Concluding session of a seminar

baltazar1I made up some notes for what to tell students at the last meeting of my MA seminar, “Politics of Southeast Europe Since 1990.” And I thought you might indulge me sharing them.



In this final session I am supposed to go over some of the things we have tried to do in here. So what did we try to do in this seminar?

Formally, we said we would do this (from the syllabus):

Course objectives:
By the end of the course, students will have gained knowledge and understanding allowing them to:

  1.        Evaluate policies both in the region and directed toward the region of Southeast Europe
  2.        Analyse contemporary issues and controversies involving Southeast Europe
  3.        Apply theoretical models from social science to understanding developments in Southeast Europe
  4.        Address scholarly controversies involving the wars of Yugoslav succession in the 1990s, the regimes that participated in them, their causes and consequences

Along the way, it is also expected that students will develop their skills in working with academic literature, in developing critical assessments of research, and in organising and presenting their work in an engaging manner.

This is perhaps a bit overly narrow. I think we did all of these things. We explored policies and we evaluated them, we tried to look at facts and issues using a variety of perspectives and methodologies, we got into some of the academic debates.

But maybe I can say a bit more. The selection of readings (especially for those of you who went beyond the required ones and into the recommended list) was meant to open horizons. In particular it was meant to shift away from a conventionally political approach to political issues. I have tried to develop and include background from most of the social sciences.

The purpose of this is not merely formalistic. There are plenty of formalistic observers of different types of contemporary politics in the world. We could probably say that the whole field of political analysis is becoming more formalistic and less engaged, because of a whole variety of different interests and pressures. Think about most of the media commentary you hear about ongoing events, if you are a close follower of media. You are likely to have recognised some of the following habits:

  • A tendency to take some contested categories (“democracy” or “Europe”) as given and not in need of analysis or discussion
  • A tendency to assume benign intentions and to overlook unintended effects
  • A tendency to concentrate attention on a small number of people occupying the top ranks of political institutions
  • A tendency to accept the “The” unquestioningly (“the” Serbs, Croats, etc)
  • Surreptitious Fukuyamaism in the unconscious promotion of a deeply ideologised master narrative of history

So why is this a problem? Consider this: one of the things that as specialists we are often asked to do (though probably we should not be asked) is to make predictions. And most of the predictions that the specialists make in response to this type of request turn out to be wrong. Why  are we wrong so often? Part of it may simply have to do with the nature of the question – nobody can predict the future. But part of it may have to do with the way that answers are assembled. Too narrow (and narrowly concentrated) a range of sources means answers that tend toward an assumption that conditions will remain the same.

Wars aren’t the only things the experts didn’t predict. They are pretty bad at predicting democracy as well (see 2014 Bosnian protests and plenums).

The anthropologist Ivan Colovic liked to quote a line from the science fiction writer Philip K Dick: “The sane man does not know that everything is possible.” He was using it to try to explain the behaviour of sociopaths during the period of violence in the 1990s in ex-Yugoslavia. Only they knew what could happen to what looked like peaceful and relatively prosperous communities (partly because they made it happen). To the degree that they were insane, this gave them insight and an advantage over other people. The sentence from Philip Dick comes, by the way, from an essay about psychedelic drugs written in 1964. Short of becoming criminals ourselves, how do we get access to this kind of advantage? The goal is not some kind of power, but insight above and beyond what is available to your standard media/party/thinktank “specialist.”

Basically it is by having good depth vision and peripheral vision, This takes engagement and it takes time. It means having enough familiarity with the environment you are in to be able to sense possible resonances, have an idea what is likely to take root or not. And it means looking broadly enough so that you have an idea about this political top layer that everyone else concentrates on: if it is representative, what is it representing? Where does this thing it is representing originate from, and what is it competing with? What is changing, and how quickly, and what is changing more quickly or slowly than it is? What do the anthropologists (or anyone else engaged with a different part of public life) know that the politicians don’t know? Have a sense of these things and you have insight that is better than your favourite paper’s editorial page.

So at this point I am supposed to offer conclusions, something that we have demonstrated during this term or some kind of parting advice. I didn’t have a big polemical point to prove so I am reasonably sure that I did not prove one. I hope I might have demonstrated some patterns that could be useful  to you as you continue to develop your thinking. What I hope some of these would be:


  • Look below the surface. The important stuff is almost never happening among the people at the top layer of politics. If it is happening in the state it is happening at the third or fourth level of official life. Most of the public and most of the experts will not have much sense of it.
  • Look for diversity. If you think that “the” Freedonians or Ruritanians are like this or that, you will be proved wrong by every social or political change.  Have a sense of the kind of competitions going on in the social environment (of which whoever is exercising power at the moment represents a fraction, temporarily).
  • Look into the past. Not to see how some ancient factor fixed everything into a particular place forever, but to see how some recent and ongoing changes have created new arrangements, new insecurities, new tensions, new fears, new conflicts. The answer to the question of why things are the way they are today is probably not in what some press spokesperson said yesterday or some half-fictional emperor did a thousand years ago, but in things that actually affect the way people live.
  • Look at how people live. It might not look the same as the way people are represented.
  • Look at the research, the closer the site of production of the research to the place being described the better. It can provide ways of answering questions that a lot of outside observers will not even think to ask (i.e., rather than declaring “the x’s are all nationalist” ask “what are the forces contributing to support for nationalist movements”).


Having completed a course in this field and probably the degree here, there is a good likelihood that many or most of you will before too long find yourselves in the position of the people whose answers to the questions people ask about the region you have been reading as study material. With any luck you know which have been the good ones and which ones less good. Try to be more like the good ones.





A couple quick reflections on culture, policy and politics

kulturaSome colleagues asked me to put together a quick presentation on culture and future of democracy in SEE. Here’s what I came up with.


Competing cultural models and prospects for democracy

The fundamental thesis I would offer is that the approach to cultural policy adopted in any state will be closely related to the dominant way in which democracy is understood. There is probably no good justification to offer a “hard” interpretation whereby a particular kind of democracy produces a particular kind of culture, or the other way around. The relative autonomy (Hall) of culture from other institutions is of variable strength, but probably greater to the degree that authority in a state is contested or incompletely established (as it is in most Southeast European states). Rather, it is possible to talk about tendencies and inclinations.

The term “democracy” is probably as variously understood and as contested as any term in any language, probably on a rank with terms like “truth” and “justice.” It is used as often to denote states and parties (German Democratic Republic, Srpska Demokratska Stranka) that are not democratic as ones that are. In public discourse on democracy the term is as likely to be used to signify concepts loosely related to political structure – like efficiency, transparency and responsiveness – as concepts closely related to political structure. What we can talk about more concretely are the goals associated with democracy, and the dominant purposes and motivations of political elites. The list of options here might be thought of as a listing of the highest probable availabilities, but is by no means exhaustive.

  • Democracy as a programme of enlightenment: Under this assumption the purpose of all kinds of leadership (cultural, political and otherwise) is to bring the public to the level required by the ambitions of governance. In the way this is formulated it is already apparent that there may be an assumption of an existing or threatened inadequacy – whether this is seen as deriving from “backwardness” or from an anticipated denaturing effect of market mechanisms. The political response to a perceived threat is to enhance support for (a narrow subset of) high culture, to advocate initiatives for the codification of cultural standards and language in particular, and to seek means of diffusion as a primary strategy of elevating the culture. This might be regarded as a classical approach to cultural policy – it draws on 19th century cultural interventionists such as Schiller (“The theatre as moral institution”) and Arnold (“Culture and anarchy”) as principal references. Noble in purpose, the character of cultural policy under this conception is authoritarian.
  • Democracy as an ongoing project of creating a democratic public: While this assumption is closely related to the preceding one it encourages a cultural policy more oriented to supplementing popular and commercial offerings than to displacing them. This is the approach of many of the world’s largest and most influential national broadcasting systems (see: BBC and PBS mission statements — slides). The idea is at least mildly liberal-interventionist, relying on the assumption that by means of public support a quality of information, education and cultural content can be offered that the market cannot be relied on to provide. As the mission statements imply, there is a strong focus on education, sometimes in the form of formal (Open University) or informal (documentary programming) adult education, and more frequently in the form of early childhood education (Sesame Street). While generally non-authoritarian in approach, projects operating under this rubric are confronted by constant challenges from private and commercial cultural sectors on the grounds that they are unnecessary or offer unfair competition.
  • (There may exist a subcategory to this model, in which among the purposes of democracy is regarded the creation or maintenance of a diverse public. In this case there is likely to be a strong emphasis on providing cultural content showcasing minority cultures or in minority languages – this is explicitly encouraged by EU cultural policy, for example)
  • Democracy as a programme of unification/elimination: Drawing on the early insight that culture provides a social space in which different perspectives are united (Schiller), this approach seeks to solidify and narrow the unity that is produced. The direction of policy depends on drawing a distinction between the things that fall inside and outside of the category of “national culture,” both selecting from among existing possibilities and inventing new ones where necessary  (Čolović, Hobsbawm). The reliance on cultural elites for definitions is likely to mean that the type of culture that is called “national” is likely to be aspirational and uncertainly rooted in reality, whereas much of the creativity of people from the national community is likely to be neglected and to fall outside the definition (Stojanović). In this approach as in the “enlightenment” approach, policy places a strong emphasis on codification
  • Democracy as leaving decisions to the public: In contrast with the preceding approaches, each of which relies on a greater or lesser degree of intervention into culture, this one proposes as little intervention as possible. This might be regarded as an anarcholiberal approach – support the initiatives that need (or request) support through a selection process that is as autonomous as possible, regulate as little as possible, encourage the greatest possible quantity and diversity of production. The virtue of this approach is its avoidance of restrictive (and possibly authoritarian) guidance. The drawback is in the likelihood that cultural processes can be reduced through the operation of commercial forces to “mere” entertainment (often labelled as “the lowest common denominator”), with the loss of potential for culture to function as a discursive space.

Is one cultural model more conducive to democracy than another? It is not hard to say both that each has easily visible advantages and drawbacks, and that the fields of culture and politics develop in ways that are largely autonomous from one another. It is probably also worth noting that to point out what model is dominant is not the same thing as to describe the entire cultural field. From the point of view of social science it is probably better to adopt a modest posture – to attempt to characterise a field and talk about projective probabilities, without being overly prescriptive.

In that spirit, a brief assessment of dominant cultural policies in the region, in a few short points:

  1. There has been a general retreat from the idea of enlightenment, possibly a result of scarcity of resources, but probably also in good measure as an ideological reaction to “real-socialist” regimes that put a heavy emphasis on enlightenment.
  2. Probably the same can be said about projects for creating a democratic public – efforts have been uneven, half-hearted, and in many cases reliant on what turned out to be temporary international support.
  3. Although “nationalism” is a stereotype applied to states throughout the region, it is not clear that there have been consistent projects for the development of culture along national lines, despite the heavy presence of various types of discrimination.
  4. Either for ideological reasons or as a result of limited capacity, the anarcholiberal model appears to have been adopted (whether by decision or not). To the degree that anarcholiberalism is not equivalent to freedom this has brought about the probably undesirable consequences of a) weakly controlled extremist and hate content, and b) centralised corporate control.

It could be argued then that regardless of which approaches to democracy anybody might favour, outcomes in culture have been largely undemocratic. As I final point I might add that this comes simultaneously with widespread rejection by youth of all kinds of social participation, including cultural participation (Ilišin, Tomanović). We might raise the question of whether there is any content to a discussion about the relation between cultures and states in an environment where neither states nor cultures inspire enthusiasm or loyalty.