Help to wage war on the 'simplifiers' of Kosovo

April 2, 1999

Academics must provide a platform for Serbians brave enough to speak out, says Stephanie Schwandner-Sievers

War constitutes a challenge to academia. It leads to reflections on its moral stance and its role in times of crises such as Serbia and Kosovo. Are we obliged to become involved and to take sides? If there is such an ethical imperative what roles are academics to play? How are we to cope with this feeling of discomfort when receiving reports of massacres, torture and expulsions committed on or by people we choose to study? With the outbreak of violence the emotional distance of academic endeavour in search of objectivity suddenly suggests an arrogance.

Social science and the humanities interpret social actions and cultural processes and meanings of fellow human beings. From the perspective of anthropology, there is a deep and direct involvement in people's lives. We empathised with and became friends of people who in times of war transform themselves into victims or perpetrators.

What ought we to offer, beyond a fair account of the social and cultural complexities of the lives of the people we study?

The wars academics fight are not about real life and death. Occasionally we play a role in political decision-making processes but most of the time we find ourselves collecting the bits and pieces in the aftermath of crisis.

When the society studied is suddenly at war we are often asked to offer an instant appraisal or explanation without having time to collect and interpret the data. While attempting to keep up with complex daily events we also struggle to maintain a distance and overall view.

There has been a shift to studies related to contemporary political processes. In Balkan studies one would hardly pursue a study of medieval Serbian history without reflecting on its implications in modern politics, such as its use in justifying nationalist territorial claims. With political transition in the former socialist states and the associated repetitions of war and processes of disintegration, Slavonic and east European studies shifted attention towards these new phenomena.

War constitutes a time of simplification and alienation. Violence against "the other" has to be justified and prepared through the production of internal cohesion as well as of fear of the outside world. In simple discourses "the other" becomes dehumanised as the evil to be smashed while one's own fighters become glorious heroes.

We identified those discourses of manliness and honour, of loyalty and treachery, of victimisation and of revenge among the actors in different wars, and traced how these discourses directed violence towards the outside world, produced internal solidarity and suppressed critical voices through slander or physical threat. We studied how in insecure and competitive times of political and economic crisis the "simplifiers" managed to triumph over those who sought to produce more sophisticated accounts.

We described how nation-state building processes were based on politics of internal homogenisation and on the suppression of cultural and ethnic heterogeneity. We produced complex understandings of cultural logics and power politics underlying violence but this does not prevent those processes being enacted.

It should not be a surprise to see both Milosovic and the Kosovo Liberation Army operating in terms of the cultures in which they exist. Cultural definitions of friend and foe were prepared on all sides early on as ideological concepts, the internal non-conformists were suppressed or killed because they were considered treacherous. Myth of descent and historical battles served as basis for claims on territory and justified ethnic cleansing as well as mass rapes.

Experience of violence on the other hand was interpreted as an insult to personal honour or national dignity, a humiliation that had to be avenged. Both sides have managed to draw Nato into these old war games.

We might recognise the patterns and dynamics of violence but feel helpless to provide the recipes of how to cope with and how to avoid these games. Academics are not political decision-makers. The most they can ever do is to provide interpretations of the different players' logics and rationales, and secure a proper differentiation between ideology and real processes, between power players and passive victims.

There is only one war academics can fight. This is a war against simplification processes. This can mean providing a voice and platform for the critical dissenters who were expelled. We should continue to offer support for our Serbian colleagues who have the courage to speak out against the simplifiers. A power does emanate from our offices, lecture theatres, seminar rooms and journals. We can keep faith with our ideals of critical analysis and attempt to disseminate knowledge of and deconstruct the myths of political rhetoric and associated processes in those countries in crisis.

Stephanie Schwandner-Sievers is a social anthropologist at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, London.

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