Vampire Nation: Violence as Cultural Imaginary

February 2, 2012

When viewed against an event that propelled the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s back into media circulation, Vampire Nation possesses a certain currency. The May 2011 arrest of the Serbian former military leader Ratko Mladic on the charge of war crimes resuscitated dormant discussions about the role of Serbia in the Bosnian conflict and, more broadly, the moral stain of the Serbs as the main aggressors and exemplars of eternal hatred and intolerance towards their neighbours. It is a timely publication, then, that analyses with rigour both the ongoing vilification of the Serbian people by the external gaze as well as their own self-definition through the lens of "vampire phantasm".

Two phrases here require glossing. First of all, Tomislav Longinovic's curious marking of "the serbs" in lower-case letters in this book is a gesture inspired by Jean-François Lyotard's distinction between "the jews" and real Jews in Europe. In a similar vein, Longinovic aims to distinguish "the serbs", this "imaginary assemblage of dubious veracity", from those actual, living people who "happen to be born under that particular sign of national belonging". The subject under study, then, is not solely the image of a community constantly produced by interlocking webs of journalistic, diplomatic or literary discourse but, more importantly, the very genesis of such tropes.

Second, what is the "vampire phantasm"? For Longinovic, the "vampire phantasm" projects a narrative of stunted modernity. It is the story of a group never able to overcome the viperous burden of their "historical imagination" (after Czeslaw Milosz) in its attempt to enact European values. "The serbs" are one such nation in which the vampire, as the beast within, feeds off the flesh-and-blood violence at the core of its national memory. Its identity thereby is primarily a blood-driven one. Of course, manifestations of such identities are figurative and allegorical, occurring, as Longinovic shows, in the realm of the cultural imaginary.

The book offers plentiful and juicy illustrations. For instance: the Ottoman practice of blood tribute in which Christian Slav boys were abducted from their homes, converted to Islam, and inserted into the Ottoman social order, is interpreted within the frame of the book as a violence that subsequently nurtures collective insecurities that can be (and have been) exploited. Memorable, too, is Longinovic's reading of the famous torture scene from the novel The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric in which a peasant impaled on a stake is transformed into "a token sacrifice projected onto the time to come, a reminder of the tyranny 'which would remain there forever'".

Given the elastic qualities of vampirism, it is not surprising that the book comes together as a collage of artistic and literary artefacts that are rather impressive in their range. Longinovic has at his disposal, it seems, the entire cultural repository of the South Slavs, drawing on oral literature, popular music, contemporary novels and even political speeches. His crossings between genres and forms aptly demonstrate the entrenched overlap between, say, populist political rhetoric and literary tropes. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the 1989 Kosovo speech by Slobodan Miloševic (vampire-in-chief, pace Longinovic), which drew heavily on the oral tradition of "the serbs" in consolidating the threads of national memory some six centuries old. On a final accounting, however, it is unclear whether the vampire metaphor is effective or functions simply on the level of imagery.

Moreover, for those not versed in psychoanalytic and poststructuralist theories, Vampire Nation presents a daunting task, with its frequent references to Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida (among others) and its emulation of their deconstructive strategies. But for those willing to take the challenge, there is plenty to bite into in this book.

Vampire Nation: Violence as Cultural Imaginary

By Tomislav Z. Longinovic. Duke University Press. 224pp, £60.00 and £14.99. ISBN 9780822350224 and 0392. Published 13 September 2011

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