Blesok no. 51, November-December, 2006
An Answer Bouquet
At the end of the 20th century all Europeans, except those living in the south eastern part of the continent, were spared the experience of war. Why is this so? The question is usually set in another way: Why did the cold war end with the war in the Balkans? There is seemingly no difference between the questions, but if there really weren't, the common explanations would not all be derived from the second question.
The first of these explanations is covered in the rust that started eating at armoured vehicles and artillery when the cold war began to thaw. According to this theory, the war is supposed to be a last spasm of the dying communist dinosaur (pictured by a giant industrial robot, the later word derived from the Russian “robotnik”, worker) that flicked its tail one last time. The theory, although attractive, does not hold water. It doesn't explain why of all places the war happened in Yugoslavia, who strayed from the struggles of the communist bloc with the founding of the movement of unaligned nations. This is why the explainers explained the explanation away by a new one: the theory of rekindled nationalisms that the industrial dinosaur/robot had kept at bay while still alive. Yet this theory was apparently not going in the right direction either, as it led the debate about democratization straight onto the question of the violent origins of the modern European states. The theory was still a problem, as many of the states that formed on former Soviet territory at approximately the same time had avoided slipping into a state of war. And the explainers went further: they had to dive into history, all the way to the beginnings of the three Judaic religions – Catholicism, the Orthodox church and Islam – that took to wing on Yugoslav ground, but this explanation was only an echo of what the warring parties used in order to justify violence.
The mainstream explanations were complemented by marginal ones: from theories putting the war in Yugoslavia down as rites of wild tribes, to those seeing the first and last cause of it all in a diabolical plan concocted in CIA headquarters, ensuring the USA's final and irrevocable claim to the throne of the new world order. Even though some of these explanations may carry some weight, the mainstream current forged its own way ahead and finally stopped when the USA paralyzed the war by military means. At that point the most popular explanation was generalized and applied to global reality as a whole: that the cause of all the wars – past and future – on the planet are in fact inherent differences between civilizations. The elites that mold the world image of today took to it and this had similar results to those of the military intervention in the Balkans. It paralyzed contemplation. From such a viewpoint no solutions can be found.
One of the views that had been pushed aside from the start is that of the peacekeepers. Even before the outbreak of armed conflict in ex-Yugoslavia, the European peacekeepers found themselves in disagreement, both over understanding the Balkan conflicts and over figuring out what to do. Even though these differences were big enough to be presented as “a peacekeepers misunderstanding of the situation”, there exists an even better founded reason to ignore the various demilitarization initiatives from the end of the nineties. With the end of the cold war, the reason for the existence of (global) military systems was called under question. The arguments for a fundamental reduction of their meaning, or even their abolition were clear: the soviet army bloc turned out to be ineffective in protecting its ideological and strategic goals; nearwhile the Yugoslav army – at that time one of the strongest in Europe – was unable to prevent the country from falling apart, and had turned against the very citizens it was founded to protect; and the countries that were joined in the North-Atlantic military alliance by a common enemy, had lost that enemy. This argument against further armament was never stated clearly enough by the peacekeepers, but was very obvious to the economical and political elites – and they found a simple and effective answer. Most at hand and indisputable for the side that does not hold to peaceful solutions to conflicts (conflicts are what it makes a living of), even when the reason for a conflict is no longer there, is “a punch in the mouth”. Ever since Kuwait it was the peacekeepers who got punched in the mouth with every military blow. They are now left with only the right to quietly distribute humanitarian aid.
I witnessed it all at first hand. In contrast to many avid thinkers from ex-Yugoslavia who were forced to take care of the business of survival, I had a lot of time in the nineties, to study and contemplate. I rarely found someone to talk to, most often in intimate circles. And the deductions were surprisingly simple. I realized that the archaic mechanism of banishing violence, the ritualistic search for the scapegoat, cleverly analyzed by Rene Girard, and the political ways of legitimizing this search that had not changed since the times of Plato, work just fine in the postmodern age. The globalizing processes only recontextualise it in a single but all important point: since the object of violence can no longer be found outside the (global) society, taking it out on the current scapegoat necessarily involves a deadly vengeful violence. Many thinkers that I studied later came to similar conclusions and all I could do was agree.
And yet I did not stop with solely deciphering the given version of the deadly software as so precisely derived by Jean Baudrillard. I was looking for a way out. I found it with Hannah Arendt, who revived the pre-platonic term of politics, where original violence is (was) not overcome by means of symbolization, but rather in opening space for people to communicate and work without fear of violence. Politics may thereby be understood as a means of mankind with which to break the bonds of the bidding mythological circle, drawn by a ritualized banishing of violence. Power and might are not necessarily nicknames for a rule of violence, masked by an appearance of inevitable necessity. Violence is not a prerequisite of the freedom of mankind, but a threat, which must be prevented from entering into the field of free action and communication.
Realizing that there is a solution was a great relief. But a short-lived one. The problem lies in the fact that we must want to realize this solution, and the military-technological complex, or “drive” as this deadly force was clearly defined by Martin Heidegger, does not have this wish. Not a very bright future then, and yet there is still a way out. It is portrayed in the Buddhist fable of two monks one of them deprived of all will and hope by the thought of a goal thousands of miles away, the other driven by this thought to depart at once.
The mental space in Slovenia was so crammed by the war that one was almost unable to move. I found space for the first step with Apokalipsa, where I still go to breathe freely. It is one of the few “liberated territories”, where in spite of the military racket, voices from the Balkans were still heard. And best of all – the inherited personal and institutional relationships from the country we used to share play no role in opening space and communicating there. The individuals that make up the Apokalipsa circle and have begun collecting works from the ex-Yugoslav territories are not driven by nostalgic recollections of privileges once held, but rather by a simple curiosity and a wish to understand and get to know. This is also why they go beyond the borders of the once common state that handed out these privileges: into Bulgaria, Greece, even Slovakia, Israel and Poland. The generation that was formed in Slovenia in the nineties does not carry the burden of the complexes toward Europe that the socialist generations had, despite open borders toward Italy and Austria. The messengers of this generation venturing into Serbia, Bulgaria or Macedonia do not travel in preselected “packet arrangements”, they have been turning toward the southeast for success and artistic comfort for over a decade. The nineties were a great market for artistically packaged “Balkan grooves”, but the profits were made in the west, on the stock market and on the fields.
It would be hypocritical to conceal that those who do turn their attention toward the south and east of Europe, tend to feel more at ease there, more like home. Where does this feeling come from, taken that Venice and Vienna are almost closer than Zagreb and Belgrade? A part of the answer must surely lie in the proverbially affectionate and hospitable peoples from this part of the world. But only a tiny, unimportant part, really, as we know just how carnal the passions that may hide behind these traits really are. We often turn to language for the answer. And the serbo-croat language that once had the same status in ex-Yugoslavia as international English does in the world today, still functions as a “native” language in these parts of the world, even though no side claims a stake on it. But are lingual similarities by themselves sufficient reason for benevolence? The case of the Germans and the Dutch (while not the only example) clearly shows that this is not so. And even though communication is surely easier between similar languages, the fact remains that the Slovenes mostly talk to the Slovaks, whose language is probably the most similar to Slovene of all the Slavic languages, in English. The fluency in other (“non-serbo-croatian”) languages is far more limited in Slovenia than the fluency in say English, German or Italian.
The Slavic proximity (which, to be sincere, is not felt toward the non-Slavic nations of ex-Yugoslavia in the same state) is not in itself that which makes us feel more at home in the serbo-croatian lingual field. I believe it is more a case of a common experience being coded into the language, that brings us closer even without words. A trauma of which we do not speak even though we should. And here we stumble upon a problem that I had often encountered in all the years of studying violence, one to which I had not so far found a solution.
The most relevant of explanations about the state of things in the Balkans and violence in general are relayed to us in foreign languages. Instead of attempting to get to the bottom of our own madness, as for example the Germans had done with the experience of Nazism, we pass the burden onto others. A self-contemplation, something quite apart from explaining away the horrors (we have plenty of that in autochthonous versions), is necessary in the very least because the etymological properties of the words for violence and peace have very different connotations in the Slavic languages than they do in English, German or French. Not to even mention the indispensability of the introspective view in understanding social phenomena and events. Perhaps the most typical common trait of all the Balkan nations is that we had never developed a worldview appropriate to our own experiences and languages.
Explaining the world goes hand in hand with attempts to conquer it and in this the nations of south-eastern Europe had never been very successful. All the joint Slavic ventures, not only the Balkan ones, had either been based on western dictatorships or were built upon the ideas of foreign theoreticians (Marx's for example). As if we had no power to freely shape and realize our own ideas. And yet – who knows – perhaps the main problem of the world is the inability of conquering cosmogonies to face the borders that had made them primarily destructive, perhaps the time has come for hushed up experiences to speak up, even though they may not belong in the heroic discourses of great stories.
In literature this kind of postmodern pose had already seen its days, but it has not so far managed to even peek into the matters of the world. And even though artistic ideas have always been ahead of reality, the time to find the answers to global problems elsewhere than in the theories of battles between religions and civilization is running out. What if we took the time to listen to the people on whose backs the great stories themselves crumbled? More than a few had managed to unravel from their experience a world of human language.
And this is not the language of poetry and art, even though the Balkan experience shows that this language breaks through the most easily. If we are to know what really helps man survive, we must listen to everyday stories. And it's not enough to just acknowledge them. To understand what they mean, they must be discussed. And if we comprehend how we managed to survive, we shall also comprehend what it was that we survived and what had caused us to suffer.
There's no avoiding the pathetic note here, and there's no need to. As opposed to the mainly downputting meaning of this word in English, the Slovene word for “pathetic” – “patetika” – also bears the meanings of strong emotion, wisdom and moral distinction (the English word pathetic is nominally translated into Slovene as “beda”, spiritual or economical poverty). A deed similar in its pathos to the decay of Yugoslavia is Jesenin's suicide. He wrote his last love poem with the blood dripping from his cut-open veins.
The question whether or not to derive meaning from death is a most delicate one. All the violent cosmogonies do it. By including death into a (savior) story of faith, ideology, nation …, they prescribe a meaning to it. And most people accept this with relief, as the burden of absurdity of death is a heavy one to bear. But in this way, really, a life is deprived of individual sense, it is stolen, manipulated toward unworthy causes of the cosmocrats producing these stories. The master-of-all-masters in doing this, was Plato, having founded his state on the death of Socrates. Two radically opposed examples are these of Jan Palach and Gandhi, who did not let their deaths be consumed by any of the forceful legitimating discourses, but used them to radically affirm life: an individual and self-owning life, a life free of comsocracies enforced by others.
The Balkan experience of which we speak can only truly divulge itself to us if we are capable of carrying the burden of thousands of senseless deaths. From this experience, one can gain wisdom – another word that presents the clear blue of the planet in noble tones in Slovene (modro – blue, modrost – wisdom) and in sad ones in English – but only if one faces one's own part in the stories that have caused these deaths. This task being the hardest. The more that our actions fit in with the stories that have claimed lives, the heavier is the burden of admitting their absurdity, as even the notion of a single senseless death is almost unbearable. This is also why it is unreasonable to expect the generations that have soiled their hands in blood to remove the coat of armor with which they protect themselves from guilt, and look upon their actions without explanatory circumstances. Such a view is terrible indeed; very few can bear it. And vet it demands no exceptional character trait. This trait can only be the consequence of such an insight, brought about by a tangle of circumstance. When faced with defeat the planners, helpers and mercenaries of the bloody escapades are sometimes made to come to terms with this insight in the solitary confinement of a jail cell, and even some winners face it for no apparent reason. The relatives of the victims, however, are forced into seeing it in the moment of loss. Since they usually have nobody to share their loss with, they scurry to the safe haven of stories of martyrdom.
Over the past few years, Apokalipsa has collected the intimate words of those who suspect or know that such safety robs man of humanity. These revelations have a great worth as they did not fall for the trickery of cosmocratic stories but are still collected and arranged into a bouquet. Although it is not probable that they should bring about a prevailing understanding, they carry sensibility, experience and an answer to the blind alley in which the world has found itself. Their fusion is the only possible answer to the fission brought about by the scientific understanding of the world.
Thus, with the thought of the inability of Slavic languages to form a coherent answer to their subjugated position in relation to the western world (the name Slav is derived from the Latin word for slave) we reach the core of the problem. And we are not talking about a panslavic wish comparable to the goals of Arabic countries to unite and resist Israel as the western world's Arabic outpost. Nor are we discussing forming a Slavic world interpretation to match our conquering idols. As mentioned, such attempts had always dissolved into tyranny and intolerance. We must again stress the fact that the traumatic experience shared by the Balkan nations (even non-Slavs) is not a matter of language. Yet – through it – an opportunity for a different perspective is offered, and for this the difference between language and (hermeneutical) speech must be understood.
The Balkan texts collected by Apokalipsa do not offer explanations from our perspectives. And yet they all veer toward what Hanah Arendt meant when she said that the only weapon against violence is understanding the events, that took place or were caused by us. In short – we must understand what helped the people who would not bow to forceful explanations of the world, or those who realized the horrors of co-producing such a world to survive. Only then may we be able to answer the first question of this text. For now, let us answer a question with a question: What if the rest of Europe evaded the last war of the 20th century because they were able to contemplate their past actions and did not look elsewhere to place their guilt?
Their own comprehensions, derived from a tradition of conquering are probably hindering them in their search for a path out of the unenviable position they have let the world to come to. But this does not mean that they are not looking. And if they are searching within their own Dorian mirror image, that is the Balkans, it means that they are gazing upon themselves. The time has come to listen to the answer that we had overlooked so many times on purpose. The answer is not that of the winner and bears no single meaning.
Translated by: Jure Novak