Workshop Report: Dialoguing ‘between the posts’, developing critiques of coloniality, modernity and neoliberal capitalism in (and beyond) South-Eastern Europe

What are the synergies and frictions between post-/decolonial theory and Marxist, Foucauldian and other forms of critique of societal dynamics in the post-Socialist world? How can processes of domination, transition and resistance in this context be inquired more effectively and understood against a background of global capital and power structures? What are new entry points to organize societal activism and resistance against neoliberal restructuring and the internalization of essentialist and hierarchizing ways of thinking, acting and knowing? These and other questions were discussed at the workshop titled ‘Dialoguing ‘Between the Posts’ Post-socialist and post-/decolonial perspectives on domination, hierarchy and resistance in South-Eastern Europe’ in Belgrade from 22 to 23 September 2017. The event served as a useful platform to establish a shared picture of the challenges and possibilities that lie ahead if Chari and Verdery’s (2009) idea of ‘thinking between the posts’ is to be realized in the future.

Over two days a total of 37 participants presented papers, discussed and chaired panels, and shared their experiences and viewpoints from activist engagements. The workshop attracted the interest of many guests who participated with comments and questions and followed the online livestreaming from different parts of the world. This served not only to assemble a diverse audience in terms of geographical, professional and otherwise backgrounds but also to forge conversations with people involved in or shedding light on activist projects in different parts of Eastern Europe and specifically in the workshop site Belgrade. Correspondingly, contributors were asked to develop ways to theorise and analyse domination and hierarchy and to discuss new approaches – methodological, practical and in the realm of political and social activism – to inspire resistance. The workshop thus generated useful entry points and basic issues that a synthesis between post-/decolonial and post-Socialist approaches to social critique and action should take into account.

Initiating the first panel, Tsvetelina Hristova and Mithilesh Kumar tackled the question of how the two perspectives on post-socialism and post-colonialism can be put into a productive dialogue that recognises historical and material commonalities but at the same time does not forego the particularities of specific contexts. Other presenters reflected on the benefits that such search for conjunctures can bring for critiquing the production of global peripheries (Ognien Kojanić), political subjectivities, and marginalization of approaches to knowledge production that seek to challenge Western-centric conceptions of nation, civil society and citizenship (Sanja Petkovska, Bojan Baća). This line of argument was further extended in Faiz Sheikh’s analysis of nation building in socialist states in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

The three contributors of the keynote session further deepened this insight by tracing the global flows and tributaries of coloniality in the post-Socialist world. The first panelist, Marina Gržinić (Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts), explored transformations in South-Eastern Europe since the 1990s at the intersection between postcolonial concepts, such as hybridity, and decolonial ones such as ‘colonial difference’. While sympathetic to the decolonial project, Gržinić also noted its occasional hostility to Marxist theorising, to which postcolonial theory has historically been more welcoming. Her suggestion was to understand the European Union as premised on a colonial racial divide within the territory of Europe itself.

Dušan Bjelić (University of Southern Maine) added further layers of historical retrospective and conceptual complexity in his exploration of the nexus of Intoxication, Modernity, and Colonialism (also the title of his most recent book). Conceiving of Freud’s early experimentations with cocaine as central to his discovery of the unconscious, Bjelić sought to read German chemistry, the applied scientific project transforming coca leaves into cocaine, as a form of molecular colonialism. A series of interesting concepts were proposed as part of the investigation, including the above mentioned molecular colonisation, infrastructural unconscious, along with a brief exploration of the function of the Balkans as a referent in Freudian psychoanalysis. Benjamin’s open-ended experimentations with intoxication (hashish) were also proposed as an alternative to Freud’s.

Lastly, Ovidiu Tichindeleanu’s talk started by tracing his own intellectual biography from world-systems analysis to decoloniality. On this basis, he analysed connections between the origins of Modernity – understood in the currently dominant, Eurocentric way – along the North Atlantic (in 1492) and Eastern European history during the same period. Exploring the different populations and their forms of social organization and existence, he indicated how alternatives to the colonial project of Modernity existed back then (as in other epochs). These can be recovered in the attempts to pursue radical, decolonial projects, he argued; and linking these respective endeavours promises the highest potential for decolonization. Tichindeleanu drew on Abdul Abdel-Malik’s concept of ‘emergence of specificity’ as a useful corrective to mainstream Eurocentric Marxism and to other counter-productive forms universalism. Another useful entry point for a post-colonial/post-Socialist synthesis was provided by Tichindeleanu’s analysis of international campaigns for ‘peace’ under state socialism in Romania, whose significance should be acknowledged not in terms of their instrumentalisation for domestic elite or Soviet geopolitical agendas, but in terms of the higher meaning and importance conferred to peace by the very people who engaged and truly believed in the peace campaigns.

 

The two main obstacles in the conceptualization and practical endeavours towards radical decolonial projects identified in the debate were nation/nationalism and race. Besides the strong presence of national(ist) thinking and rhetoric and the central role of ‘nation’ for people’s understanding of social modernity, it was emphasized that many anti-imperial readings that are inspired by post- or anti-colonial discourse are are often hijacked by the radical right in the (South) East European context. Especially panel three on the second day preoccupied itself with the question as to whether a post- and de-colonial critique and emancipation beyond such nationalistic utilisations are possible in the region. Zhivka Valiavicharska’s presentation on the unrecognized and little-explored rhetoric of socialist countries in support of anti-colonial liberatory movements in Africa and the Global South indicated the proximity of Eastern Europe to a more emancipatory project in historical perspective. Similarly, Andrew Hodges’ ethnographic exploration of Croatian football subculture and its political articulation and usage of far-right symbolism indicated the potential of an ‘alternative patriotic register’ for challenging or even redefining political hegemonies. Ondřej Slačálek’s presentation of the uses and abuses of postcolonialism in the Czech and Polish contexts shed further light on how much there is to be lost when post-colonial theory travels across time and space while the scope for more radical, decolonial thinking remains limited.

The issue of race and racialisation was mentioned as an important point for further research in the region. Dušan Bjelić emphasized how the Balkans are mapped and territorialized through international processes of racialization, strengthened by the EU border regimes and their historical precursors. A similar point was raised in Valiavlicharska’s presentation about the Bulgarian socialist project, which situated itself in solidarity with anti-colonial struggles through political identifications of the Bulgarian people with the colonized (in language such as ‘cheren narod’—’dark/darkened people’), but also exhibited disturbing political uses of these discourses within ethnonationalist frameworks during the post-Stalinist period. This conversation presented great potential for further exploration, especially in light of recent exchanges on race and the colour line in IR and social sciences more generally, as well as widespread depictions of a supposedly inherent East European racism, which lack any contextualization in wider trajectories of Western-centric racial othering and Orientalism.

 

In close connection with these issues, two panels and further individual contributions analyzed the possibility of better understanding power, hierarchy and resistance through the study of visual, discursive and architectural and arts expressions of identity, belonging, memory and order. Marianna Szczygielska presented the case of a supposedly homosexual elephant in a Polish zoo, whose habits sparked constant commentary and attempts to forge a heteronormative self-understanding for the host community and its moral consensus. Sofia Kahlo showed how contemporary East European artists respond to the orientalizing gazes directed at them and their own strategies for inclusion in the global arts economy.

Panel four was focused on the politics of space and symbols in urban areas across South-Eastern Europe. The presenters approached in different ways the question as to how the memory of Socialism, struggles for dominance over identity-making and -shaping, and the presence of foreign actors – and the imperial, colonial, but also historical relationalities they present – are materialising in post-Socialist cities and beyond. Alsena Kokalari’s presentation showcased how Socialist Albania’s role as a satellite state – and the corresponding ‘bunker mentality’ and the ambiguous stance towards the European integration project – is addressed in exhibitions in the Albanian national history museum and in an impressive arts project ‘Bunkart’, both of which also cause controversy and protest, however, from people desiring less criticism and reflection on this legacy. This state-sanctioned attempt to deal with Socialist memory stood in contrast to Cengiz Haksöz’ analysis of attempts of minority Turkish populations in southern Bulgaria to claim a stake in the cityscapes of their hometowns (by negotiating the place for a new mosque) and their ways of showing presence but also to assimilate and become invisible in public space – practices necessary given their marginalization continuing since the Socialist state’s crackdown on non-Bulgarian minority populations in the 1980s. The structural and symbolic violence experienced by minorities was contrasted to the radical actions analyzed in Faith Joell Bailey’s presentations of the anti-colonial underpinnings of the Kosovar Vetëvendosje! (self-determination) movement.

 

While many of the panels were implicitly positioned between an analytical consideration of hierarchies and a political orientation towards working against them, the event explicitly sought to forge conversations and cooperation’ between academia, practice and activism. Panel Five engaged with the possibilities and necessities of connecting academic critique and political practice, most starkly in Nadia Chushak’s presentation on the utilization of nationalist discourse by LGBTQI+ activists, who forge a homonationalist narrative to bolster their societal legitimacy and thus embrace an unholy alliance similar to the instrumentalization of pride parades as ground for self-promotion by the military in Sweden. Leandra Bias’ presentation examined the less controversial but still ambiguous generational ‘turn to the local’ among Serbian feminists, which added further nuance to the argument made by Danijela Majstorović earlier, that socialist and post-socialist feminism can be rethought as sites of emancipatory politics but for doing so also need to re-assess past and present political allegiances and modes of existence.

These identifications and contextualizations of the dilemmas and ambiguities of social movements and emancipatory projects were further explored in conversations among social activists from South Eastern Europe and beyond. In the final slot of the first day, the LeftEast collective organized a roundtable on ‘dominant and counter discourses’ which also explored the idea of using insights from decolonial theory and practice in activist projects in the region. Besides facilitators from LeftEast, the line-up included representatives from organizations from Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Belgrade, all of whom presented their respective approaches and experiences in a variety of fields. Among the many insights into very similar problems faced by the initiatives, which were discussed in more detail and with attention to strategic, material and practical concerns on an event on ‘Politics of the Left beyond Resistance’ in Skopje in the following days, two issues appear of particular value for further exploration. First, the fact that, especially in light of deepening neoliberalization in the region, life in urban areas becomes increasingly competitive and precarious, a re-engagement with rural populations and life-worlds becomes more and more important, if not indispensable if a sizeable cohort is to be mobilized for radical emancipatory projects. The potential of such an engagement has been demonstrated by the Telciu Summer School organized by the Centre for the Study of Modernity and the Rural World. Second, and relatedly, for such a (re-) engagement to happen, question of nationalist and racial hostility need to be tackled head-on. Here, recovering legacies of conviviality and inter-ethnic/cultural coexistence, despite their ambiguous position towards difference, appears as a possible way forward. A final, not unimportant issue was encountered towards the end of this ‘activist’ roundtable and concerned the understanding of the content and potential of decolonial theory: Not all panellists, nor the audience were spontaneously able to invoke any established or learned understanding of this body of knowledge. This was also reflected in the event’s paper presentations, which were mostly drawing on theoretical concepts from post-colonial studies but less so on decolonial theory and practice, which is not least due to the multifaceted and interwoven nature of these bodies of knowledge.

Activist Disucssion (1)

What is to be done? Activists discuss common challenges and new potentials for mobilization for the Left in South-East Europe (Photo: Katarina Kušić)

The discussions around possibilities to forge dialogue between activism, practice and scholarship point to a final aspect regarding the necessity to tackle concrete materializations of neoliberal global capital through concrete action, and to inquire their embodied and lived effects through on-site engagement. With the event happening with a view on the new Belgrade Waterfront – a heavily contested project that re-develops the Danube shore in the heart of Belgrade, the politics of urban space and restructuring under neoliberal capitalism, were all topics discussed in the final roundtable dedicated to ‘new theories, methods and perspectives to study power, hierarchy and resistance’ in the region.

The Belgrade Waterfront project was discussed through reflections from activist and historical perspectives. Ana Vilenica presented her critical analysis of recent protests against Belgrade Waterfront and her ongoing research on housing policies in Belgrade and in London. She highlight the urgency and difficulty of (re)politicizing fundamental issues like housing prices and affordability of life in a world where gentrification and rural depopulation are taken for granted. Miloš Jovanović contextualized the demolitions that made way for the new Belgrade Waterfront within a longer historical narrative. By recollecting the first demolition of Savamala – a quarter of shacks that housed escapees from large feudal estates – in the 19th century, he showcased the continuity with which global power structures have re-shaped Belgrade through ideas of modernization and Europeanization. Conceiving of this neighborhood as an ‘archive of violence’, Miloš drew on Tlostanova’s concept of the ‘Janus-faced empire’ to capture the position of the Balkans as always being a place both ‘within’ and ‘without’. Therefore, he argued, the colonial condition in urban Belgrade is not only shaped through East-West relations, but through local actors’ attempts at ‘internal social transformation and the expansion of local accumulation through dispossession’, a trajectory once again painfully demonstrated in the Belgrade Waterfront development.

Following the official closing of the workshop, the participants seized the unique opportunity to learn about this project and the controversies surrounding it in walking down the already finished promenade and visiting an information centre with a housed in Geo Zavod in close proximity to the FMK building. This spontaneous first-hand exploration of this controversy around urban space in Belgrade was made all the more insightful by Miloš Jovanović’ explanations about current discussions on and possible consequences of the Waterfront project (e.g. the possibility that less concrete fortified riverside areas get flooded in case of the spring high water). It indicated the possibility, and perhaps necessity, to engage with the context in which the event takes place, which the participants did during a joint dinner on day one and, in a smaller group, in a local restaurant where Serbian and many other Balkan folk and partisan songs were sung along to the sounds of the traditional music band.

Savamala

The oblivion of ‘urban renewal’: How can the dispossession and destruction of livelihoods wrought by projects like Belgrade Waterfront be effectively (re-) politicized? (Source: Mile Jovic, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

During the final roundtable session, Nikolay Karkov reflected more broadly on what can be gained from a dialogue ‘between the posts’. He pointed to the limitations of an anti-capitalist Marxist perspectives in grasping the complexities of social struggle in the present, especially given their entanglements and ambiguities in relation to identitarian political projects in the past. He argued that adding a third concept to the diad of capitalism and modernity, namely, coloniality, helps us able to look ‘from the left of the left’, or to rethink temporality, to shift our gaze and look for alternatives and to rethink practices of resistance. Karkov warned against possible difficulties in the reconciliation of these different bodies of knowledge but also emphasised the urgency of this debate as a precondition for the formation of global resistance against colonial-capitalist domination.

In a final wrap-up session, feedback and impressions from the event were gathered and plans made to extend this dialogue both within and beyond the region. Potential members for a fundraising and organizing team for a new volume of the event are currently being sought. The extension of the dialogue ‘between the posts’ to a more global level, e.g. with a new event being held in India or elsewhere in the Global South, presents an intriguing perspective, but would also limit accessibility for (South-) East European participants. As far as publications are concerned, possibilities are being explored, but participants generally agreed that pursuing collective projects in peer-reviewed journals or with publishers with considerable paywalls is unlikely to serve as a useful channel for disseminating arguments made during the event. Finally, there is also a plan to subject the idea of ‘dialoguing between the posts’ to consistent discussion and analysis on the initiative’s website.

The organizers thank all supporting organizations, the BISA Colonial/Postcolonial/Decolonial and South-East Europe Working Groups and the Max Planck Research Group ‘Empires of Memory: The Cultural Politics of Historicity in Former Habsburg and Ottoman Cities’ at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen (Germany). Special thanks go to the Centre for Comparative Conflict Studies at the Faculty of Media and Communications (FMK) for providing a comfortable space and generous catering during the event. If you have any queries or like to join this initiative please email us at dialoguingposts@gmail.com and follow us on Facebook.

Written by the organizing team
Nikolay Karkov
Katarina Kušić
Philipp Lottholz
Polina Manolova

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