In this short piece, I reflect on the possibilities of decolonisation within scholarship on South East Europe. I specifically talk about my own experiences of research for my recently published book, Discourse and Affect in Postsocialist Bosnia and Herzegovina: Peripheral selves, in which I occupied a curious position of both a researcher of post-socialist migration and a migrant living the realities of post-war BiH.
Knowledge production in and about BiH
Recognising that any and all knowledge production is shaped by colonial, racial, geopolitical, and cultural hierarchies begs the question of producing knowledge otherwise. This is true for the Global East, as much as it is for other contexts embroiled in unequal politics of knowledge production. This becomes particularly problematic when documenting and studying peripheral and over-researched communities and societies—like Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and is exacerbated by the fact that this knowledge is produced for and by Global North institutions. This situation is in stark contrast to the modernisation of knowledge production that the Global East experienced in socialism—striving to reach modernity, most Global East academic institutions developed their own journals and institutions, including institutes and universities. The post-socialist collapse of these efforts was even more brutal in the ex-Yugoslav case, where it happened in parallel with the country’s breakup.
Knowledge production in BiH suffered even more greatly due to the 1992-1995 wars, which divided and further peripheralised the country. The war and post-war brain drain and skilled migration added to the emptying out of not just population, but also prospective quality and politically progressive research that should eventually empower the communities under research. Simultaneously, BiH became a gold mine for researchers from the Global North, either originally from BiH or not, and a hotspot for learning about wars, ethnicity, industrial devastation, gender, socialism, and postsocialism. Local academic institutions could not keep pace with more advanced, higher ranked institutions of the Global North, despite the cosmetic Bologna reform, which started in 2006 and still continues. There was little dialogue and exchange, let alone redistribution, within the emerging neoliberal academia that could ameliorate the problem.
This is a ‘damn if you do, damn if you don’t’ type of situation. To unlearn knowledge extraction is a long and tedious process, and one which falls short of the subject—who is to recognise non-dominant knowledges and who is to face global hierarchies? The subject who inhabits the over-researched and over-extracted communities, or the one who is aware these problems but is in the Global North? And how to make this knowledge resistant? How to make the knowledge on ethnic cleansing, genocide, rape, privatisation, capital accumulation through confiscation and injustice useful, in the sense of precluding further social deterioration and impoverishment, death, and suffering in favour of more unitary affects and politics striving for global justice? How can we be wanting for what is wrong and how to reclaim ethics posthoc?
Blurry positions in/on migration
These are difficult questions and there are no easy answers. I have been facing such challenges in a research project on social movements and migrations, under the working title ‘Occupy or emigrate: Dealing with (Un)frozen Conflict Via Social Protests and Economic Migrations.’ From the start, it was an exercise in critical auto-ethnography—one for which I felt obliged to ‘come clean’ about my own positionality as someone actively involved in left activism and political processes in the periphery while simultaneously reflecting on my own methodology, politics, and imaginaries. As someone who tried to both occupy the streets and emigrate, loving, leaving, and returning to the periphery.
The process did not include just the research (for which I was lucky to get the funding); it was more about revising, examining it with a group of close friends and colleagues, actively acknowledging and erasing the researcher’s dominance in favour of not learning from, but learning and identifying with those with whom I spoke. I entitled the book Peripheral Selves to acknowledge that the developments in my country are not just about ideology and discourse, conveniently analysable via meticulous data collection, but rather about the historical materialism of postsocialist spaces coupled with the realm of bodily affects. This is where “the defense of living conditional and physical integrity” is felt more tangibly than “any of the more conventionally understood ideological precepts” (Vishmidt 2020:33). The entanglements, the intensities, and the emotions of fear and exhilaration felt when I joined the Justice for David movement in Banja Luka with my then five-year old son, or when a familiar song would ‘hit’ us in an Offenbach kafana, us belonging to three different yet connected migration waves of Bosnians to Germany, meant taking the affective body as an event (Erdbauer 2004).
Doing epistemic decolonisation in Bosnia led me to recognise peripheral selves, to which I belonged too in a way, as bodies emerging out of peripheral spaces. It also included exploring the conditions and constitutive elements of peripherality as consequences of wartime destruction and the uncertainty of the post-war period. As a researcher, I understood epistemic decolonisation as a ‘praxis beyond metaphors,’ a political commitment, and a way of ‘learning with and from’ rather than learning about what has been disavowed in the colonialist unfolding of modernity (Vizcaíno 2020). In giving peripheral selves a voice, I was recognising my own implicitness, exercising a kind of epistemic humility as ‘an awareness of the limits and contingencies of one’s beliefs and commitments’ (Allen 2016:76).
And to have come to this understanding had to be via feminism. Feminist objectivity as a pathway to establishing ‘an earthwide network of connections including the ability partially to translate knowledges among very different— and power-differentiated—communities […]’ has been instrumental in my struggle for ‘build(ing) meanings and bodies that have a chance for life’ (Haraway 1988: 580). Writing about this situated knowledge, from a political location (Rich 1984) and through the ‘rhizomatic’ poetics of relation (Glissant 1997) with my research participants, meant acknowledging my specific researcher-researched assemblage in working with/on social movements and migrations. I was unable to detach myself from the lived experience spanning over twenty-five years of post-war and post-socialist experience, including some socialist and decolonial struggles in the aftermath of war, three and a half years of war itself, and fourteen years of life in Yugoslav socialism. What guided me in the process was a feminist optic, a body-centred and eclectic epistemological approach, which inevitably focused on personal politics and social change. It located the foundations of truths to be explored in specific historical, economic, racialised, gendered and social infrastructures of oppression, injustice and peripheralisation.
Peripherality as potential
Peripherality, as the consequence of structural injustice, cruelty, ignorance, and poverty is both visceral and tattooed on the bodies. By re-centring of peripheral bodies, peripheries can be read and analysed, perhaps even reversed and prevented, in the same vein in which Europe, as a mythical site of modernity where history already happened, can be provincialised and made anew from its margins (Chakrabarty 2000). Despite limitations and seeming incomensurabilities between more and less traditional colonies, decolonising knowledge on/from peripheries means forging new unions, via activist practices of solidarity, as relationships of discomfort and conviviality become/are? indispensable (Illich 1973). In discussing the political effects of migration-related centrality and peripherality, labour and asylum lie at the intersection of subjects and regimes/struggles. Methodologically, they should be intersected wherever possible with race, gender, and class. An adequate methodological context-specific intersectionality could be developed as a ‘corrective methodology’ (Roth 2013) and a way to document the entangled inequalities.
It could be a critical intervention and a form of ‘epistemic sensibilisation’ rather than a ready-made universal design, ‘providing a “perspectivization,” a research framework or a “tactics” dedicated to a critical self-understanding of doing research’ (Roth 2013: 5). In addition to methodological intersectionality, epistemic decolonisation also needs to take place. Twenty-five years since the war ended in BiH, ethnonationalist kleptocratic elites continue to rule without punishment and without much difference from the opposition, competing only over who is a bigger nationalist even when they address daily problems. Coupled by neo-colonial international interventionism, they have produced a seeming consensus on the Dayton-based status quo among the majority of people. Simultaneously, people’s struggles for the commons and against injustice have been carried out by social movements fighting against it, while hundreds of thousands have been leaving the country including some of the former protesters and critics who became asylum seekersand were denied asylum in the meantime.
BiH has been peripheralised and colonised multiple times and from multiple sides, not only from the outside, but also by neighbouring Serbia and Croatia with their expansionist appetites, and the external tutelage of the international community. This tutelage, embodied in the Office of the High Representative (OHR), became the beacon of the international community’s liberal imperialism (Knaus and Martin 2003), forcing democratisation while constantly warning against ‘failed’ Europeanisation (Majstorović 2007). The international community seems to be lethargic as well turning a blind eye to injustice and corruption, including the David Dragičević case and many other unresolved murder cases, but the leaving High Representative issued an amendment to the BiH criminal code punishing those who publicly deny Srebrenica genocide. Not only is this volatility problematic, but it sends a message that nothing will change unless some sort of internationalist interventionist is involved.
From the inside, peripherialisation was also carried out by comprador political elites thriving on ethnonationalist capitalism seeking total control over the police, the media, the universities, and property and assets gained through privatisation of socially owned property. Insisting on ‘interconnectivities which link these places to processes nested at other spatial scales into the research design,’ research on peripheries should not merely ‘limit itself to the description of “peripheral” places,’ but instead ‘integrate this with a study of the changing function of these places in larger socio-spatial configurations’ and processes of peripherialisation and coloniality which ‘demands a historical perspective’ (Bernt and Colini 2013: 23).
While historical perspectives offered by postcolonial theory and Marxist intervention provided invaluable insights into the BiH post-war peripherialisation and subsequent politico-economic restructuring, the decolonial option is also urgently needed. This option proceeds as an active and conscious ethical, political and epistemic position whose goal is to decolonise thinking, being, perception, gender and memory (Mignolo 2010). It is an epistemic and emancipatory commitment to a better, and more just life, and a pathway to global solidarity: ‘an uneasy, reserved and unsettling matter that neither reconciles present grievances nor forecloses future conflict’ (Tuck and Yang 2012:3). Seeing BiH through a decolonial lens entails recognition and critique of practices of ethnic cleansing, appropriation, and colonisation, conducted during and after the war by international and local elites through warfare, abolition of social ownership, privatisation, accumulation of debt with complete disregard for people and the environment.
Acknowledging that all knowledge production is shaped by colonial, racial, geopolitical, and cultural hierarchies, means dismantling these hierarchies altogether and uniting in global struggles. With a political, economic, and cultural awareness of colonisation, inhabiting peripheries and engaging in the struggles, instead of mentoring and preaching from a safe distance, like many scholars of the Global North have done, may be the way forward. Even when it means losing funding or redistributing it, delinking from the paragons of solely Western knowledge production can only be done by accounting of the complex entanglements and active relinking with the Global South, thus altering the present social spaces via new, more solidaristic interconnectivities.
This is the second post in the series reflecting on BISA 2021, click here for the first piece by Michiel Piersma.