As mass demonstrations mobilized against racial injustice in the U.S. and globally, Nataša Garić-Humphrey, Andrew Gilbert, Azra Hromadžić, and Larisa Kurtović took part in a virtual discussion of political and social movements, drawing from their extensive ethnographic research in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Their discussion explores the complex interplay of history, social movements, and generational change, and how anthropological theory engages with these phenomena. This discussion was moderated by PoLAR Associate Editor Jennifer Curtis. Nataša Garić-Humphrey’s article “Negotiating “True” Politics: Intergenerational Dynamics During Social Uprising in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina” appeared in the May 2020 issue of PoLAR; Larisa Kurtović’s article “When All That Is Solid Does Not Melt into Air: Labor, Politics and Materiality in a Bosnian Detergent Factory” appeared in the November 2020 issue of PoLAR.
How are the generational differences that Nataša explores manifested among groups you have worked with in Bosnia-Herzegovina?
Nataša Garić-Humphrey: As Sarah Lamb (2015) illustrates in her article “Generation in Anthropology,” the concept of generation has been used by anthropologists to explore the construction of intergenerational kinship ties, to track social change over time, as a principle of social organization, and as a form of identity and intersectionality. For me, the concept of generation has been a very productive analytical tool and a window into greater complexity of political subjectivities. In comparison to research on recent protests that consider youth as the main catalysts of change, I wanted to add to the existing conversation and explore the dynamic between three different generations in an environment of citizen upheaval.
In the 2014 Sarajevo social uprising, it did not make sense to focus on one generation. That would have been an oversight of the protest dynamic happening at that time. It was very interesting to observe how members of different generations came together and built on each other’s actions but also how they, at times, had divergent ideas on how to generate much needed change in the country. As I argue in my new article “Negotiating ‘True’ Politics: Intergenerational Dynamics During Social Uprising in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina” (2020) published in PoLAR, members of different generations all challenged the existing political status quo. In the process, they emerged as new subjects that did not belong to any preexisting groups occupying spaces within mainstream politics. However, they did differ on whether violence was needed to create change, whether this change should happen within or outside the existing political structure that is heavily corrupted, and whether power should be distributed horizontally or hierarchically. As I observed firsthand, the discrepancy happened not only because members of different generations have diverse needs but also because they experience crisis in different ways. This variation is informed by coming of age in different political periods—a period of socialism in the case of the older socialist generation, a period right after the war for the post-war transition generation, and a time of increased economic crisis and endless “transitioning” for youth, which I phrase the absurdistan generation—following a term used by youth themselves.
Needless to say, I was influenced by Sarah Lamb’s (2015) call for anthropologists to take a closer look at the concept of generation because it gives us a much-needed temporal perspective. Such a perspective helps anthropologists make sense of social relations among members of different generations that co-inhabit a particular time and space but are informed by different historical and sociopolitical circumstances. As Lamb claims, “[t]he concept of generation has not emerged as a central analytic issue in the discipline,” and many that do examine the concept, do not foreground it as central to their projects (2015, 856). With this article, I am hoping to shed light on the potentiality of this concept for anthropological research and theory in the future. It is a very powerful framework that leads us to focus on the processes of social change, social organization, kinship, identification, and much more.
Lastly, the concept of generation also led me to critically engage with Jacques Rancière’s concept of the political. In his critique of a broad post-ideological consensus and a wide acceptance of the liberal state and the capitalist market, Rancière argues for politics as the institution where equality needs to be presupposed and continuously reaffirmed, if we are to speak of a genuine democracy (1999). For him, the importance of equality brings the meaning of the term politics into question. He creates a distinction between the police order and politics (1999; 2004). The former represents the existing order of governance that is hierarchical and based on unequal distribution of resources. The latter, on the other hand, refers to a dissent from this hierarchical order and a striving for equality (Rancière 1999; 2004).
Rancière’s theoretical principles have been gaining popularity not only among activists but political theorists and researchers studying insurgent movements. For example, Keith Bassett, claims the Occupy movement radically broke with the past by adding many innovative aspects of practicing politics (2014). It is in this radical shift that he recognizes parallels between Rancière and Occupy movement in commitment to radical equality, horizontality, resistance to an ideological framework, and emergence of new subjectivities. In my article, however, I argue that careful analysis of three generations during the Sarajevo uprising reveals the limitations of Rancière’s binary framework because it leads us to characterize some generations as practicing the “right” and others the “wrong” kind of politics—as if only those who refrained from violence, who acted outside of the mainstream political system, and who pledged to a horizontal political organization could be considered as practicing the “right” kind of politics or the so called “true” democracy (Garić-Humphrey 2020).
Larisa Kurtović: In his 2015 book, Whose Bosnia: Nationalism and the Political Imagination in the Balkans 1840-1914, historian Edin Hajdarpašić captures the efforts of the late 19th and early 20th century nationalist movements to recast the previously apolitical category of youth (omladina) into a new kind of a patriotic collectivity that would realize a future of national liberation. As Hajdarpašić expertly demonstrates, at the turn of the century, this volatile and predominantly male collectivity was a political subject in becoming, at once “already present and not yet fully actualized” (Hajdarpašić 2015, 134). Omladina, in other words, began less as a self-evident fact than an idea fermented in the minds of adult would-be revolutionaries, inspired by the Enlightenment-era idealization of youth as an embodiment of radical political potential.
This conceptualization of youth as an agent of political transformation has a long and storied history, particularly in places marked by a history of emancipatory struggles. By the mid-20th century, the Yugoslav communists, a new generation of dutiful children of the Enlightenment, had inherited the task of venerating youth’s revolutionary potential. They did so through self-conscious and overt political acts, such as through the canonization of children’s heroic acts of WII antifascist resistance, the founding of generational communist organizations like the Young Pioneers, and by developing an entire national holiday dedicated to youth that was simultaneously reinscribed as a fictionalized birthday of Marshal Tito. As Jessica Greenberg’s 2014 ethnography of student activism in the wake of anti-Milošević mass demonstrations in Serbia poignantly reveals, it was this precise association of youth with hope and promise of progress that in the protests’ aftermath set the stage for a distinctly post-Yugoslav—and undoubtedly postsocialist—politics of disappointment.
Both of these monographs, and the histories they seek to unravel, reveal that “youth”—the usual suspect in discussions of generation and politics—is neither a self-evident nor self-standing category, but rather one recursively constituted by intergenerational struggles, hopes and disenchantments. In framing youth as a privileged site from which to understand transformative political action, we tend to lose sight of all the ways in which older generations also participate in shaping of our political present. This is why Nataša Garić-Humphrey’s analysis of intergenerational dimensions of protest in postwar Sarajevo is such an important and timely intervention in anthropological literature on protest mobilizations.
The extraordinary thing about the last 25 years in Bosnia-Herzegovina is that nearly every single major protest mobilization has, in one way or another, pivoted around youth and children—these days imagined less as revolutionary vanguards but as incarnations of crisis (see Kurtović 2016; also Hromadžić 2015). Interestingly, however, in 2014, it was the first time that youth itself emerged as an active political subject, albeit one that was both ambiguous and unruly. As young protestors set on fire so many government headquarters, their parents and grandparents looked on in shock, some ultimately praising their righteous indignation and others condemning their penchant for destruction (which seemed particularly eerie in the wake of the Bosnian war). Others yet were mistrustful of youth’s motivations, fearing they might not be autonomous agents, but paid infiltrators. This ambiguity and tension was powerfully captured in an essay by journalist Samir Šestan (2014), entitled “I am the future, how do you like me now?” In this emotionally charged text, Šestan laid bare the outlines of the postwar affective economy of intergenerational guilt and shame, all the while himself siding with the “hooligans”—collective political agents newly reimagined (see Gilbert 2018, also Kurtović 2016).
Throughout her 2014 fieldwork that forms the basis of this article, Nataša has tracked this very distribution of hopes and anxieties in postwar Bosnia, ultimately being able to show how generational experiences came to play a determining role in shaping both the forms and the content of the protesters’ demands. But these generational stakes were co-constitutive, enmeshed and mutually reinforcing. For example, it was the police’s repression and imprisonment of youthful protesters in Sarajevo on the first day of the mobilization that subsequently brought many other, older protesters into the streets and to plenums.
Prior to 2014, there were at least two other moments when (inter)generational dynamics came to matter greatly. In 2008, the first non-nationalist mobilization after the war in the Bosnian capital was sparked by a gruesome murder of 16-year-old, Denis Mrnjavac, by three of his peers. At that time, violent youth crime emerged as a particularly powerful symbol of protracted social, economic and political insecurity that kept hoped-for futures out of reach. And then five years later, another wave of mass mobilizations swept up many cities across Bosnia, in the name of newborn babies, who were left without basic citizenship documents as a result of a political stalemate created by the leading nationalist parties (Kurtović 2018, also Jansen 2015). It turns out that youth and children, once celebrated as agents of future redemption, now embody profound and multifaceted political anxieties that hold their own parents lives in suspension. What I find particularly productive about Nataša’s article, is how she brings together the predicament of youth and their parents’ side by side.
This brings me to the question of historical consciousness and its role in shaping political thinking and practice. This has become a powerful theme in my ethnographic research with workers turned anti-privatization activists in the city of Tuzla, whose political efforts played a key role in the 2014 protests and plenums. In 2017, I officially joined forces with Andrew Gilbert on this project. The two of us, along with graphic artist, Boris Stapić, are currently working on a graphic ethnography based on the coterminous struggle for the Dita detergent factory, the symbol of union-based activism in Tuzla.
The case of union-based activism in Tuzla offers a different, though complementary view of cohort-based sensibilities and orientations. For example, Tuzla’s dispossessed workers, despite their age, were forced to act in ways that were both confrontational and often quite radical. They persisted through occupations, encampments and marches that actually placed their bodies on the line. By contrast, youth in Tuzla have been seen in a more ambiguous light. On the one hand, just like in Sarajevo, youth played a crucial role during the 2014 street protests. But on other occasions, older generations of workers lamented that youth had become deeply depoliticized; that they were lacking in initiative as well as historical and political consciousness; and perhaps more interested in emigrating than fighting for a better tomorrow in Bosnia. This shows that there are profound tensions among generations, and that their mutual perceptions are far from homogenous and can easily shift depending on context. I look forward to discussing this inter-generational economy of expectation, hope and blame at greater length in this forum.
Azra Hromadžić: The idea of generation is common-place in most societies. And yet, there has been very little anthropological theorizing of generation, especially when compared to the extensive studies of race, gender, class, and ethnicity. What Nataša calls the “absence of generation” is perhaps especially pronounced in the context of research on Bosnia, where the acceptable frameworks for thinking about Bosnia have been hijacked by ethnicity and nationalism. While there are many examples of this intellectual disarticulation and ethnographic misplacement, one example that captures it well is the film ReGeneration. In the film, the director, Emir Kapetanović (2018), wonders if the country’s ethnically divided youth can show the way to reconciliation, peace and prosperity, and become “ambassadors of peace?” This language of youth and reconciliation is both expected—given the dominant frames of thinking, approaching and funding the Balkans, and curious—given the title of the film and the fact that most youth depicted in the film clearly signal a need to reconcile with the “older generation,” which created “this mess.”
Given this larger context of theoretical and ethnographic dislodgment, I was very pleased to see Garić-Humphrey’s piece. The author takes generation seriously as an ethnographic object and powerful analytic with which to grasp contemporary socio-economic and political formations. The article, building on Sarah Lamb’s (2010) work on aging in India, approaches generation not as a stage in a “life course” but rather as contextual and historical experiences of event-sharing. Maybe it is useful to note that Lamb’s work, more or less explicitly, builds on Mannheim’s (1952) seminal paper “The Problem of Generations.” In this work, the author examines how being born in a particular time and space, within a certain historical and geographical context, influences our life course. The importance of proximate geographies for thinking generational and inter-generational dynamics became especially clear to me during my research at a private nursing home in Bosnia (Hromadžić 2015). Due to the massive dislocations and “emptying” produced by war violence and postwar emigration, a significant number of the home’s elderly (the socialist generation) became geographically disconnected from their children (the postwar generation) that lives elsewhere (usually in “the west”) and therefore cannot physically and proximately care for their aging parents. New social and economic formations and forms of relatedness—including private nursing homes and distinctive forms of transgenerational caring across distance—emerged from these spatial discontinuations (see Hromadžić 2016).
Central to Mannheim’s theorizing is the idea of “non‐contemporaneity of the contemporaneous,” first coined by the art historian Pinder (1926). Mannheim uses this notion to suggest that older and younger age groups can experience the same historical events differently, according to their unique exposure to knowledge and experience. This powerful idea that “all people living at the same time do not necessarily share the same history” (Novak 2017, 242) is very important in the Bosnian context, where non-recognition of shared history sometimes disables transmission and paralyzes social action.
This became especially clear to me during a two-day-event in March 2017. This event, which took place at an abandoned industrial complex—a former textile giant Kombiteks located in the northwestern Bosnian city of Bihać, explored the nature and logic of industrial heritage. The event brought together numerous researchers, artists, students from the University of Bihać, and several former workers from Kobiteks. During an especially powerful documentary by Amir Husak, projected on the walls of this industrial ruin, in which several workers recalled what it was like to work and socialize at the factory during socialism, I observed current students—“members” of the “absurdistan” cohort—watch and react to the documentary. I was witnessing a failure of intergenerational transmission where socialist experiences did not have the language to express themselves, and to make themselves felt and understood by the students. The former workers might have spoken in a different language altogether. This schism was not only the product of difference between the socialist and the absurdistan generations. Rather, what I witnessed was the failure of intergenerational grammar—historical, economic, social and cultural—that could connect the groups. In this context, experiences of socialism had no place and no language in the contemporary understandings of Bosnian life and history. The students, who are not taught about socialism at school, had a difficult time connecting to the stories they were witnessing. They felt detached and discombobulated. They understood the words but they lacked historical “grammar” and social sensibility with which to interpret them. Transgenerational social fabric—the larger context that would anchor them together in shared geo-history—was absent. Instead, the workers’ words slid off the screen, unconsumed, scattered, and somehow frozen.
Andrew Gilbert: The focus that Nataša’s article puts on generation is very welcome, not only because it is a concept which Bosnians use to link and think politics and history. It is also in the crucible of generationally framed frictions where we can detect how people forge the continuities and discontinuities making Bosnia’s future. My own research on worker politics in late industrial Bosnia and Herzegovina demonstrates the many ways that political possibility is linked to the nature of generational and inter-generational relations. The February 2014 uprising in the city of Tuzla is a case-in-point. After all, it was when groups of never-employed youth joined disemployed workers for one of their weekly protests—each demanding government action to combat poverty, unemployment, and other effects from the predatory privatization of the city’s many industrial mass employers—that the conditions were created for the uprising that followed. On the first day only a few hundred people gathered to press for the attention of the government. By the third day the protest crowd swelled to as many as 10,000 demanding the resignation of the regional (cantonal) premier. It was images of young people being chased, gassed, beaten, and arrested by heavily armored state security forces that partially de-legitimized the government and police in the eyes of the general population. Elders saw them primarily as “our children” undeserving of violence rather than as dangerous hooligans who needed to be disciplined. As I have written about elsewhere (Gilbert 2018), it was also the large presence of the mostly young and male fans (Fukare) of the city’s soccer team Sloboda that made a key difference in how the protest unfolded. For example, their willingness to confront and withstand police batons and tear gas fortified the rest of the protesting crowd who had little experience with police violence. Moreover, their articulation of a city-based form of belonging helped to conjure an enactment of “the people” that anyone could join, and which stood in mass opposition to the cantonal government and its security forces (see also Hromadžić and Kurtović 2017 and Kurtović 2018). Together, these two factors contributed significantly to the surrender and withdrawal of the police and the abdication of the premier.
Although most in the protesting crowd condemned the intermittent stoning of the police and torching of the building that housed the cantonal government, commentary by participants and onlookers alike was marked by a generational and inter-generational critique. This is evident in a middle-aged man’s confrontation and criticism of a young man he knew as the young man was ransacking the government building. In response, the young man replied that he was just acting to make sure “that tomorrow these politicians don’t have a job to come to just like my father has had no job for the past ten years.” Middle-aged and retired workers pointed to the origins and history of the building which had been built by and once housed the socially-owned mass employer SodaSo. One retired worker wept openly when he recalled the damage done to a building he had worked to construct. Others criticized the fact that this former emblem of the city’s industrial wealth was now occupied by a government who did nothing to prevent the collapse of its industries and might even be helping that process along, and concluded that because it was their collective resources and labor that built this building, it was theirs to destroy as well.
The Tuzla plenum too was an experiment in inter-generational political possibility. The first meeting was introduced by an industrial worker in her 50s, an activist and university professor in his late 30s, and a café owner/leader of football fans in his early 40s, each of them drawing in and speaking to workers, pensioners, students, artists, young football fans and other activists from across the city. One of the initiators of the Tuzla plenum, activist and academic Damir Arsenijević, has argued that the inter-generational and collaborative character of the Tuzla plenum and other worker-focused activism was critical to imagining alternatives to the ethnicized, atomized, and privatized politics of the post-war period. He noted that this meant “showing how solidarity and commonality are practiced daily and… the establishment of inter-generational connections that are sorely needed in Bosnia and Herzegovina in which trauma works by cutting any sort of connections and reifying identity politics and the politics of victimhood” (Arsenijević et al. 2020). In his estimation, the collective action of industrial workers who came of age under a system of socially-owned factories are a critical model for Bosnians of subsequent generations in imagining a different future. The very forms of their struggle and their attachments to their factories has made it possible to recover and re-write the past,
against the grain of the dominant ethnocapitalist elites for whom the past is the glorious ethnic past and who destroyed the socially-owned property in the transition into capitalism through the war and thus created a social bond that is different from the one that existed. So if the ethnocapitalists tore the holes in the social, we want to weave the fabric of the social in a different way. And that’s why this kind of politics is recuperative and restorative” (Ibid).
Another project I am involved in with Larisa Kurtović is a collaborative graphic ethnography project that seeks to tell the success story of a well-known Tuzla detergent company whose workers fought for years to re-start production after the factory had been idled by the debts and neglect of its owner (https://reclaimingdita.com/). Here too that success was built upon inter-generational ties within the factory and the support and solidarity demonstrated by city residents, students, and activists from the very generations that Nataša identifies in her article, those who came of age in socialism, during the war, and in the post-war period.
The kinds of commentary over generation and generational difference we encountered in our research on the struggle for Dita coalesced around a broader crisis in social reproduction that is gripping Tuzla and Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole. Bosnians are reckoning with the fact that the European modernist and industrial model of human flourishing that provided older generations with a stable life course appears evermore untenable. The Dita workers’ long and taxing struggle for their factory was grounded in their experience of the factory as theirs: A socially-owned enterprise that provided them with the material infrastructure of social reproduction, including the means to house, feed, and school their children, to provide their families with health care and even in some cases with jobs—we documented instances of two or even three generations of a family employed in the factory. And yet, once the factory had re-opened and then been bought by a new owner, these older workers lamented that the generation of newly hired workers would never have the same relationship to the factory or their fellow workers as their older counterparts did. This is because, in contrast to the salaried positions of the older workers, these young workers were all employed on precarious, three-month contracts with minimal pay. Such jobs would never provide the continuity or means for the “normal life” that their parents and grandparents had experienced before the war. Moreover, the precarious status of these new workers also prevented them from joining the factory-based union, and thus they will never gain the experience in self-organization and solidarity that the older workers credited as crucial to the success of their struggle. Syndical forms of politics were dying out as the union withered with each worker hitting retirement age.
Of course, these generational distinctions being produced among workers in the Dita factory are part and parcel of one of the biggest social crises to hit the city and country since the end of the war: the mass exodus of young people from the country. But maybe that is something to take up in a later part of this discussion.
Dr. Nataša Garić-Humphrey is a Lecturer at the Department of Anthropology at Northern Arizona University. She completed her Ph.D. from University of California San Diego in 2018. She works at the intersection of political, psychological, and activist anthropology with a specific focus on political subjectivity where she critically examines the importance of inserting “the moral self” within political theory. Her research takes a closer look at the ways people manage their moral orientations within the context of hegemonic power and (re)make their moral selves to engage in and confront larger political and socioeconomic processes. Dr. Garić-Humphrey currently works with citizen activists in Bosnia-Herzegovina, looking closely at the processes of people working on their selves through self-care and self-reflection in order to obtain a state of normality in an atmosphere of economic struggles, social injustice, and post-war trauma. In her latest piece, published in PoLAR and titled Negotiating “True” Politics: Intergenerational Dynamics During Social Uprising in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Dr. Garić-Humphrey investigates social relations during protest activity from an intergenerational perspective and critically engages with Jacques Rancière’s notion of the political.
Dr. Andrew Gilbert is a broadly trained anthropologist with over 20 years of research experience, most of it in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He is currently Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto Mississauga and Senior Researcher at the University of Toronto Ethnography Lab. A full description of his research and writing can be found at www.andrewgilbert.com.
Dr. Azra Hromadžić is a cultural anthropologist with research interests in the anthropology of international policy in the context of state-making in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her book, Citizens of an Empty Nation: Youth and State-making in Postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina (University of Pennsylvania Press), is an ethnographic investigation of the internationally directed postwar intervention policies in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the response of local people, especially youth, to these policy efforts. The book was translated into Serbian in 2017 (Samo Bosne nema: Mladi i građenje države u posleratnoj Bosni i Hercegovini. Beograd: Biblioteka XX Vek). Several years ago, Azra initiated a new project that ethnographically researches aging, care and social services in the context of postwar and postsocialist Bosnia and Herzegovina. She co- edited (with Monika Palmberger) a volume titled Care Across Distance: Ethnographic Explorations of Aging and Migration which was published with Berghahn Books in 2018. Hromadžić spent the spring semester of 2017 as a Fulbright Scholar in Bosnia-Herzegovina where she conducted research and taught at the University of Bihać. This experience propelled her to begin a new research project on riverine politics, imagination, tourism and infrastructure in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Azra is the recipient of the 2017 Daniel Patrick Moynihan Award for Teaching and Research, the 2017 Excellence in Graduate Education Faculty Recognition Award and the 2014 Meredith Professors’ Teaching Recognition Award.
Dr. Larisa Kurtović is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Ottawa. She is a political anthropologist who conducts research on activist politics, postsocialist transformation and the aftermath of international intervention in postwar Bosnia. Her ethnographic analyses of popular mobilizations, political satire and nationalist politics, have appeared on the pages of the American Ethnologist, Focaal, History and Anthropology and Critique of Anthropology among others. She is currently writing a book entitled Future as Predicament: Political Life After Catastrophe based on her long-term research in postwar-Bosnia, as well as working on a future graphic ethnography about syndical struggle and political possibilities with anthropologist Andrew Gilbert and graphic artist Boris Stapić.
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