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Southeast European Integration Perspectives


Damir Arsenijević

Forgotten Future: The Politics of Poetry in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Nomos U1_Arsenijevic_xxxx_.indd 1

02.12.2009 12:14:28 Uhr

Southeast European Integration Perspectives Edited by Wolfgang Petritsch,

former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Special Envoy of the EU for Kosovo

Christophe Solioz,

Secretary-General of the Center for European Integration Strategies

Damir Arsenijević

Forgotten Future: The Politics of Poetry in Bosnia and Herzegovina


Sponsored by - Loterie Romande - Karl Popper Stiftung

Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek verzeichnet diese Publikation in der Deutschen Nationalbibliografie; detaillierte bibliografische Daten sind im Internet über abrufbar. Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche Nationalbibliografie; detailed bibliographic data is available in the Internet at . ISBN 978-3-8329-5700-1

1. Auflage 2010 © Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, Baden-Baden 2010. Printed in Germany. Alle Rechte, auch die des Nachdrucks von Auszügen, der fotomechanischen Wiedergabe und der Übersetzung, vorbehalten. Gedruckt auf alterungsbeständigem Papier. This work is subject to copyright. All rights are reserved, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically those of translation, reprinting, re-use of illus­trations, broadcasting, reproduction by photocopying machine or similar means, and storage in data banks. Under § 54 of the German Copyright Law where copies are made for other than private use a fee is payable to »Verwertungsgesellschaft Wort«, Munich.

Contents Acknowledgments Introduction

9 11

1. Methodological Issues and Concerns Principle of Collection and Selection of Poetry Translation and Ideology

19 23

2. A Cultural Materialist Re-articulation of Literary Historiographies in Bosnia and Herzegovina Introduction Cultural Materialism and Ideology Cultural Materialism and the Real Cultural Materialism and the Subject Imagining the “art of the Impossible”: Dissidence and the Political Act in the Conceptualisation of Cultural Practices “Embracing the Act”: Re-articulating the Conditions of Practice in the Literary Historiographies of Bosnia and Herzegovina since the Late 1980s Prewar Bosnian Literary Historiographies Bosnian Literary Historiographies of the War Postwar Bosnian Literary Historiographies Conclusions

29 30 33 34 37 44 46 53 60 67

3. Of Tanks, Planes, and People at Barricades: Poetry of the Prewar Crisis and the Collapse of Yugoslav Socialism in Bosnia and Herzegovina Contextualising the debates and voices The poetry of re-ethnicization and the poetry of false universalization in the period of crisis and the collapse of Yugoslav socialism “These sudden shifts”: the poetry of differences and the crisis and the collapse of Yugoslav socialism Writing-as-personal-as-political: transformation of identity in the poetry of differences

71 82 93 94 5

“I know that I, too, exist at last”: gendered identity in the poetry of differences Inscribing the mute word: the collapse of the socialist narrative in poetry of differences Conclusions

98 104 109

4. “In the Desert of the Real”: Poetry and War in Bosnia and Herzegovina Contextualising the debates and voices 113 “And remove the darkness from their eyes”: poetry of re-ethnicization during the war 117 Heroes and leaders of the past: beacons for war killings 118 Words from eternity: re-writing cultural memory as a warning to ethnic identity 120 The flocking of the Volk: homogenizing into People 122 On God’s path: the illumination and promise of the second death 125 “In war, reality is diluted in details”: poetry of false universalization during the war 128 Constructing the language of the pharmakos: the poetry of differences during the war 133 When “fidgeting” means life: re-inscribing and re-affirming symptomatic Otherness in the poetry of differences 134 “Look here, that’s the right way to look History in the face, not like you”: regendering the war in the poetry of differences 139 Bodies that count: re-politicising corporeal limit experiences in the poetry of differences 146 Conclusions 152

5. Towards the Politics of Hope: Poetry and the Postwar Period in Bosnia and Herzegovina Contextualising the debates and voices The poetry of re-ethnicization and the poetry of false universalization in the postwar period In no-man’s land: poetry of differences and the postwar period “At the gunpoint of the past”: the traumatic past and transition in the poetry of differences “No-man’s women”: negotiating the traps of transition through the new community in the poetry of differences “The woman with the knife”: women and the traps of transition


157 166 175 175 182 182

“A different idea of happiness�: the transition and the new community in poetry of differences Conclusions

186 193



Bibliography Primary sources Secondary sources

201 203



This book began its life as my doctoral thesis, completed in 2007. Over the three and a half years I worked on it I acquired many debts. The first is to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) which, through its programme of specifically targeted doctoral awards and travel research grants, enabled me to work in Bosnia and Herzegovina in archives and with artists and academics there and fully to engage in research and writing at De Montfort University (DMU), Leicester, UK. At DMU, in her insightful way, Professor Judy Simons provided intellectual guidance and saved me from many mistakes. Over many years, within and without DMU, Dr Jane Dowson and Dr Andy Mousely have inspired my work on contemporary poetry, making it enjoyable and fulfilling. Dr Francis Jones of Newcastle University was more than an external advisor for the translation aspect of the thesis and the book—his translation craftsmanship and friendship have been a steady and reaffirming influence. I can only hope to continue to learn from all of them in the future. My special thanks go to family, friends, and colleagues who have discussed, read, and encouraged me at every stage: Tag McEntegart, for her loving, unconditional support and sharp wit; Nebojša Jovanović, for his inspiring camaraderie; Šejla Šehabović, for being a true companion in literature; and Ferida Duraković, Adisa Bašić, and Tanja Stupar-Trifunović for their generous artistic nourishment. Dr Jasmina Husanović, Dr Jelena Petrović and Ajla Demiragić have insightfully engaged with my research. Stijn Vervaet, nearing completion of his own doctoral thesis, took time to locate the primary sources in Serbia. Pip Willcox and Dr Kerry Featherstone contributed their helpful and constructive comments. From 2004 to 2006, I was fortunate to work with and learn from the young academics at the Regional Seminar in Gender/Women’s studies and European studies in Macedonia. Many ideas presented in this book were tried and tested with them. However, it is due to the friendly persistence of Christophe Solioz that what began as a doctoral thesis has seen the light of day as a book—I am indebted to him. I particularly want to thank Professor Svetlana Slapšak, of the Institutum Studiorum Humanitatis (ISH) from Slovenia and the late Professor Nirman Moranjak-Bamburać of Sarajevo University, both of whom provided opportunities for my academic engagement in the region and enriched my thinking. Their enthusiasm and scholarship will continue to provide guidance in my future work.


I dedicate this book to my late grandmother Fata and my mother Nihada. Through the living out of their tumultuous lives, they have lovingly taught me to confront conformity, constantly exhorting me to dare. The final note is on the name of the country. Bosnia has become a short way of referring to Bosnia and Herzegovina both in contemporary literature and in the country itself, sometimes leaving “Herzegovina� as a poor relation. I have tried to use the full name of the country wherever I considered it would not impede reading with awkwardness. In this occasional inconsistency, the book reflects and contributes to the messiness of life itself.



“In an old joke from the German Democratic Republic,” Slavoj Žižek writes, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends: “Let’s establish a code: if a letter from me is written in blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false”. After a month, his friends get the first letter written in blue ink: “Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and property heated, movie theatres show films from the west, there are so many beautiful girls ready for an affair — the only thing unavailable is red ink.”

“Is this not”, remarks Žižek, “how ideology functions? We ‘feel free’, now as then, when we lack the language — ‘the red ink’ — to articulate our unfreedom. It is the basic task of critical art and culture to provide the red ink”.1 This book strengthens the red ink of Bosnian poetry since the late 1980s in the context of other poetries that also legitimate different world-views. Here, this red ink of Bosnian poetry is termed the poetry of differences. The dissident politics of the poetry of differences coexists with the insular ethnonationalist politics of what I call the poetry of re-ethnicization and the overabstracted universal politics of the poetry of false universalization. So defined, these three poetry strands group the poems as related practices, connected by the particular world-view they endorse. In order to capitalise the moments of clarity reached through true dissident politics, the latter two strands of poetry are not constructed in the same way as the first, but rather, are employed as a foil, through which the radical politics of the poetry of differences can be sharpened and further strengthened. Adrienne Rich insightfully proposes how poetry can evoke a different possibility. She says: “Poetry has the capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future: a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom – that word now held under house arrest by the rhetoric of the ‘free’ market”.2 Poetry of differences has the capacity not only to tell us how ‘un-free’ we are, but also to shift the criteria of possibility of our freedom.

1 2

Slavoj Žižek, “What lies beneath,” The Guardian, 1 May 2004. Adrienne Rich, “Legislators of the world,” The Guardian, 18 November 2006.


This book is a representative critical evaluation of cultural struggle in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the late 1980s. Its context spans three historico-political phases: first is the cusp on which socialism was already losing its primacy and, in place of which, ethno-nationalism was rapidly asserting its dominance; second is the subsequent collapse of Yugoslavia and the war led by ethno-nationalist elites; and third is the period of the aftermath of war—the so-called “postwar transition”. The book also forms a dynamic intervention in the cultural memory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It alters, re-configures, and re-articulates this memory in order to bring to the fore all those who have been excluded and to examine what kind of alternative they have articulated. In its reconstruction of cultural memory, its political allegiance is to the marginalised and the disenfranchised, who function as the “bone-in-the-throat” of the dominant. It establishes a tradition of dissidence, locating it in succeeding generations of feminists, gays and lesbians, and some other members of the younger generations. Through their alternative practices in the field of culture, they have insisted on and persisted in articulating a way of organising Bosnian society more equitably. It is in this that the book breaks new ground. It is the first attempt systematically to analyse Bosnian literature, and poetry in particular, in relation to social change since the late 1980s, both in Bosnia and Herzegovina and abroad. It focuses on the excluded element as the social symptom and sets about re-politicising and increasing the visibility of marginalised groups within Bosnian literature. By doing this, it opens up a space, outside ethnonationalist and multiculturalist models of literary historiography, not previously explored. In this way, this book contends that a more hopeful politics for the present and the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina may be enacted. This book redresses the lack of work on Bosnian literary historiography since the late 1980s and proposes a model through which this historiography can be revised. It also functions as an initial map for future researchers, charting past and present cultural practices. It provides them with a clear research route, which they can decide to follow and continue to chart, or with the pointers and archive, which they can contest; they can create new ones, drawing their own unique maps. Whatever the decision, it aims to cause the desire in other researchers to embark on the journey of exploring and recording Bosnian cultural practices since the late 1980s. Consequently, its tone is deliberately polemical. As an archive, the book also makes contemporary poetry from all the cultural as political groups of Bosnia and Herzegovina available to the English-speaking world through translation, presented in a separate annex. It brings together and discusses all seminal and hitherto unexplored and forgotten cultural interventions since the late 1980s. In so doing, it aims to contribute to an improved cultural as political understanding of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its culture and to facilitate exchange.


In order to develop the tools for the reconstruction of cultural memory, I have drawn on theories of the materialist critique of culture and of ideology, most notably on the works by Terry Eagleton, Slavoj Žižek, Alan Sinfield, and Raymond Williams. Works by these four theorists are brought together in dialogue, providing a fresh perspective from which the Bosnian cultural field can be re-examined. Such a re-politicisation makes an original contribution to the discussion on the interaction between politics and literature. How can this illuminate poetry and how, in turn, can such illumination be made politically productive? Poetry is in, of, and about language. That is—poetry is about signification and about the right to signify. Poetry gives voice to that which cannot be spoken, as well as that which can. It evokes and it is through evocation that it encircles that which, in any given culture, is too traumatic to be expressed. This is why poetry has always provided a voice to all those who embody the social symptom. Who are the poets discussed in this book? They range from indicted war criminals, such as Radovan Karadžić, to leading feminists, such as Ferida Duraković; they are drawn from older generations, such as Bisera Alikadić, the late Ilija Ladin and Izet Sarajlić, to younger generation poets, such as Adisa Bašić, Tanja Stupar, and Sead Vrana. Within the three identified strands of poetry, this thesis discusses differences as well as similarities among them, registering the ways in which they have contributed to the dynamic field of Bosnian culture. All of the poets and poems discussed in this book have been selected as the most characteristic representatives of each of the identified strand of poetry. The status and reception of these poets also ranges widely. There are “great national bards”, such as Rajko Petrov Nogo and Nedžad Ibrišimović, whose works have been canonized, not least through lavish hard-back editions, as well as younger poets, such as Šejla Šehabović, the quality of whose work was first acknowledged regionally and internationally, and in this way, gained ever-increasing prominence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The shift from socialism to capitalism signalled the end of the status of “free artist” held by many of the prominent poets in the prewar period. It was through this status that the socialist regime provided such poets with housing, social benefits, stipends, and book honoraria. Since the war, the ethnonationalist elites have supported the poets writing the poetry of reethnicization in a similar way. The rest—the poets writing poetry of differences in particular—have been left to take their chances under the rules of the free-market. If some of the poets have had direct access to power, such as Radovan Karadžić, who was the President of the Republika Srpska, or Džemaludin Latić, who has exercised enormous influence on the Bosniak SDA-party regime, others, such as Marko Vešović, Bisera Alikadić, Ferida Duraković, and Semezdin Mehmedinović did not eschew politics, but have openly


spoken ‘truth to power’.3 This book reinforces the tradition of such dissidence, which continues with the younger poets of poetry of differences. In the context of the violence waged by the dominant ideology, these poets assumed responsibility to speak of “un-freedom” in such a way as to evoke the “forgotten future”. The discussion is structured to provide a critical assessment and record of a dynamic exchange between poets and their poetry, both within and among the identified poetry strands. Diachronic analysis indicates how great socio-political shifts impact on cultural practices, and also, how these practices shape and further particular ideological stances. Chapter One looks at how methodological issues, encountered during the research, have been solved. The research programme itself has been an active component in the cultural struggle. It has altered cultural practice through the interaction with poets, initiating discussion on how research and artistic practice can strengthen each other in jointly forging politically productive alternatives. The impact of the research is then examined within the context of text itself—how translation choices, used in poetry translations, impact on meaning. Chapter One finishes with an examination of the link between translation and ideology and the gatekeeping function of the translator. This examination foregrounds how translation can be used strategically to strengthen cross-cultural ties and solidarities among those who oppose exclusion and marginalisation, a relatively new field of research in translation studies. Chapter Two establishes a theoretical framework for critical re-assessment of Bosnian literary historiography since the late 1980s and for analysis of the selected poetry. This framework draws on the work of radical theorists from the Balkans and the West. In the three major chronological sections—Chapters Three, Four, and Five—the active contestation of the triad of poetry strands is explored and the radical politics of the poetry of differences is developed and strengthened throughout. Chapter Three traces the extent to which it was on the field of culture that Yugoslavia first collapsed and ethno-nationalism first legitimized itself. In this context, the chapter focuses critically on the passive conformist attitude, which shied away from the politicisation of culture in the face of the active re-politicisation of cultural practices led by ethno-nationalist elites. In this short period of a few years, from the late 1980s to the outbreak of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the spring of 1992, poetry of differences rearticulated the posited possibilities for identity and commonality. The poets and poetry of this strand persisted in their ethico-political commitment to the social symptom of collapsing socialism and increasingly militant ethnonationalism. 3


Elie Wiesel, “Speak Truth to Power,” see: <>.

Chapter Four focuses on the excess of the traumatic Real in the war in order to question and analyse the ideological support behind it. The very multiplicity of terms used to discuss literature produced during the war indicates the gaping void of the Real and various projects that attempted to deal with it. At this point, poetry of differences fully identifies with the social symptom and provides a new language through which the violence of dominant ethno-nationalism may be criticised, keeping the gap between the significations and the Real politically and productively open. Chapter Five sets the discussion in the context of the multiple depoliticisations taking place in the aftermath of the war. These range from the peace-building and reconstruction projects led by the so-called international community, through initiatives by “amnesiac” conformists which argue for “a-political” and “ideology-free” ways to think the future, to initiatives by ethno-nationalist elites in which they try to efface the ways in which they came to power. In this context, the poetry of differences articulates the politics of solidarity with the social symptom as a basis on which to build a more inclusive “moral architecture” for the future Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Afterword proposes that a political critique of culture provides a research platform through which to recognise and name the politically transformative potential in the field of cultural production in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Potentially, this model could be applied not only to other countries of former Yugoslavia, but also to comparable post-conflict contexts. The struggle for a more inclusive and equitable culture will be long and hard, its success depending on the articulation of the possibility of the social symptom coming to power. If there is a lesson to be drawn from this book it is that “people are not responsible for a freedom that has been withheld from them, but they are for an un-freedom against which they failed to stand”.4 This book bears witness to and contributes to the stand against “un-freedom” in Bosnia and Herzegovina today.


Boris Buden, “Kaptolski kolodvor,” in Branimir Stojanović (ed), Vesela Nauka, (Belgrade: Centar za savremenu umetnost-Beograd, 2002), p. 13.


2010 SEIP 4 Cover "Forgotten Future" by Damir Arsenijevic  

The book documents and critically evaluates contemporary poetry within the dynamic field of cultural production in Bosnia and Herzegovina si...

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