Thursday, January 01, 2004

Suzana Milevska / 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.

The Neither: About Balkan Subjectivity
Suzana Milevska

‘At first we were confused: The East thought that we were West
while the West considered us to be the East’.
Sava Nemanjic (1175-1235) [1]

'They live at the crossroads of Europe and are the most resilient race on this earth’.
Romanian Queen Marie 2 (granddaughter of Queen Victoria) [2]

At the very beginning of this text I want to introduce the term ‘neither’ in order to avoid the dichotomic distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other’. Namely I find that this binary opposition, already much too often applied when differentiating the West from the East, is even less appropriate when discussing the Balkans. In contrary, I suggest that ‘the neither’ can be more useful as a model of interpreting the Balkan subjects as being neither Eastern nor Western. It can replace the hierarchical cultural model of distinction between the West and East, between the coloniser and the colonised, between the civilised and the primitive, etc. with a more open model for negotiation the relations, similarities and differences between these two cultures.

The self/other distinction used to be the crucial model for interpretation of the Balkans. It has been already applied within the Orientalism - the discursive phenomenon established on West as a means to comprehend and represent the East as the 'other' of the West, but it showed its limitation when it reduced the complex nature of Orient to ‘exotic’ otherness within the framework of the definite order of Western intelligible and rational categories. [3] Neither the complex psychoanalytical analysis based on Lacan’s, or Kristeva’s writing, nor Derrida’s différance helped much for better translation of one cultural framework into another. Namely, Orientalism is a phenomenon where the East is regarded as an object of knowledge assuming power of interpretation over it and thus East becomes inevitably inferior, exotic, and univocal, is conceived both as ‘construct and real’ [4].

Many writers (Maria Todorova and Milica Bakic-Hayden, e.g.) [5] recently pointed out that Orientalism should be differentiated from ‘Balkanism’ as the Balkans is a region with a concrete history and geography in contrary to the vague definition of the Orient. Instead to focus on the difference between Orientalism and Balkanism that has been already extensively elaborated among many other theorists concerned with the issue of the Balkans, I want to consider the common sense metaphors of Balkan as a bridge and crossroad.

These everyday figures of speech obviously emphasise the fact that the Balkans is a region where the East met the West and through all these different sorts of encounters and entanglements it created the space in-between where the point of facing each other did not necessarily resultinproducing a third synthetic ‘hybrid’ space as Homi Bhabha proposed in his postcolonial writings. [6]

When in 1911 the Sultan Mehmed Reshad V visited Bitola (today Republic of Macedonia) his visit was recorded with the cine-camera 300 that the Brothers Janaki and Milton Manaki had already brought in 1906 in London. The moment when the Sultan was asked to look at the camera is recorded as a moment of confusion and hesitation. It is obvious that the Sultan is not sure what is expected, and what will happen next. He was confused with the modern device that he was told will preserve his visit for history.

What really happened soon after this visit of the Emperor to his remote subjects in the Balkans and after he faced the modernised parts of his Empire was the inevitable dissolution of the Ottoman Empire: the space where the Southern part of Europe and Asia were continuously under the same ‘roof’ and for more than five centuries were exposed to each other’s influence was fragmented and divided gradually according to the still existent differences.

I want to emphasise this because in my opinion the constant encounter between East and West did not result in a substantial synthetic culture that could be defined as any kind of hybrid. The folk costumes ‘a’la Turk’, the food recipes, or the influences of oriental instruments and rhythms in music are hardly enough to make a case for hybridisation. The constant conflicts are the negative side, but they are also evidence that each culture thought and fought to have rights to preserve its specificity.

It should not be forgotten that the continuous encounter between the East and West also added a lot of positive nuances to the cultural map of Europe, a new type of knowledge which could not be gained through journeys in the foreign lands. Nevertheless the process of meeting and interacting with subjects of different religion and culture was accompanied with processes of identification through negation.

Therefore I want to investigate the usefulness of the concept of ‘neither’ as a chain of continuous negations of and negotiations with the previous experiences that in my view enables the construction of a different kind of subjectivity.

I find inappropriate the Aristotelian decisive model applied in self/other dichotomy where the self excludes the other through the either/or logic and doesn’t allow anything else to happen. The same problem remains within the postcolonial discourse wherein the deconstructive model of dialectical overcoming of the binary logic of self/other is brought to a closure with the offering of the synthetic concepts such as hybrid or creolité.

Instead of comfortably using any of these established formulas in my presentation about the construction of the Balkan subjects I want to try to apply the apophatic logic of the neither. The negation neither/nor is known mostly from the realm of negative theology and its denial of defining the term God in itself when negating the essence of each of its components, but without ever closing the possibility to establish of relations among the different appearances of any phenomenon. [7] The danger of borrowing from negative theology is of course the assumption of a hyperessential being entailed in any theological discourse. It is the main reason that kept Jacques Derrida from accepting any relations between his deconstruction or difference, and negative theology. [8]

The other take on ‘neither’ and its ‘neutral’ space can be located in the concept of ‘utopics’ by Louis Marin that in my opinion offers a more appropriate point of departure to negotiate the meaning of the ‘neither’. [9] Marin defines the neutral as ‘the spam between true and false, opening within discourse a space discourse cannot receive. It is a third term, but a supplementary third term, not synthetic’. The difference between the postcolonial demands for hybridisation and third space and ‘neither’ lies exactly at the heart of the difference between supplementary and synthetic. [10]

It should be noted that the most important issue here is the nature of the pre-given choices from which one can chose and the questions such as who and under which circumstances these options were given in the first place. If self and other are the only possible choices that we were given, especially in the postmodern discourse of 1980s by the dominant Western discourse, when a reciprocal change and exchange of roles in between self and other was first promised and for which we are still waiting, it becomes really important to start circumventing this binary. So it is important to emphasise the fact that it is not important to investigate the possibilities of the neither only for the sake of criticising the dichotomic relations in the comfortably situated couple self/other – the neither becomes a very important space in-between that should allow us a flexible movement in some territories that have remained closed ever since the Orientalist discourse and the Western dominancy over the relation between East and West begun.

At the end I want to restate that to apply the concept of the neither as a concept in further discussions on the Balkan subjects does not mean a demand for synthetic reconciliation of oppositional concepts within a third space. On the contrary, it should be understood as an invitation for a new discourse that can overcome the curiosity for exoticism, hedonism, or primitivism and will give way to the current lack of curiosity for varieties of thinking and being that are so abundant in the Balkans.

It is very important not to insist on answering the question ‘what is the neither,’ but to try to understand what ‘it is not’: it is neither the Self, nor the Other, neither the West, nor the East, nor the oppositional relation between the both. It is also not any third mixed identity that can synthesise the both without supplementing them.


1,2. Quoted according to Vesna Goldsworthy, Inventing Ruritania – The Imperialism of Imagination, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998,

3. For criticism of Edward Said’s take on Orientalism in his Orientalism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.see for example:
Michael Spinker. Edward Said: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992, Bryan S. Turner. (Bryan Stanley). 1945- Orientalism, postmodernism and globalism. London; New York: Routledge, 1994,
Reina Lewis. Gendering Orientalism : race, femininity, and representation. London: Routledge, 1996, or for a more recent critique of Edward Said’s writing as a postcolonial discourse see: Peter Hallward. Absolutely Postcolonial. Writing between the Singular and the Specific. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press. 2001

4. Reina Lewis. Gendering Orientalism. pp. 16-17

5. Maria Todorova. Imagining the Balkans. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. The debate was followed by Vesna Goldsworthy. Inventing Ruritania. New Heven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, in several articles by Milica Bakic-Hayden, and by Slavoj Žižek. The Spectre of Balkan. The Journal of the International Institut. Vol.6. No.2: Winter 1999`i`ek.htm but only in 2002 the whole debate received wider academic attention when the reader Balkan as a Metaphor. Between Globalization and Fragmentation. Ed. by Dušan I. Bjelić and Obrad Savić. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002 was published in the occasion of the exhibition In Search of Balkania in Graz.

6. Homi K. Bhabha. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1998, p. 175

7. For a comprehensive interpretation of Dionysius Areopagit’s Mystical Theology see Frederick Copleston, S. J. A History of Philosophy Vol. 2. Mediaeval Philosophy. Part I – Augustine to Bonaventure. Garden City; New York: Image Books, 1962. pp.106-115. For a different, more Orthodox view on apophatic theology, see the book by the Russian theologian Vladimir Loski. Mistična teologija na crkvata od istok. Skopje: Tabernakul, 1991

8. Jacques Derrida. “How to avoid Speaking: Denials” in Derrida and Negative Theology. Ed. By Harold Coward and Toby Foshay. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992, pp. 73-142

9. Louis Marin. Utopics: Spatial Play. London: Macmillan Press, 1984, p. 7

10. This clarification was provoked by the question about the difference between the neither and hybrid that Boris Buden asked me during the conference South…East…Europe…Mediterranean at Platform Garanti Contemporary Center, Istanbul (14-16 December 2003).