Blesok no. 89, March-April, 2013

The Intercultural Event of the Year

Venko Andonovski

Even a mere glance at today’s theoretical discourse in Europe and the world at large tells us that the circumstances are in fact – post-philological. When I say post-philological, I mean the radical shift that theory undertook, moving away from the strictly philological paradigms (methodologically speaking), such as structuralism and deconstruction, and towards cultural studies. From a semiotics stance, cultural studies did alienate us from the singular philological text by marrying us to the texts of culture. This, in turn, forced us to abandon the purely philological, rhetorical, structural, which proved a rather drastic measure than when attempting on the examples of individual texts to understand a culture’s text, moreover, to understand the interaction between the texts and discourses of two or more cultures. Then it should not come as a surprise that some of the chief authorities, like Mikhail Epstein and Slavoj Žižek, spent a part of their research life examining the borderlines of a semiotic reading of culture. Žižek dedicated a good part of his work on Lacan’s psychoanalytic turn, so as to study closer the psychoanalytical sub-continent of culture. Emmanuel Lévinas took maters a step further than psychoanalysis: namely, he ‘entered’ the pure ethics of the otherwise ‘impure’ hybrid identities. Hannah Arendt, guided by personal experiences, went even further – she examined (thematized) the production of lies and ‘truths’ surrounding identities and their assimilatory, even genocidal correlation. Anglo-American theory too experienced long-lasting consequences due to these intellectual oscillations. For example, in his now classic work, The Political Unconscious, Fredric Jameson (as a follow-up to his initial, deconstructivist and anti-structuralist The Prison-House of Language), showed us that ideology is a horizon which, intellectually speaking, would resemble the highest layers of the earth’s atmosphere, unlike the philological, purely linguistic readings that mirror the stratosphere of cultures. The unconscious entered the realm of the political. Along those lines, a slew of authors and key studies cropped up, which in turn helped solidify this turn away from philology and into cultural studies analysis – Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures.
Parallel to all of these directions that have underscored theory, and have root in what Lotman once called the semiotics of culture/cultures (even attempting to ascertain space through the term semiosphere, which then led to the theoretical discourse hidden in the confines of comparative literature, and derived from the strictly narratological term point of view, i.e., focalization, now used when ‘reading’ cultures. How does one culture perceive of another one? What is the role stereotypes play in the semiological screening a culture undertakes when partaking of another one? This question was first introduced by Suzuki and Fromm, in the anthology Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, where the cultural clash between the East and the West was presented as the difference between two poems by the West’s poet Tennyson and the East’s, Basho. On one and the same topic – a flower – the two poets reason differently. Though both sing high praises for the flower’s beauties, Tennyson plucks it, in the spirit of Western pragmatism, while Basho leaves it unharmed, by the side of the road, so that others may praise it too, all in the line with the understanding “the world, that is who I am”. When this line of reasoning is married to the colonial experiences of some colonized cultures and post-colonial mindsets about the intercultural relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor, we are left with a series of texts, such as Edward Said’s Orientalism, the writings of Spivak, Homi Bhabha, and others. The crown to this repositioning – feminist and post-feminist criticism, which turn their attention to gender relations, seeing them through the prism of supremacy and domination. And finally, the Neo-Marxism of Terry Eagleton that restores the philological and cultural facts to the ideology field, as a necessary semiotic screen through which they gain their meaning. There is no point in avoiding, here and now, the role that the classical studies of the identity and hermeneutics of the subject (Foucault and Ricoeur) as well as the studies about disciplining and punishment (Foucault) played.
All this tells us that the post-philological condition of today’s theoretical discourse is exceedingly philosophical in nature. And not just philosophical; rather, theoretical discourse has already visibly penetrated the borders of the philosophy of politics, i.e., the politics of philosophy. The very term biopolitics points clearly our obsession with the centers of power, the discursive machines that produce these centers of power, but also with the production of artificial identities that help manipulate the masses. As early as Pierre Bourdieu, and his study Language and Symbolic Power, we’ve been shown that discourses have an institutionally grounded power, something Foucault took to a theoretical extreme, with terrifying eschatological visions in the mix. Then, there are Hobsbawm, Balibar, Sloterdijk, and a whole dozen of authorities that worked on this repositioning of the world’s theoretical frameworks towards cultural studies and political philosophy.
This vastly rich and superior theoretical palette, now, receives a Macedonian-Croatian offering. Namely, the study titled Politics, Culture, Identity, penned by the renowned Croatian theorist Zlatko Kramarić and his Macedonian colleague, the philologist and cultural studies theorist, Angelina Banović-Markovska. In it, the two authors have penned a shared, rather instructive preface, followed by seven essays each. Kramarić includes the following essays: “Politics, Identity, Culture (in the Optics of Blazhe Koneski), “History and Narratives”, “All of Our (Concentration) Camps, or On Responsibility”, “Memory, History, Trauma”, “Nation, Ideology, History”, “The Construction of Identity in Croatian and Macedonian Literature (based on examples from the novels of M. Jergović and P. Avirović), and “Concerning Name(ing) and Identity – The Macedonian Case”. Banović-Markovska includes: “National Identity and the Macedonian Intelligentsia at the Onset of the 20th Century”, “Ideology and Intellectuals (A Treaty on Duty and Truth)”, “Timos or Logos, Subject and Ideology, Man and Authority”, “From a Totalitarian to a Transcultural Public Consciousness – a Dialogue on Discourses and Eras”, “History vs. Memory (or: Why we need a consciousness about historical legacies?)”, “Concealed Truths: Borders, Identities, Walls and Targets of Psychic Imperialism”, and “Pan-Nationalism/Transnationalism (The Political Identity of Europe: AD-VENTURE?)”.
This book is certainly the cultural event of the year in our midst, and I am certain the same applies to Croatia; not only because it ‘fits’ in all of the aforementioned, most current methodological paradigms and great thinkers, but also because this text is in fact a dialogical reading of and about two cultures – the Croatian and the Macedonian. Thus, this book does not only come across as a dialogue between two intellectuals with shared methodological culturally-politicological instruments, namely not only a mere dialogue of two different gender(ed) perspectives, but also a dialogue of/between two different cultures: the former, with a mid-European tradition and legacy since the dawn of times (particularly, in the era of Ljudevit Gaj), while the latter, turned both towards the Orient and Europe (a choice between imitation or rejection of Europe, as the authors point out in the book), yet torn between negations of its national identity stemming from its closest neighbors. The former, the Croatian culture, as a cultural metaphor for Europe, whence the local identity according to the criterion of “similarity” is replaced by something global, while the latter, the Macedonian culture, as a cultural dual synecdoche – about the Balkans and the not-Balkans (which in the end ‘ends up’ being the same thing, since a dual synecdoche by definition is a metaphor).
In their respective essays, the two authors develop an implicit interpersonal debate that reads rather affable, particularly surrounding the thesis about how a ‘hybrid’ identity can help resolve the tension that the term identity contains within, although these are not traditionally opposed (polemical) positions. We could go as far as to say that their respective works mostly complement each other rather than stand confronted. In part these works, starting with a kind of European imagological position, concern themselves with the post-Yugoslav and post-socialist (post-communist) reality. The central term these incredibly sharp and lucid theoretical argumentations are centered on is nationalism, i.e., national identity. They reach fascinating, surprising (for those who are better acquainted with theories, not that unexpected) conclusions, such as the one about the compatibility of the conceptual systems behind communism and nationalism. Even the authors themselves, as a Croatian man and a hybrid Macedonian woman (I am fully aware of the in-built tautology the term ‘hybrid identity’ carries across – of the ‘wooden wood’ variety – however here the term applies to the dual (formal) national heritage of Banović-Markoska, something that I too am quite (genetically) familiar with) claim that the only possible outcome that could have been predicted during the days of SFRJ [the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia] was nationalism. They reference the AVNOJ [the Anti-Fascist Council of the People’s Liberation of Yugoslavia] document, which clearly points out that apart from the brotherhood and unity and the shared victory over the fascist occupiers, the peoples of Yugoslavia did not share any other common denominator in terms of identity, thus after the dismantling of these discursively created myths and collective narratives, the only possible outcome would be turning towards one’s own nationalism, i.e., a bloody war with a bloody ending.
This essay collection is not only philosophically versed in the claims made by the principal authorities on the topic of national and cultural identity, including such terms as border studies and the Other, biopolitics and nationalism, but it also stands as an exemplary treaty on the responsibility of the intellectual. Tzvetan Todorov’s own questions on this topic, post his philological phase, namely, those centered on how intellectual culpability grows exponentially to the position the intellectual holds in his sphere of influence (i.e, how Brecht cannot hold the same miniscule-level culpability about intellectual holocausts and mental concentration camps – the political authoritarian modes of his time – as a journalist working for a local publication), are fully elaborated and further nuanced, through the authors’ use of their own writerly authority.
Along those lines, this collection presents a rather heated analysis of key intellectual figures from the Croatian and Macedonian cultural semiospheres, i.e., of their discursive behavior during critical political moments, of their positions vis-à-vis the communist authorities and their fabrication of the truth, of their adaptability to the models of disciplining and punishing, of their silence, or as Kramarić calls it “the politics of forgetting”, which leaves a void so that the totalitarian past can be transplanted to a future moment. Indeed, the transplantation of communism in our midst came through the nationalism of the sword and the bayonet. The palette of intellectuals that ‘could not have been written about’ or analyze, realistically speaking, particularly their contributions to maintaining a politically authoritarian establishment (by remaining silent when voicing problems and issues), includes such familiar names as Krleža, Andrić, Cankar, Broz, Koneski, as the actors who managed to remain silent, through various means and purposes, about the gulags of their days. This in turn tells us that we are confronted with a brave, civics-imbued intellectual narrative, which has had its origins in some earlier texts by Kramarić and Banović-Markoska. However, for those open to the earlier signals, we could say that we could in fact foresee that once the Macedonian intellectual public became ready, the makings and publication of one such book would also come to pass.
Having said that, let’s not forget: this collection is not a ‘who’s who’ type of a scholarly study of intellectual formats of cultural shame in the Croatian and Macedonian cultures, respectively. Quite the contrary: this collection represents an attempt at understanding the respective figures discursive choices set against a background of totalitarian rule. The misgivings are indentified rather than branded. Namely, Kramarić had recently published (in Macedonian too) a book with a similar title, Identity, Text, Nation, which dealt with the dark spots of Macedonian history, identified through the literary production of several key Macedonian writers. Thus, for example, Kramarić shows us that Blazhe Koneski, quite conscious of the fact that the Macedonian nation could only be constituted as part of SFRJ, had to pay a price. Most followers of Koneski’s work may not find such commentary pleasant, but the bravery to have this argument play itself out is what deserves special mention. Banović-Markovska, however, places on the list of noteworthy intellectuals the likes of Krste Petkov Misirkov and Kosta Racin, revealing, and taking her cue from Sloterdijk that “each group that wishes to face its own demons as well as all it holds sacred has to…earlier on than any capital investment…make biological and symbolic investments so as to take ownership of its own future.” She then concludes in regards to Misirkov’s work: “Certainly, here, we are faced with a positive national proclivity, a kind of classic case of ethnic nationalism, which came as the result of the present imperialism, and thus awaken the political and ethnic consciousness of the colonized Macedonian…” (49). The interesting figure of Racin, unjustly reduced in a philological sentiment to a mere social and at best expressionist poet, a man who read Niche and Marx in his time, is also examined in similar fashion. Banović-Markovska gives us Racin as a proponent of minimal, a defense-kind, nationalism, the only one kind of nationalism possible during the cultural colonization of his days.
It’s also interesting to notice that despite the apparent political appetite which these cultural studies’ studies toy with, their roots, for both authors, are plainly put, philological in nature, thus literary in origin. This is made evident from the excellent gem of an essay by Banović-Markovska (“Timos or Logos”), dedicated to Danilo Kiš and his clash with the nationalistic echelons, a conflict which took its toll on his art, but also on the aesthetic estimates of his art seen by the principal intellectual authorities masked behind the masks of the then, paradoxically speaking, communist regime. The same can be seen in the brief but effective analysis of the historical and the gendered in Petre M. Andreevski’s novel Pirey („Пиреј“) by Zlatko Kramarić. In a nutshell, all provocations and conclusions on the larger theme of nationalism, communism, totalitarianism, supremacy, biopolitics, punishment, surveillance, literary concentration campology are closely related to an analysis of the circumstances that influenced the production of certain literary tests, which in turn, as discursive narratives have participated or do participate in the projection of given “imagined communities”. In fact, the projection of such collective narratives that communities rally around is a legally constituted power held by the literary discourses (here, theatre is the most useful weapon when such projections are involved and no wonder that the Illyrians referred to it as an ‘earthly institution’, thus alluding to how its strength is derived from the numbers (audience-wise), but also the psychology behind the collective artistic act, or in cruder terms, the psychology of the mob).
With that, although not quite necessary to point out, the two authors also exhibit a rather cautious relationship with the historical discourse: both are fully aware that this historical discourse is overtly subjective, unreliable, thus quite testimonial in nature and effect.
In terms of ‘feeling the pulse of the times’, this collection showcases two particularly interesting essays: the former, undersigned by Kramarić, titled “Concering Name(ing) and Identity”, deals with the Macedonian name issue, the latter, undersigned by Banović-Markovska, is the essay on pan-nationalism, i.e., transnationalism, or the European political identity in the making, or as we usually say here ‘under re-construction’. The former addresses onomaturgy in a political, i.e., moral way, while the latter detects the crisis of the European political identity. Namely, this essay takes me back to the beginning of my own attempt at reading this collection, particularly when trying to examine the influence of the political and its role in all philological, philosophical, sociological, anthropological, psychiatric studies. To illustrate, Banović-Markovska, somewhere in the conclusion of her essay, looks at José Ortega y Gasset (“one of the founding fathers of the idea of a united Europe”). So that there is no confusion: we are speaking of the same philosopher known for his brilliant contemplations and meditations from the closed ivory tower of love. Now, he, in his full political get-up, through Banović-Markovska’s essay, casts his long shadow as a kind of a political cumulus overlooking Europe, stating that, as paraphrased by the author, “European peoples have involved rather than evolved. They’ve stopped being nations and have grown into provinces, so as to rescue themselves from the heavy burden of evident provincialism; they’ve been forced to develop a kind of politics that would allow them ‘to overcome the old sclerotic idea, and take the road towards becoming something above a nation, something akin to a European integration.’” Amongst other things, this essay by Banović-Markovska includes a rather revealing footnote, which comments on this year’s awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU as a kind of possible act of auto-irony. And where there is auto-irony, there is an auto-goal; in other words, things are not as great as they seem to appear!
In summary: I am left with the impression that this collection is the work of two sensibly studious intellectuals who wrestle with serious issues that are systematically avoided, or left to the systematic of forgetting and repression. I can only offer the highest words of praise for such intellectual bravery and sense of culpability. Thus, am convinced that this collection will stand as an impetus for even louder thoughtful provocations on zeitgeist kind of topics, such as politics, culture, identity, i.e., Europe, the Balkans, and/or the rest of the world.

Translated by Bela Gligorova

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