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Serbian salad

Politika [Belgrade daily] has recently launched a series of interviews with – as the series announcement put it – ‘supreme Serbian intellectuals’. They have been asked to answer the questions that – again to quote the announcement – ‘we are all asking one another in these, for our state, crucial days’. These are the questions: ‘How can we integrate into the ever-growing family of European nations and preserve our identity? Serbia between East and West, Serbia in Europe, but how, when, and at what price?’

I must tell you straight away that I do not recall asking anyone such questions, or anyone asking me anything along these lines. And in any case I find it difficult to believe that the citizens of this country are torturing themselves with allegedly difficult dilemmas concerning Serbia’s so-called European road; or that they are discussing them in their homes, with their friends, with their colleagues at work, in cafés. Imagine me asking you: ‘Ceco, tell me, please, what would you pay to join Europe?’ And you responding: ‘Any price.’ And me then admonishing you: ‘And identity, are you going to give that up too, and whiz round Europe like a headless fly?’ What normal person would behave like this?

So-called public discourse is, of course, another matter. There, these allegedly difficult subjects are discussed in detail and at great length, with use of the phrases that appear in the questions. For its series of dialogues with intellectuals, Politika has taken: ‘the European family of nations’, ‘preserving identity’, ‘crucial days’, ‘between East and West’, ‘yes, but at what price’, and so on. This whole thing aims, in my view, to create the impression that a real popular debate about national individuality is taking place in Serbia; that Serbs are supposedly finding it difficult to choose between East and West, so are torn apart by major geopolitical issues: whether, and if, and when, and where, and at what price, and with whom, and then what? Dilemmas, indeed, fateful and historic. And who will shed light on all this, if not supreme Serbian intellectuals? Only they – I quote again from the announcement of the Politika series – can help us to ‘find ourselves’.

InPolitika’s 8 March issue, Zorica Tomić – presented to the readers as ‘university professor, expert on culture, sociologist of culture, publicist, and columnist’ – responded to the invitation to help the Serbs find themselves, i.e. reply to the Politika series questions. I have read everything that Professor Tomić said there, but must admit that I am unable to convey what the professor really thinks about the questions posed. Or rather, I have managed to grasp some of her ideas taken singly, but the connection between them not at all.

Zorica Tomić says, for example, that the Serbs are mentally where they are geographically, i.e. ‘on the border between East and West’. I have no problem in understanding this. I can understand without too much effort on my part also another of the professor’s thoughts on the subject that appears in the same place: her belief that, as she puts it, ‘the world of today is not the world of the East or the world of the West, but a world ruled by hyper-technology… and multinational capital’. But my brain gets blocked when it tries to connect the professor’s two thoughts on East and West, and understand what she actually thinks; because for her – as you can see – East and West are some how able simultaneously to be and not be, to exist and not exist, a state of affairs which, I must admit, remains beyond my grasp.

I was baffled similarly by what Zorica Tomić thinks about the media. I again found that she has two thoughts on the subject, and was again able to understand each of them but remained totally in the dark as to their connection. The professor first says the following: ‘The media no longer represent reality, but make it.’ The thought is not all that new, but is clear to me. And then, a little later, I read that she believes that the modern media have removed the veil of secrecy from the world and, as she puts it, ‘made it transparent and obscene’. This too I can follow with ease. However, what remains unclear to me is what the professor really thinks in this case about the media. Do they, in her judgement, construct reality or merely reveal it? Or both one and the other, depending on the time and the individual? I really do not know.

One more example. Professor Tomić refers in this interview to something which she calls – I quote – ‘obligatory standards of the civilised world to preserve and nurture cultural differences’. Here I clearly see two ideas, both good in themselves, which I can easily understand. The first idea is that the world is divided into civilised and uncivilised parts, i.e. into two parts of unequal value. Because those who talk of ‘standards of the civilised world’ must undoubtedly assume the existence of a world ruled by different standards, primitive and uncivilised. But Zorica Tomić expresses here also another idea, according to which the world is again divided, though this time not into civilised and uncivilised parts but into different and in principle equally valid cultures. What are we to do now? I would say that one must choose; that one must say which of the two ideas on cultural difference one accepts. Do you think that there exist higher and lower cultures or simply different cultures? In other words, do you find yourselves closer to racist or to relativist ideas about cultural difference? It seems, however, that Zorica Tomić likes both equally. This is what my brain fails to grasp.

Wherein lies the problem, why the misunderstanding? Luckily there is a place in this interview that helped me discover the true cause of my difficulty in understanding Professor Tomić’s thoughts. It is that she and I, it seems, do not have the same organ for thinking. The professor is endowed with a brain, whereas I have instead a potato or, more precisely, mashed potatoes. ‘Unfortunately’, she says, ‘the average Serbian citizen has had his brain replaced by mashed potato, so that – fearing to be labelled a nationalist – it proclaims that everything containing national characteristics is archaic, impoverished and retrograde’. Scientifically, the professor calls this metamorphis of the Serb brain into mashed potato ‘semantic lifting’, and uses a joke to explain to what kind of thing, to what kind of absurd situation, such lifting can lead. ‘To make a joke’, Zorica Tomić says, ‘in this climate in which a kind of semantic lifting is a daily occurrence, even Serbian Salad will have to change its name.’

What now? I must admit that I immediately recognised myself in this description of the average Serbian citizen, in this diagnosis of the state of his brain. I am highly suspicious of all national symbols and all that they embellish, and whenever these symbols and their proud bearers and guardians turn up, I promptly see nationalism. Archaic, impoverished, retrograde? Not at all. I think that things in our country have gone much further, that they are much worse and darker than this. Narrow-mindedness, terror, fascism, this is what in my view rolls in behind the national symbols, behind the alleged anxiety about national identity, behind officially pronounced alleged dilemmas between bread and honour, patriotism and treason, West and East, body and soul. I too, therefore, am clearly one of those Serbian citizens who, according to Professor Tomić, has mash instead of a brain. The semantic lifting in my case occurred long ago , and I do not even recall that my thoughts have ever swirled in anything else but mash, that my convolutions have ever been anything but patterns created by the gentle movement of a fork.

The professor is joking when she foresees a semantic lifting that will change even the name of Serbian Salad. But I am a living example that this is no joke at all, because for a long time I have called this dish ‘Salad without cheese’. Professor Tomić’s diagnosis appears worrying at first glance, but I think that there is no need for concern. First, if one is to believe the professor, to have mashed potato in your head is not some rarity, an abnormal or pathological occurrence; on the contrary, having mash as the organ for thinking is characteristic of our average, run-of-the-mill citizen. Secondly, if one can adopt a reserved attitude towards national symbols, and come to condemn their manipulators in Serbia, only by having one’s brain turned into mashed potato, then long live mash, long live mashed thought, long live the children of Mash.

Translation from Bosnian Institute

Peščanik.net, 28.03.2008.

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Ivan Čolović, rođen 1938. u Beogradu, na Filološkom fakultetu diplomirao opštu književnost (1961), magistrirao (1972) romanistiku, na Filozofskom fakultetu doktorirao etnologiju (1983). Radio kao urednik u nekoliko izdavačkih preduzeća, u penziju otišao 2000. kao naučni savetnik Etnografskog instituta SANU. Predavač i gostujući profesor na univerzitetima u Francuskoj, Španiji, Nemačkoj, Italiji, Engleskoj, Sloveniji, Švajcarskoj i Poljskoj. Preveo desetak knjiga sa francuskog, najviše dela Rolana Barta i Žorža Bataja. Objavio 17 knjiga studija i eseja. Dobitnik je sledećih nagrada i priznanja: Herderova nagrada (2000), Orden viteza Legije časti (2001), nagrada Konstantin Obradović (2006), povelja Prijatelj lista Danas (2009), zvanje počasnog doktora Varšavskog univerziteta (2010), nagrada Vitez poziva (2010) i medalja Konstantin Jireček (2012). Biblioteku XX vek osnovao je 1971, a od 1988. je i njen izdavač. (Istorijat Biblioteke prikazan je u knjizi Dubravke Stojanović Noga u vratima. Prilozi za političku biografiju Biblioteke XX vek, 2011) Knjige: Književnost na groblju. Zbirka novih epitafa (1983); Divlja književnost. Etnolingvističko proučavanje paraliterature (1985, 2000); Vreme znakova (1988); Erotizam i književnost. Markiz de Sad i francuska erotska književnost (1990); Bordel ratnika. Folklor, politika i rat ( 1992, 1993, 2000), prevodi na nemački (1994) i francuski (2005, 2009); Pucanje od zdravlja (1994); Jedno s drugim (1995); Politika simbola. Ogledi o političkoj antropologiji (1997, 2000), prevodi na engleski (2002) i poljski (2002); Kad kažem novine / When I say Newspaper (1999, 2004); Campo di calcio, campo di battaglia, originalno izdanje na italijanskom, prev. Silvio Ferrari (1999), prevod na grčki (2007); Dubina. Članci i intervjui 1991-2001 (2001); Etno. Priče o muzici sveta na Internetu (2006), prevod na poljski (2011); Vesti iz kulture (2008); Balkan – teror kulture. Ogledi o političkoj antropologiji, 2 (2008), prevodi na poljski (2007), engleski (2011), nemački (2011) i makedonski (2012); Zid je mrtav, živeli zidovi (ur.) (2009); Za njima smo išli pevajući. Junaci devedesetih (2011); Rastanak sa identitetom. Ogledi o političkoj antropologiji, 3 (2014); Smrt na Kosovu polju: Istorija kosovskog mita (2016); Slike i prilike. Redom kojim su se ukazivale (2018).

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