Panonian Lakes

Joseph W.H. Lough

Yesterday our family visited one of the most unusual sites we have ever seen on our travels – Panonian Lakes (yes, on Wikipedia it is spelled “Pannonian”). What are Panonian Lakes? Well, millions of years ago the site currently occupied by Tuzla was a salt-water sea, the Pannonian Sea in fact. Over time, however, the water evaporated and the earth covered the original sea bed. But the salt remained. And since Roman times, peoples of the northern and eastern Mediterranean have mined the salt beds of Tuzla for salt. In fact, Tuzla means “city of salt.” And so long as Tuzla remained a small village – and so long as salt was mined sustainably – this was not a problem. But then as market capitalism came increasingly to dominate social life in the mid- to late-19th century, two things happened: Tuzla grew and so too did Europeans’ insatiable appetite for salt. The Austro-Hungarian owners of the salt mines found themselves digging for salt, literally undermining the foundations of the city.

Tuzla Panonian LakeThe practice was continued under the Communists up until the 1950s when it became clear that the practice was unsustainable. And so the mines were abandoned. But the city continued to sink into the former mines. Whole blocks disappeared. Old magnificent Austro-Hungarian buildings crumbled. Where once stood majestic buildings a noxious swamp land appeared.

Then about ten years ago, Tuzla’s mayor had an idea. The city would demolish the remaining crumbling buildings, excavate the rubble in the mines, and line the salt beds with polished stones. The beds thus restored could then be filled with fresh water and a filtration system could then be installed. The result is a three-lake sports and recreation park in the middle of the country . . . with clean, fresh salt water.

Tuzla Panonian Lake

Yesterday, we spent the day with our new friends Mak, Jasmina, and Amer swimming and sun bathing on the beaches of these inner city salt lakes, the Panonian Lakes of Tuzla while listening to rounds of calls to prayer ringing from a nearby minaret (not shown).

Tuzla Panonian LakeTuzla Panonian Lake

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Arriving in Bosnia

Joseph W.H. Lough

Among the essays you will find in Shatterzone of empires : coexistence and violence in the German, Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman borderlands, a collection of essays edited by Omer Bartov and Eric D. Weitz, is Larry Wolff’s essay, first in the volume, “The Traveler’s View of Central Europe: Gradual Transitions and Degrees of Difference in European Borderlands” ((2013-02-15). Shatterzone of Empires . Indiana University Press. Kindle Edition). As I reflect on my family’s less than gradual introduction to Bosnia, I am nevertheless reminded of how travelers since the fifteenth century have all noted the invisible boundary that differentiates, but also connects, eastern, central, and western Europe to one another, differentiating all three in turn from “the East,” from “Asia,” and what lies beyond.

We obviously did not travel by carriage as Johann Gottlieb Fichte did in 1791 (25), or as Count Louis-Philippe de Ségur did in 1789 (24). Nor did we travel by rail, as became increasingly common in the late 19th century, and is still not uncommon today. The transition from Frankfurt to Belgrade – from central to eastern or southeastern Europe – literally in cognito, above the clouds, concealed from the terrain below us, took a little over an hour. Once we appeared again through the thick cloud cover – and once the terrain below us came into focus – we could already identify the houses, fields, rivers, schools, stadia, and malls of Belgrade. And just like that, we were in eastern Europe, in the Balkans, in Serbia.

Two things stuck out. The first was the monochrome red terra cotta roofs spreading out in all directions as far as the eye could see, which at 10000 feet was very far. The second was the preponderance of swimming pools, public swimming pools, private swimming pools, swimming pools by my count in every sixth or seventh back yard. (Perhaps this helps to explain why the two Serbs I had as students at UC Berkeley were both on the water polo team.)

Passing through customs took so little time – perhaps a minute or two minutes maximum – that I felt there must be some additional step, some inspection that we must have overlooked, some doorway that we bypassed. Our driver, Nedim Avdic, was there waiting for us. We loaded our five 20×20 50 lb boxes into the van, along with our five pieces of luggage, and we were off; so that from touching down to our departure from Belgrade to Tuzla no more than thirty minutes could have passed.

Between Belgrade and Tuzla there are no four lane highways, only two lanes. And for most of our two and a half hour journey we travelled through country as flat and as packed with corn as any farmlands I have seen since moving to California from Wisconsin thirty years ago. And no matter the town we were passing through, small towns – villages really – we observed the same long houses with connected barns and sprawling, richly appointed vegetable gardens, situating in tidy rows stretching from the edge of the street to the edge of town, each house marking at its front porch the edge of Main Street and at its backyard boundary the outskirts of the village.

Serbia 2011
Serbia 2011 (Photo credit: zigurdszakis)

As we departed the Belgrade Airport, the signs of economic growth were everywhere – factories, delivery trucks, new automobiles. Gradually, however, these signs grew increasingly scarce, replaced by abandoned homes, half-built buildings, abandoned store fronts. In the place of factories and delivery vehicles we saw roadside vegetable stands or news stands. Still, I am finding it difficult to fit the experience of poverty in America with the experience of poverty and unemployment in Serbia, the Republic of Srbska, or the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina. People seem employed – building, selling, buying – but as one Bosnian confided, “we live as if by magic,” which she explained by describing the network of friends and relatives that sustain the more than fifty percent who are unemployed.

As we near Tuzla, the terrain becomes much more mountainous. As we descend into the river valley where Tuzla is situated, our driver points out where the Serbs set up the canons that shelled his city. And, then, after another hour of passing slower vehicles along Bosnia’s windy mountainous roads, we arrive in Tuzla, where we are greeted by Alma Tanovic and Jasmina Husanovic, colleagues at the University, who introduce us to our new apartment. And we arrive.

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Pre-Departure Reflections #3

In moments we will depart from Logan on the first leg of our journey to Tuzla. Over the past week my thoughts have been on what it means to be economically and politically isolated in a globalizing world. Tuzla and Bosnia are doing something that experts say should be impossible; they are surviving in the absence of integration into the global economy. The question is how. We have just received notice of our driver and his phone number who will be meeting us in Belgrade. Somehow Tuzla works. The question is how? My next post will likely be from Frankfurt. Let me know if there is something or someone we should visit during our layover.

The Strength of Strong States

By Joseph W.H. Lough

Francis Fukuyama has fallen upon bad times. Indeed, as a sign of these times, even Professor Fukuyama has been compelled to distance himself from his earlier, monumentally successful and influential End of History and the Last Man (1992). When he is taught – which is increasingly seldom – at the university where I teach (University of California, Berkeley), it is more often than not as a comic-tragic caricature, which is unfortunate not least because there are already too few ways to introduce undergraduate students to the rich, complex, and productive analytical universe bequeathed to us – but tragically unappreciated – by our nineteenth century predecessors. To be sure, because Fukuyama’s universe was shaped by Alan Bloom and Bloom’s conflict with Alexander Kojève, it offers only a narrow slice – and even then a highly selective slice – of what can be learned from the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, its disappearance from the canon signals a true loss.

Cover of "The End of History and the Last...
Cover of The End of History and the Last Man

As I prepare for my research in the Balkans, I was recently reminded of Fukuyama’s two chapters on the Weakness of Strong States, in which Professor Fukuyama documents the global decline beginning in the 1970s of those states that counted themselves as totalitarian or authoritarian. In later chapters, Fukuyama will show how the decomposition of these states was driven less by the declining rates of profit than by what he takes to be the “thymotic” drive to freedom that compels those living under bondage to rebel, even to the point of death, against their unfreedom. Those not compelled to rebel – whose love of mere biological life overrides their love of freedom – are what Fukuyama (following GWF Hegel) understands by “slavery.” Rebellion against authoritarian and totalitarian regimes is evidence for Fukuyama that our natural “thymotic” impulse is alive and well.

Portrait of G.W.F. Hegel.
Portrait of G.W.F. Hegel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But, as mentioned, Professor Fukuyama interprets this drive through Alexander Kojève and, ultimately, through Kojève’s dispute with Leo Strauss over the role of Hegelian freedom in the formation of the modern state. In this dispute, Kojève was inclined to believe that freedom, which he reduced to democratic institutions and free markets, should and did in fact drive state-formation; while Strauss was inclined to believe that, in light of the perpetual adolescence of the majority, states needed to be carefully and wisely administered by quasi-Platonic philosopher kings.

As Robert Pippin has noted in his prohibitively dense Idealism as Modernism (1997), the debate between Kojève and Strauss, as well as its elaboration by Bloom and Fukuyama, focus all too narrowly and all too unhistorically, on categories restricted to either the private civil sphere or the state. This restriction prevents either Kojève or Strauss (or Bloom or Fukuyama for that matter) from adequately appreciating the rich and complex mediations upon which Hegel himself laid great emphasis. These mediations concerned the legal, cultural, social, political, and economic frameworks in which the civil sphere was nested and without which it was truly unimaginable.

As I prepare for my research in the Balkans, I am thinking about the weakening of these supra- and extra-civil mediations – legal, political, social, economic and cultural – which form the informal and formal regulatory web that makes civil life possible in the first place. And I am thinking about the weakness of the states – and particularly of Bosnia and Herzegovina – in the aftermath of the retreat and destruction of the mediations that once held these communities together. I am thinking of this weakness, in part, because of Professor Fukuyama’s one-sided reading of Hegel, which completely neglects Hegel’s extensive treatment of those public, non-civil, institutions that hold society together.

Advocates of a one-sided civil society – of states where social relations are mediated entirely by private markets – are inclined to completely overlook the vital roles that these more-than-private institutions play in bearing all of us along. But their central role does become clear eventually whenever societies are left – as Bosnia has been left – without the benefits of robust public legal, political, and economic regulatory frameworks within which alone civil society can thrive.

This was Hegel’s point. This is the strength of strong states. But this is not to discount Professor Fukuyama’s insight. Authoritarian or totalitarian states stifle true freedom. But Fukuyama failed to adequately differentiate these authoritarian and totalitarian formations from the absolutely essential public mediating formations that are more than private markets. And his failure along with the failure of others may have made it seem as though societies could thrive in the absence of these greater than private mechanisms. They cannot. What is more, communities in the Balkans have repeatedly illustrated what happens to societies that turn inwards and attempt to survive in the absence of these mediations. We have a word for this. It is “Balkanization.”

And it is well for us to remember this word as Serbia promotes the “independence” of Albanians living in eastern Montenegro or Serbs living in eastern Bosnia. The strength of strong – multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-linguistic, diverse, liberal – political entities is that they create the very context within which civil life is even possible.

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Pre-Departure Reflections #2

There is something deeply unsettling about moving to another part of the world, even for a year. And this unsettling has brought me to reflect on refugees fleeing from conflicts taking place in their neighborhoods. We of course are not fleeing from a conflict.  And when we return we anticipate our lives, though changed, to fall back into place along roughly the same lines as when we left. Nevertheless, there is something deeply unsettling about moving to another part of the world, even for one year.

 

This dis-ease over leaving exposes the intricate interconnected networks of people and practices, habits and assumptions, out of which our lives are composed; certainties that most of the time hover in the background just out of sight, but providing the sure and durable material out of which those lives are composed. Moving away, even for a year, not only removes these certainties from our everyday experience; rather counter-intuitively, moving away foregrounds these certainties, lending them an explicit significance that normally they do not enjoy. But because they are in fact ghostly specters whose palpable presence no longer presses upon us, they haunt us rather by their absence than by their presence.

 

At the same time, these pockets of lost or missing experience do not remain empty. Rather like empty bottles thrust beneath the surface of a stream do our new experiences rush in to fill the void; which void mistakes these experiences for ones shaped liked the void they now fill without recognizing that obviously these new experiences must have emerged out of just as intricate and interconnected networks as the ones I left behind in Berkeley, but without the impress of my life upon them. And so I press them (as they press me) until over time we grow familiar.

 

Yet, at least initially, I cannot help but believe that these new experiences cannot occupy the voids left by my departure without significant discomfort and disease.

 

Read the translation on en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...
Read the translation on en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuzla (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An interval – long or short – sits uneasily between departure and arrival. So lengthy is that interval for the refugee that she never is permitted the luxury either of departing or of arriving, for she is undoubtedly always feeling the absence of the place she has left since she is also never permitted the luxury of ever arriving in a new place where new experiences can occupy the voids left by her departure.

 

Location is not incidental. Thought is always embedded. Disembodied thought – thought without location – may be what is meant by terror. And so I am brought to reflect on and hope for a home in Tuzla and a mercifully short interval between my departure and my arrival.

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Pre-Departure Reflections #1

Does Bosnia and Herzegovina offer us a particularly intense prefiguration of the consequences of privatization and deregulation on public institutions, or is it an anomaly reflecting no more than an example of what happens in what some have called the “Shatterzone,” the geo-political meeting place of four discrete former empires?

 

If the former, then we should anticipate finding in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) evidence of critical reflection and practice that could be usefully appropriated by other communities suffering from the consequences of neoliberal economic theory and policy; if the latter, then the kinds of critical reflection and practice displayed in Bosnia and Herzegovina may reflect no more – and may enjoy no broader application – than the immediate, local pathologies particular to this region.

 

A public fountain of Tuzla in summer 2007.
A public fountain of Tuzla in summer 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or perhaps our line of analysis must pursue a course somewhere between these two false alternatives. So, for example, neoliberal economists such as Robert Lucas readily acknowledge the universalizing tendencies immanent to free market capitalist development. In the face of these universalizing tendencies, particular, local, socially and historically specific institutions can prove problematic insofar as they introduce distortions and mount resistance to these universalizing institutional, legal, social and cultural forces. At the same time, privatization and deregulation may also promote precisely those local, particularizing tendencies that opportunistically resist the the countervailing universalizing tendencies that are also immanent to capitalism. And this, in turn, could mean that the twin goals of legality and open markets stand in an uneasy tension to one another, legality reflecting the universalizing tendency immanent to capital and open markets reflecting the particularizing, fragmenting tendency immanent to capitalism.

 

From this vantage point, it might then be possible to critically decipher the complex ways that private capital has helped to compose the very particularity that its universalizing tendencies are eager to overcome; pointing perhaps to a post- or supra-capitalist resolution to the tensions displayed in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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