Review Essay: Post-socialism 2.0: New Ethnographies of Contemporary Balkans

Post-socialism 2.0: New Ethnographies of Contemporary Balkans

2015 has proven to be an exciting time for political anthropology of former Yugoslavia, thanks to the publication of a series of new monographs by an emerging generation of researchers. Unburdened by the ideological divisions and the fractious wartime debates that beset its predecessors, this rising cohort of scholars has turned its gaze towards everyday political practice, and in so doing enriched anthropological debates that surpass the usual, area-focused themes of nationalism and wartime violence. The works reviewed in this essay, including books by Azra Hromadžić, Stef Jansen and Maple Razsa, reveal a colorful and complex world left behind by the compounded catastrophes that marked the end of socialist Yugoslavia [1990-92]. What’s more, their parallel efforts to pose new kinds of anthropological questions about the region, are helping deprovintialize and re-posit the post-Yugoslav space as not simply a singular tragedy, but an arena transformed by larger epochal shifts marked by the fall of state-socialism and increasingly evident disenchantments of late liberalism. In this review essay, I move from Jansen’s work, to Razsa’s and then finally to Hromadžić—attending especially to the contributions these monographs make to the anthropological reimagining of subjectivity, temporality and ethics. What holds these books together, I contend, is a shared commitment to understanding political action and emergent social forms in relation to historical experience and the post-utopian present.

Stef Jansen is one of the most prolific ethnographers of the post-Yugoslav space, but his new book Yearnings in the Meantime: ‘Normal Lives’ and the State in a Sarajevo Apartment Complex has much to offer to audiences beyond those specializing on Balkans scholarship, or even postsocialist studies. Jansen’s monograph is timely and distinct contribution to the anthropology of state, which is particularly attuned to the affective, experiential and aspirational dimensions of political life (see also Reeves 2014, Navaro-Yashin 2012, Aretxaga 2003). Anchored by long-term ethnographic research in the Dobrinja housing complex on the outskirts of Sarajevo, Yearnings in the Meantime seeks to make anthropological sense of ubiquitous appeals for normalcy amidst Bosnia’s unfinished and confusing peace. Jansen’s carefully situated analysis also complicates the ways in which the idea of “normal life” has so far been examined in postsocialist anthropology, where “normalcy” often became associated with the desire for reintegration into the western-capitalist political and economic trajectories (Jansen 2015, 36). Writing from the context of former Yugoslavia, where the socialist project was generally viewed more favorably—and hence could itself be understood as an era of normality, Jansen contributes to the critique of the unilinearity that has sometimes characterized studies of postsocialist transformation (see also Gilbert 2006). Additionally, through his investigation of popular longings for a pre-war normalcy in postwar Sarajevo, Jansen also develops a new conceptual language for talking about the forms of agency that expect and seek out the disciplinary and regulatory forms of power, which make modern forms of life more governable. Jansen’s discussion of “gridding” –which he borrows from James Scott and then redevelops in a very different register—further contributes to the anthropological decentralization of voluntarism and resistance as primary ways of thinking about subjects’ relationship to power. “Gridding” invites us to think about the ways in which our interlocutors may themselves be seeking an embedding at the heart of those ordered frameworks (Jansen 2015, 70).

The book’s first chapter, “’Normal Lives’ [or Towards an Anthropology of Yearning],” situates and develops analytically the ubiquitous evocations of normality among residents of postwar Sarajevo, and Bosnia at large. Jansen is less interested in the discourses of decline or moral pathology, and more in the yearnings for the recuperation of expected life trajectories and particular relationships to institutional forms. These yearnings, Jansen argues, are intimately tied to a certain understanding of time, which has been rendered more palpable by the violent political upheavals. It is here that Jansen also works to position Sarajevans’ yearnings in relation to other regimes of temporal reasoning (47), including notably that of hope. Residents of postwar Sarajevo, he posits, persistently long for hope (54). Jansen’s next chapter, “Waiting for a Bus [or, Towards an Anthropology of Gridding] works to give these longings a concrete, ethnographic form, by focusing on the everyday politics of city transport. It is in Dobrinja, on the outskirts of Bosnian capital where the effects of privatization, humanitarian aid, nascent market competition and ongoing dissolution of state services become palpably experienced in people’s daily commutes, that Jansen can concretize the idea that gridding—incorporation into modern regimes of regulatory power—can also be an object of popular desire.

Chapter 3 “Wartime Gridding for ‘Normal Lives’ [or, Towards an Anthropology of Hope for the State] expands on this argument by looking back at the self-organized wartime schools in this neighborhood, which during the Bosnian had been simultaneously cut off from the rest of the world as well as from besieged Sarajevo. Jansen’s invaluable historical excavation of this wartime history provides us with a rare look into some of its more productive aspects. He shows how the especially difficult predicament of Dobrinja’s residents did not merely lead to routinization or normalization of violent circumstances, but engendered a commendable, self-organized effort to create a viable system that could preserve “normal” life trajectories of both students and the teachers. By illustrating these pursuits, Jansen also problematizes the legacy of anti-statist thinking in anthropology, which he associates with Scott and Graeber in particular, but discusses more broadly under the rubric of “libertarian paradigm.” He demonstrates how his interlocutors saw little appeal in a “gridless situation” and instead tried to create their own “nesting gridding projects” (113) that would eventually contribute to the creation of a viable, overarching postwar state. Predictably, in the accounts of his interlocutors, the wartime abnormality becomes a romanticized site of individual and collective enterprise, generated precisely during those moments when the violence sought to reduce people to bare life. Jansen convincingly shows that this kind of “will to improve” did not materialize out of thin air, but in crucial ways depended on normative horizons of the prewar, socialist period.

The second half of Jansen’s’ book “Diagnosing Daytonitis,” descends into the everyday in order to map out the existential, practical and political ailments made possible by the postwar meantime. Daytonitis’s first symptom is the complaint about the lack of a system—a complaint that will immediately register with anyone who has conducted research in postwar Bosnia. According to Jansen’s interlocutors, the problem lies in the fact that this structural breakdown leads to a multiplicity of moral and civic failures, which range from people’s unwillingness to pay utility bills, to the rise of youth crime. Jansen follows Michael Taussig in asserting that this sense of breakdown and absence enhances the purported “magicality” (152) of the state-form, which is caught in the suspension between the not-yet and not-anymore. The second symptom of “pattering in space” (the focus of the sixth chapter), illuminates how this temporal and political suspension also generates unique sense of being in the world. The sense of paralysis, Jansen shows is made all the more palpable when placed in contrast with a teleological ontology of socialist modernism, whose centerpiece was the promise of (if not quite the bright socialist then nevertheless) “a certain future” (165). The final sections of Jansen’s book describe the actual embeddings of these “complaining” subjects into the newly emergent clientelist grids created in the aftermath of war. It is here that Jansen explores the possibility that the subjects seeking out normal and normative forms of interpolation are already complicit and in a relationship of conviviality with that problematic new postwar state.

Going westward, Maple Razsa’s fantastically titled Bastards of Utopia takes its readership into the world of a new generation of radical activists in former Yugoslavia, primarily, though not exclusively, based in the now independent and demonstrably postsocialist Croatia and Slovenia. Razsa’s focus on anarchists distinguishes his contribution from other political anthropologies of the region, since his project –and his interlocutors’ — go a step beyond in disavowing the once dominant tropes of civil society and democracy promotion. What is more, the translational character of the political labors he documents–both in the book and the companion ethnographic film—goes a long way in de-provincializing post-Yugoslav anthropology (even while the actual ethnographic material remains anchored by longstanding histories and relationships). Writing “against politics of the antis” and with an eye towards something he terms “affirmative anthropology,” Razsa engages and contributes to an emergent anthropology of activism and prefigurative politics. The book also charts out the arena of radical activism as an explicitly postsocialist space, inhabited by multiple political generations whose competing ideas about activism become an object of Razsa’s analysis. Interested to know “what it is like to be a leftist after socialism” (Razsa 2015, 2), Razsa follows his interlocutors in understating anarchism in postwar and postsocialist Croatia as a particular horizon for a critique of the state, necessitated by the nationalist wars and the violent reassertion of the nation as a primary political form. In a productive contrast to Jansen’s anthropology of the state and ordinary people’s longing for “gridding,” Razsa seeks to move away from “persistent developmentalism” that sees the state as an apex social form, and, in doing so, redeem—but also render more complex—the anarchist tradition in and for anthropology.

With this goal in mind, Chapter 1: “Grassroots Globalization on National Soil” brings together a critique of nationalist politics with a transnational forms of activist practice, through a situated analysis of antifascist commitments that do not simply belong (as it commonly portrayed in the region) to a dusty archive of Yugoslav socialism, but emerge in response to present and emergent concerns. “Bastards” are not nostalgic for socialist Yugoslavia, but rather see their antifascism as an answer to a specific historical conjecture, marked by pervasive nationalism and the rise of xenophobic, neo-fascist Right. The reassertion of the nation as a primary horizon of political belonging consequently pushes Croatian anarchists to engage in a broader critique of essentialized identities and culture as a form (57). Chapter 2, “Uncivil Society, NGOs, the Invasion of Iraq and the Limits of Polite Protest” allows Razsa to ask what the global crisis of representative democracy in general, and aporias of postwar and postsocialist democratization in the Balkans in particular, may mean for this new generation of activists attracted to more radical and more open-ended political imaginaries. Razsa provides an important historical background to the debates about civil society under state-socialism, but also casts light on the political effects of the decades’ long circulation of this trope in Croatian political life. This chapter, which foregrounds the 2002 protest against the US invasion of Iraq, also ties the localized struggles of Croatian anarchists to global traffic of ideas, practices and funding.

Chapter 3, “Feeling the State on Your Own Skin: Direct Confrontation and the Production of Militant Subjects” which follows the Croatian activists to a summit in Thessaloniki, features some of Razsa’s most exciting theoretical contributions and ethnographic material. As it analyzes the highly contingent, and eventually violent confrontation of the protesters with the Greek police, this chapter also unpacks the experiential dimension of the anti-globalization protests, and particularly, the complex role of what Razsa’ calls “performative violence” (116). By observing the transformative effects of participation in these violent confrontations and the processes of subjectification that take place through watching “riot porn” (videos of past confrontations between anti-globalization activists and the police), Razsa comes to a conclusion that “violence [is] a form of intentional political action, even a specific form of communication” (119). The repetitive, and sometimes compulsive viewing of militant video by activists appeals directly to the viewers’ bodies, and in so doing unleashes a tangle of mimetic processes that cultivate among activists a disposition and a readiness for direct confrontation (143). In these moments, and in the actual participatory acts, anarchists are able to confirm the latent violence of the state, and experience directly the limits of their political freedoms.

In “Struggling for What is Not Yet: the Right to the City in Zagreb,” the fourth chapter of the book, Razsa investigates yet another form of direct action n the postsocialist Croatian capital by zooming his lens on the short-lived occupation of the defunct printing factory “Knowledge Press.” He shows how the activists, in asserting the rights to their city, sought not only to critique the emergent property regimes, but also enact alternative ways of being. Following Graeber (2009), Juris (2008) and other scholars of prefigurative politics, Razsa sees direct action as those interventions against existing relations that seek to model or prefigure an alternative to those relations (149). The chronicle of this actual occupation, and the analysis of the relationships, conflicts, and experiments that take place around it, foreshadows some of the more recent sit ins and occupations at the University of Zagreb, which Razsa discusses in the conclusion. The last ethnographic chapter, however, “The Occupy Movement: Direct Democracy and a Politics of Becoming” shifts gears and takes us to Slovenia, into the more recent context of “Occupy” protests, where once again local grievances meet globalized practices and forms of articulation. While attentive to and in conversation with other scholarship on the Occupy protests, Razsa is also careful to show how Slovenian activists’ focus on localized forms of disfranchisement and precarity, lead to specific kinds of tactics. For example, he shows how and why Slovenian protesters opted for a “minoritarian” decision-making model at the expense of the more centralized general assemblies, which particularly characterized the gatherings in Zuccotti Park. He ties this to the centrality of the experiences of minorities, particularly the 1% of the “erased” non-Slovenian citizens and migrant workers, whose grievances featured prominently in the movement.

Razsa’s conclusion brings his ethnographic material into the context of the more recent mobilizations in Croatia and Bosnia, all the while rearticulating and deepening some of the arguments developed by the book. Here, he also invites anthropologists to move away from the antagonism and negative critique in their own analyses, and make analytical and theoretical space for other social and political possibilities.   Razsa’s affirmative ethnography is by no means naïve or uncritical, but rather exhibits a kind of intellectual generosity and political honesty that makes it a timely, persuasive and welcome addition to anthropology of anarchism. It is also great proof that good things still emerge out of long-term ethnographic engagement with a particular historical-geographic space.

Like Razsa’ monograph, Azra Hromadžić’s book Citizens of an Empty Nation: Youth and Citizenship in Postwar Bosnia, grapples with the aftermaths of nationalist wars and the destruction of the socialist project from the vantage point of younger generations. Hromadžić’s book is a deeply situated ethnography of an ethnically segregated city of Mostar, which became a symbol of wartime devastation as well as of the ambiguous effects of internationally sponsored postwar rebuilding. In contrast to both Jansen and Razsa, who push ethnonationalist forms of reason into the very margins of their analyses, Hromadžić bravely takes them on, landing in the very pits of Dayton consociationalism—an ethnically divided school and its fancy new computer lab which remains empty due to a lack of ethnically integrated activities upon which its sponsors made conditional its use. Hromadžić’s argument is that the very remedies that the International Community promoted in order to build a viable future for war-ravaged Bosnia, became mechanisms through which past coexistence and substantive forms of conviviality had been made hollow and emptied out.

For Hromadžić, like most other scholars who work in the region, the project of international postwar rebuilding is a fundamentally contradictory one, in so far that it attempts to reconcile incommensurate goals of democratization and reintegration with pressures to maintain “war-earned” ethnic autonomy. As a result, the Mostar Gymnasium, with its clashing pulls towards reunification and segregation, emerges as a perfect microcosm for investigating the contradictory practices and forms of life to which this “impossible” political project gives rise. Chapter 1 examines the long and fraught project of the school reintegration as a way of historicizing the ethnic conflict in the city of Mostar and nationalist divisions in Bosnia at large. Hromadžić gives particular attention to the question of language, which became the key register for preservation of segregated classrooms, and a central point of contention in the local community. She shows how nationalist Croats in particular used language instruction to project, perform, and safeguard, their claim to national specificity. This was because nationalist leaders and the Croat public saw reintegration of the two student bodies as an inevitable path toward linguistic corruption and contamination, which could jeopardize both the claim to distinct nationhood as well as futures of individual students who wished to continue their education in Croatia proper. In addition to describing the politically troublesome model of “two schools under one roof,” this chapter shines light on the paradoxes of nationalist modes of articulation and their frequently opaque relationship to both collective and individual futures.

Chapter 2 “Cartography of Peace-building” explores the ways nationalist claims of distinctiveness were also naturalized through the spatial organization of the school. Principles of ethnic symmetry, as well as the peculiar demonstrations of the influence of international donors, amplified the artifice and the fragmentation of the social space, all the while leaving little room for both interethnic and nonethnic interconnectedness. Ironically, as the following chapter “Bathroom Mixing” shows, everyday multiethnic contact became relegated to the very margins of the school grounds—the high school restrooms. It is in these spaces, usually reserved for the expulsion of abject bodily substances, that Croat and Bosniak students routinely engage in a doubly-transgressive practice of cigarette smoking and internethic socializing and conversation. Hromadžić’s ethnography chronicles how these practices of miješanje (mixing)—once ubiquitous, tacit, and normalized—in spite of their seemingly subversive character, also become the ground upon which ethnic differences are reasserted. Yet, as Hromadžić clearly shows in this chapter and throughout the book, postwar youth from different ethnonational groups actively seek each other out, out of curiosity and out of the need to make sense of each other.   They do so in an absence of a socially sanctioned space where such forms of knowledge could more freely circulate—space that this regime of “spatial governmentality” renders literally unmappable (Hromadžić 215, 84).

The following chapter “Poetics of Nationhood” explores the valiance of non-national forms of belonging and the political surplus contained in the category of “narod”—which historically referred not only to national groups, but also to a more ambiguous category of “people.” Hromadžić shows how this category appears in different registers in popular discourse, as for example in the idea of običan svijet (ordinary people), a trope that sometimes serves to distance citizens from the destructive actions of the political elite, as well as to absolve them from political responsibility. This non-ethnic, or better yet transethnic conceptualization of narod, Hromadžić argues, is “best understood as a discursive, transient category without a politically articulated essence”—a metapolitical rather than a purely instrumental category (132-133). The remaining two chapters “Invisible Citizens” and “Anti-Citizens” focus on the various forms of exclusion, which constitute the new, postwar state. Chapter 5 documents the experiences of ethnically mixed couples and their children, as they struggle to navigate boundaries and categories that render them and those like them invisible. By contrast, the last chapter turns is gaze towards everyday forms of “corruption” in an “abnormal and rotten” (157) state where practices of what Hromadžić calls “anti-citizenship” became a means of preserving a sense of citizen morality. Focusing on a different but complementary set of discourses about narod from the ones theorized in Chapter 4, Hromadžić asks here “How did narod come to be seen and described as rotten and profoundly corrupt?” To make sense of this anti-citizenship, and in a vein that resonates with Jansen’s own analyses, Hromadžić posits that the sense of pervasive injustice, which characterizes this postwar society, unleashes and sometimes even authorizes the citizens’ disavowal of honesty and morality as unquestionable virtues. Ironically, the author suggests, this erasure of civic responsibility and the destruction of previously-dominant ethical norms hint at yet another way the postwar state is continually “emptied out” of its long-standing histories and moral imaginaries.

Hromadžić is the only one among the three authors who was born and came of age in the region, and this has interesting and important consequences for the ways she positions herself in her text. Whereas Rasza and Jansen must reckon with their roles as conspicuously present outsiders—occasionally enduring suspicion of being spies or attempting to “go native,” Hromadžić continually finds herself emplaced, categorized, and grouped in relation to locally embedded categories. She is hence more reflexive in the text and careful to give proper space to values and norms that in many ways seem inimical from her own experience of growing up in socialist Yugoslavia or during the Bosnian war. What’s more, the accessible nature of the analysis and its focus on high schoolers, make this book a great choice for classes dealing with postconflict transformations and identity politics.

Although each one of these compelling books charts out its own domain and analytical path, every single one is also haunted by the promises, hopes, and disappointments, of the recent waves of socio-economic protests in the region. Jansen’s book begins with the 2014 Bosnian Uprising, while Hromadžić’s end with it—Razsa goes a step further to integrate into the book the events surrounding Occupy Slovenia, and to also consider in his conclusion the possibilities for the reemergence of the Croatian Left. These shared gestures suggest that despite their differences, these books share a great deal in common, including an acute awareness of the importance of time, imagination and historical knowledge in political life, as well as of the remarkable contingency of political action. Finally, these books, and the nascent forms of political action and thinking that they document, also suggest that the postsocialist transformation might not be an event or an epoch, but a far more enduring condition—perhaps even a form of historical consciousness bound to affect political practice in not-yet imaginable ways.

Larisa Kurtović, University of Ottawa

Reviewed in this essay:

Hromadžić, Azra. Citizens of an Empty Nation: Youth and State-Making in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Jansen, Stef. Yearnings in the Meantime: Normal Lives and the State in a Sarajevo Apartment Complex. New York and Oxford: Berghahn, 2015.

Razsa, Maple. Bastards of Utopia: Living Radical Politics after Socialism. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2015.

Works cited:

Aretxaga, Begoña. 2003. “Maddening States.” Annual Review of Anthropology 32 (January): 393–410.

Bonilla, Yarimar. 2015. Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Gilbert, Andrew. 2006. “The Past in Parenthesis: (Non)post-Socialism in Post-War Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Anthropology Today 22 (4): 14–18.

Graeber, David. 2009. Direct Action: An Ethnography. Edinburg, Oakland and Baltimore: AK Press.

Juris, Jeffrey S. 2008. Networking Futures: The Movements against Corporate Globalization. Experimental Futures. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press.

Navaro-Yashin, Yael. 2012. The Make-Believe Space: Affective Geography in a Postwar Polity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Reeves, Madeleine. 2014. Border Work: Spatial Lives of the State in Rural Central Asia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Roitman, Janet L. 2014. Anti-Crisis. Durham: Duke University Press.

Scott, David. 2014. Omens of Adversity: Tragedy, Time, Memory, Justice. Durham: Duke University Press.



About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Binghamton University in the State University of New York system. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, specializing in medical anthropology and the social study of science and technology. He is author of the forthcoming book The Slumbering Masses (UMN Press), which focuses on sleep in American culture and its historical and contemporary relations to capitalism.

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