Abramović, Žižek and Milanović: Yugoslavia’s First and Last Global Public Intellectuals

For a country that’s been dead for almost thirty years and whose contributions to the world, according to the Western prestige-press range from German Nazism to  Islamophobia in Australia it may be surprising that in the past few years, a number of Yugoslav intellectuals seem to have charmed their Western peers, and to be giving their fair share of insights into the current malaise that seems to linger over the West.

While hardly household names at the scale of their compatriots Melania Tump, Rita Ora and Novak Đoković, Marina Abramović, Slavoj Žižek and Branko Milanović have risen to prominent positions in current global debates, around art, politics, culture and economics.

Their popularity and relevance in the past few years only seems to be increasing:

Abramović has been hovering at the heights of the art world since her 2010 MoMA retrospective; when not throwing jabs at Jordan Peterson, Žižek is giving his perspectives on anything and everything from refugee crisis to porn , while Milanović is one of the most cited experts on the pressing questions of inequality, as well an keeping an excellent blog and twitter account.

While the diversity of their fields, views and approaches makes any easy parallels difficult, it is still remarkable for three people from a medium-sized, relatively poor and unremarkable non-Western country to be able to rise up through the Western intellectual ranks and provide perspective on global issues, and not just be confined to the status of “regional experts” or curiosities, like most other Eastern Europeans or the subsequent generations of ex-Yugoslavs. This made me wonder about whether there was something about their Yugoslav experience, which made their views globally relevant at this moment, especially as the idea of Yugoslavia is still most commonly linked to backwardness and/or violence in the Western imagination.

All three of them born in educated middle class families almost at the very start of Socialist Yugoslav experiment, between 1946 to 1953, were educated and had their first professional successes during its heyday in 60s and 70s and left the country as it was crumbling between 1976 and 1990s. Neither of them have been friendly with post-SFRY governments or have tried to capture a place among their elites (aside from Žižek’s brief foray into politics as a presidential candidate in Slovenia in 1990).

Marina Abramović and her Belgrade colleagues

All three of them managed to capture the imagination with views , moves and fields that have been fringe, and are in large measure respected for risqué views and moves uncommon for their Western peers, and often draw criticism and scorn. Most importantly, while neither claim that their work is solely coming from their Yugoslav (or Serbian / Montenegrin / Slovene) perspective, they all occasionally cite their background and Yugoslav experience to illustrate their points and explain their motivations, aware of their ex-homeland’s positives and negatives.

So what could there be in their generational Yugoslav experience that makes one a good candidate to join, the overwhelmingly Western rostrum of current global public intellectuals?

I would argue that four things about Yugoslavia are worth considering: its liminal position in global politics, openness to foreign culture, internal diversity and self-assurance in having (a temporarily) successful, own model of society.

While Yugoslavia was a socialist country, liberated in the joint efforts of the local partisans and the Stalin’s Red Army, since 1948, it became one of the few countries that did not belong to either the “Western” or “Eastern” blocks. Due to Tito’s ambitious leadership, the country saw itself as independent and even somewhat morally above them, able to criticise both. It was a country where both the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the US invasion of Vietnam were harshly condemned, and where both Stalin’s crimes and US’s racial inequality were openly discussed and dissected.  Since the founding of the Non-Aligned movement, Yugoslav political elite also saw themselves as leaders of post-colonial world and were also informed about the struggles of Nehru in India, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and Haile Selassie in Ethiopia. This global outlook went beyond just thinking: Yugoslavs at the time were some of the most globally connected people between the 1945 and the fall of the Berlin War, with the ability to travel to both New York and Moscow, London and Harare.

This thinking in global terms, was especially encouraged, given that criticism of the local system and problems was generally discouraged, especially with several purges in 1968 and later during the 1970s. Another outlet for the country’s educated classes were the arts, which were heavily invested in and given a relatively free reign ever since the split with Stalin and requirements of socialist realism. While some artists, like Dušan Makavejev, were censored, Marina Abramović’s first shocking performances were allowed to play with socialist imagery and the government (over)saturated their educated subjects with both domestically produced and foreign art, both high and “popular” to display the country’s freedom. The country’s relative poverty and newness also made it also necessary for its intellectuals to engage with foreign culture and be unable to get bogged down in local issues.

Slavoj Žižek

This relative flexibility, as well as (unsustainable) periods of prosperity and modernisation keep the country stable as Yugoslavia, through its whole existence was a work in progress. This was due to the large internal diversity of religions, cultures, social institutions and even WWII experiences. The country’s identity, hierarchies and worldview were not as fixed as they were in other, especially Western European countries, which were (and still are) much more culturally homogenous and where traditional institutions had much deeper roots. This is (or was) a treat for anyone with a curious mind, as it shows inherent relativity of ideologies and beliefs, which can appear universal in more homogenous and traditional societies .

While arguably most of these features, would turn out lethal for the country, they did create people with far-reaching world views and experiences, whose insights could have a more universal appeal.  If it were not for Yugoslavia’s openness, Abramović would probably have been unable to stage her initial shocking performances nor travel to Amsterdam, and if Yugoslavia did not strike it out on its own away from Stalin and the NATO, maybe Žižek and Milanović would not be able to speak about revolutions, redistribution and global system with such a unique insight.

Finally, although in the end their country imploded , Abramović, Žižek and Milanoić spent their formative years in Yugoslavia during its hey-day, when it appeared that the unique vantage point it afforded to its citizens was a globally relevant view.  Unlike current ex-Yugoslav intellectuals and even Eastern European intellectuals of their generation who made it global in 1990s, this first generation of socialist Yugoslavs did not have a sense of intellectual inferiority thrust on them in their formative years due to the collapse of their countries. This probably helped Abramović, Žižek and Milanović can engage with global issues and audiences from positions of authority, and not subservience of someone from a failed state who goes to the West to be “enlightened” or treated as a tragic escapee from a hellscape.

Branko Milanović

To paraphrase what Muharem Bazudlj, a popular younger writer born in Bosnia, wrote in one of his novels, the Yugoslav contemporaries of Abramović , Žižek and Milanović considered their colleagues from the West as peers in the full sense of the word, while younger generations, having lived through Yugoslavia’s collapse and often having had to seek refuge or funding from the West, tend to exoticise the Western world-view and often avoid to critically engage with it.

Unfortunately, the current political economy of post-Yugoslav countries, makes me wonder if the region will and can produce artists and thinkers who can be able to capture global imagination like Abramović , Žižek and Milanović. These days, it seems that the only post-Yugoslav insights that filter to the wider world are wrapped either in bathetic miserabilism, fruitless nostalgia or tried exoticism, immediately limiting their ability to actually contribute to the larger global debates thereby ridding the world of a worthwhile perspective from a country whose crisis strangely parallels many pressing issues around the world.

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