Thursday, January 01, 2004

Boris Buden / south ... east ... mediterranean... europe

Between December 14 and 16, Platform organized south ... east ... mediterranean... europe, a conference and conversation series. The project was within the context of "In The Cities of the Balkans", the 2nd part of "The Balkans Trilogy", a project initiated by Kunsthalle Fridericianum, with writers, critics, curators and artists from Sofia, Skopje, Jerusalem, Cairo, Belgrade, Beirut, Zagreb, Istanbul, Tirana, Pristine, and Sarajevo. The meeting focused upon rethinking artistic production, cultural geography and possible future collaborations in South-East Europe and the South-East Mediterranean, otherwise known as the Balkans and the Middle East.The participants were, Rene Block, Natasa Iliç, Vasif Kortun, Suzana Milevska, Jack Persekian, Shkelzen Maliqi, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Eleni Laperi Koci, Migjen Kelmendi, Lejla Hodzic, Christine Tohme, Mai Abdu ElDahab, Katerina Gregos, and Boris Buden.
It was funded by Förderung aus Mitteln der Kulturstiftung des Bundes and organized in collaboration with Kunsthalle Fridericianum Kassel.

Conference paper by Boris Buden
One Region, Two Regions, or: How to Forget Them All

There is a certain trouble in talking about the Balkans in Istanbul. This is not only due to the fact that Istanbul is the place where the Balkans – seen of course from the hegemonial European perspective – actually ends. The problem is much deeper. It seems that in Istanbul the whole discourse on culturally constructed regional identities becomes somehow absurd. The reason is obvious. Istanbul is situated –kind of its as historic center – in a space, that not only comprises more than one region, but is in its very essence a negation of what we today call a “region”. It is a space, that cannot be subsumed under only one culturally unified regional identity. That is why we are, talking about the role Istanbul plays in its cultural context, forced to use the logic of simple addition. So we talk about the region of the Balkans AND the Middle East, or South-East Europe AND the South-East Mediterranean [1]. The region we are talking about is therefore nothing but a descriptive composition of two differences without its own name, without a clear and simply comprehensible notion of its own, specific cultural identity. So there is no region, for which Istanbul might be perceived as its cultural center.

What we have instead is the recollection of a historic past, actually, the imperial legacy of the Ottoman Empire, that is still present here in Istanbul. The form of this presence is cultural, which means that the common political past of the region today is only culturally visible. This is probably also the reason why the vision of a common future of this no-name-region, that is composed of both, the Balkans and the Middle East, focuses exclusively “upon rethinking the artistic production, cultural geography and possible future collaborations in the region”. Istanbul and its artistic and cultural capacities are offered here as “a site of discussion, and negotiation between these geographies.” [2] According to that, we are supposed, by means of our intellectual, artistic and cultural efforts, to revive again the old unity and commonality between the regions of the Balkans and Middle East, their peoples, cultures and political orders.

Let us first stress the importance of this vision. It discloses a deep – and we might also say a new – need for a more universal perspective, that goes far beyond the identitarian logic and, what is even more important, that expresses implicitly how uncomfortable we are with the present political divisions and historical dead lock.

However, the crucial question here is of course: can we, can art and culture, put together again what has been divided by the history and political reality? And in what terms and forms can we imagine the supposed unity of this no-name-region?

First of all, both regions – the Balkans and the Middle East – are today involved in two parallel political projects, that threaten much more to deepen and petrify the divisions between them, then to strengthen their commonalities and their unity. These political processes are the well known “Enlargement of the European Unity” on the one side and something we might call today “The new democratic revolution” launched recently by the United States as part of – or maybe as an ideological and historical framework – the so called “War on Terrorism”.

The Enlargement of the European Union is an ongoing process with an open end. The concept of Europe as a new political unity still doesn’t have its final shape – we still don’t know how deep the development of its inner political structure will go and how far the extension of its outer borders will reach. Although it has already become clear that most of the Balkans will be integrated in the European Union, the question, whether Turkey should be involved in the process or not, hasn’t been yet decided. What we know however, is, that an answer to this question can be given only as result of political contest and struggle. The role culture should play in making this political decision is obviously very ambiguous, for it is much more part of the question, not the answer. Since today’s Turkey is a modern, democratic and capitalist state, the problem of political and economic compatibility with other European countries doesn’t actually exist in principal. The only imaginable obstacle for membership in the EU could be therefore cultural. As we already stressed, the final decision will be a political one, but its content will be cultural. The inclusion of Turkey into the EU cannot be but a positive answer to the question: does Turkey culturally belong to Europe?
However, this question is not our question. We have just pointed out – taking it as the starting point for our discussions – that Turkey culturally and historically offers a perspective that goes far beyond the European one. The problem is that this perspective has been in reality overshadowed by another political project – the already mentioned US-led democratic revolution that is taking play now days in the Middle-East.
Let us sketch out this project from an interesting point of view – one taken by a Jewish historian Dan Diner. [3]

He sees the American Engagement in Iraq as part of a long-term project. It has originated from the experience of September 11th. According to Diner, this event opened a new time horizon, that goes far beyond the biologically determined life-time dimension, typical for today’s pragmatic democratic Realpolitik. This kind of politics has proved to be helpless against the Islamic extremists who think and handle in sacral time categories. This is the reason why the American response to this terrorist and political challenge also goes beyond the scope of Realpolitik and opens a new long-term-dimension: it aims at a Revolution; it will, by military means, revolutionize the whole region of the Middle East, of course in the sense of democracy and pluralism.
The toppling of Saddam Hussein and occupation of Iraq should be understood as a political move of no return. There is no way back to the status quo ante – not for Americans, not for Iraqis and not for the whole international community, including all those who opposed the war. This applies also for the next American administration, be it republican or democratic.
In order to accomplish this task, the Americans, as Diner suggests, should also change their perspective on the whole Middle East. They should take again, as he believes, the old imperialist angle of the British Empire. For, only under the British rule was the region seen as a unity. It had been before 1948. the year when the state of Israel was established. What we have been witnessing thereafter is a segmentation of the region into nation-states.

According to Diner, the still present cohesive elements in the region can today become visible only if we recall its former imperial past. A logical connection between the Mediterranean port of Haifa and ports in Iraqi Basra and Iranian Abadan, all built by the British, as well as the two airports in the north-west of Iraq called H2 and H3 and their connection to the airport of Tel Aviv, originally a runway built by the British in the central-Palestinian Lydda, becomes comprehensible as former posts on the British communication line to India. H2 and H3 stays actually for Haifa, both posts were originally built by the British as pump-stations on the pipeline from Mosul and Kirkuk to Haifa.
These cohesive elements, the fossils of the colonial past, as Diner calls them, are today the only witnesses of the former unity of the region.

Diner points at the fact that the British imperial rule, in its history, had been subjected to several radical changes. One of the most important reforms took place after the famous “Indian mutiny” – the uprising of the Empire troops in 1857 that severely shook the British rule on the subcontinent. This experience led to a radical change in British colonial politics. Henceforth they tried to appease the Muslim part of the British-India population. The British perspective, as Diner puts it, had been “easternized”. The greatest colonial power started to respect Islam and at that time the last Islamic universal power – the Ottoman Empire. This “eastern perspective” kept alive also after the First World War, when Great Britain and France divided among themselves the Arabic parts of the collapsed Ottoman Empire. However, the contradiction between the Western perspective of the Foreign office in London and an “eastern” perspective of the Colonial Office in New Delhi had marked also the British rule in the Middle East, in Iraq and Palestine.

Dan Diner believes that Americans in their political and military engagement in the Middle East should learn today from the British colonial experience. They too should “easternize” [4] their view on Middle East, Islam and Arabic world, as the British once did. Only under this new “eastern” perspective – which includes a respect to Islam and Arabic culture –could they succeed in their attempt to pluralize, democratize and modernize Iraq. This applies also to the crucial role the United States play in all the efforts to solve the Middle East conflict, the still open Palestinian-question.

Diner believes that the Israelis and Palestinians alone, , are not able to solve their problem – just as the Iraqis alone were not in a a position to overthrow the Saddam dictatorship. The search for a solution for both problems should therefore start from a perspective that goes beyond the existing – at least in a normative shape – system of sovereign nation-states. Diner suggests, as argued above, that this perspective can be found only from a more universalistic standpoint, that was historically represented by the old colonial powers such as Great Britain. A certain revival of this colonial past, an identification with its universalistic power-politics, seems today for Dan Diner necessary if we want to tackle the severest problems of our historic reality. It doesn’t mean that a new colonial high commissar should reside again in Jerusalem, as he did once during the British mandate in the Palestine before 1947. However, a new American supervisor of the peace process can be and should be installed there as some kind of a modern proconsul. For, without a third party, equipped with enough effective means to impose pressure on all sides involved in the conflicts, there won’t be any positive developments in the region.

Let us summarize the most important points implicated by Dan Diner’s vision:

- This is in the first place a new necessity for a more universalistic approach to the political and historical reality of the region. This means first of all a perspective that discloses its previous colonial unity that has been destroyed and suppressed by the system of nation-states. Here we must keep in mind, that this system has been developed out of an anti-colonial struggle for national liberation. This struggle was also part of modernization of the whole region, a modernization that has been obviously deadlocked by the same system of nation-states and turned into its opposite – into a growing religious fundamentalism that threatens to erase almost all historical achievements of the modernization on the one side, and into the forms of secular dictatorships incapable of any kind of democratic development – the best example is exactly Saddam Hussein – on the other side.

- Secondly, this is a peculiar, nostalgic longing for an old fashioned power-politics – precisely in a time when theory focuses almost exclusively on a completely different notion of power, that conceptualized by Foucault and summarized in the concept of gouvermentality, where power is seen as an endless plurality of power practices which cannot assume the shape of an unified, essential subject. What we are witnessing in Diner’s vision is a clearly articulated need for a new universal power instance which can intervene in a given political reality from its alleged outside and take the role of a threatening moderator. This new power instance is not a subject of a new order. On the contrary, it identifies itself explicitly – in the words of president Bush – with a subject of revolution. Does it mean that the old subject of revolution is finally back on the historical scene?

- Third, the solutions of the actual political problems and conflicts cannot be found any more within the principle of sovereignty. This means that sovereignty – as sovereignty of a nation respectively a nation state – has become in the meantime a historical value that is not to be defended any more but abandoned instead. Let us stress it again: Diner argues that both Israel as a realized nation-state and Palestinians as a nation struggling for its own state can preserve respectively reach their sovereignty only if they turn it down. This is not a paradox. It tells us simply that sovereignty today is more or les useless if you are week and poor. It is a toy for the rich and powerful. Only they can still afford and enjoy it. However, Diner's argument also implicates a new strong sense of historical responsibility – and that is precisely what he expects of Americans. The problem is who will pay the costs of the failure indeed?

It is not difficult to see that Diner’s vision of the political reality and an imaginable future of the Middle East almost completely applies to the other region we try to deal with – that of the Balkans.

Don’t we have here the same old unity of the region emerging out of its colonial past, once realized either by the Ottoman or Austrian-Hungarian Empire? And all those violent conflicts and wars that were shaking the region in the nineties, haven’t they been calmed down or solved only by an intervention of a powerful instance from outside, in the shape of the so called international community represented by NATO, EU, UN, or USA? And the principle of the national sovereignty that has so radically disintegrated and fragmented the whole region, the political idea the peoples of the Balkans so resolutely fought for, hasn’t it been openly violated by the same powerful instance that still has everything in the region under its control? And finally, isn’t the only comprehensible goal of almost all political actors in the region actually the membership of their nation-states in the EU, a political project that necessarily implies the sacrifice of their sovereignty?

The conclusion emerging out of these rhetorical questions is very simple and points at a possible unity of both regions, a unity that is a normative motivation for our discussions in Istanbul: both the Balkans and the Middle East, or the South-East Europe and the South-East Mediterranean are in a similar way involved in a deeply contradictory process of global political reconstruction of the existing world (dis)order. This is what finally unifies these regions – and what simultaneously makes any claim of both regions to have each a unique, essential identity simply unconvincable. Let us repeat it again: the still present traces of a former unity of both the regions lays hidden in their colonial past. The only way out of the disorder and chaos they are now suffering from can be provided by a powerful instance situated outside the regions. The price they have to pay for this “service” is the sacrifice of the sovereignty of their nation-states into which they have been disintegrated and fragmented.

This is the destiny that is shared also by the so called cultural sector in both regions. Culture and arts cannot escape this kismet. However, what they can still do, is to reflect it in their own way.

This is of course not the whole story about an imagined unity of both regions and a universalistic perspective that makes this imagination possible. There is also something missing in the vision of Dan Diner, a kind of Lacanian lack that structures the whole scene of his reflection: The only universalistic perspective he mentions is the one represented by the rulers and oppressors, be it in the form of an old colonial or imperial power that once guaranteed some sort of universal order or be it in the form of a new, postcolonial and even post-historic subject of democratic revolution who promises nowadays to create by force a brave new world of democracy and prosperity, even against the will of the people who should be the only beneficiary of this democracy and prosperity.

This dramatic appeal to the universalistic tradition of the old imperial rulers has in this context an additional effect – it has silenced another universalistic tradition: the one of the oppressed and wretched, the tradition of a universalism emerging from the bottom up, the universalism of popular uprisings, of the deprived who fought for their social rights and class liberation, in short, the universalism that was once represented by the communist movement and that seems today to have completely disappeared from our historical horizon. There is no way to look ahead by staying blind towards this left part of our universalistic tradition. For, if there is another, better world possible, it cannot be given, for sure, as a present from another better big brother.

[1] This is precisely what has been done in the Invitation to the Conference “In the Gorges of the Balkans” organized by Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center in Istanbul.

[2] Both quotations from the “Invitation”.

[3] In Dan Diner, “Mit östlichem Blick“, „Die Zeit“ Nr. 46, (6. Nov. 2003).

[4] In the German original „ ... der britische Blick ‚veröstlichte sich“. Ibid.