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On Serbia & Europe, Philosophy & Poetry: An Interview with Bogdana Koljević

Interview by Steven Fowler.

One of the most exciting young philosophical figures emerging from the Balkans, Bogdana Koljević is a protégé of Simon Critchley and a contemporary political philosopher and political analyst who has acted as a special advisor for the Serbian government for the Minister for Kosovo and Metohija. Formerly a poet with a wide range of philosophical interests, she is the daughter of Nikola Koljević, the former professor of Shakespeare at the University of Sarajevo who became a central figure in Serbian nationalist politics during the Bosnian Balkans conflict of the ’90s. Here she speaks to Steven Fowler for 3:AM…


3:AM: There is an indelible reality that any philosopher is created by their literal biography, both in the emotional investment of their epoch and of their personal biography. There is an obvious Habermasian interrogation that could be made into your status as an intellectual and a Serb and its personal and public consequence.

Bogdana Koljević: If a philosopher is to remain fair and conscious about the limits of his or her thinking, then he or she always must accept that there is no such thing as “pure thinking”. This is to say – every theoretical reflection is deeply contextual, it arises and is influenced by the emotional, the non-discursive, the political and psychological reality of their epoch, and also by its “place” of happening. To paraphrase Hegel in a contemporary manner – philosophy is its own time and place translated into a discourse.

3:AM: You say this influenced by the responsibility of your political reality.

BK: What I am saying is if the shining of Eosphorus is not seen, when let us say, politics becomes a blind sequence of contingent events, then a philosopher’s position more likely resembles one of Kolakowski’s jester, as a potentiality that in reality still has not been recognized. That is how an epoch and its philosophy mutually intertwine, as well as topos and thinking. It means that philosophers are conditioned and can condition simultaneously, in the same way that stating every thinking and discourse is contextualized does not mean to say that there is no “truth”.

Take Habermas for example. If philosophical thinking were able entirely to be reduced to its context, its locality and specificity and the time/place of its happening, it would not be possible for me, for instance, to claim and agree with him regarding his democratic discourse theory – since Habermas was precisely one of the leading intellectuals to strongly support bombing of Serbia and violent actions against it (for, if you are a Serb and were bombed it is possible for you to agree with such action only if you are completely masochistic.) The moment, therefore, that surpasses the locality, a moment that can be universalized – which is not to say that there is such a thing as universal truth – is what counts in the long run, and is perhaps also the moment of personal philosophical freedom.

3:AM: Still in making the case for the moment of universalisation you are being bound to the purest literal biography.

BK: Well a similar line of thought can be applied to the relation between philosophy and personal biography. Following Simon Critchley’s thought here that, for example, every doctoral dissertation is an autobiography, I would say every philosopher’s biography matters a great deal, but what matters more is his or her own philosophical engagement with it and the truth that comes forth in such an encounter.

3:AM: That engagement, as an intellectual and as a Serb, is often idiosyncratic by nature, it operates under far more actual / public consequences than an English intellectual for example, especially with your background.

BK: It is a common reality in Serbia and the Balkans that throughout every generation everyone is faced with at least one and in most cases, two wars. To be an intellectual in Serbia, therefore, has always been a profound challenge throughout history. The history of Serbia and the Serbs, however, from the First to the Second World War and beyond, presents itself as a history of a continuous struggle for freedom, which partly explains ideas and movements such a one of the Praxis group in ex-Yugoslavia, as well as individual writings and practices of many intellectuals in last two decades as well.

There is, to be honest, one significant difference. Never were the Serbs in their history – nor indeed in the history of almost any people or nation – persecuted, condemned and “exceptionalised” in the way the majority of Western politicians, media, NGOs and sadly, many intellectuals and philosophers, have done since the 1990’s. A typically Schmittian paradigm of friend / foe differentiation is what has been practiced and “creatively developed” in its fullest implications in the official Western politics of that time. On the Serbian example, the madness and “the abnormal” which Foucault speaks of – and precisely in the context of history of liberalism – is what has been dominant in Western societies as a “produced truth” that belongs to one single “regime of truth”.

3:AM: Do you feel that is as fervently maintained as it was? Has there not been elements of balance in the intellectual community?

BK: Luckily and optimistically enough I believe that era is behind us. There is something, a space where truth resembles love – it cannot remain hidden from the world forever. Sometimes it emerges when and where least expected, as an event that creates a rupture in the present and disturbs an existing “reality”. In Alain Badiou’s Polemics there is a chapter with the name “On the War against Serbia” that does this. In Laughland’s writings entitled A History of Political Trials one can find interesting things about both Serbia and Bosnia and many “produced truths”. There are many independent and free philosophers and thinkers in the contemporary West that bring into question and take with themselves the challenge of dealing with all events which had influenced the breakdown of Yugoslavia and Serbia’s recent history.

3:AM: So a constituent factor of being both a Serb and an intellectual is contributing to this ‘revealing’ then, of redressing what has become imposed?

BK: To be a philosopher means to question any given truth. It is a matter of philosophical responsibility not to ever take things at their face value. The public consequence of being both a Serb and an intellectual is even more demanding – it requires continuous reflection, conceptualization and political practice, a “witness” and an “actor” that have their historical task to fulfill. It also requires breaking the imposed “imagology” of Serbs as criminals and unmasking pictures that had been substituted for reality in the last fifteen years or so. To return to the inferences of biography and of personal consequences – today I can laugh, live, speak and write, and breathe with far more ease in New York, Paris or London than used to be the case. To be a Serb has lost some of its taboo. I expect this to decrease further in time.

3:AM: I am interested in your literal beginnings, educationally first of all. Did you begin studying philosophy in Belgrade? You then transitioned to New York, how was this co-experience telling?

BK: I began studying philosophy at the Philosophical Faculty of University of Belgrade in 1996. I used to write and publish poetry at that time, a kind of deeply reflective and roughly speaking contemporary “metaphysical poetry”, especially influenced by works of T.S. Eliot. That was my pathway to philosophy. It has been a path from poetry to a discourse, happening around the questioning of “the idea of being”, a path from youth to adulthood and from lyrics to concepts. This certainly does not mean to say that the encounter between poetry and philosophy ends, for I believe that not rarely both have somewhat similar “tasks” and both can and do appear as engaged in interpretation and creation of realities. It is a question of how one’s personal expression is articulated.

I received my doctoral degree in New York in 2009, under the inspiring interlocution of Simon Critchley, Agnes Heller and Jay Bernstein. New York has been an extraordinary experience, philosophically and existentially. Philosophically – and perhaps this can be extended in a significant way – a new horizon opened up for me for which previously I hadn’t known. To remember a title of one of Eliot’s famous essays – philosophy in Belgrade has been entirely reduced to knowledge of (philosophical) tradition, and in New York a lot of it has to do with individual talent and creation. That was my big philosophical and personal discovery, that philosophy is not simply in knowing philosophy but in doing and creating philosophy – that one can legitimately say and argue what one thinks. Needless to say I am aware I was lucky to get both: a rigorous half Germanic, half ex-communist education based on knowledge of classic philosophical works and travel with that to a liberal atmosphere of openness, communication and dialogue.

3:AM: How has the political and cultural near history of Serbia definitively exercised its influence in your choices and direction when it comes to philosophy specifically?

BK: It has not been Serbia to draw me into philosophy, but it was philosophy to draw me to Serbia. This is to say that my interest in philosophy as my “home” had nothing to do with either contemporary political or contemporary cultural history of Serbia. In my formative studies, my focus was metaphysics, ontology and then structuralism / poststructuralism, with little or no interest in political philosophy and politics. Nor was it culture or cultural atmosphere of Serbia that had inspired me or had anything to do with such an undertaking. That is precisely the moment of freedom, the non-relational, external moment, and space of an outside I referred to in response to your first question.

What happened in time? Engagement with philosophical “question of being”, with philosophy par excellence throughout history of philosophy “logically” and “chronologically”, “structurally” and “naturally” brought me to Marx and then to thinkers of the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory, its first and second generation, from Adorno to Habermas. That was my meeting and marriage with political philosophy. It was followed and then accompanied by raised level of intellectual curiosity for political analysis and the field of politics.

3:AM: It appears ostensibly that you are inviably engaged with using philosophical political concepts to make an indelible physical impact on the Serbian political landscape. To what extent is the link literal? And can you give a short political history of your involvement with Serbian government as the advisor to the Minister for Kosovo in the previous government and the advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in this government in Serbia?

BK: Political philosophy, if not confronted with politics proper, remains empty and blind. I am especially engaged in investigating and creating how political philosophical concepts of “democracy”, “pluralism”, “sovereignty”, “law” and “the people” can and do physically impact the Serbian political landscape. I was led home to Serbia, its politics, its culture, its challenges – above and beyond all to the role of ex-Yugoslavia, especially Bosnia and Serbia (although the fate of Serbs in Croatia is no less significant here), to its being a live example and a key witness to Western neoliberal power politics of the last decade. Baudrillard in his The Perfect Crime articulates that a crime is not perfect as long as there is a witness. The recent political and cultural history of Serbia has demonstrated that the witness symbolically, politically, legally, morally and sometimes even factually needs to be diminished if not entirely sacrificed in order for the crime to be perfect.

This refers also to the difference between breakdown and breakup of ex-Yugoslavia. No doubt, in the civil war in Bosnia that followed, all three nations involved in the conflicted committed crimes. And no doubt, as in any civil war, at times there was violation of human rights by all parties concerned. In difference, however, to politics, any politics, the role of political philosopher is to trace both the internal and external causes, to question about the beginning, to question about the context, the interrelation between events in entire ex-Yugoslavia ending with the “humanitarian intervention” of bombing of Serbia and Western support for illegal unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo. Keeping in mind the larger picture, it does not take much to see that the suffering and loss, criminalization, murdering and cleansing of Serbs – Serbs from Croatia, Serbs from Bosnia, Serbs from Kosovo i.e. within Serbia – and all this explicitly or implicitly supported by major Western countries at that time, is something that still remains as a story to be unveiled and interpreted.

Take the question of Kosovo. It is not simply an issue of Serbia’s state sovereignty. It is the place where all the mentioned concepts encounter one another, a story where state sovereignty and international law go hand and hand with the idea of democratic pluralism and multiethnicity and against the idea of illegally self-proclaimed ethnic state. Moreover, the Kosovo case on which the ICJ will give its opinion in 2010. – dealing with such an issue for the first time in history – will to a significant extent influence all present and future secessionist aspirations worldwide, and set the stage and shed light on the meaning of international law and its validity in global politics. Whether the principle of sovereignty or the principle of self-determination will be decided and argued upon as the leading trace and major point of reference, is not only a matter of legal and political debate but of philosophical commentary as well. To answer your question, yes, between my political philosophy and political advisory engagements the link is literal. Along the same lines, my decision to participate and advise first in the Ministry for Kosovo and Metohia and now in Ministry of Foreign Affairs is philosophical in a sense. This is true inasmuch as these were or still are exactly the “places” where the political philosophical issues are articulated, and simultaneously most relevant political questions too.

3:AM: With Adornist inflection, I am interested in your feelings of the validity of poetry and philosophy as a commentary and / or reflective artistic practice in the face of the Balkan conflicts of the last decade? Whether they are eminently valuable or redundant?

BK: Certainly they are eminently valuable. In time, non-philosophical and non-reasonable articulations, whether they belong to instant-media production or political “reality shows” as simulations of reality will be forgotten. Philosophy and poetry will remain. Arguments pro et contra regarding any event and any implication of the Balkans conflicts will be of interest to future generations. They will try to understand what others had lived. And they will need philosophy for that. They will not make judgments based on what some Western media outlet was stating.

With poetry, however, it can be difficult and perhaps at times counterproductive. What I mean is that it depends a lot on what kind of poetry one speaks of here. If it is a poetry that stirs up political emotions, then I am against it. The reason is rather simple: if political emotions prevail to political reason then one can easily slide off the track of reasonable judgment and thinking. I believe poetry here should come as close to Aristotle’s definition of it as possible – led by a special kind of mimesis and in proximity to “political realism” and truth of events that looks into the future. Inasmuch as politics is “the art of the possible”, (engaged) poetry is “the politics of the possible”.

Both philosophy and poetry are significant discourses not only because of their interpretative and “truth” potentialities but because of their capability of reaching beyond everydayness, beyond politics proper, and into the heart of the common and the universal.

3:AM: Your family has unique and fundamental implications in the elements of the conflict, can you expiate this for me, the role of your father in your own thought?

BK: I am not sure that would be the right way to articulate that question, although I realize your intention. I am very proud of my father, who after thirty years of teaching Shakespeare and English and American literature, as a professor in Sarajevo and visiting professor at many Western universities, decided to engage in politics as one of the Bosnian Serb leaders in the 1990’s. My father was one of the founders and vice-president of Republic of Srpska (entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina). In 2008, last year, we published his diary in which his literal, philosophical and political impressions of the events in Bosnia between 1993-1995, together with original documents, letters and photographs are revealed. Hopefully it will soon be available in English. The manuscript ends with the Dayton accords. My father was one of the signitaries of the Bosnian-Serbian side of the Dayton peace agreement in 1995.

3:AM: The picture painted of Serbia is one of division or disdain when it comes to the nature of Europe as a political state and its cultural equivalence, and I’d very much like to hear your thoughts on this as a votive reality in Serbia, what is your understanding of the climate of opinion?

BK: A great majority of Serbs, around 70% of its entire population, support integration of Serbia into the EU. That is the society of Serbia today. Moreover, official policy and political practice of the government of Serbia has European integration as its strategic aim. The state and society, therefore, are in harmony when it comes to the question of Europe and Serbia’s future as a European state. The other question, however, is what the future of Europe will look like, and how European political identity will build and articulate itself in the time to come. Concretely, of course, it is also a matter of what decisions will be made regarding potential new member states and what timeframe will be adopted for this. I believe, however, that conceptually European Union and Europe should be distinguished. Serbia historically and culturally is a European state. Today it is striving to embrace all the implications of the central European value – that is democracy – and succeeding in doing so. One can imagine, however, Serbia and indeed the Balkans growing further independently and developing in the European style without being a full EU member state. Neither outcome is per definitionem desirable or non-desirable, let alone is it guaranteed positivity. Let’s wait and see. What is significant is that in any scenario Serbia has Brussels as pillar of its foreign policy, as well as Moscow, Beijing and Washington. The philosophical concept of Europe lives in Serbia.

Steven Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum. His series of interviews with contemporary European poets is forthcoming on 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, January 9th, 2010.