Dušan I. Bjelić is Professor of Sociology; University of Belgrade, B.A.; 1976, M.A., 1981; Boston University, Ph.D. 1989. Joined the University of Southern Maine faculty in 1990. He taught sociology at the University of Belgrade, Boston University, Tufts, Bentley, and Emerson College. He teaches courses in social theory, film, and ethnomethodology. His areas of research and publication are ethnomethodology, history of science, and media and culture. Professor Bjelić co-edited the book Balkan as Metaphor: Between Globalization and Fragmentation (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002). His book, Galileo's Pendulum: Science, Sexuality and the Body-Instrument Link, is published by the SUNY Press.
The Balkans: Europe's Cesspool (2006)
Notoriously, during the recent call to arms against Iraq, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld proclaimed Eastern Europe "New Europe," and France and Germany, "Old Europe." In so doing, he mounted, at least for the moment, a Copernican shift in European identity.
Eastern European nations, represented as a polluted part of Europe and the waste of European history by writers ranging from the 19th-century Irish novelist Bram Stoker to the contemporary Julia Kristeva, have suddenly moved into the very center of history and cultural hygiene.
This polar reversal would seem to be the ultimate revenge of the polluted abjects on the Western European nations that they have traditionally envied, imitated and resented. In fact, by supporting the U.S. in its policy toward Iraq and thus earning Rumsfeld's praise, the Ex-Communist bloc nations are reinventing themselves (yet again) as satellites and political orphans-- the waste of European history.
But a Copernican revolution of the Balkan identity of a better kind came from Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova, Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana.
She argues in her groundbreaking book Imagining the Balkans (1997) that Eastern European identity is "incomplete," finding itself always "in-between" and transient. And while certain specific conditions vary from country to country, they do all have in common that their identity is shaped by the geopolitics of the moment, and is thus transient and unstable.
Incomplete identity, indeed, can be easily essentialized and thus falls prey to interpolated completion by geopolitical superpowers.
However, the recent exhibition of contemporary Balkan art in Graz, In Search of Balkania, demonstrated how this very incompleteness and plasticity of Balkan identity lends itself beautifully to a playful activism that transcends traditional European binaries, and has asserted itself as a potent cultural force in Europe today.
Incompleteness, transience and self-orientalization, this abyss of ontological uncertainty of the Balkan subjectivity, is a gold mine not only for Balkan art but also for the journalism about the Balkans.
The following anecdote, recounted by the American journalist Michael Ignatieff in his book, The Warrior's Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience (1998) will serve not only to illustrate Todorova's point but also to provide me with a point of departure for my essay. The anecdote relates a conversation between the author and a Serb soldier who has been fighting his Croat neighbors for two years.
The place is Mirkovci ("place of peace"): Ignatieff asks the soldier how he thinks he is different from a Croat. The Soldier lists what he sees as irreconcilable differences between Serbs and Croats and accuses foreigners of not understanding why the two peoples - who look alike to them - are so different. Then, obviously becoming irritated by the whole silly inquiry and wanting to end it, he suddenly reverses his position, saying,
"Look, here's how it is. Those Croats, they think they're better than us. They want to be gentlemen. They think they're fancy Europeans. I'll tell you something. We're all just Balkan shit."
The Serb's spontaneous self-orientalization reveals his internalization of the hygienic fault lines between European "purity" and Balkan "danger." This concept has been successfully deconstructed by discourse on "inverse colonization" utilizing the British gentleman/ vampire and pure blood/ dirty blood dichotomies, but it may also be approached through laughter at its oppressive character.
Support for this point comes from Freud himself, who believed that laughter arises during a momentary regression from cleanliness to dirtiness, that is to anal pleasures.
If the Balkans is "dirty" and "anal" they must also be funny. In that case the Balkan strategy against the hygienic hierarchy should, through laughter, emulate that of St. Catherine of Sienna who deliberately drank of a bowl of pus believing that hygiene was incompatible with charity.
In this paper, using this humorous and anal/ scatological approach in an analysis of Balkan identity, I will construct a subversive response to Julia Kristeva's geo-hygienic and geo-aesthetic approach to the Balkans, and, in so doing, attempt to provide an example of the "playful activism" I have described above.
Julia Kristeva has lived and worked in France since 1965, and has effectively disowned her Bulgarian identity. In her essay, "Bulgaria, my Suffering," she describes a visit to her homeland after the fall of communism.
She laments the post-communist aesthetics of the public sphere, the black market and the "garbage and flies" in the streets of Sofia. Even more she decries what she views as the "lapses of taste" revealed by the sorry condition of the national language, the "… arsenal of tasteless and rootless loan words" that have crept into it.
She formulates a principle of geo-aesthetics that divides European nations into those like France - according to Kristeva, the aesthetic nation par excellence -, which have an aesthetics of the public sphere, and those like Bulgaria, which do not.
Kristeva's principle of geo-aesthetics is an outgrowth of Hannah Arendt's "veritable politics of narration," and posits that a nation is a political object of order only to the extent that it achieves an aesthetic unity among its citizens - that it has a national "taste."
Similarly to Arendt, she also theorizes the polis and its subject citizens as invigorated by the act of speech and the construction of a narrative. Indeed, for both Kristeva and Arendt, these conditions are indispensable to the preservation of civic societies and European democracies.
Kristeva, however, goes even farther. She believes that in the absence of such a narrative, and in the absence of national "taste," life is not worth living because it is reduced to a simple zoon. For her, the absence of an aesthetics of the public sphere in contemporary Bulgaria precludes any possibility of the formation of civic identity, and thus is the cause of her "suffering."
Her mentor on this issue, the cultural reactionary Samuel P. Huntington, has remarked that,
"The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence."
Kristeva, in regarding Bulgarians as political excreta and an abject side of the superego of the polis, fails to acknowledge this "organized violence" which decides who is literate and beautiful and who is not.
Her geo-aesthetics and the politics of national "taste" rest on the unrecognized excretional logic that engenders the organized violence of the "democratic" nation-state - and on the dualism of taste and disgust. However, underneath her civilizational line between the "French taste" and the Balkan "garbage and flies" runs a stream of repressed inverse signification. In revealing this signification, I will attempt to provide some insight into how shit has left the public spaces of France and become part of Balkan identity.
The story of Euro-shit and the creation of pure and of dangerous zones in Europe began with the birth of absolute monarchy.
"Hold your shit," proclaimed the French monarch. "Dispose of it only in the dark night. Remove your pigs from sight beyond the city's walls, or I will seize your person and your goods, engulf your home in my capacious purse, and lock your body in my jail”.
In 1539 King François issued an edict that the Paris streets should be cleansed of shit. His edict coincided with the effort of the Royal Academy to beautify the French language through systematically cleansing it of redolent Latin words.
The French cultural analyst Dominique Laporte in his History of Shit argues, as does Kristeva, that the birth of modern power is rooted in the aesthetics of the public sphere and in its subject citizens. However he, unlike Kristeva, recognizes the excretional origins of public aesthetics and argues that the social control of human waste has been essential for the creation of the nation and its "taste".
Following the psychoanalytic order of the inverse chain of signification between "shit" and its sublimated form, "gold", he maintains that it is paramount for any cultural discourse to re-introduce "shit" back into the public narrative and cultural criticism hygienic binary.
The public spaces of France, then, have been cleansed of shit. But what has become of it? The surplus of shit evident everywhere in the Balkans' public restrooms may provide us with an answer to that question.
The Balkans may lack a tradition of liberalism and a public sphere, but they are the most liberal-minded and the most publicly-oriented of all the European nations when it comes to the production of shit.
If French liberalism, following Freud's theory of civilization, stems from the sacrifice of anal pleasures for a beautiful and orderly society and the subjectivity of cleanliness and odorlessness, then it follows that Balkan liberalism must stem from the lack of such sacrifice.
As Kristeva, with her psychoanalytic eye, observes, the failure to repress and sublimate make the streets of the Balkans dirty and the people who walk on them graceless.
If Kristeva is right when she claims in the Powers of Horror that in pre-discursive societies shitting is a way of "writing of the real" , then we may have to revise our reading of Balkan shit.
Anyone who has been privileged to enter a Balkan public restroom would readily confirm that it is an aesthetic horror.
Should we not blame Balkan kings who, unlike the French king, failed to arrest the subjects for not taking care of their shit?
A Serbian king, whose people were known for distilling brandy out of shit, once found himself literally deep in shit after the supporting boards under his outhouse had been sabotaged by his enemies in the attempted assassination. Known in history as the "Serbian assassination", this awkward event ended with the King being cleaned like the French streets.
The condition of public toilets in the Balkans today is horrendous. They often lack toilet paper and have uncontrolled water leaks, but the most serious problem is that shit is often liberally disposed around the toilet hole. (The toilets are the type upon which one squats and aims with a blind rear toward a central hole, or as they are called in English "Turkish toilet").
This is not only a practical problem but also a philosophical puzzle. Why not shit in the hole? Is it lack of hygiene and proper training, the lack of a narrative (as Kristeva would no doubt say) or something more serious and sinister? Could it be some higher logic of culture at work here to keep public toilets as places of aesthetic terror?
The Serbian poet Alexander Ristovic may give us a poetic answer to this question in his poem "Monastic Outhouse":
In the back of the nunnery there's small outhouse with a half-open door and evening visitors. While one is inside, another waits her turn with her nose in the book. And while the first one exits, straightening her robes, her face almost radiant, the other one steps in, peeks into the spotless hole, trembling with terror that what lies at the bottom may leap into her face and leave a mark on her flushed check in the shape of a devil's cross.
A story has been recounted to me about a young American professor of English who, coming for a job interview to the American University in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, broke into tears when she needed to use a restroom but was terrified to enter it.
Much as one fears the dark space under the bed (as in Ambrose Bierce's short story about the snake under the bed), in Ristovic's poem the outhouse becomes a place of metaphysical imagination projected onto the dark hole. Thus, what appears as a lack of hygiene may be a case of Heideggerian situated metaphysics, with the public restroom serving the function of an oracle before which pre-literate subjects tremble, fearing the dark hole as an abyss of being, an open crack into the "real."
Between the dark hole and the nun's face, between demonic shit and virgin purity, lies the terror of the cesspool's abyss. If the history of the West, as Heidegger claims, is the history of abandoned being, that is the history of clean toilets, then shitting shit next to the toilet hole rather than in it, is a Heideggerian resistance to modernity, a re-opening to the Being, a harkening to the anal logos.
With his remark, "We are all Balkan shit", the Serb soldier uncannily activates hierarchical and hygienic conditions of Balkan representation already in place. This scatological self-identification corroborates that the Serb soldier has internalized Kristeva's hygienic fault line, and this corroboration goes as deep as Balkan "dream work" can go. Consider this dream, taken from Freud's collection of South Slav Folk Traditions:
Two gentlemen arrived at a hotel, ate their evening meal and drank and at last wanted to go to bed. They asked the host if he would show them to a room. As the rooms were all occupied the host gave up his own bed to them, which they were both to sleep in, and he would soon find a place for him to sleep somewhere else. The two men lay down in the same bed. A spirit appeared to one of them in a dream, lit a candle and led him to the churchyard. The lichgate opened and the spirit with the candle in its hand and the man behind walked up to the grave of a maiden. When they had reached the grave, the candle suddenly went out. 'What shall I do now? How shall I tell which is the maiden's grave to-morrow, when it is day?' he asked in the dream. Then an idea came to his rescue, he pulled down his drawers and shat on the grave. When he had finished shitting, his comrade, who was sleeping beside him, struck him first on one cheek and then on the other: 'What! You'd shit right in my face?'
Freud offers the following interpretation: The sleeper knows that the bed is not the place to defecate, hence in the dream he causes himself to be led away by a person-spirit who shows him another place where he is permitted to satisfy his need. The spirit leads the person through the night with a candle as a servant would lead a guest to the restroom.
The sudden change of the situation, however, puzzles Freud; why does the spirit lead the sleeper to a churchyard to desecrate a grave? "After all," Freud continues, "these elements seem to have nothing to do with the urge to defecate and the symbolization of faeces by gold."
Freud's analysis stops here, but he adds, for possible future analysis, that we should bear in mind the fact that in the dream, "…two men are sleeping together," and that "…the uncanny element of the ghostly guide is associated with a woman."
Here I will provide my own analysis of this dream and in doing so I will treat this southern Slav dream narrative not as an extension of the theory of the subconscious but - as it was to those who originally produced it - a comic narrative intended to give pleasure to both storyteller and listener.
Freud himself argues that jokes about shit make us laugh because they allow us for a brief moment to enjoy our shit again just as we used to do as children. Since we are discussing "Balkan shit" I shall try to provide an analysis consistent with this common sense psychology.
The dream is about two Slavs who end up spending a night together in the same bed. They may have been a Serb and a Croat or, two Bulgars, that is Bulgarians. I use "Bulgars," because this is the English word from which the word "bugger" (a sodomite) has been derived.
This is an important etymological detail because it does strengthen Freud's allusion to homoerotic desires between the two sleeping men. To continue the etymological thread, the word "slovenly", which means "lazy and dirty" according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is in fact derived from "Slovene".
It seems that the Oxford English Dictionary has conspired in the creation of a linguistic hegemony, which has contributed to the self-essentialization of Balkan shit-identity.
The dreamer needs to defecate but is lazy and reluctant to get up and leave the warm hug of forbidden homoerotic pleasures to go out into the cold, dark night. The narrator/dreamer's perception of himself as lazy corresponds to Kristeva's characterization of her fellow Bulgarians when she tells them, "you want everything as long as you can doze through it, or laze about, or hedge, maneuver, cheat…".
She takes at face value the lack of hygienic discipline and of an aesthetic will, as if they are natural conditions rather then representational conditions.
There is another element relevant to our interpretation of the dream narrative that speaks to Kristeva's prescribed therapy for the Balkans, and also to the predicament of the Balkan Enlightenment.
Hovering over the Balkans through the darkness of their culture, Kristeva, much as the spirit with a candle showing the path of Enlightenment, wants to lead the Balkans from "dirt" to the place of virginity, of gold - to France. There, at this final and redeeming destination, the Balkan sleeper marks the place with his shit in order to find it when he awakes. But his full predicament is revealed at the end of the dream. As he wakes from the pleasurable dream, the moment of redemption leads to shitting inadvertently on the face of his fellow Balkan - the true meaning of the Balkan Enlightenment.
Like Hannah Arendt, the Balkans should employ the stereotype to respond to the representational hegemony of the pure. When discussing her Jewishness, or as she calls it "an identity under attack", she gives some advice that may be adopted as a universal method for representational counter-hegemony in the post-colonial world.
She said: "If one is attacked as Jew, one must fight back as a Jew!". Or, to translate this principle relevant for the Balkan identity under attack, "If one is attacked as a shit, one must fight back as a shit!".
However, this fight need not always be somber, disgusting, and without pleasure. On the contrary, it may even be pleasure of a kind.
The comic Freud has the last word on this subject. Through his studies of Balkan folk narratives and his appreciation of the Balkan people's "crude love of truth," he was able to conclude that for men and women who can no longer copulate "there still remains the pleasure of shitting."