Ethnic Dance Macabre

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Articles by Slavoj Žižek

THE world today is more and more marked by the frontier separating its insiders from its outsiders, between the "developed" — those to whom human rights, social security and the like apply — and the others, the excluded.

The main concern of the "developed" is to contain the explosive potential of the rest, even if it means the neglect of elementary democratic principles. This opposition, not the one between capitalism and socialism, is what defines the "new world order". The socialist bloc was a desperate attempt at modernisation outside the constraints of capitalism. What is effectively at stake in the present crisis of post-socialist states is the struggle for one's place: who will be admitted — integrated into the developed capitalist order — and who will remain excluded.

Ex-Yugoslavia is perhaps the exemplary case. Every participant in the bloody disintegration tries to legitimise their place "inside" by presenting themselves as the last bastion of European civilisation (the current ideological designation for the capitalist "inside") in the face of oriental barbarism.

For rightwing nationalist Austrians the imaginary frontier is Karavanke, the mountain chain between Austria and Slovenia; beyond it, the Slavic hordes rule.

For the nationalist Slovenes the frontier is the river Kolpa, separating Slovenia from Croatia; we are Mitteleuropa, while Croats are already Balkan, involved in the irrational ethnic feuds which really do not concern us — we are on their side, we sympathise, but in the same way one sympathises with a third world victim of aggression.

For Croats the crucial frontier, of course, is the one between them and Serbs, between western Catholic civilisation and the eastern Orthodox collective spirit, which cannot grasp the values of western individualism. Serbs see themselves as the last line of defence of Christian Europe against the fundamentalist danger embodied in Muslim Bosnians and Albanians.

It should now be clear who, within ex-Yugoslavia, effectively behaves in the civilised, European way: those at the very bottom of this ladder, excluded from belonging to the "developed" — the Muslim Bosnians and Albanians. And today they are paying for it.

Slovenia and Croatia moved fast and aggressively. Against the will of the West, they proclaimed independence and attained their goal, including recognition by the West.

On the other hand, Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian president, behaved as a model pupil of the West. He followed closely western suggestions and proceeded with caution, was always ready to give another chance to any formula for a new Yugoslavia, abstained from provoking the Serbs even when the Yugoslav Army was already fortifying artillery sites on the mountains around Sarajevo. And all this in exchange for assurances that the West would keep in check the Serbs and prevent the Yugoslav Army attacking non-Serbs in Bosnia. He paid for his trust, and for playing a civilised game, with the total destruction of his country.

When western promises proved void and the army attacked, the West threw up its hands and assumed the convenient posture of a distant observer, appalled at the outburst of "primitive Balkan passions".

What then, are these notorious Balkan passions?

There is a story about an anthropological expedition trying to contact in New Zealand a tribe which allegedly danced a terrible war dance in grotesque death masks. When the members of the expedition reached the tribe in the evening they asked the village to perform it for them, and the dance performed next morning did in fact match the description. Satisfied, the expedition returned to civilisation and wrote a much-praised report on the savage rites of the primitives.

However, shortly after, when another expedition arrived at this tribe and learned to speak the language properly it was shown that this terrible dance did not exist in itself at all. In their discussions with the first group of explorers, the aborigines had somehow guessed what the strangers wanted and quickly invented it for them, to satisfy their demand. In short, the explorers received back from the aborigines their own message.

This is what has to be dispelled if we are to understand what the Yugoslav crisis is about: there is nothing entirely self-generated in these ethnic conflicts, the West was from the very beginning included.

Lord Carrington, James Baker, Douglas Hurd, Hans-Dietrich Genscher et al, are today's version of the New Zealand expedition. They act and react in the same way, overlooking how the spectacle of old hatreds erupting in their primordial cruelty is a dance staged for their eyes, a dance for which the West is thoroughly responsible.

Is it coincidence that what is being described as the worst bombardment Sarajevo has experienced should have taken place before the eyes of the world attending the peace conference in London this week? Or surprising that one participant at the alternative conference, being held simultaneously, should point out that there is a view "that if you don't use violence you won't get the attention of the European Community"?

So why does the West accept the narrative of the outburst of ethnic passions?

For a long time, the Balkans have been one of the privileged sites of fantastic investments. Gilles Deleuze said: "Si vous etes pris dans le reve de l'autre, vous etes foutu" — if you are caught in another's dream, you are lost. In ex-Yugoslavia, we are lost, not because of our primitive dreams and myths preventing us from speaking the enlightened language of Europe but because we pay in flesh the price for being the stuff of others' dreams.

The fantasy which organised the perception of ex-Yugoslavia is that of the Balkans as the Other of the West: the place of savage ethnic conflicts long ago overcome by civilised Europe, the place where nothing is forgotten and nothing learned, where old traumas are being replayed again and again, where symbolic links are simultaneously devalued (dozens of cease-fires broken) and overvalued (the primitive warrior's notions of honour and pride).

Against this background, a multitude of myths flourished. For the "democratic left", Tito's Yugoslavia was the mirage of the third way of self-management, beyond capitalism and state-socialism. For the men of culture it was the land of refreshing folkloric diversity (the films of Makavejev and Kusturica); for author Milan Kundera the place where the idyll of Mitteleuropa meets oriental barbarism.

For the western realpolitik of the late 1980s, the disintegration of Yugoslavia functioned as a metaphor for what might happen in the Soviet Union; for France and Great Britain it resuscitated the phantom of the German Fourth Reich perturbing the delicate balance of European politics.

Behind it all lurked the primordial trauma of Sarajevo, of the Balkans as the spark threatening to set all of Europe ablaze. Far from being the Other of Europe, ex-Yugoslavia was rather Europe itself in its Otherness, the screen on to which Europe projected its own repressed reverse.

It is difficult, then, not to recall Hegel's dictum that true evil does not reside in the object perceived as bad, but in the innocent gaze which perceives evil all around. The main obstacle to peace in ex-Yugoslavia is not "archaic ethnic passions", but the gaze of Europe fascinated by the spectacle of these passions.

Against today's journalistic commonplace about the Balkans as the madhouse of thriving nationalism one must point out again and again that the moves of every political agent in ex-Yugoslavia, reprehensible though they may be, are totally rational within the goals they want to attain. The only exception, the only truly irrational factor in it, is the West babbling about archaic ethnic passions.

OLD ethnic hatreds, of course, are far from being simply imagined, they are a historical legacy. The key question is why they exploded now, not earlier or later.

There is one simple answer: the political crisis in Serbia. The determining factor of the Yugoslav tragedy is the survival of the old power structure (the communist bureaucracy, the Federal Army) in Serbia and Montenegro. It prolonged its domination by putting on nationalist clothes. The moment a truly democratic force were to gain strength in Serbia, the flames of that nationalist passion would extinguish themselves in a couple of weeks.

It may seem that now the Serbian game is over, that the West has finally blamed the true culprit. The real desire of the West is nevertheless discernible in innumerable telltale details: the continuous compulsive search for stains on the other side, in order to establish a kind of balance of guilt where everybody is equally mad; the focusing of attention on humanitarian problems, which not only treats the conflict as if it were a kind of natural disaster but also helps the Serbs carry out their "ethnic cleansing"; the invention of ever-new excuses against military intervention (the Balkan countryside as the ideal ground for prolonged guerrilla warfare); the ridiculous rejection of the desperate Bosnian plea to be allowed to buy arms and thus defend itself because it would be pouring oil on the flames.

As Time magazine said recently: "Western weaponry would probably not be useful to Bosnians without special training…" The blatant racism is unavoidable: how come Serbs in Bosnia can handle sophisticated weaponry, including Mig fighter planes? Why did the same problem not prevent the United States arming anti-communist rebels in Afghanistan?

All the talk about the need for more severe measures to stop ethnic cleansing continues to serve the purpose of putting off the actual implementation of these measures. Consequently, there is no need for psychoanalysis in order to understand what is actually going on in Bosnia, no need to reach for the death-wish to explain the atrocities. The proper subject for analysis is rather the hysterical split that characterises the attitude of the West — the uncanny antagonism between its "official" politics (preventing ethnic cleansing) and its true desire (to allow the Serbs to finish their work and then, after the fait accompli, to impose peace).

In all probability, the West follows the geopolitical calculation which says there will be no peace in the Balkans without a satisfied Serbia — the interests of all other parties can be sacrificed, only Serbia must be allowed to save its face.

Meanwhile, Bosnia lingers on, still alive, yet already written off, treated as a kind of political Aids patient, stigmatised as a mad place where people kill each other for the sheer pleasure of doing it.

Are we to blame them if in the end, they really will become Muslim fundamentalists and resort to desperate terrorist measures? From: The Guardian Manchester (UK); Aug 28, 1992.