‘An image of a universe dissolving.’
I brought with me to Priština, an alternate take on the Book of Jonah. Among the prophets, of course, Jonah is the unwilling one, the one who averts his face, turns and turns again, turns toward the turning itself, its momentum – and sets off in flight, toward the horizon, first, then further still, into the depths of the vast oceanic expanse. Jonah, the dove, a littoral being of dry land and of a thirst for the oceans.
Gilles Deleuze writes of Jonah’s flight:
There is always betrayal in a line of flight. Not trickery like that of an orderly man ordering his future, but betrayal like that of a simple man who no longer has any past or future. We betray the fixed powers which try to hold us back, the established powers of the earth. The movement of betrayal has been defined as a double turning-away: man turns his face away from God, who also turns his face away from man. It is in this double turning-away, in the divergence of faces, that the line of flight is traced. It is the story of Jonah: the prophet is recognizable by the fact that he takes the opposite path to that which is ordered by God and thereby realizes God’s commandment better than if he had obeyed. A traitor, he has taken misfortune upon himself. The Old Testament is constantly criss-crossed by these lines of flight, the line of separation between the earth and the waters.
My alternate narrative ends with Jonah in the midst of his flight – fleeing but not knowing from what it is he flees, eventually dissolving, merging with the depths that have become the vehicle of his flight.
‘In that dark space,’ I write, ‘a space seemingly without delineation – unlimited, infinite – the process of his dissolution continued without accelerating or losing its momentum, steadily, rhythmically, until only dispersed units, nuclei, remained, apparently connected in polymorphous, invisible networks as if by fine, transparent threads made from intertwined mucous strings, continuously woven into the thinnest fabric imaginable, thinner still, connecting, but barely so, the individual nuclei from which his body had been composed.’
In a 1973 text entitled Autopoiesis and Cognition, Chilean biologists Francisco Varela and Humberto Muturana make the following claim:
‘A universe comes into being when a space is severed in two.’
Taking our impetus from biology, may we say that this, also, is the beginning of a politics: the severed space – difference – but also the severing of space – the scission, differentiation?
His car is of the smaller variety but it comfortably seats all five of us.
‘We once lived in a car like this for more than a week,’ he tells us somewhat in jest. ‘There were six of us living in that tiny car!’
‘My family and I, we had to leave Priština very suddenly,’ he replies. ‘This was during the war. We got as far as the Macedonian border. They held us there for over a week. There were no facilities, of course. We had to stay in the car.’
He pauses for a moment.
‘It was a very small car. Probably smaller than this.’
We seem to be driving in circles around the city centre, ending up only a short distance from where we started.
‘The Macedonians didn’t want us there, of course. Many were sent back to Kosovo, but we were let in. They took us to a provisional refugee camp on the Macedonian side of the border. It was very rough. You see these camps on television all the time but you can’t even begin to imagine what they’re actually like until you’re taken to one yourself.’
The car comes to a halt. He switches the engine off but we remain seated.
‘They did eventually transfer us to a more permanent camp at a disused airstrip. The conditions there were better.’
As we get out of the car and walk down a nearby alleyway toward the unmarked building in which the restaurant is situated, he continues:
‘It might sound strange but very quickly a sense of community developed in the camp, a sense of equality. When you become a refugee, you’re stripped of all the things that used to define you as a person. In the camp, you’re all equal. Everyone is a refugee, no more, no less.’
By the time the NATO air strikes began in March 1999 the Macedonian government had prepared for a total number of 20.000 Kosovar refugees. That number was promptly exceeded, at which point the border was temporarily closed, forcing refugees back into Kosovo. Although the border was eventually reopened, upon the insistence of the international community, it was once again closed in May 1999. By that time, more than 300.000 refugees had reportedly crossed the border into Macedonia. With the closure of the border, refugees were yet again effectively forced back into Kosovo. The Macedonian authorities defended their actions, arguing that the influx of Kosovar Albanians into Macedonian territory would ethnically and politically destabilize the country. In an attempt to put pressure on aid agencies, the US government and the European Union, then Defence Minister Nikola Kljusev reportedly stated to the news agency Reuters that the Macedonian government would no longer allow the number of refugees let into Macedonia exceed the number of refugees evacuated from Macedonia. In other words, from now on, a ‘one-in, one-out’ policy would be implemented at the border stations to ensure the ethnic balance of Macedonia would not be threatened.
In the evening, we read aloud to each other from Herman Melville’s novella Bartleby, The Scrivener and talk about the lawyer-narrator and his idiosyncratic attachment to Bartleby.
‘What is peculiar,’ I comment, ‘is his desire, not necessarily for Bartleby himself, but for Bartleby’s diminishing, his disappearance into passivity, into absolute impassiveness.’
‘I prefer not to,’ somebody reads out aloud from the book. ‘At present, says Bartleby, I would prefer not to make any change at all.’
‘To prefer not to is not to refuse. It’s a formula very different from “I will not” or “I refuse to”. What are the implications of this ambiguity?’
Bartleby’s gesture, writes Slavoj Žižek, is:
a gesture thoroughly violent in its impassive refusal (…), a gesture of pure withdrawal in which – to quote Mallarmé – rien n’aura eu lieu que le lieu, nothing will have taken place but the place itself. This is how we pass from the politics of “resistance” or “protestation,” which parasitizes upon what it negates, to a politics which opens up a new space outside the hegemonic position and its negation.
Bartleby, in this sense, is akin to that other literary figure of absolute impassiveness, J. M. Coetzee’s Michael K. A figure with no papers, no money, no family, no friends, no sense of identity, drifting across lands torn asunder by war and violence, he is far from a figure of resistance or protestation. His is a political body of a different kind altogether.
‘The obscurest of the obscure,’ Coetzee writes, ‘so obscure as to be a prodigy.’
I read the word ‘obscure,’ here, in its treble sense: first, as the physically faint or indistinct (a politics of invisibility), second, as the peripheral or remote (a politics of marginalization), and third, as that which is of ill repute, that which, as Coetzee puts it, should have been ‘suffocated’ at birth, and put ‘in the trash can’ (a politics of exclusion or exile).
An image of a universe dissolving, an image of a disintegrating Jonah, and an image, also, of Bartleby in the prison yard, facing first one wall, then another, in silence, the narrator his visitor, drawn to him still, then finally, Bartleby on the ground, by the prison wall, vacuous, but with eyes open, diminished, next to nothing.
‘Strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up, and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones, I saw the wasted Bartleby. But nothing stirred. I paused; then went close up to him; stooped over, and saw that his dim eyes were open; otherwise he seemed profoundly sleeping. Something prompted me to touch him. I felt his hand, when a tingling shiver ran up my arm and down my spine to my feet.’
In the courtyard my daughter is playing with some newfound friends from the neighbourhood. Some of the older children are carrying her around, taking turns to kiss her cheeks and forehead while a football is being kicked about the yard. A sudden bout of excited shouting then they’re hushed and asked to play quietly.
‘This other violence,’ I say, reading from my alternate Book of Jonah, ‘a soft, subtle violence, quite unlike the violence one body can inflict upon another, a violence of a different kind altogether, that involves no pain, no panic, no trauma, some might call it a metamorphosis, but Jonah doesn’t think of it in those terms. To him it is a simultaneous transgression and dissolution, a diminishing and an emerging, a transition from one image to another.’
Like Jonah, who appears only in his disappearance, Giorgio Agamben writes about Bartleby and his occupation, that of the scrivener, that:
‘On the writing tablet of the celestial scribe, the letter, the act of writing, marks the passage from potentiality to actuality, the occurrence of a contingency. But precisely for this reason, every letter also marks the nonoccurrence of something: every letter is always in this sense a “dead letter.” This is the intolerable truth that Bartleby learned, and this is the meaning of the singular formula, “on errands of life, those letters speed to death”.’
Writing, to Agamben, seems to involve a movement akin to that double passage of Jonah’s – from potentiality to actuality, and from potentiality to death. Can we, then, conceive of a ‘Jonah-ic’ writing of dead letters; of wasted, vacuous marks, entirely exhausted, spent; of the abandoned materialities of languages? A writing not so much of resurrection as of thanatophilia, recovering what has been left for dead not to bring it back to life – not at all! – but to make use precisely of its lifelessness, its funerary lack of meaning and its gradual – but entirely inevitable – disintegration?
That night I have a vivid dream. I’ve been tied to my daughter by the ankle, ankle-to-ankle, tight with metal wire. The wire has cut into her flesh. She’s bleeding profusely. I’m barely conscious but I’m aware she’s being beaten, forced to move forward along the desiccated perimeter of a barren field, hauling behind her young body – she is little more than an infant – my dead, limp weight.
He shows me some very elegant books of poetry he has published and asks me why on earth I’ve opted to stay in Priština for longer than necessary.
‘Why don’t you leave for somewhere more pleasant?’, he asks.
‘This place is terrible. There’s nothing here. Nobody wants to be here. Go to Dubrovnik, Split, the islands. Forget about this place.’
‘How come you think this city is such a lost cause?’
‘It’s cursed,’ he replies somewhat mordaciously. ‘No, no. But there’s not much for you here, unless you’re actually from here, and even then, there’s not much for you here.’
Over coffee he tells me he sometimes succumbs to reading the various guides to Priština published by different aid organizations and authorities within the United Nations and the United States.
‘When I read these documents,’ he says, ‘I don’t recognize my own city. It’s not the city I grew up in. It’s not the city I know. I wouldn’t want to live in the city they describe.’
I want to ask him if he thinks there are now several layers that make up his city, multiple superimposed projections: the city he grew up in, the city he had to flee from, the city he came back to, the city defined by himself and that defined by others. I want to ask him whether sometimes he feels as if he’s getting lost between these layers, as if he’s still in exile, as if he’s dissolving, but I hesitate, thinking it’s too intimate a question, and likely a projection of my own concerns and preconceptions as a visitor. Instead I ask him what he makes of the recent presidential elections in Serbia.
‘In Serbia? Nikolić and the nationalists won,’ he replies. ‘It’s true. It happened. Nobody thought it would, but it did. And now we’re facing a different rhetoric. During the previous presidency, Tadić still talked of “looking after Kosovo.” Now Nikolić talks of “looking after our people in Kosovo” – not Kosovo itself, not the people of Kosovo, but Serbs in Kosovo, one specific ethnicity in Kosovo. It’s the same old nationalist rhetoric.’
‘Is this seen as an aggressive move or a populist one?’
He shrugs his shoulders.
‘It’s dangerous,’ he says.
In the evening I search the web and find translations of some of newly elected Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić’s comments. Says Nikolić:
‘There’s God’s justice. Thanks to citizens’ votes I won. I shall do what I have been speaking about. I want to protect our people in Kosovo.’
In April 1987, speaking to a crowd of Serb protestors and facing Serb complaints of police brutality in Kosovo, Slobodan Milošević made a brief declaration that soon became seminal to the escalation of the conflicts in what was then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In a video recording of the event, he turns to the crowd of enraged Serb protestors, and states with emphasis that:
‘No one should ever dare to beat you again.’
Two years later he would return to give another speech, commemorating the 1389 Battle of Kosovo during which, according to the sentiments expressed in Milošević’s speech, the Serbian people courageously defended European civilization against the orientalism of the Ottoman Empire.
‘Six centuries later,’ says Milošević referencing recent unrest in the region, ‘we are being again engaged in battles and are facing battles. They are not armed battles, although such things cannot be excluded yet.‘
‘SLOBO! SLOBO! SLOBO!’, the chanting crowds continue.
As a response to Milošević’s speech, prominent Serbian poet and member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Matija Bećković made the following comment:
‘On this the six hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, we must emphasize that Kosovo is Serbia; and that this is a fundamental reality, irrespective of Albanian birth rates and Serb mortality rates. There is so much Serb blood and Serb sanctity there that Kosovo will remain Serbian even if there is not a single Serb left there.’
‘During the occupation,’ he says, ‘they fired all Kosovars holding academic positions at the University of Priština, and they banned all teaching in the Albanian language. Even Serbs were abused and fired if they failed to comply with the new regulations. My mother, who’s a Serb, was a professor at the university. She felt the regulations were discriminatory and refused to comply. She was beaten up and fired from her position.’
He pauses briefly then continues with a sigh:
‘Serbs beating up Serbs for not being Serbian enough. There you go. That’s nationalism for you.’
In the evening I turn to the court transcripts of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and find that the court’s prosecutors refer to the events of 1989 not as an actual ‘occupation’ but as the effective revocation of Kosovo’s autonomy within the Socialist Republic of Serbia (and thereby also the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia of which Serbia formed part).
‘In late March 1989,’ claims the prosecution, ‘Kosovo’s autonomy indeed was effectively revoked. We have evidence that police repression against Kosovo Albanians increased dramatically after that point in time. We have evidence that most of the Kosovo Albanian language schools were closed. Most of the employees of ethnic Albanian nature were fired from the University of Priština. Kosovo Albanians were dismissed from managerial and directorial positions. And yet in spite of that, during that time period in the early 1990s, the Kosovo Albanians primarily pursued a policy of civil resistance and they did establish an unofficial parallel system of health care and education, but the problem persisted.’
Writes Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt apropos Bartleby and Michael K:
This refusal certainly is the beginning of a liberatory politics, but it is only the beginning. The refusal in itself is empty. Bartleby and Michael K may be beautiful souls, but their being, in its absolute purity hangs on the edge of an abyss. Their lines of flight from authority are completely solitary, and they continuously thread on the verge of suicide. In political terms, too, refusal in itself (of work, authority, and voluntary servitude) leads only to a kind of social suicide. As Spinoza says, if we simply cut the tyrannical head off the social body, we will be left with the deformed corpse of society. What we need is to create a new social body, which is a project that goes well beyond refusal. Our lines of flight, our exodus must be constituent and create a real alternative. Beyond the simple refusal, or as part of that refusal, we need also to construct a new mode of life and above all a new community. This project leads not toward the naked life of homo tantum but toward homohomo, humanity squared, enriched by the collective intelligence and love of the community.
We say our goodbyes but before we leave one another, he turns to me and says:
‘You know, even the left-wing parties here, the socialists and communists, are nationalists. This is the problem. I’m an anarcho-syndicalist. We run an anarcho-syndicalist group at the university, but nobody shows up at our meetings, nobody takes an interest.’
His comments makes me think of Milan Babić’s statement of guilt, delivered at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. In the statement, the former president of the self-declared Serbian Autonomous Region of Krajina makes the following declaration:
Only truth can give the opportunity to the Serbian people to relieve itself of its collective burden of guilt.
The italics here are mine. For a people to redeem itself from atrocities committed in its name, nationalist figures of collective guilt are once again evoked. This statement – despite of its stated intention – implies a cyclical, fascist violence from which nothing can come but further violence.
Where do you turn, if you find yourself stuck between right-wing nationalism and the skewed mirror image it has spawned in its left-wing counterpart? Where exactly is that other place of Žižek’s, ‘outside the hegemonic position and its negation,’ where the tyrannical economies of sameness are undone, dissolving in the emergence of a play with and a desire for difference and differentiation?
In an interview conducted by David Reggio and Mauricio Novello, French psychiatrist Jean Oury makes the following observation:
Take the notion of Stimmung, in the broad sense of the term – where in Spanish we say “olor,” atmosphere. When we pass from one space (lieu) to the next, from the kitchen to the library, to the pharmacy, the Stimmung is not the same. However, what we find with hospitals and educational establishments is that when we pass from one space to the next the Stimmung is always the same: the same atmosphere, the same conditions and the same status. This constitutes the homogenous and the “ineffective.” If we are to have effectiveness, then there needs to be difference. Something of the order of surprise, the unexpected, of astonishment, is indispensable. We also find the word “heterogeneity” in Hesiod, who said that if there is no heterogeneity there is discord, war. And what do we have today?! So the question is: how can we maintain heterogeneity?
My last night in Priština I have another vivid dream. My father has died, from what I do not know. Others have made the funeral arrangements, but I’m present at the proceedings. I’m present, yet I’m not quite there. It is as if I’m watching the events unfurl from a distance, on a screen. As if they are televised and I watch at a remove, separated by the screen, yet at the same time, I’m quite clearly there, present in the image, sitting on my own in the front pew, proceeding slowly toward the casket then back again. I’m there, but in the dual sense of spectator and participant.
But this dual perspective, albeit confusing, is not what makes the dream so alarming. What makes it torturous to me is the notion that the event is repeated, indefinitely, looped, over and over again. The pew, the unsteady steps toward the casket, the red roses, the polished veneer, the steps back to the relative comfort of the cushioned pew. I watch it over and over again; there is nothing else I can do. And each time, my sense of grief, loneliness and exposure grow exponentially as if slowly but inevitably I’m losing my footing in a world that’s lackadaisically observing my decline as you would the fate of a character in an American sitcom – with utter indifference.
During one of the ICTY trials in The Hague related to the conflict in Kosovo, the prosecution opened its closing statement with the following remark:
One of the first and most, I guess, chilling examples of the fact that Slobodan Milošević had a plan and the nature of that plan is found during a 24th of October 1998 meeting that Mr. Milošević had with General Naumann and General Clark. You heard the evidence of General Naumann when he was here and he told us how during that meeting after the agreement had been signed, Mr. Milošević became agitated and said that a final solution to the Kosovo problem would be found in the spring, and when Naumann and Clark pressed Mr. Milošević for an explanation of what he meant by that exactly, he said, “We’ll do what we did in Drenica in 1946.” They weren’t quite familiar what that was so they asked him to explain and he said, “We got them all together and shot them”.
In one of his Maximus poems, Charles Olson makes the following reflection:
‘limits are / what any of us / are inside of’.
There is, perhaps, a secret affiliation between ‘the limit’ and ‘the limen;’ between ‘the limit’ and ‘the liminal;’ between the threshold, on the one hand, and that moment in the passage across the threshold, on the other, when, at the very same time, one is on neither side and both at once.
Writes Bosnian poet Ranko Sladojevic:
‘He swam in a heavy juice while the same / heavy juice swam in him: equal to / the air around him, inseparable from it, / he forgot everything about himself.’
We leave Priština for Skopje early in the morning. Moving slowly toward the border, my daughter, Märta Lo, curled up in my arms, asleep. The name we gave her, Märta, carries many meanings, one of which derives from its etymology: ‘Märta,’ from ‘Margarete’ or ‘Margaret,’ from the Greek ‘margarites,’ which translates into the English word ‘pearl.’
In the rabbinic literature on Jonah, there’s a peculiar digression. In Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer it is narrated as follows:
A pearl was suspended inside the belly of the fish and it gave illumination to Jonah, like the sun which shines with its might at noon; and it showed to Jonah all that was in the sea and in the depths.
Jonah, the unwilling prophet; Jonah, the dove, the littoral being; and Jonah, the cartographer, the one who, guided by the pearl’s iridescent nacre, draws his line of flight – and draws it again.
My alternate take on the Book of Jonah takes its inspiration from this rabbinic text and concludes as follows:
Then from below, a vast, globular body appeared, colliding with the cluster of nuclei, but slowly as in a tender embrace, the mucous strings clinging onto its surface, entirely hard and smooth, nacreous, binding the nuclei to the foreign body irrevocably, and although perception and thought were faculties that no longer pertained to his body, although he could no longer “see” or “think” or “understand”, although there was no longer a subject to carry out such acts of volition or reflection, something was intuited nevertheless by this intimate contact – not a thought but something we might call a sign. Not a closed sign, but one opened up towards its exterior, a sign plied open and kept open, a sign that contained the entirety of the dark space, all of its being, the entirety of the vast oceanic expanse beyond it, dry land and a thirst for the oceans too, a sign that contained both solid blocks and secret passages, both walls and windows. It appeared, as if a screen, infinitesimally thin but not at all fragile, made from a fine but solid mesh. And plugged in, and extended, connected that way, as an assemblage, it rose, convulsively, sunk and rose again, slightly, then some more, and it revolved slowly, several revolutions, all equally slow. The mesh, the screen, the interface. The prophet’s sign. This has been an entirely silent film – a sequence of images, stills, without sound – but in that maritime space the silence grew into a deeper silence and in its depth, some scattered muted sounds remained, little more than sonorous fragments of fleeting memories since long passed – a poorly tuned piano in a bar, tired inaudible voices, the rasp of static – but these too were slowly, almost imperceptibly fading out until nothing remained but the nuclei and the iridescent screen upon which they remained fixed in the permanence of their illuminate ignition.
A few days after my departure from Priština, I read that the border between Kosovo and Serbia had been temporarily closed following a series of incidents north of Mitrovica.
Writes Aleksandar Vasović for Reuters:
At least three Kosovo Serbs and a NATO soldier were wounded in a gunfight on Friday, as peacekeepers tried to dismantle Serb barricades blocking traffic, a Reuters witness said.
NATO troops in the Kosovo Force (KFOR) fired tear gas and small arms and some protesters fired back with handguns. The troops, in armoured personnel carriers, were confronted by hundreds of Serbs who pelted them with stones near roadblocks in the villages of Rudare and Dudin Krs outside the town of Zvečan in a Serb-dominated northern area of Kosovo.
The roadblocks are among the last on major roads yet to be dismantled by KFOR. They were erected as part of a long-running Serb campaign to prevent the government of Albanian-majority independent Kosovo from imposing its rule in the area.
‘The sound of a deviant turn.’
‘Her text,’ I explain referencing a recording of Kristin Prevallet reading at The Bowery Poetry Club in New York, ‘is basically taking a US presidential statement on the conflict in Iraq, repeating it and replacing, in each repetition, the words of the original statement with the word “oil”.’
‘As she repeats the word “oil” in her performance of the text, however, her speech mechanism fails her – the movement of tongue, the flow of air, the synchronized movements of the lips, the twists required – and she loses her grip on the prosodies, the rhythms of the repetition. She stutters.’
‘The stutter has nothing to do with the conceptual nature of the poem, with its political theme, or with the volition of the writer-performer. At the moment of the stutter, something else happens. There is a break in the predictable pattern of repetitions. Not so much a cessation or a slowing down as a series of blockages interrupting the flow but creating, also, another flow, a deviance.’
‘In this deviance lies the laughter of the audience. Although it may appear malicious to an outside observer or listener, I’d like to think it wasn’t so at all. On the contrary, it seems to me to have been an entirely involuntary laughter – shared, common – originating deep inside the deviance, in the deviant turn, in the deviant affect, opening the syntactical economies of language up to a series of radiantly joyful excesses and transgressions.’
The unexpected encounter, the severing or the scission, the dead letter, stuttered; the prophet’s sign, the line of flight, the deviant turn. As I type these words, as I read them out and repeat them, I keep telling myself everything is still at stake, everything is still up for grabs, everything has still to happen.
Ola Ståhl (born 1977) is a Swedish artist, writer and editor at In Edit Mode Press. After many years in England, he now lives in Malmö. This text is written directly for kornkammer.blogpost.com, find more travelreportages from Balkan here.