On the whole, the Europeans were inspired by the ideal image of classical Hellas, hence the disappointment of the volunteers when upon their arrival on the Greek mainland, they discovered the eastern habits of the Greeks and their virtual indifference to the ancient tradition. For them Greece possessed an identity only in relationship to its past. The philhellenes expected to fight alongside the descendents of Leonidas’s warriors, not peasants with oriental manners and dress. (Jusdanis, 1991, p.16)
The term “Balkans” today sounds pejorative and inauspicious for most of the people. But that wasn’t the case two hundred years ago. For Westerners, it’s the mountain range that gives the “Balkan Peninsula” its name; while for Ottomans the region is known as Rumeli meaning the “land of the Romans,” or literally “the hand of the Romans”. The term of Balkan is neither the only nor the most frequent name of this region. Until mid-nineteenth century, “European Turkey”, “the “European Ottoman Empire” the “European Orient” or “Greek Peninsula”, “Greek-Slavic Peninsula”, Peninsula of the Southern Slavs” or South-Eastern Europe” were all in circulation (Djurdjevic). Even before the 19th century when Western romantics travelled to the east – with a positive image of the Balkans in mind- the landscape was deemed exotic, it hosted a fascinating mixture of people. Yet, in time, the image of the Balkans started to change.
Western thought and art started to create images of the Other since the late 17th century in the midst of the colonial era. The Orient as a semi-mythical place endowed with both romantic and diabolic elements was invented and reinvented since the invasion of Egypt in the late 18th century by Napolion. Meanwhile, the image of the Balkans as the exotic and mysterious “European Orient” started to take shape with the help of the writings of Lord Byron, and in the years prior to the First World War, it was finally established as a political discourse (Djurdjevic).
Balkans as an “imagined community” emerged from the European nation-state discourse; one might say that the Balkan subjectivity as the “unconscious of Europe” is closely related to European imaginary. Here, we refer to the concept of “unconscious” in the Zizekian sense: The Balkans are structured as the unconscious of Europe, das Unbewusste Europas. As Zizek states, Europe projects all its dirty secrets, obscenities and so on on the Balkans, yet, as the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze puts forward: “dans le rêve de l’autre, vous êtes foutu” If you are caught into another person’s dreams you are fucked (Zizek, 2008).
Meanwhile, the image of the Balkans as the exotic and mysterious “European Orient” started to take shape with the help of the writings of Lord Byron, and in the years prior to the First World War, it was finally established as a political discourse (Djurdjevic).
The “experiences” of travelers and observers are directly connected to their own perception, subjectivity, and ideologies. The category of experience has never been innocent or pure; it functions in a once constructed paradigm of knowledge or episteme. The Balkans have been known and experienced as a place in the catalogue of people and places rather than being properly described (Bjelic, 2004, p. 5). When we are “describing” the Balkans in an essentialist manner, we are captured by “someone else’s” dreams. Thus, our constitutive or quasi-objective knowledge about the East, the Balkans, or the Orient has been part of the problem. It is as if someone is trying to answers the following question: “What are the Balkans? Yet, from the very beginning, even the question has already been a part of the knowledge-power structure, as Foucault would say. In order to understand that logic, we must use the term “Orientalism” here.
Orientalism And Balkanism
The predominant cliché about the Balkans is that the Balkan people are caught in the phantasmatic whirlpool of a historical myth. According to Zizek, Kusturica himself endorses this view when he says, “In this region, war is a natural phenomenon. It is like a natural catastrophe, like an earthquake which explodes from time to time. In my film, I tried to clarify the state of things in this chaotic part of the world. It seems that nobody is able to locate the roots of this terrible conflict’ (Zizek, 2018). What we find here, of course, is an exemplary case of ‘Balkanism’, functioning in a way similar to Edward Said’s concept of ‘Orientalism’: the Balkans as the timeless space onto which the West projects its phantasmatic content.
Edward Said’s classic study Orientalism (1978) is not an attempt to come up with a correct description of the “East”. On the contrary, it is a study on the Western representations of the Arabic-Islamic world. Nonetheless, Said’s underlying problem was beyond the Western representations or catalogues about the “East”: “One cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage -and even produce the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period” (Said, 1979, p.11). Said was actually resorting to the Foucauldian view of the “Other” with respect to the historical context, and trying to undermine the means through which the division between the East and the West was created. Orientalism as a discourse is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts (Said, 1979, p. 20). Since Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1799 until the American imperialism, the stereotype of the East was created and distributed in all sorts of media. What we know and how we know about the East, (or the Balkans) can’t be separated from the conditions of knowing. In other words, Orientalism is about the logic of knowing something (episteme) about the East or the Orient, and it shows how this knowledge is connected to Western colonialism coinciding with the rise of certain linguistic approaches or writings of travelers that create the image of the East while at the same time inventing it in its own way.
The predominant cliché about the Balkans is that the Balkan people are caught in the phantasmatic whirlpool of a historical myth. According to Zizek, Kusturica himself endorses this view when he says, “In this region, war is a natural phenomenon. It is like a natural catastrophe, like an earthquake which explodes from time to time. In my film, I tried to clarify the state of things in this chaotic part of the world. It seems that nobody is able to locate the roots of this terrible conflict’ (Zizek, 2018).
We can also use the “Ruritania” metaphor here in order to understand this relationship between the Balkans and Europe. Vesna Goldsworthy describes it as follows: “I attempted to encapsulate the ever-changing oppositions between the Balkans and (the rest of) Europe using the metaphor of Ruritania, an imaginary country which is always either “not yet European” or “what Europe has already been” (Savic & Dusan I. Bjelic ́, 2002, p.35).
For Said “Orient” is less an actual place than a frame of mind, and he actually defines it not as a territory but as a mode of thought. Orientalist approaches have invented the so-called East without a body, or created an imaginary place without any certain direction. Just as the West which is no longer a word to designate a certain direction but a people that is civilized, industrious, intelligent and male: “Railways are European, but cart tracks are not” (Mazower, 2002). The East serves to justify this self-image by representing its antagonism: those who are uncivilized, lazy, irrational, and female. In other words, the opposition between the Occident and the Orient is a part of the basic structuring of the (modern) European worldview. Although we must be cautious about the definition of the Balkans here, as K. E. Fleming rightfully warns us at this point, Saidian critique seems to be useful. Nevertheless, “Said’s critique is concerned not with a wholly “imagined” Orient or a merely “invented” topoi: “none of this Orient is merely imaginative. The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.” (Fleming, 2000, p. 1203)
Balkanism and Orientalism are deeply connected but they are not identical, there are important differences between them. Although we have said that the West, as well as the East became directionless or almost imaginary, material factors still play a huge role. Todorova reminds us of this distinctive character of “the Balkans per se, that is, as a distinct geographic, social, and cultural entity, ‘discovered’ by European travelers only from the late eighteenth century.” (Todorova, 2009, p. 62) Fleming in the same sense asks where Serbia is in Said’s formulation, or else “Greece with its peculiar cultural relationship to the West, provides a still more categorically perplexing example.” Orientalism was focused on different colonial empires, while The Balkans make up just one part of the “old” model of the empire, just as Habsburgs or Ottomans, a part that is not covered by Said’s imperialism. “The imperial mechanisms at work in the encounter between, for example, the Ottoman Turks and the Greeks of the South Balkans are dramatically different from those at play in the Napoleonic encounter of the French and the Egyptians” (Fleming, 2000, p. 1222). But one has to say that it was Said who made it possible for scholars to consider this discourse as “Balkanism.”
Balkanism, unlike Orientalism didn’t start as an academic field of research or a Napoleonic survey. The knowledge of Balkanism traditionally came from travelogues, journalist accounts, and regular history books. Only recently after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, “expert” knowledge is introduced.
“Bakic ́-Hayden claims that, in the former Yugoslavia, Orientalism was a subject-making practice by which all ethnic groups defined the “other” as the “East” when compared to themselves; in so doing, they not only orientalize the “other” but also occidentalize themselves as the West of the “other.” (Savic & Dusan I. Bjelic ́, 2002, p. 4) This can also be called “internalized Orientalism” or, in Milica Bakic-Hayden’s term, “nesting Orientalisms”; and most of the in-between-non-European subjects may fall into this logic.
Another difference between Balkanism and Orientalism that Fleming draws attention to is again related to these two different types of knowledge. Balkanism, unlike Orientalism didn’t start as an academic field of research or a Napoleonic survey. The knowledge of Balkanism traditionally came from travelogues, journalist accounts, and regular history books. Only recently after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, “expert” knowledge is introduced. As Dusan I. Blevic says: “Balkanism as a critical study is a system of representation based on the historical perception of the Balkans by colonial rulers.”(Savic & Dusan I. Bjelic ́, 2002, p.7)
The vampire myth
When we look at the literary origins of the discourse on the Balkans, we find a transcultural “vampire myth” originating in the Near Eastern traditions. Its fame in the West can almost entirely be attributed to the collection of accounts made by Dom Calmet in his Treatise on Revenants (1746). “Hence it has a local habitation and a name, although its transformations in the literary vampire style depend upon attitudes in the West rather than in the region from which the superstition itself hails.” (Gibson, 2006, p.7) This myth still haunts us in numerous artistic forms: movies, gothic literature, and even tourism. Perhaps the most known one is Dracula (1897) written by the Irish author Bram Stoker. It was not an accident that Bram Stoker’s famous monster Dracula dwelled in the “Balkan” territory. Based on the historical figure of Vlad the impaler, Dracul Tepeş had allegedly learned the art of torture from the Ottomans after spending his youth as a Turkish hostage. (Savic & Dusan I. Bjelic ́, 2002, p.40) So this means that in some sense the figure of Vlad Dracul Tepeş served in different ways: in collective memory, Tepeş was a cruel defender against dark, unenlightened, non-European forces. Whereas in imagination, “Vlad Dracul’s slow impalement of his chosen victims was a performance pertaining to the periphery of the unenlightened, feudal Europe—a periphery that spent days under constant threat of invasion and massacre. Such experiences continue to produce vicious forms of collective memory, which in turn lead to a nationalist understanding of history.” (Savic & Dusan I. Bjelic ́, 2002, p.40) These atrocities were something Europe had been trying to erase from its history and legacy. We can read these vampire stories as fertile means of political commentary upon the Eastern Question.
Europeans appeared to be horrified by some of the specifically “Eastern” barbarities, especially impaling, which captured the imagination of all travelers. It was its exoticism that turned the historical Vlad Tepeş ̧into the immortal figure of Dracula, but the latter is less an illustration of Balkan violence than an attribute of morose Gothic imagination. (Todorova, 2009, p.122).
One has to say that Balkan barbarisms, in that sense, represent the inner antagonism of Europe/Modernity/Enlightenment itself. That’s why Western approaches are obsessed with Vampire myths.
Adorno and Horkheimer asks, in their most influential book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), “why humanity, instead of entering a truly human state, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism. Their answer may seem contradictory but in fact it’s nothing but dialectical: the barbarism that destroyed civilization was a product of civilization as such. Enlightenment’s inner logic creates barbarism. Let’s remember Kant’s famous short text “What is Enlightenment?” starting with a quote from Horace’s Sapere aude! [dare to know]. For Kant, it was a time when humanity finally left its shackles made of superstitions; for the first time, human logic, science, and desire to know no more relied on beliefs or customs. Sciences began to unfold the mysteries of life, animals, nature, earth and even the universe. Enlightenment was ready to serve human emancipation in a rather optimistic sense. Yet it was the other way around: with the help of sciences, there arose war, barbarism, atrocity, and systemic violence. Walter Benjamin always warned us on that matter: “There has never been a document of culture which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.” (Benjamin, 2005) One has to say that Balkan barbarisms, in that sense, represent the inner antagonism of Europe/Modernity/Enlightenment itself. That’s why Western approaches are obsessed with Vampire myths. Franco Moretti puts it succintly: “The literature of terror is studded with passages where the protagonists brush against the awareness – described by Freud – that the perturbing element is within them: that it is they themselves that produce the monsters they fear.” (Moretti, 1997, p.102) That’s why Europe fails to see its own paradox around the issue of borders, just as Count Dracula fails to see his body in the mirror. “Consequently, if Europe is a paradox, then the Balkans as its exaggerated form is more European than Europe itself” (Bjelic, 2004, p.10).
Benjamin, W. (2005). On the Concept of History. Retrieved: 25 May 2019 https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm
Bjelic, D. I. (2004, January 1). https://www.researchgate.net/. Retrieved: 25 May 2019 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/298302979
Djurdjevic, M. (n.d.). The Balkans Past and Present of Cultural Pluralism. Retrieved: 25 May 2019 https://www.iemed.org/publicacions/quaderns/12/The_Balkans_Past_and_Present_of_Cultural_Pluralism_Maria_Djurdjevic.pdf
Fleming, K. E. (2000, October). Orientalism, the Balkans, and Balkan Historiography. Retrieved: 25 May 2019 http://www.jstor.org/stable/2651410: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2651410.
Gibson, M. (2006). Dracula and the Eastern Question British and French Vampire Narratives of the Nineteenth-Century Near East. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jusdanis, G. (1991). Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Pres.
Mazower, M. (2002). The Balkans A Short History. New York: The Modern Library.
Moretti, F. (1997). Signs Taken for Wonders Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms. London: Verso Books.
Said, E. (1979). Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
Savic , O., & Dusan I. Bjelic ́ (Dü). (2002). Balkan As Metaphor. London: MIT Press.
Todorova, M. (2009). Imagining the Balkans. New York: Oxford University Press.
Zizek, S. (2008, December 9). talks films and Balkans with Slavoj Zizek. Retrieved: 25 May 2019 tarihinde http://www.euronews.net/2008/09/12/euronews-talks-films-and-balkans-with-slavoj
Zizek, S. (2018, April). Multiculturalism or the Logic of Multinational Capitalism. Retrieved: 25 May 2019 tarihinde http://clarkbuckner.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/