TRAVELING BODIES, COMMONING WORLDS
— researchers and dramaturgs Ana Vujanovic and Bojana Cvejic in conversation with Nacre editor Anastasia Kolas
(The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow)
Komal Purbe—A woman flying a rocket (2019)
Anastasia Kolas: First I wanted to extend it to you both to introduce yourself in your own words, maybe touching on how you met and how you began to collaborate, before writing together the two books: “Toward a Transindividual Self: A study in social dramaturgy”(2022) and “Public Sphere by Performance” (2015).
Ana Vujanovic: I am from Belgrade, have an educational background in theater, culture and gender studies, and define myself as many different things. I have a kind of plasticity. So I’ve changed quite fundamentally throughout my life. Today I would define myself as a cultural worker living between Berlin and Amsterdam, but still engaged with the context of Belgrade. For many years I worked in the independent cultural and artistic scene in Belgrade, for example with the Walking Theory Collective, and with many other groups and networks. And then we initiated one really big association which was called The Other Scene. It gathered under its umbrella around 80 organizations, and also a few individuals, working in Belgrade. At that time I was involved in cultural policy issues.
And after I left Belgrade, I became more, let’s say, “professional”. So today I write about the independent cultural scene, always with an awareness that I’m not a cultural activist any longer, and that I don’t spend my days at the assemblies, and on the streets. So there is a big shift in my life because I lost my context for several reasons. But I still keep really firm ties with many people from Belgrade, and work with my partner, Marta Popivoda, who is a film and video maker. With her we’ve made a lot of artworks together, and then next to it, Bojana and I co-wrote two books together. I continue, from time to time, to collaborate with other friends who remain in Belgrade, but ultimately Bojana and Marta have outlived all others.
Bojana Cvejic: I’m also from Belgrade, relocated to Brussels in 2000, and at first was spending my time between the two cities. But then, from 2003 or thereabouts, I’ve been mainly based in Brussels, where I’d worked as a performer, theater maker and dramaturge. I’m educated in musicology and philosophy, and my initial context was also the independent scene in Belgrade. And from 2000, together with Ana, I had also contributed to the Walking Theory group and its journal. In Belgium I have orientated myself to collaborative work and also to the collective platforms like Performing Arts Forum, or PAF, and several other initiatives (e.g.6M1L), cultivating regional collaborations with our colleagues on the independent scene in Zagreb and Ljubljana. I’m not a political or cultural activist, I am somewhere between a researcher and cultural worker as well. Over time I became more and more focused on art education and on experimental performance productions. Aside from two books, and many texts and journal issues we have collaborated on together with Ana, there is a broader shared political project and research around performance, and the crises of the public and the social imaginary. Some of this research we conducted together while at Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, where the editorial collective of Walking Theory had been invited to share our experience. The collective and our self-organized practice served as an inspirational example, for this, rather unusual for Paris — small, experimental and informal venue — Les Labos. I have also contributed to thinking, creation and choreography in the independent performance scene in Brussels since the early 2000s. Lately, however, the context of performance and education in Western Europe has become re-politicized, in a different register and on a different scale.
AK: That’s an interesting point to begin with: how has the context changed in the cultural or art sphere since the early 2000s, and how has it become re-politicized of late?
BC: It changed in that it has become more explicitly politicized in response to global social and political crises. For example, the questions of the political economy after the financial and debt crisis have reoriented artists towards cheaper and ‘safer’ production schemes under the roof of educational institutions. At the same time Western Europe has also recognized its own colonial melancholia, and that it has not dealt with the issues of social injustice, and the inequalities have become even more dire with the collapse of the social welfare state.The social movements and the politics of solidarity have also affected the performing arts, and education sectors, where young people often ask: how can we share a common struggle if we recognize asymmetries with respect to lived experience?
By 2010, the contemporary dance exhausted the political power of institutional critique, which was broadly based on the premises of post conceptual art. For me this means also that the mission of educating young people, or being immersed in that educational context, must change. Study is a social political laboratory involving an international mix of class, ethnic, gender and other identities. And my ambition is often to instigate and try for collective practices. In a way I’ve given up on the idea that in these art programs, the students are supposed to become artists. They might learn to instrumentalize art, and for some it might even be a way to get citizenship. What’s more important is what kind of subjects they will become and how they can learn to live a life that is more fair, and that there is some kind of social creativity within that potential for social transformation.
AV: My experience might be a little different. Because I have mostly followed the global events from the media, and most of my life has been connected to the context of former Yugoslavia and Belgrade. And in that context, the re-politicization per se has never happened. If only because there, art has always been political — simply due to the turbulent history of that region in my lifetime. I changed my positionality in the course of that history several times. Initially, I was hopeful about the democratic promise, but very soon realized that it was just about capitalism, and democracy was an ideological tool to seduce us. But then, shifting to excavating socialist history and being enthusiastic about the history of Non Aligned Movements, and worker self-management, and then opening the whole discourse of decolonization in our region — I had to re-politicize myself again. Learning about ambivalences of Yugoslavia’s position — including the question of racism in our context, which most of us who are white were not aware of, that address the Roma people, Albanians from Kosovo and so on. There had been waves of going towards socialism, and then back, and then socialism again. Finally today, it’s become a debate on how to follow the decolonial discourse without abandoning the socialist project — because many discourses that come from the de-colonial field are Western liberal, including the feminist movement. Politicization is really characteristic for the cultural workers in our region, and it has a distinct historical precedent. It doesn’t follow the history of the European Union, for instance, because it also has inherited its own, local problems, its own struggles, which are not easy to translate into these wider terms.
Yugoslavia, How ideology moved our collective body — dir Marta Popivoda, 2013, film still
AK: There’s a couple of threads I’d like to pick up on in what you just said. I’m curious about what Bojana just said about instrumentalization of art, and would like to see if we could approach it through the proposition of transindividualism in your writing. Maybe before we do, with your permission I will attempt a rudimentary summary of the central thesis of your most recent book “Towards a Transindividual self”. You describe the current relational condition as interindividualism, which stems from the dominant neoliberal modus operandi of possessive individualism. It is a kind of relational situation that is primarily motivated by strategic exchange of resources by each person performing a possessive self, that ends up inevitably perpetuating the aliantion of the productivity paradigm we live in. You posit it in contrast to the more desirable mode of exchange and living together — transindividualism. This involves understanding that we exist through sharing parts of ourselves, and that a larger benefit of reciprocity and giving oneself to society, presumably unconditionally as opposed to strategically or with an expectation of a return — is what can cut against ever increasing alienation. So that hopefully introduces the terms that you talk about.
In terms of instrumentalization of art: inevitably art could be as much a place of discovery as it could be a propaganda tool. So I wanted us to think together how the ideology of individualism relates to this. And conversely, how transindividualism, which has an objective of changing society, could operate in art. Meaning, how it is different from the versions of communist societies that also instrumentalized art for collective purposes in the past. And just to pile it on, on the other hand — how does transindividualism relate to the diagnostic quality of art, or what you call “symptomatology”, and then also the ambivalence of performance that you talk about, so the experimental, speculative potential of art?
BC: It’s such a knot of threads to unpack. And it’s also interesting to hear your summary of the book, which concepts you amplify. Maybe there’s a caveat to instrumentalization that I can talk about first. Because it has a very negative connotation in communist context you mentioned (e.g. social realism), and we also know of negative neoliberal instrumentalization of art. But for us, artistic practices offer tools and methods to think through social reality and address problematic tendencies (like individualism). For example, via social dramaturgy, and various meanings and functions of performance and performativity.
I also want to react to one thread from what you said, because it outlines my motivation for articulating transindividualism in the first place. In the legacy of communist collectivism, collectivity had been based on ideological unity, which is something that I couldn’t advocate anymore. I’ve been educated in it, and fascinated by it, to the extent that I had tried to stage and probe it in the Western context, in artistic projects, like Collect-if with Emil Hrvatin (now known as Janez Janša). But ideology couldn’t be that horizon that unifies us today. It poses certain problems around belonging and representation, the paranoia around leadership, and it eclipses individuality which all seems to be unlivable in the historical present I’m part of.
Transindividuality or transindividuation would allow us to think of individuation as a process where collectivity is a dimension of it. The social as the common is the source of all individuation, including the individuation of individuals. The collective transindividual dimension is not something that happens to us, but something that we need to politically affirm as in the social common being prior to the individual. Starting from Gilbert Simondon, and reading his theory of transindividual with Marx, Balibar, Stiegler, and also Jason Read— was to offer a very broad conceptual platform to describe processes and practices of acting and working together where the social will be prioritized as the source for the individual selves, without blotting out the individual.
AV: Maybe just to add another thought about the figure of the artist within the contemporary art world in Europe and also in our local context — it produces the figure of the artist as a genius. So an artist is a kind of sublimation of this ideology of individualism, a figure characterized by exceptional creativity, potential of innovation, novelty and so on. A narrative that in turn has a lot of consequences on the working condition in the field of art. For us this book was a place to think about the process of becoming an individual before starting to think about the collective. As such, trans-individuation offers an intervention into the art sphere. And for me, this study, transindividuation, was more about a more fundamental question, not only the question of how to come together, in a common context, but also of how social dramaturgy impacts the individual. I didn’t know we would end up with the theory of transindividuation when we started working on the idea beginning with the question of performing the self. The whole research project, which was very long, maybe five, six years, had started with our concern and interest in performing the self. And in how we perform ourselves on epistemological and political level, through the lens of the late 20th and early 21st century neoliberal capitalist society. So not in terms of social media and this performance of the self that we are aware of more immediately, but on a more political and epistemological level. This was the main intervention — not to begin to advocate for collectivism this time, but to look at how individualism impacts the individual. An intervention, which could then hopefully foster collective practices in the future.
AK: In your 2023 book you also talk about “the linear and uninterrupted biography in the Western notion of self”. So related to this genius figure, but more distributed through society in general, how does this kind of uninterrupted and linear biography of Western self relate to what you call “standardization of memory”? This of course is very important to consider approaching various decolonial projects that are taking place, and also as artists try to integrate a variety of positions, including ambiguous positions, but from yet-to-be-known, emerging or peripheral contexts. All whilst being assessed by this dominant culture paradigm, whether through the financialized sphere of grants, school and residencies application, or more generally as persons, including through aesthetic categories of art-making.
AV: That’s a very interesting question, but I will just make a little footnote to what you said first. We did write about this linear biography and so on, but in our view, if we want to be very precise, these linear narratives and life stories are more characteristic of the 20th century, maybe peaking with 19th century novel, and then 20th century Hollywood films, or action films to be more specific. What is characteristic of the present is a kind of instantaneous performing of self where you need to act and reflect and memorize all at the same time. So everything is condensed. That’s our dramaturgical remark about performing the self today — we want to attempt to affirm the dramaturgical shift from the narrative self and the concept of the narrative self, to the concept of performing the self. And then, in my other work, which is not part of the book, I go back to the narrative self to see what we can learn about different temporalities, and what intervention is offered by reaffirming this narrative self and this kind of storytelling in today’s society. But these questions are not in the book. So this is a little methodological correction, I would say just precision.
BC: I’m not sure if I’m directly answering the question, but I wanted to add: there’s also something about art being this site of intense performance of self that gives us, as dramaturgists, the tools to describe and critically undo the truth games of the day. So, for instance, the place of the body, the embodiment where the experience of the self is supposed to be real, unmediated, and where it is actually mediated. And how, for instance, somatic techniques, now widespread under very much commercial guise, become, yet again, all about enhancement, and self-care in order to live a life sustainable only as a form of individualistic relation to oneself. Performances can reveal these machinations of neoliberal capitalism, but also, through multiplicity and ambiguity of intentions, highlight their potentiality. That potentiality can be used to regenerate the potential of the common in a collective sense, or it can be used for actualizing oneself, and to constantly monitor one’s capacity to differentiate, to be more intensely — yourself.
AV: To answer the 2nd part of your question, I’d like to approach it through Bernard Stiegler’s discourse. Some of my own artworks directly address the question of memory, and standardization of memory, reopening the relation between memory and history*. If we talk about the situation today — I don’t think that neoliberal ideology has a total reach. It’s global, but it doesn’t have this total reach. For instance, we come from a traditional culture in the Balkans where I personally had amazing luck to have had three grandmothers, three storytellers, from whom I learned a lot. So in the last documentary movie Landscapes of Resistance, that my partner Marta Popivoda and I made together, we based the whole film on the storytelling of my grandmother. She was an anti-fascist fighter and part of resistance movement, communist and so on, and survived several concentration camps, including Auschwitz. In the film we tried to open the memory, which is not part of the official history. It’s a woman’s take on war, inspired by the work of Svetlana Alexievich. Through the film we questioned the notion of the monument, and how the monument becomes a part of history. We were also inspired by Elizabeth Fisher’s anthropology, or carrier bag anthropology. It’s a form of storytelling that’s not about this heroic mammoth hunt, but is more like about picking berries, and all these things, which are for me extremely important. So it was not only about hearing the story of the woman who is outstanding, to us, and also very modest, and a woman who is from our part of the world. Because we all have grandmothers like her, more or less, or it’s very common. We also wanted to cherish this new epistemology of storytelling. And in parallel, as we were working on the film, Bojana and I were working on transindividuality research. For me, what Bernard Stigler wrote about the standardization of memory by contemporaneity, also means standardization of memory by ideology — the ways of production and the ways of performing the subjectivity. Through it, I came to the question of: who has the right to externalize their memories? Whose memories become part of history?
Here I return to Non Aligned Movement again. We were born in a non aligned country. I remember going to primary school in the 80s, and writing essays against the superpowers, like the Soviet Union and the US — we were so proud of being against these superpowers. And then suddenly, when I started traveling in 2000, I started being classified as Eastern European, which was for me completely exotic. I had never been to, and I didn’t know anything about Eastern Europe. It was a taboo in my country. But suddenly I was defined as Eastern European. But then gradually, by meeting people, going to conferences, I really did become — Eastern European. And it’s a very ambivalent position: Eastern Europeans, and who we are in the global discourse. And then, from the younger generations in Amsterdam and Berlin, but especially in Amsterdam, I started hearing about Eastern European shame because we always feel inadequate, and we cannot explain our off-whiteness, or marginal whiteness and so on. Which was shocking for me, because I always had this Eastern European pride. More recently there are groups who try to deal with that subject, and who started inviting me — and I’m very touched by that. We need to think about these subjects deeper, like standardization of memory, opening up the memory, and being strong enough and together to bear the complexities, and tensions and commonalities.
Landscapes of resistance—dir Marta Popivoda, 2021, film still
BC: I share the sentiment with Ana, and I also experienced that it was often hard to explain that we were not part of the Second World, but we were part of the Third World. At the time of the Non Aligned Movement, the Third World didn’t have the negative connotation that it has today. In a conversation in a theater in Munich, when I invoked Yugoslavia as an example, I remember being shut up: “Why are you drawing on a model that only existed for 50 years?” So for me, the crisis of the socia,l has to do with precisely that — with delegitimization of select histories. Because the insistence on presentism doesn’t let us think of the present as historical. And that, in fact, we have a way of popularizing historical memory, where one is not allowed to draw an example that has been judged as a failure. But recently I have been very encouraged by Documenta 15, and making contact with Palestinian friends, amongst whom there have also been artists of mixed Yugoslav-Palestinian origins, because some Palestinians escaped Israeli colonialism and went to Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia can also be used as a study of solidarities that are geographically very remote — like for example between Red Brigades in Japan and Palestine. In Documenta 15, the Palestinian duo, Mohanad Yaqubi and Reem Shilleh show their work of restoring political solidarity through films exchanged between PLO cinema and militant leftist groups in Japan and Europe.
It’s also a kind of imperial gesture from Western Europe to monitor memory: the farther East you are from Vienna, the less they know where to situate you, and to engage with the specific political nuances around history that you want to bring. Yugoslavia was not a Soviet country; it was another form of communism — of non aligned management, of the workers’ socialism with all its flaws but with also incredible social mobility and faith in education. And I’m living in the times where education is no longer free, even in those countries that cherished social democracy, like France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, and Scandinavian countries. So related to what I mentioned at the beginning, the crisis that began around 2010-11, it resulted in loss of some of these social rights, like free education and other common goods. And education was a public good in Yugoslavia. So in that sense I think this past is very important to be restored to its proper historical memory, as a political possibility. Because we are constantly shut up by this capitalist realism, a model that does not have longevity, and is neither credible nor sustainable.
AK: This is also due to continuation of these seduction narratives — ideal images that appear to be promising emancipation and freedom of expression. These images make up a massive media project to sabotage all and any divergent theories of cohabitation, in which the neoliberal fantasies love to mine the failures, including of the past versions of communism, while obfuscating the issues of neoliberalism itself. I say this without intention of negating the violence that accompanied the institution of the communist regimes, at least in Soviet context, but also elsewhere. What’s interesting to me is that the renewed interest in the communist theory in the leftist Western context, often comes with a rejection of wanting to learn from, including from failures, of all of these other past versions of communism. And also, with negation of experiences of living in between these two worlds — aspirational and failed. Which is very surprising to me, because I feel like it should be the opposite.
AV: To add complexity to all that, when speaking about memories — we always need to be specific, in order to enter the dialogue with other specificities. When we speak about our struggles and our histories — Bojana and I, we have the same history, which is not, let’s say, the history of Cuban people. But we can also communicate with them through a certain understanding. Ours is also not a history of African post-colonial struggle, but we empathize and relate to them in a certain way. And while we might have this affiliation, we also don’t want to steal their narratives. I want each of us to be able to tell our stories. And I hope that our book, with what we did politically and epistemically, first of all, helps to unpack this idea of the individual based on individualism as the norm. Individualism comes from one specific part of the world at one specific time. And many, many of us come from places which have different cosmologies and different epistemologies. We don’t cover all of them in the book — it’s more like an initial step, a sprinkle or something like that. From which many new narratives can appear. Which can legitimize many new narratives that we don’t know but we want to hear.
And we want to attack this “first world’s” idea of the individual to which we don’t belong, but which we somehow made an effort to learn about, if only to see its weak points. So, for instance, when I speak with my friends and colleagues from Eastern Bloc, we cannot find an easy an agreement about the European Parliament’s resolution from 2009, about fascism and communism being equal from the perspective of totalitarianism, because people coming from Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries — they didn’t have the same experience, historical experience, as Ex-Yuguslavs had with communism. So for us, communism was not easy, but it was very different than elsewhere. It was much less totalitarian. We have more positive memories of it. But, we can communicate across these differences because we also understand the system, and then we can communicate about its deviations in histories and different paths. And the same with post colonial countries. I have had great exchanges with colleagues from India, Rwanda, Palestine and so on. These are not our narratives, but we understand what it means to be marginal, marginalized, peripheral and colonized for centuries and centuries, basically not having any other history than that.
Freedom Landscapes—Ana Vujanovic Marta Popivoda—Mladinsko theater, Ljubljana, 2018
BC: I’ve been reading Maria Lugones lately (Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions 2003) and I very much appreciate her very early prelude for decolonial feminism — where she proposes the figure of world-traveling and loving perception – I would like to read from: “Through traveling to other people’s worlds, we discover that there are worlds in which those who are the victims of arrogant perception are really subjects. Lively beings, resistors, constructors of visions, even though in the mainstream construction, they’re animated only by the arrogant perceiver and are pliable, foldable, classifiable.”
It is not easy nowadays to conceive of exchanges across a wide political spectrum and complicated transnational dynamics of power between Global South, Global North. But I think this politics of world traveling where you try to identify, without appropriating someone else’s position, is necessary in order to forge alliances for common struggles. Given that it is so difficult to assume a unitary position, transindividuality is simply a useful concept because it doesn’t call for a stable and closed ‘we’; it calls for practices in which ‘we’ will be transformed. We have to see the geopolitics of ‘we’ also vertically, as represented by different identitarian parameters and intersectionality. What does it mean — who can speak with whom? As Lauren Berlant said: “With whom can you imagine sharing the world’s sidewalk?” Perhaps it isn’t the sidewalk where changes can happen, as I am no longer sure about the forms of protest available to us, but through work and social practices that are: transindividual.
AK: I’d also like to talk about transindividualism in relation to producing artworks, in terms of aesthetics, methodologies and technological tools. Something that interests me, that I call “aesthetics of disappointment”‚ is an approach to working with what’s available, rather than trying to sort of come up to standard. Which often ends up in this tragi-comically obvious, and at the same time frustrating and at times debilitating situation in my personal practice, where people can’t imagine that I am aware of the “requirements” or trends, and that with that knowledge I could choose to not want to do something.
AV: I can really relate to what you said, because I’m also from this “do it yourself culture”, where improvisation was a necessity, but then it also became politicized and articulated as a choice. So I have a kind of mixed experience and feeling of not having proper education in certain things, or in having made political choices. It is interesting that living in Western Europe for more than ten years, I know that you still cannot legitimize that sort of aesthetic as a choice, unless you have a position of power and unless you have identity, which already assumes that you can do it better, but you choose not to. Or you choose degrowth instead of progress. Because coming from the Balkans, former Yugoslavia, to Germany, you are anyway seen as one who cannot. So if you say, but this is my choice, it sounds really dubious. I’ve witnessed how harshly it can be criticized. For instance, in the field of contemporary dance and performing arts, where the bodies, performers coming from our region usually don’t have the bodies trained in the way that dancers from Western Europe would have. But on the other hand, they also don’t even try to do the same things! And whatever they do is always seen as amateurism — being late, as Bojana Kunst wrote about many times. And then today I have students in their early 20s coming from New York, completely in this degrowth culture, using recycled materials, garbage and so on, which in their hands is of course — the new aesthetic. So my experience is, even when I didn’t want to be identified as someone coming from the Balkans, or dealing with the Yugoslav or Serbian dance scene, I was always put in that category. I made a big statement about that at the Performance Studies Conference in Utrecht many years ago, and got enemies because I criticized their approach: I was put in the section Dance and Cultural Identities. But, I said, I don’t deal with cultural identities, I just deal with dance in Serbia. How is it possible that in this postmodern world, where nobody has identity, I have to have an identity?
BC: Being based in Brussels was very different for me than living in Paris, London or Vienna, or even Berlin. Although Berlin and Brussels used to share, for quite a long time, a similarly wide margin, in which you could experiment, less visibly. That has changed for Berlin, while in Brussels it still remains possible. The constant bricolage of being on a construction site here in Brussels makes it sometimes have the aesthetic expression of post-hippie copyleft alternativism. And on the other hand, there is a strength of self organization on the scene in Brussels, that gravitated also to this place I mentioned before, Performing Arts Forum, PAF (Saint-Erme, France). The problem with the bricolage in the Western context, is that it operates within private property, the commoning doesn’t abolish it. Improvising at PAF relied on one person’s bonhomie, the generosity of the individual who allows for experiment and an open-ended collectivization of resources. In time, precarization has taught this collective to self organize more horizontally. In former Yugoslavia, we were trained to think structurally and we immediately shared resources, poor working conditions, including sharing what we didn’t have. We referred to our situation and methods as “being underschooled”, or always having “second hand knowledge”. As these weren’t new sexy terms, they haven’t yet been appropriated. And we initially proposed them to distinguish our artistic practices from post-colonial discourse.
AV: Referring to transindividuality I wanted to also think about language as our pre-individual condition, and how it’s actualized by every individual differently. And how it then becomes our transindividual legacy for the future. I remember that twenty years ago, for people coming from all over the world into Western context, it was a big issue, especially in academic circles, to speak proper English. People felt ashamed when they didn’t. But we were also encouraged by some English speaking people: “It’s okay, it’s okay, don’t worry.” And then I had a chance to read a review in response to a book proposal I had submitted to a British publisher. It was by an anonymous reviewer who was bashing us, on the basis of improper English — how dare we submit a proposal written like that, without it being copy edited! For me, it was a big political attack. From that moment on, I started saying to my colleagues: no, don’t tell me that it’s okay, because I know that it’s not. You say it’s okay because you cannot confront me, but you will write an anonymous review and use terms like “sloppy, unpolished”. Almost dirty! It was a big shock for me, but I was happy that I got to read the review. Gradually I also improved my English, because I live in English, so I had to. And now, in the schools where I work in Europe, and where English is not the first language, I started being referred to — you teach theory, so you need to help us go through all the materials and polish the language a little bit.
And then one day, a Latin American student, very young and confident, said something that impressed me. I was very grateful to hear her response, when I gently suggested to her once — look, this is not grammatically correct. She said: “No, there is nothing wrong with my English. You just need to train your ears to hear different English languages.” For me, it was a big lesson. I was happy to have learned it. And I said, you’re right, that’s totally true. Today, when I am asked to polish someone’s writing or school’s materials, I say no — come on, there is nothing wrong with that language. What is wrong is our ears. It also has to do with what is legitimate. And you really need to be loud and brave — to say no, think about your ears rather than about my language. I don’t know if this responds to your question, Anastasia…
AK: I think it does, the question of language connects to the question of aesthetics, poetics and academic writing but also just livelihood, so it touches a nerve. Language is definitely something I worry about when editing this Journal, being I’m mildly dyslexic and my punctuation is mostly from another language. But in other ways I can more or less pass as a “native speaker” in English, as they say in Europe. In the process of editing the journal and working on other projects, I’ve seen claims to marginality made via English language, by people who are not from a marginal linguistic context, appropriating the poetic interventions and push-back you describe, which does not fit their actual structural position. So my conclusion is — it depends, on who and how and in what context, is talking about the language use and related interventions.
Having to learn German since coming to Berlin, more from circumstance than choice, my body protests having flashbacks of my early days of immigration to Canada, and learning English back then. I really seem to have a complete mental block about it. And thinking about the German bureaucracy and job market in the cultural sphere, this anachronistic monolingual society structure looks deeply problematic. Obviously representing all the other monoliths’ problems that are not absent in other languages I do speak, like Russian, English, French…
BC: Much has been written about becoming minoritarian; it comes from the minoritarian language thesis of Deleuze and Guattari (Kafka Towards a Minoritarian Literature), where Kafka is an example of the Czech Jew writing in German which wasn’t like Goethe’s — he constructed a minor use of a major language. But there’s very little practice of that in relation to English today. I am reminded of a conversation at the Wiels book fair not long ago, where a stand had a copy of a book by Fred Moten, a photocopy, because the original collection of his poems wasn’t available anymore. And the person told me: wait, but who are you? Don’t tell anybody that we have copied it! But it is something that I’m very used to, because we lived with photocopies. As part of this secondhand knowledge in Yugoslavia, we had learned from the copies of books, or from 3rd, 4th generation VHS copies of performances, and so on. But there’s something else here too. When I read Fred Moten with my students, some of whom are very normative, they say — what kind of language is this? It’s impossible! We don’t understand this! But he’s a poet, and he’s reinventing the language. And it’s both critical and poetic in its mode of inquiry. But because he comes from the US, even as an African-American poet — it still comes to us as an imperial gesture of permission. Not on Moten’s part, but on the part of the whole art world, loving that language, while if you come from any other genealogy, and the mistakes are different, you’re not allowed to call it “poetry”. It is marginal=minoritarian.
AV: To go back to the thesis that language is one of these preindividual conditions of our existence: since every individual actualizes it by speaking, it is also how we create a new language, and new culture and new institutions. One big lesson here against individuality is that you cannot use or change the language alone. If you do it alone, and speak English improperly, it’s a mistake. But when it becomes a practice of the many, and a part of a movement in political solidarity, then it changes the language. That’s what I recognized in my student’s comment — that power. This is not a solitary gesture. It’s not just a mistake and a subject of shame. That’s what transindividuality is about. You don’t change institutions by going alone. We need to be many to do that.
* I refer to the films directed by Marta Popivoda: “Yugoslavia, How ideology moved our collective body” (2013) and “Landscapes of resistance” (2021), as well as our cinematic installation “Freedom Landscapes” (2018).