bosnia report
New Series No: 41 August - September 2004
The monstrosity of ‘pure’ national culture
by Ivan Lovrenovic - in conversation with Katarina Luketic

What is left today of the idea of a multi-cultural Bosnia-Herzegovina?

What we have is a paradox: while Bosnia had no idea of itself as ‘multi-cultural’, it was just that in daily existence, in non-conceptualized practice; when it accepted this idea, and this terminology, as something supposed adequately to express its social structure and its ‘nature’, it ceased to be that. Multi-culturalism as a social concept emerging from the experience of the West in the period of secularism and modernity - signifying the simultaneous presence of different, mutually not-close and ‘incomprehensible’ linguistic and ethnic communities within the same state-political framework, and a way of solving the problems arising from this - was only partially, in a very limited sense, perceptible in Bosnia as we knew it before 1992, or rather before Dayton 1995. In Bosnia it was possible to speak in the true, clear sense only about pluri-confessionalism, and in a somewhat more relative sense about pluri-ethnicity. It was also possible to discuss cultural pluralism in the quite specific sense in which cultural differences were generated from religious-confessional backgrounds. But those differences operated as nuances, and far more dominant was the cultural homogeneity of the entire Bosnian-Herzegovinian space, if cultural identity is conceived as belonging to - and freely ‘functioning’ within - a common referential and social framework. The same picture was offered - is actually offered even today - by the spoken language in Bosnia: it really is common in all essential structural-linguistic elements. There are fine cultural-linguistic differences, differences in literary discourse, but the status and nature of these differences is not something on account of which it is rationally possible to talk about pluri-lingualism. So when in Bosnia today people talk in a hard plural about cultures and languages, and do so categorically as though about the last bastions of national survival, this is merely a sign that the devil of nationalistic politics has got a thorough grip on things. And the paradox is redoubled and transformed into a real absurdity: today multi-culturalism is taken as an alibi for the reinforcement and intensification of this monstrous state of affairs, by those domestic and foreign politicians who have done everything to annihilate the original historical rationale and existential art of the coexistence of differences in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The power of common identity

Writing about the cultural history and the identities of Bosnia, you have advanced the thesis that in the past there existed a certain duality between high and popular culture. More precisely, that in high culture there was no great contact between the three different cultural identities, while in the sphere of popular culture there was inter-penetration. And that accordingly there existed simultaneously in Bosnia three separate cultures and one common one. Can you explain this specific phenomenon?

This interesting, ambivalent process and dynamic relationship was formed in the long centuries during which Bosnia was part of the Ottoman Empire, especially in its first epoch of prosperous stability, about which we know little in factual terms today and from which we are emotionally distant. At all events, it is important to stress that it is a relationship that belongs to the pre-modern period, and that is characteristic - perhaps the only one possible - in environments like Bosnia, where people had the same linguistic and ethno-cultural make-up and ‘origin’ and came under the spiritual influence and institutional power of three different religions/confessions, and consequently of three great political centres far away from Bosnia. For the entirety of life followed two different patterns, and it is exceptionally important to emphasize that this proceeded on a daily basis, throughout the course of a whole human life and as a normal manner of existence, and that absolutely all human activities and the whole of daily life were deeply imbued with this ambivalence. What were those patterns? Quite simply: there existed one ‘part’ of life that was practised in a sacral-religious way, and another that was practised in a profane-existential way. If we leave aside manifestations of syncretism (which were not in fact all that insignificant, among the followers of all confessions but among Catholics especially, up to the Council of Trent and the church counter-reformation, which in the Balkans was directed at quite other goals than in reformation Europe), among the religions there neither was nor was allowed to be any kind of ‘osmosis’. Each was ‘alone with itself’ here. In profane everyday life, in linguistic, social or commercial communication, or in manifestations of popular culture, meanwhile, if such barriers did exist their strength was not absolute, but on the contrary very relative and sometimes quite insignificant. Figuratively speaking, this means that we must be able to picture the typical Bosnian (Moslem, Catholic, Orthodox, Jew - no matter) of those times as a man who, for twenty-four hours a day throughout his life’s span, has in today’s terms two ‘cultural identities’, really two lives: one when he is ‘just’ a Moslem, Catholic, Orthodox or Jew, and in which no one and nothing else may interfere, since that would be the greatest blasphemy; and one when he is a man in the bazaar, in his shop, at work on his fields, in the café, in the most disparate commercial transactions, even in certain socio-cultural rituals that are not of confessional but of popular-traditional origin - and then the socio-erotic power of the common ‘cultural identity’ was revealed in full measure. And yet all this was one and unitary, his single life! With the nineteenth century, Bosnia too was permeated by bourgeois culture, lay culture, secularism, already in embryo under the Sultan’s rule and then more powerful after the entry of Austria-Hungary. From then right up to 1990, the pre-modern schema just described continually loses strength. Irrespective of tumultuous shifts of political regime and ideological system, culture and cultural life are irresistibly democratized and diversified, religious/confessional identity ceases to be the dominant feature of the individual and the collectivity and, over that long one-hundred-and-thirty-year period, in Bosnia-Herzegovina too the foundations are created of a bourgeois culture and art (literature, all the forms of visual expression, theatre, film...) in which elements of ethnic-traditional pluralism do not function in an exclusive and isolating manner, but transgressively, as moments of reciprocal enrichment. The depth of the fall and regression into rigid ethno-confessional concepts of culture and identity - such as were welcomed (what a paradox!) as the life-giving achievement of the first democratic elections of 1990, and which do more than anything else to hinder any kind of improvement in Bosnia-Herzegovina - may be measured sufficiently from the perspective of the notable achievements and creations of that one-hundred-and-thirty-year civilizational and emancipatory process.

Reforms without concept or aim

The identity of any people or collectivity always consists of a hybrid of different manifestations, characteristics, imaginations, etc. It always emerges in interaction, penetration/rejection, assimilation/differentiation in relation to the other. So can multi-culturalism and pluralism of cultures be a danger for the preservation of an individual national identity, as has often been asserted during these past years?

The experience of Bosnia-Herzegovina testifies to the opposite: there is no greater danger to any national identity than the idea of ‘purity’, the disjunctive concept of ‘pure national culture’ and a thoroughgoing differentiation from others. When, as in the Bosnian Croat case, you add to that

in terms of identity a suicidal engulfment in belonging to ‘Croatdom as such’, with a genuinely programmatic eradication of all indigenous, specific, precisely Bosnian Croat elements of culture, historical tradition, identity - then you get a grave warning about the consequences of such conceptions of identity. Our problem lies in the fact that this alarming cry of warning has no ears to hear it in all its gravity: the prisoners of the concept of ‘pure national culture’ sit equally upon parliamentary benches, professorial chairs, episcopal seats...

Some people think that the international community perceives this (lost?) multi-ethnic, multi-confessional and multi-cultural identity of Bosnia-Herzegovina in a mistaken way, and accordingly reaches mistaken decisions. What is your comment?

That has unfortunately been obvious from the very outset, from the time when negotiations about the former Yugoslavia, and then about Bosnia itself, were conducted by British ‘geniuses’ whose conception of the ethnic-territorial ‘divisibility’ of Bosnia-Herzegovina coincided in some morbid fashion with the ideas of Milošević and Tuđman. Cross my heart, neither was there a single one of the politicians of Bosnia-Herzegovina itself, who in words defended its political integrity and the ‘civilizational value’ of its multi-culturalism, like Izetbegović, who wanted and instinctively knew how to articulate this, so that it would be trans-ethnically convincing and acceptable. So the present-day state of the so-called reform being implemented by the international community (above all in education) is a spectacle of agonizing torture, in which there is neither any clear concept nor any visible aim.

This interview has been translated from Zarez (Zagreb), 6 November 2003


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