Return of Tribalism Revisited

Have you seen the new spot that was commissioned by the Macedonian government to be aired on CNN? It titles “Macedonia. Timeless” and was directed by none other than Milcho Manchevski, the Macedonian director with the highest international reputation and success. So far so good. I have to confess I had a bad gut feeling when I heard he would do it, given the aesthetic and political flop of his last feature – Senki/Shadows. And much to my grief, my guts were right.
As much as I can see the potential profit of such a little spot in promoting tourism or even attracting the odd investor, as little understanding I have for cheap, politically intended propaganda actions. The spot features quite prominently antique figures and somebody stamping a rock (yes, a rock it is!) with the star of Vergina. Oh, how joyfully indignated I could be if I were Greek and loyal subject to the Greek national propaganda! I would be eternally grateful about yet another pass that I could transform into a slamming volley back into the Macedonian goal.
But political games aside. The one minute spot is packed with images, which probably mean little to nothing to someone who does not know anything about Macedonia. And it is told as a good-night tale to a small girl. Now, why would I want to visit this strange place from a story book? Or why would I want to invest my money there? Or have I missed something about the target group?
But back to the obsession with antiquity. I have to say that I am deeply disappointed by Milcho Manchevski’s readiness to embark on a trend, which might very well prove fatal to Macedonia. The dangerous movement, pushed by historians and archaeologists, but also all kinds of artists in the service of politics, sets out to push an already relatively fragile Slavic identity aside and replace it with an older, thus obviously more “valuable” one – that of ancient Macedonians. Apart from it being a historic aberration, it is bordering the ridicule. The stupidity and ultimately danger of such a discourse has been greatly demonstrated by the Romanians in the 1980s in Ceausescu’s attempt to portray himself as the leader (ignore the film’s first 2 minutes in Romanian) of descendants from a heroic, pre-Roman nation. (Oh, I would love to see this kind of book written by a Macedonian historian!) Is this the road that Macedonians are willing and ready to take? I still hope not. It is the road that started with the vision of a sick mind: the historicising, reality-defying and destructive kitsch of Plaošnik church and which must end as soon as ever possible, should it not lead into a disaster.
If Macedonians are to resist the obsolete, tribal argumentations of a Greek elite afraid to face reality, this has to be done not with tribal reflexes, but with arguments of the 21st century. To end on a good note: the spot has been registered under Creative Commons. Well done! This is what I mean: lobbying for Macedonia with contemporary tools. The next step is contemporary contents…

Vision! Come out, come out, wherever you are…

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8 comments
  1. Penco Kuzev said:

    I agree with your point, although no one has the right to deny the connections of nowadays Macedonia with the Anicent Macedonians as well as with the Slavic Identity. And I really didn’t like the thesis about the “destructive kitsch of Plaošnik church “. What’s the target group, I really don’t know 😦

  2. velko said:

    I cannot understand your point about the following:

    “the historicising, reality-defying and destructive kitsch of Plaošnik church and which must end as soon as ever possible, should it not lead into a disaster.”

    Reality-defying kitsch? What is the reality about Plavoshnik? It used to be an empty lot around the hills of Ohrid and now there is church out there. No harm done.

    One more thing, can you please clarify relatively Fragile Slavic identity? Do you imply that Macedonians change identities as if any persons identity was some trivial thing, which might be easily changed, thus revisiting some of the claims of some Serb historians that Macedonians are not quite aware what they are?

    Also, I don’t see any mention about the ridiculously instituionalised claims (in schools books) of the modern Greeks about their direct descent from the Hellenic Greeks or this is taken for granted in the Western world because, at some point od time the British Empire said so and eventually Uncle Sam says so? The current tribalism in the Balkans was fueled by lack of identity, at the turn of the previous century, by nobody else but the Germanic tribes, who wanted to believe that their civilization is a continuation of the one of the Ancient Greeks. I’m afraid but everybody is wrong here as there are no direct dissidents to any of the ancient peoples but only make-believe kitsch remnants of their culture (architecture, etc) such as the Brandenburg Palace or Capitol Hill. After some much time spent in Macedonia you should have known better.

  3. Marija Mojsoska said:

    In my response I would only treat the communicative aspects of Mancevski’s video. Namely, according to Simon Anholt, “representation of a country’s culture provides the country’s image with that all-important quality of dignity which, arguably, commercial brands can do without, but countries cannot”. For example “the Western consumer’s knowledge of Japanese art, poetry, cuisine and philosophy, however shallow it might be, functions as an important counterpoint to the commercial image of Japan: productivity, miniaturization, technology, and so on”. He points out two challenges for all countries. First, “countries have to find ways of continually presenting and re-presenting their past cultural achievements” and second, these should be presented “alongside with their modern equivalents in ways that are fresh, relevant and appealing to younger audiences”.

    In Milco Mancevski’s video the first challenge has been partially accomplished. Namely, in one minute clip one can see the traditional culture, dance, customs, architecture and historical artifacts found in The Republic of Macedonia (representing diverse historico-cultural influences throughout time). Obviously the author’s attempt was to present a historical continuum of the Macedonian culture and therefore, the Macedonian people. The problem here is however, the politicization of the same one (as from Macedonian also from Greek side) which has been consequently interpreted as provocation.
    One important and missing element in my view is the link with the present Macedonian society founded on multicultural values. Since this type of promotion targets not only the global audience but the domestic as well thus, the multicultural feature of the Macedonian modern society should be accentuated in order to avoid any discontent by the domestic pubic and to promote its contemporary culture.

  4. Harald Schenker said:

    Let me try and answer all three comments – thanks for the feedback, by the way! – in one piece.
    First about the spot. I fully agree with Marija on the missing link. The problem is that without making that link, the spot misses its purpose. But never mind, it’s just a spot, and actually only a small illustration of what my real concern is.
    Penco and Velko: Plaošnik is not just some “empty lot”. First it was an antique site, later a Christian one, followed by an Ottoman period. What was erected there under – I repeat – the supervision of the sick mind of Ljubčo Georgievski and his cronies is a political statement just as well as an aesthetic and archaeological disaster. Instead of trying to uncover and preserve the past, which is the duty of professional archaeology, almost any trace of the Ottoman period was willingly destroyed. The result is a monstruously uggly structure constructed with extremely poor quality of material (why should Silex have bothered with quality when their money was safe anyway?), in defiance of what the reality on the ground was and in the service of a cheap, kitsch-type of religiously tainted nationalism, which does no good to Macedonia as a country and even less to its people. The Millenium Cross on Vodno was erected at the same time (in the same poor quality), and the continuation is there in the various churches erected or to be built by self-styled benefactors. Or do you think that what Skopje needs most is a church next to the main square?
    Which leads us to the identity issue. Yes, I do think that the Macedonian identity is fragile, not because I have any doubts that any of my friends know who they are, but because the Macedonian nation is still in the making. I am not talking about individual identities, which are complex and multiple anyway, but about the collective one. And here I think that the currently enforced trend towards an antique Macedonian identity is wrong and destructive, because it undermines (and I am afraid it does so willingly) the consolidation of the prevailing Slavic identity. The aim is permanent instability, permanent uncertainty, and as ultima ratio, the failure of the country as such.
    As to any one nation’s claims of continuity from antiquity to today – I really don’t think that needs to be discussed anymore. All about this has been said and written. If people choose to be a laughing stock, oh well. But be serene, laugh about them!
    Happy New Year!

  5. Igor Jovanoski said:

    Dear Mr. Schenker;
    Let me firstly thank you about the eloquence with which you tackle the Macedonian issue. Above all, I’m convinced in your rightful intents and your affection to Macedonian people. As you have poignantly put it, the unfortunate ‘Return of Tribalism,’ in Macedonia is a concept that correctly depicts some recent political moves there.
    My digression here however, is concerned more with the ‘nation in making’ claims and I won’ t argue with you on the aesthetic/architectural and construction comments regarding Plaosnik, the colossal cross on Vodno and even the colossally stupid idea for erecting church at the city square in Skopje. The shear fact they’ve been politically conceived speaks enough about their cultural legitimacy. In this line I would also agree with you that these projects, along with the trend towards an antique Macedonian identity, represent flaws in the contemporary Macedonian identity. It seems that, instead of in 19 century, as every other modern European nation has done, someone wants to anchor our ‘roots’ in ancient times – a conservative project equal to the one of the Greeks and Israelis. Probably the only two political communities in the world that see continuity in national development throughout more than 20 centuries. Any liberal, and beyond all, sociologically informed reading on the nations history can easily refute such a rigid and politically dangerous understanding of the nation.
    Yet, I would disagree with you that the Macedonian identity is in the making. It does face attempts for redesigning or rebranding if you will, but show me a nation in the world which is not continually ‘forged’ and I will concur with you that Macedonians are indeed an exception. As constructivism rightfully argues, no nation is given, no national identity is stable nor constant. To the contrary; it is constantly deconstructed and reconstructed, branded and rebranded, and discursively maintained. As an example, the reconstruction of the American identity and its core mythical values in the post 9/11 context released different neo-conservative strategies opposed by the democrats and liberal intellectuals. [Huntington 2004, ‘Who we are’] And this redesign was not just a question of nuances, to the contrary, it temporarily ‘rallied the Americans around the flag’ and around a conservative understanding of who the Americans are. I can’t argue now about the domestic effects of this redesign and present you a number of newly [re]constructed churches for instance around the US [presumably, there were many]. The effect on the external side however, you will agree with me, was catastrophic for the American Foreign policy. Hopefully, this mistaken national redesign will be sooner rather than latter understood by the current conservatives in power in Macedonia.
    Now back to the argument that the Macedonian nation is in the making. I will agree with you, but only if applied to every nation in the world. To be academically correct I would also say that every national identity is a variable under constant reconstruction. Macedonians are no exceptions from this process. Give me any other nation and I will deconstruct and reconstruct its indeed fragile identity.
    At the end, Happy New 2009 and I’m looking forward to more inspiring views from you,
    Yours, Igor Jovanoski

  6. Penco Kuzev said:

    I don’t feel the aesthetic and archaeological disaster of Plaosnik. Quite contrary too, I’m proud of it. The place was “empty lot” indeed. Not any more. The best workers, some of them Macedonians coming from Albania were employed during the building of the church. I talked to foreign archaeologist and she was impressed from everything that she noticed there. I am sure that everything they have found there is correctly archeologically preserved. Many artefacts were found there, inter alia, the discovery of the priceless Ancient Macedonian golden mask of Ohrid, the presence of the Star of Vergina, the symbol of the ancient House of Macedon, found on rounded drinking vessels among other objects. So I have nothing against this archaeological works to continue but I’m against political instrumentalisation of the Macedonian legacy. And I don’t believe that any trace of the Ottoman period was destroyed. You are not telling what was destroyed? Or was it destroyed something what wasn’t found ?! Or maybe you have some information that I don’t have.

    And there is a trend indeed towards intensive archeologically works, and the question is why is it so? The building a church next to the square in Skopje is ridiculous idea, but not Plaosnik. And we can really speak of sick minds coming to such ideas when the country is facing the biggest unemployment rate in Europe. And Skopje is definitely not missing a new church. Skopje can definitely better allocate its “opportunity costs”.
    No one claims the continuity from antiquity to today, but this Macedonian nation has not fallen from the sky in 1945 and we have the legitimate right to promote our archaeological legacy, especially when someone is trying to deny what we are. The point is to what extend and at what time. Those who claim exclusivity of the antic Macedonians sound very funny. But on the other side I am happy and proud of every single artefact found in nowadays Republic of Macedonia that leads to some connection with Alexandar Makedonski.
    The new spot Macedonia-timeless is nothing else but misallocation of the money of the Macedonian tax payers. Neither investors nor tourists will be attracted. The spot is simply for domestic affairs and is just one part of the government’s story “who is bigger Macedonian”. The poor consumer likes the story because has no idea that that’s the alternative for the miserable politics for the integration of the country closer to the EU. Good that Harald is writing something against the spot. Otherwise he would be declared either for communist or Anti-Macedonian.
    I like the comments from Marija and Igor very much. Srekna Nova Godina

    Regards, Kuzev.

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