the clash between self-fashioned identity on the one hand, and borrowed, inherited, modeled after, or just submitted to, legacies of positioning which are symptomatic of the area. What revolts Iordanova, however, is the attempt by the West to conglomerate distinct cultural identities under the same banner, thus culturally depriving an invaluably rich paradigm of motives of their unique, individual representation, and mostly debilitating an already economically and politically unstable area, whose bare necessity now lies in coming to grips with common denominators, rather than with exacerbating segregation. The insistence on the modern Western imaginary to offer an en block treatment on the Balkans has, no doubt, great repercussions on the stability of the region, resonating, or maybe even sourcing its (post)modern approach in Samuel Huntington’s 1993 clash of civilizations theory (Iordanova, 43). The ludic factor in Huntington’s theory is responsible for the Harvard Professor of Social Sciences refusing to address profound economical and political considerations regarding the Balkans, substituting this for an interest in cultural divisions of Europe, nonetheless a ludic strategy. Iordanova’s plea for a unitary geopolitical and economic view of the Balkans, justified by common historical and cultural legacies, is meant to reiterate a genuine effort from the Balkans to evade isolationism and exclusion and secure a stable identity in the region, freed, that is, of any outside imposition. The legacy of a stable identity, strong enough to coagulate an array of cultural inheritance, is the only chance for common economic and political ground between Balkan countries. Huntington’s 1993 dismissal of this, on the other side, and the exclusive embrace of cultural qualifiers, prompted the political science analyst to segregate the Balkans once more from the mainland Europe, under the suspicion that the powder keg, lying dormant within both Islamic and Slavic-Orthodox civilizations, is found reasonable enough a factor to urgently invalidate any attempt from the part of the Balkans to claiming European citizenship. Huntington’s rush to proclaim cultural division as the only relevant reference point in the new division of Europe obliterates, dissolves the main dividing lines within East/West in Europe, thus living West with the sole purpose of securing itself against hostile civilizations of the East; his version of a future Europe inclusive of the East is one of gloom and destruction, echoing what Croatian exile Stepjan Mestrovic repeatedly denounces as barbarian habits of the Balkan heart. The absence of enough economic and political divide between West and East in the European Studies leaves one with the impression, not at all unfounded, that organizations such as NATO, or the EC or the G-7, all strive to implement those regulations mandatory for keeping security for the West in the face of barbaric habits of a culturally clashy, confusing, and ultimately dangerous East. Iordanova emphasizes Tony Blair’s claim that 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia was an ‘effort’ to save the values of (Western) civilization. Once again, any other interaction becomes subverted by what, in 1993, culminated; in the theoretical analysis of the East/West European paradigm with Huntington’s now famous ‘clash of civilizations’; this invites urgent decoding of a ludic subversion which eludes the intricacies of economic and political interaction for the convenient, simple, clear-cut lines of cultural divide, an equation not only ideally feasible, but also enormously attractive for Western journalists who seem never well-versed in searching whole-truths, but resume themselves to concocted after-versions and distorted, lame truths when it comes to the that outside the perimeter of the First World..

2. “The highlighting of unfavorable traits of character embodies an attitude shared by many intellectuals of Balkan extraction who, ironically, are the ones most ready to articulate and reiterate the culturalist clichés , and engage in a specific form of ‘self-bashing’”, insists Dina Iordanova (DI 46). She mentions Jugoslav cineaste Dusan Makavejev, a veteran of experimental film combining feature and documentary by extensively using footage of real, historical events, to intersect a unique parodying of existing or newly created stereotypes to do with Jugoslav mentality. Iordanova’s view on a film director such as Makavejev maintains an enflaming inflection, listing the director among those Eastern European intellectuals who, by this ‘self-bashing’, secured for themselves a safe distanciation. Makavejev is caught unguarded by Iordanova in precisely this hypostasis: “An old partisan from Herzegovina, the late Vladimir Dedijer, who was not an innocent, told me how, when one has to sign an agreement that one is not intending to honor, the signatory, while signing with his right hand, has to keep his left hand in the pocket, holding his testicles. This gesture makes the signature invalid. This is what international negotiators, who are ignorant of the culture they deal with, miss”. Makavejev’s parody, adds Iordanova, “while not intended to damage nevertheless enhances the claim that the key to understanding the Balkans is to look into the deviations found in their distinct culture”. The Romanian-born exile film-maker Lucian Pintilie takes a similar route with his 1992 “The Oak”, whose loud and intended show-offish primitivism in characters and situations depicted, seems among those things which might have prompted a Western journalist to claim Romanian language a kind of ‘dog Latin’.

Other instances of such ‘succumbing to the culturalist argument’ offers Iordanova in the case of the acclaimed but controversial film-director Emir Kusturica, with his movie “Underground” (the 1995 Cannes winner), or the 1994 celebrated Venice winner, Milcho Malchevski’s “Before the Rain”, both parading discounted versions of the real Jugoslav values, to the point of, in the case of “Before the Rain”, portraying a whole community as “tribal mayhem”.

3. Another distress with Iordanova’s paradigm of a ludic view is the so-called ‘mental mapping’ scheme, which bears responsibility for forcing history as back as the Enlightenment moment, when the great divide was clearly cut and Eastern Europe remained to perpetuate itself as a mental structure based in the prejudice “that measure the distance between civilization and barbarism” – this idea is copiously to be found in Larry Wolff’s account of how the Enlightenment represents that genuine moment in history when Eastern-Europe in fact started his tribulations in the proximity, in the ‘margins’ of an increasingly powerful Europe, freed of any Oriental stigmata to hamper his technological, and not only, development.

The Orientalism construction of the Balkans becomes, thus, a process which continues today, and here we could add Maria Todorova’s assertion that “the Balkans are imprisoned in a field of discourse which identifies Balkanism with the darker ‘other’ of Western civilization”. The question of positioning the Balkans should be looked at both inclusively and exclusively as there is not necessarily a clash between the insiders and the outsiders view.

One point of departure here is the painful acknowledgement of the fact that Balkan nations do not seem to enjoy much resonance in the West unless it is for clearly denigratory stances and for archiving of atrocious events. And, however, a point in case is the ever shifting ground on which the Balkans rest geopolitically and thus the reluctance to assign the region to either the Third World or to, at least, what the Cold War instituted as the Second World. This generates an analysis in which “the Balkans gravitated from a dreary unpredictable outpost of the old Soviet Empire toward the gloomy orientalist fringe of the new Europe”. The journalistic and diplomatic discourse on the Balkans, more and more referring to the juxtaposition of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian legacies, was largely built up on concepts such as the ‘clash of civilizations’, ‘ethno-linguistic tapestry’, and ‘dormant ethnic tensions’. The perception of the Balkans as the Third World is mainly based on the same paradigm of ‘admissibility’, which makes the perfect qualifier for a Third World. Unfortunately, there exists, in my opinion, a strong rejection of what actually makes the common front between the Third World per se and the Balkans of Eastern Europe – namely the similarity in economic conditions, underlining these two regions of the world, with all the consequences deriving from this obliteration. A textual, rather than a contextual analysis is deemed the standard procedure for Western theory, even at the bottom of the most, otherwise, honest Marxist analysis on the Western academic market. In her impending difficulties in finding research material directed at the Eastern European problem, Dina Iordanova eventually realizes the materialization of a common ideological need to be explored when it comes to both Third World countries, and the Balkans. Said’s and Bhabha’s postcolonial discourse, with Hall’s dichotomical ‘West and the Rest’, or Arjun Appadurai – as the only theorist whose view went beyond the ‘local’, engaging a holistic dynamic of global proportion, as cross-cultural and genuine universality, were found extremely useful. This, once again, testifies for how the economic common ground between the Balkans and the rest of the Third World is functional and, more, it seems the only one productive, when it comes to extrapolating from the ‘local’ (the ‘margins’, the ‘subaltern’) to the ‘global.

4. Admissibility and acceptability again reclaim the Balkans as subordinate to the mainland Europe, with the European trope standing here for the West in genera:. democracy, freedom of enterprise, free speech, human rights observance, individualism – values on which the Eastern Europe must model itself on, if it doesn’t want to end up, say, as Africa. In positing Europe as everything to be possibly opposed to the Third World, we obtain those perfect binaries maintained under the very nose of Postmodernism, notorious, otherwise, as the ideal demolisher of precisely such monstrous disjunctives (or, maybe, it had no interest in any ‘demolishing’ whatsoever). There exists in the Balkan imaginary , argues Iordanova, a foolish Africa, counteracted by a sophisticated Europe; a tribal Africa versus a civilized Europe; an incompetent Africa vis-à-vis an efficient Europe; Africa as the wasteland versus the cultivated Europe; Africa’s affairs messy, with Europe’s affairs carefully and responsibly managed.

5. With the concept of Europe itself an elusive and shifting notion, especially within the Postmodern understanding, it is amazing how stable Europeanness manages to maintain itself within the Balkan discourse on Europe. Notions of ‘suitability’ and ‘admissibility’ become now validated by once more an impossibility to define borders both within Europe and with regard to the Balkans.

With Europe as an ever shifting scape of disputed geopolitics and taken over by a history seemingly overtaken by its own events, the Balkans fail in realizing how impossible, how dangerous this hunting for a ‘chimera’ could become in the long run. Another trope figuring here is that of return. The chances for this, argues Iordanova, are almost impossible in comparison with the dynamic of recovering a Central Europe (Mitteleuropa) which is in full swing and it has been since 1990. This schism between the Balkans and the Central-Eastern Europe is not necessarily motivated; Iordanova reminds how, “back in Yalta in 1945, no difference between the Balkans and Central-Eastern Europe was deemed essential, and most of the Balkan countries, including Jugoslavia, who broke out only later, were transferred to the Soviet sphere en block. In the 1990, however, the readmission to Europe was made conditional and was carried out individually”. In effect to post-communist disparities, new resentments forged their way up around the question of ‘proximity’ (the ‘geographical’ factor) and the ‘suitability (the ‘cultural, political and economic factors).

Romania’s pretense, for example, to Francophony, was giving and outraged reaction to Bulgaria’s attempt, in 1993, at applying for a membership with the Francophone countries. Bulgaria, however, claimed that it was more than 37% of its population who has French as its second language. Romania appears, indeed, one of the countries most desperate to join the West and is ready to literally go beyond anything to succeed. The Romanian intellectual, it is claimed in a book of ‘dialogues’ on ‘Culture, Ideology and Politics in Romania”, is so obsessed with gaining entrance into the West, that he/she consciously undertakes the risk of becoming the ‘culturally colonized’ subject. Which means going as far as denying any Romanian intellectual (including his/her self) the ability to perform at Western standards; a failure and subject of subalternism avant la letter, he/she is genuinely convinced that, no matter what, he/she would always bask into the shadow of the great (Western) tradition. Thus, a perpetual, self-imposed novitiate is what prompts Romanian intelligentsia to fashion itself on foreign models. The book mentioned earlier is, for that reason, almost entirely built up around efforts to prove Romanian ‘protochronic’ inputs into the European culture and this assumption of having survived a surrounding, Slavic area, of contaminating pathetism and pettiness, in parallel with subversive hopes of lining up with those Enlightenment ideals, makes the normal pattern of futuristic envisage for the Romanian intellectual, although more and more sustained efforts to prove the stability of a nation preserving in spite all odds are growing now into unprecedented reverberations of a (national) culture perceived as finally understood and appropriated.

Aurelia Satcau, PhD Candidate, Monash University

Paper presented at the Melbourne University (Centre for European Research) at the Postgraduate Workshop preceding Conference “Clash of Civilizations”, in December 2004



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