Xenophobia, Fantasy and the Nation:
The Logic of Ethnic Violence in Former Yugoslavia (Part II)
Glenn Bowman
Below are essential passages from Part II of Glenn Bowman’s paper.
Please click here for the complete paper with references.
Glenn Bowman is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Kent where he directs the postgraduate program in the Anthropology of Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Identity.
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Sharing the Sacra: The Politics and Pragmatics of Intercommunal Relations around Holy Places

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If, as enlightenment theories of human nature contend, human beings will act rationally and cooperatively when given the choice, then there is no reason why—when the options proffered are between a proven model of cohabitation and a radical paradigm of violent confrontation—the choice should be made for inter-communal antagonism and war. I have not been able to demonstrate any ‘rational’ reason why the people accepted the logic of inter-communal hatred as more verisimilitudinous than their own experiences of cohabitation and cooperation.

If, as Mastnak argues, the current situation is an expression of the will of the people, then it is important to try to discern what in people resonates to a call to rise up with a seemingly primal rage to destroy an enemy before that enemy is able to destroy them.

I suggest that we look beyond the rhetoric of social discourses to those primal fantasies mobilized by those rhetorics. These fantasies, generated by the first encounter of the human infant with the symbolic order, resonate with and impel the subject to answer to the call to inflict absolute violence against an absolute enemy.

The infant’s entry into the symbolic order, initiated when the child learns that it must call to another for what it desires, is simultaneously an expulsion from a world in which it subsequently ‘remembers’ it had had everything it wanted. Freud, in the opening section of Civilization and its Discontents (Freud, 1963) posits that “the infant at the breast does not as yet distinguish his ego from the external world as the source of the sensations flowing in upon him” and that this experience may give rise to inchoate memories of “an oceanic feeling” like a “limitless narcissism”.

The child’s entry into language expunges that sense of narcissistic omnipotence by reordering the world in terms of a dualism; in separating from the mother the child goes from sensing that the world and itself are coterminous to knowing not only that it is only part of a world, but furthermore that it is a small and helpless part which must call upon others who have the power to give it—and deprive it of—what it wants.

The idea of amputation—of something brutal that has been done to sever us from that part of ourselves which gave us our pleasure—brings up, of course, the question ‘who has done this thing to us?’. Failure to achieve fulfilment are experienced as a consequence of the activities of the ‘demonic’ antagonist the infant first encountered when its primal omnipotence was shattered by the ‘voice of the Father’. When frustration of desire evokes the fantasy presence of this antagonist, such people are likely to respond by directing primal rage and violence against what they perceive as the source of that frustration.

They thus interpret the world in terms of a dualism—dividing all the elements of the social field into friend and foe (self and Other). In most instances, such people are perceived as paranoiac and, if their violence proves endemically disruptive, are institutionalized. Certain discursive structures, however, draw upon the psychic opposition of antagonist and ego by establishing as real and normative a world polarized between obdurate enemies and a community threatened by them.

In these nationalist rhetorics, all real fulfilment follows from the realization of the Nation, and the ‘other’ (whether Jew, Croat, Muslim, Serb, Albanian or whatever) is inscribed in that rhetoric as precisely that which has as its only reason for being the desire to deny, steal and destroy the national identity that gives one what one wants and makes one what one really is; it steals land, rapes women, desecrates holy objects and, finally, annihilates the community in which one finds one’s identity.

These rhetorics not only define the Nation as the ‘Thing’ which recuperates jouissance but also set up the Nation’s ‘others’ as incarnations of the demonic antagonist threatening pleasure at the very root of its being. This structure was set in place by propaganda which simultaneously evoked the future ‘restored’ nation as a fantastic object promising the utopic recuperation of pleasures lost when, in some hazy past, the people were exiled from their ‘homeland’ and a demonic antagonist standing as the corporeal antithesis of all configurations of will and desire.

However, while the promised ‘motherland’ is sketched in these nationalist rhetorics in edenic yet imprecise terms, the evil of the antagonist and the heroic devotion of the national leader to its extirpation are portrayed with graphic realism. In the nationalist fantasy it is the leader and the enemy which are the crucial, and operative, elements.

One fights against the enemy under the guidance of the leader in order to ‘recover’ the nation, but since access to the pure enjoyment of being which the nationalistic rhetoric claims will be afforded by the defeat of the enemy is always already blocked, the destruction of the enemy will always prove inadequate.

Implicit in the psychic structure on which nationalist rhetoric draws is a spiral of violence which leads the members of the national community to always, at the moment of victory, seek yet another enemy who can be blamed for the ‘real’ nation not being in the place they have just recovered from the enemy they have defeated.

If the Nazis had had the opportunity to exterminate every leftist, Jew, cripple, homosexual, and Gypsy that could be blamed for blocking the advent of the ‘Thousand Year Reich’ they saw as their true heritage, they would have had to begin exterminating those Germans who, despite fitting all the criteria of ‘pure Germans’, were nonetheless the causes of the failure of the Millennium to materialize. Vesna Peši suggests that the same logic operates in the Serbian instance when she writes that “after ethnic cleansing we will soon have traitor cleansing”.

They succeed in doing so through the discursive construction of enemies of the nation which not only serve as scapegoats to be blamed for everything which goes wrong both in society and the lives of its members but also function to evoke—through their negativity—a national positivity which people can fantasize would suddenly and paradisaically emerge if the enemy were to be destroyed.

The violence of the infant’s entry into the symbolic order is mirrored in the violent scenarios through which nationalist propaganda presents the antagonism of the nation’s other to the ways of life of the national community, and it is—I argue—the resonance between these two ‘scenes’ which impels individuals—regardless of their adult experiences—to recognised themselves as addressed by calls to join the national struggle.

Psychoanalytic interpretations of social action are perceived by most social anthropologists as profoundly antagonistic to the way of life of the academic community to which they owe allegiance. This is because it appears as though psychoanalysis challenges the axiomatic assumption upon which that community is founded—the a priori truth that social reality is a social construct.

The domain of the ‘irrational’, which analytic discourses based on Descartian assumptions of rationality and identity disclaim, is, I contend, what impels persons to desire to take up, and defend, the cultural identities offered in social discourses.

Neither social logic nor the structures of the unconscious it mobilizes could, I suggest, independently create the uncivil societies we see active in Former Yugoslavia, but brought together they engender logical, self-affirming social realities capable of both sustaining and reproducing themselves.