The oddity of ‘humanitarian bombing’; the demonic Slobodan Milosevic; the violence of genocide; the darkness of Serb nationalism; the anguish of uprooted Kosovars; the hatred of ethnic cleansing. What took place in Kosovo fascinates us, both because of its many monsters and because of the opportunity it has offered ‘the West’ to portray itself as a model of altruism and morality. The war over Kosovo is now far enough in the past to view Kosovo as a ‘sign’, an emblem for things to come. Much as was the case in ancient Rome, where omens and portents were always odd and bizarre, this Kosovo-sign has for us a curious air of ambiguity. For those observing it from the outside, it is either a model or a monster, a sign either of a maturing and perfecting European security framework or of a Europe the fragile stability of which is still under serious threat.
Kosovo’s ambiguity is relevant since we now have to come to an appreciation of what this war implies for international relations (IR) theory, international law, normative approaches to politics and the development of European security in general. What makes these examinations both demanding and interesting is that ‘Kosovo’ is located in a realm where exotic and distant things seem to occur. This essay therefore examines the events of Kosovo not only as a sign of the future, but as a place where ‘different’ things occurred in a realm beyond the classical local–foreign boundary.
A fascination with freaks of nature – or lusus naturae – has been part of Western culture since the ancient accounts of the marginally believable (paradoxography). Explorers like Marco Polo and Columbus, like today’s legions of tourists, have helped to incorporate the wonders of our world into the dichotomy of the local and the foreign, and, later, into the domestic– international nexus. The realm of the ‘outside’ has been inhabited by fascinating and often horrifying things which frequently seemed to test and defy the moral order that could be found at home. At the known world’s periphery – a realm that is foreign to us because it is unfamiliar and nameless – the domain of marvels and wonders seems to commence.1 During peacetime, such foreign oddities are often turned into tourist attractions and TV entertainment. However, war often amplifies the horror and terror of the foreign. Whereas the outside realm displays outlandish customs or curious physical features during normal circumstances, the outbreak of war allows for further freedom of interpretation and freedom of action, going beyond the ‘normal’ and the ‘natural’. It is this sort of freedom that explains seemingly unrestrained behaviour at the borders of the ‘known’ or, as it is more conventionally called, ‘the West’. When war breaks out, this interpretative freedom may turn into a violence that may both breed new life and bring death.2 From this perspective, we should start to ask how to conduct war under such foreign/international conditions?
In this essay, I try to examine such interpretative freedom, the ‘magical’ and ‘fluid’ construction of the Kosovo phenomenon, in both Western and Serbian discourses. In particular, I consider how power can be derived from the art of repetition – i.e. how ‘security’ can be created and maintained by sticking to a single message and spreading it as widely as possible. To the average spectator, one of the most noticeable features of the Kosovo war has been the non-stop repetition of certain key concepts by all parties to the conflict. One might have expected that such a continual repetition would have become not merely boring but ineffective, and even counterproductive. I argue here that this is a quandary inherent to the nature of repetition. By repetition, all actors risk losing agency. Under these foreign/international conditions, in order to counter enemies – ‘monsters’ able to change appearances and transform themselves – one has to avoid becoming a mere automaton. So, the question becomes how one might create (or maintain) stable and potent agency?
The answer is inherently problematic since it involves the dilemma of repetition versus variation. In exploring this question, I start from the pre-miss that reality – and international reality in particular – has a strongly ‘magical flavour’.3 The concept of ‘magic’ may be new and unsettling to some students of IR, but I wish to argue that it offers a good template for understanding contemporary global politics since it deals with the art of producing and maintaining marvellous, striking and at times also shocking phenomena by ritualistic/performative methods. From this perspective, the rationale justifying ritualistic repetition has to do with the power of words to create (in and of themselves) a new kind of ‘reality’. The term ‘magic’ suggests a strong sense of forcefulness behind explicit words. But this degree of force is not associated only with military power, or with human sacrifice in battlefield. Other sources of power have to be explored.
In doing so, I base my approach on a variety of philosophical traditions ranging from Plato via Giordano Bruno to Wittgenstein. The latter’s ideas, for example, are extremely relevant for our discussion since Wittgenstein’s notions of the power of language conjure up images of something ‘higher’, something ‘profound’, which goes well beyond the actual words themselves. This essay argues that this ability of mere words to suggest and stimulate powerful images should be considered an important source of political power. The Kosovo-sign is just one recent illustration of this mechanism, albeit an extremely powerful one.
To begin this exploration of ‘Kosovo’, I start my philosophical journey with Bruno’s thinking on the importance of the hidden qualities in the magic of reality. Bruno believed in what is called the ‘magical theory of language’. A key element of this ‘theory’ is that words can bring matters and events into existence and hence create agency. The power of words to animate is not only connected with existing things: Bruno assumed that uttering something could itself actually change reality. This suggests that language is more than a means of describing reality, that the link between language and reality is deeper, more creative and at times even forceful.4
The metaphorical thinking of Bruno suggests that the essential features of a thing or event could be changed, maintained or even created. For example, the powerful use of words could give a ruler characteristics associated with God, thereby reinforcing the state’s power. One of the central elements of Bruno’s thought is his emphasis on the infinite variance of reality, which, he argues, offers the raw material that can be shaped by the power of words and the imagination. For Bruno, even ‘real things’ are imaginary. For example, he argues that ‘even if there were no hell, the thought and imagination of hell without a basis in truth would still really produce a true hell, for fantasy has its own type of truth. It can truly act, and can truly and most powerfully entangle in that which can be bound.’5
In his On Magic (c.1590), Bruno writes that ‘nothing is so incomplete, defective or imperfect, or...so completely insignificant that it could not become the source of great events’.6 This is both the promise and the problem of prosaic politics, which involves the necessity of variance and the impossibility of controlling it. This theme also appeared in Aristotle’s writings, for instance when he argues that in a written text repetition may soon lead the reader to incredulity and rob the text of its dramatic effect.7 Repetition is, however, an altogether different matter in speech, where the strings of unconnected and constantly repeated words are at times to be recommended for their dramatic effect. Aristotle does not recommend simple repetition, but repetition with variance: ‘In this repetition there must be variety of tone, paving the way, as it were, to dramatic effect.’8 A certain level of variation is required in repetition, just to keep the listener’s attention. This theme is continued and given explicitly political content in Bruno’s General Account of Bonding, where repetition and variance establish the basis for bonding, influence and power.
This brings us to Plato, who had much to say about repetition as a means of ‘producing’ certain effects, mainly by influencing existing patterns of sympathy and antipathy among people. In his Laws (c.360 BC), Plato goes as far as to argue that political incantations play a central role in the affairs of the state.9 For Plato’s so-called ‘ideal state’, the cultivation and strengthening of the skills of calculation, reckoning and consideration – logismo – are paramount. However, this logismo is considered weak in comparison to the soul’s irrational and destructive impulses. Hence, for Plato, there is a need to make these irrational features subservient to the faint voice of reason, paving the way towards the good polis. Plato has a solution for that: the use of incantations. He argues that it ‘is the duty of every man and child – free and slave, female and male – and the whole State, to use these incantations we have described upon themselves incessantly’.10 He further defines these incantations as plays and chants which, if taken together, can influence the beliefs and actions of those who are not persuaded by reason alone.11 In Laws, Plato argues for chants and plays which enchant in such a way as to implant harmony through encouraging desirable and ‘correct’ behaviour in people. These incantations are to teach people what is to be considered ‘good’, and what is to be deemed ‘bad’. He argues that the proper incantations should bind together good and pleasurable things with the correct sort of behaviour.
Before I continue this short journey into the uncharted territory of political ‘magic’, a reference to Wittgenstein’s notion of language games is necessary to clarify matters. Wittgenstein uses the term ‘family resemblances’ (Familienähnlichkeiten) to illustrate the often elusive and indeterminate character of language.12 This elusiveness is due to the variance and indeterminacy which, together with family resemblances, comprise the kaleidoscopic character of everyday experience. This kaleidoscopic character of reality lacks a stable and consistent set of features that would once and for all define any language game or offer a set of qualities common to whatever is included in a language game. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein points out that language games can ‘conjure up’ a sense of order that goes beyond family resemblances, and which is inherent in the actual uses of these games. Using language games often suggests a determinate design that proceeds according to specific rules, and language itself can hint at the more coherent and consistent sense of order that can not be reduced to any specific example of actual usage of the language.
Used in a specific way, language games that ‘enchant’ may have political implications. Political rhetoric often uses language to give an impression of something higher, or ‘spellbound’, within the language game. That which is ‘spellbound’ assumes a quasi-independent existence from the language games with which it is interwoven.13 Wittgenstein argues that these games can serve two functions: they can be a means of showing how things could be, but also a way to indicate how things should be. In the former sense, language games can be used to bind things together by invoking patterns of similarity and dissimilarity. Wittgenstein maintains that ‘language games are rather set up as objects of comparison which are meant to throw light on the facts of our language not only by way of similarities, but also of dissimilarities’.14 Apart from this enlightening character of language games, they may also have, as in the latter sense, a more dogmatic use, binding and holding captive.15 Images invoked by a specific language game may hold the ‘user’ captive, which prompts Wittgenstein to argue that in this way ‘we could not get outside of a language game, for it [ lies] in our language and language [seems] to repeat it to us inexorably’.16
We may therefore conclude that the ‘magical’ side of language games can be used both to control the social frame of mind, as well as to do battle against the ‘bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language’.17
Irrespective of whether correctness and legitimacy pre-exist on some metaphysical level (as in Plato’s thought) or whether they are embedded in the language game itself (as is implied by Wittgenstein), these incantations/language games have certain ‘magical’ qualities. These ‘magical’ powers are reified in the repetitive and incantatory rituals that bind things and people together into persuasive wholes and render them meaningful – existent as a collective or as a group – through persuasive analogies.
For present purposes, the important element of Wittgenstein’s and Plato’s thinking is the idea that there seems to be something higher, ‘spellbound’, in our language games that is essential to the creation of a legitimate political order. In this process, an appreciation of the ‘art of memory’ is being formed which attempts to arrange images into memorable – or repeatable – order(s). In this way, a certain sense of memory establishes a connection between the practical level of everyday life and behaviour and the ‘spellbound’ stratum of imaginary constructs.
Throughout history, the place (locus) for the ordering of memory has usually been a well-known building such as a theatre, a church or a mausoleum. With the help of such ‘mental places’, the act and art of memory implies the reading of written signs. This means that finding oneself in a certain locus of memory – a place where memorable things and ideas are situated – may allow for their actual recollection. However, in itself, the orderly locus has proved to be insufficient to sustain memory and to produce order. What is usually also required are striking images that complete the ‘art of memory’ with unforgettable and sometimes bizarre details. Specific memories may be contained in, and provoked by, images by using simulacra that offer general representations of specific things/ideas.18 Thomas Aquinas, for example (in his commentary on Aristotle’s De Memoria et Reminiscencia), argues that ‘if we wish to remember easily any intelligible reasons, [we must] bind them, as it were, by certain other phantasma’. Phantasmata enable orderly memory, since ‘things that have subtle and spiritual considerations can less be remembered, whereas things are more memorable that are gross and sensible’. Aquinas (whose thinking was admired and followed by Bruno) further claims that intellectual constructs can therefore be better remembered if they are connected with striking emotional phantasmata.19
It can be argued that over the centuries, ‘the art of memory’ and phantasmata have been used by political elites as a template for the orderly arrangement of political loci such as the state itself, as well as to achieve certain political objectives. The state, as an ordered political entity, is used as a memory aid and a locus where striking phantasmata can be placed to produce recollection, repetition and order. If the state is to be considered a locus which produces political order and sustains its organisations, the role of striking and unforgettable details becomes of paramount importance. But what qualifies as a striking image in the state locus? Looking at the history of state formation in Europe, we see that most states have traced their origins through a series of miracles, catastrophes, struggles for national determination and recovery, a string of enemies, and, more often than not, a succession of violence and war. It is these phantasmata, and the elite’s skill in making political use of them, that allows for the ‘magical’ act of sustaining the existing state order.
Here I wish to consider how the practice of political ‘magic’ in global politics – based on repetition and the variance of language games – may evoke phantasmata that may be capable of producing certain desirable effects. Looking at the Kosovo-sign, it will be essential to identify central language games that have been used; the ‘spellbound’ phantasmata that have been evoked by the warring parties; and the incantations that have served as their context.
Much like their ancient incantatory templates, contemporary Western political language games are based on the recitation of ‘magical’ words. During the Kosovo war, the spectrum of these ‘divine’ words (used by both parties) included such concepts as ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’, ‘hope’, ‘peace’ and ‘unity’. By repetition and variation, these concepts were sublimated and acquired a powerful character reminiscent of the ‘spirits’ of medieval times. Given that these incantatory language games are at the core of Western texts, one could expect them to be repeated only in order to install desired beliefs, values and the ‘correct’ spirit within the audience at large. These language games were essential in fighting what has been labelled a ‘legitimate war’ and a ‘humanitarian intervention’, and reinforcing the Western-dominated locus that underlies a specific system of images and keeps this system alive and vibrant.
Obviously, numerous phantasmata have helped to sustain this existing political order through the Kosovo-sign, most notably the continual emphasis on ‘prosperity’ (open markets, high standards of living, investment opportunities and health); ‘peace’ (security, stability, justice and human rights); ‘freedom’ (human dignity, life and hope); and ‘unity’ (the ideas of nation, family and democracy).20
Besides these legitimate phantasmata, there were powerful phantasmata whose status was considered undecided or even negative, such as ‘globalisation’ and ‘interdependence’.
Finally, illegitimate phantasmata included ‘hate’ (genocide and cynical manipulation); ‘disorder’ (corruption, rogue states, terrorism and economic destruction); ‘suffering’ (drugs, diseases and environmental decay); and ‘despair’ (most notably the loss of hope).
In Western rhetoric, peace was oftentimes opposed to suffering; freedom put opposite to despair; and unity opposite to hate. Reading the Kosovo-sign, it becomes clear that this image-pantheon helped to maintain a sense of political order, thereby giving uncertain concepts such as globalisation and interdependence (which were oftentimes used as metaphors and analogies for ‘the West’), a more positive and even quasi-legitimate connotation.
Central to repetition and incantation is the factor of time. In the case of Kosovo, the build-up of powerful phantasmata did not occur overnight. The NATO-led military operation against Yugoslavia had to be based on broad popular support, which required careful preparation. For one thing, the existing gallery of Western political images had to be rearranged and even transformed so as to avoid the need for a United Nations Security Council mandate which would legitimise the military intervention and overcome the barriers of sovereignty and other established political norms. The emphasis was therefore not only (or even mainly) on the careful military planning and build-up; the West had to prepare its own public to accept the new code of conduct of the emerging New European Order.
Since Western incantations and charms were based on a semblance of consistent and legitimate aims, Yugoslavia’s counter-‘magic’ had to point out the inconsistencies in Western language games and images, while simultaneously interrupting the West’s repetitions. In Brunoïan terms, these seemingly insignificant things – the level of variation in the West’s repetition – could possibly be turned into a self-defeating force. Belgrade’s attempt to underline the weakness of the Western Alliance as such was part of an overall scheme to protect itself from Western phantasmata. But the most effective means of counter-‘magic’ was to highlight the offensive and therefore illegitimate nature of Western actions. However, much of Yugoslavia’s counter-‘magic’ failed since these claims were not able to reach and influence Western public opinion on a daily basis.
For example, Yugoslavia was keen to emphasise the ethnic diversity of Kosovo, claiming that almost half of the Kosovo population was ethnically non-Albanian, whereas much of the Western press reported that the vast majority of Kosovo was of Albanian ethnic origin.21 The issue of Kosovo’s ethnic make-up was important since it queried Western assumptions and similes of ‘unity’ as opposed to images of ‘disintegration’ which were already occupied by the Milosevic regime. If Kosovo was not inhabited overwhelmingly by ethnic Albanians, the West could be seen as de facto supporting the Albanianisation of Kosovo, which would undermine much of its political legitimacy. The phantasmata of the West supporting attempts by the Kosovars to reach ethnic purity – an image frequently evoked by the Yugoslavian side – was potentially disruptive to Western policy.
There were numerous problems with the Yugoslavian system of phantasmata. It lacked internal consistency and credibility, but, most importantly, the reactive nature of its counter-‘magic’ could not resist and compete with Western efforts to capture the Kosovo-sign. The problem was not so much that Yugoslavia did not have powerful images in its arsenal. The main reason why Belgrade appeared so ineffective in its resistance to the West’s production of order was that its counter-images could not be ‘read’ with sufficient ease: they were not produced and consumed with the required regularity. The phantasmata evoked by the Yugoslavian leadership were based on specific historical experiences which the Serbian people attach to Kosovo, as well as their ideas of national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
What was needed was a more striking element in the Yugoslav language game, and this was found in the notion of Kosovo as a ‘holy’ site for the Serb nation. For example, President Milosevic compared Kosovo with the human heart: ‘Kosovo is important for us emotionally. As a part of this country, this is the heart of the country. We shall never give away Kosovo . . . it is the worst possible spot in the world for any threats, because of its sensitivity, Kosovo is a sensitive spot in the heart of any Serb.’22 By using the image of the ‘heart’, the Kosovo-sign was given a spiritual dimension which was intended to unite a country that may have otherwise fallen apart.23 The phantasma of Kosovo as the Serb ‘heart’ was kept alive by the continuous references and public incantations in Yugoslavia’s official media. For example, the website of Yugoslavia’s Foreign Ministry claims that ‘Kosovo and Metohia [Kosmet] represented, in the medieval ages, the centre of the Serbian state and of the spiritual and cultural life of the Serbian people.’24 It further argued that ‘in Kosmet, over 250 immovable cultural–historical monuments are protected by the state’.25 These claims were made to associate Kosovo’s spiritual strength with the Serbian right-wing – or, until recently, their actual power – to repel outside forces. One could even suggest that this claim to offer protection to Kosovar monuments may have given Yugoslavia a certain ‘magical’ power over Kosovo.
By equating Kosovo with Serbia’s ‘heart’, a deliberate connection was made with blood, life and death, and, therefore, with war itself.26 Since Kosovo had been the site of the 1389 battle between Serb forces (in ‘reality’ these forces were ethnically mixed) and the army of the Ottoman Empire, it evoked images of violent early death and horror. Although an event of the distant past, the Field of Blackbirds at Kosovo Pole symbolised the cataclysmic defeat in which the flower of the medieval Serbian aristocracy had been destroyed. For the Yugoslavian political leadership, linking Kosovo with blood and violence offered an image which mixed private disaster (death on the battlefield) with public defeat (the defeat of the state itself). In principle, it appears to be impossible to separate private from public matters when one is standing at the grave of a fallen soldier friend, or when the state is constructing monuments and memorials for its war heroes. In these cases, of which there are all too many in Kosovo and Serbia, the public sphere penetrates ‘private’ emotions in an extremely powerful manner. In this way, the war dead become mediators, connecting the private lives of current and past generations with the public locus where their lives have taken place: the state itself.27 The war dead function as a bizarre societal cement that gives the state a sense of pride and vitality through collective mourning.
During the war over Kosovo, these phantasmata have served to emphasise the actor’s roots and sense of belonging. In the West, for example, this was highlighted by the continual use of the powerful images of ‘unity’ and ‘union’ (e.g. the name ‘Operation Allied Force’ for the NATO air campaign). On the Yugoslavian side as well, it was repeated that the war was all about the ‘unity’ of the State, claiming that the unity of the Yugoslavian people would be undermined by the actions of the Kosovo Albanians and the West. Unity was therefore at stake for both sides in the conflict. The war over Kosovo was fought not only for territory, but for the ‘higher’ goal of unity: the unity of Yugoslavia as a state, and the unity of ‘the West’ and the NEO which it sought to project on the continent as a whole. The Kosovo war was used to produce and sustain political and moral unity; war could both strengthen and alter this unity in a desired way.
Another element of the phantasmal nature of global politics is the tendency to construct and support the state as a functional organisation. The idea that the state has a spiritual dimension dates back to the medieval concept of ‘heavenly fatherland’. E.H. Kantorowicz claims that the ‘community of the blessed and saints was . . . the civic assembly of the celestial patria which the soul desired to join’, adding that ‘Christian doctrine, by transferring the political notion polis to the other world and by expanding it at the same time to a Regno coelorum, not only faithfully stored and preserved the political ideas of the ancient world, as so often it did, but also prepared new ideas for the time when the secular world began to recover its former peculiar values’.28 In these cases, the celestial patria served as an image and a model for the earthly fatherland.
The images of holy places, monasteries and churches repeatedly promulgated by the Serb authorities during the Kosovo war, should be understood as part of this long-standing tradition of providing the state with a much-needed spiritual extension. The Christian notion of the heavenly polis is part of the tradition in which the saint dies for all of us, and becomes our immortal ‘ambassador’ to the heavenly kingdom, thereby offering ordinary people a connection between the state and heaven.29 As the power of these venerable dead accumulated through the centuries, their tombs and relics were turned into images providing a ‘higher’ sanction for the state as well as for the people.30 Memorials and war cemeteries have been turned into collective ‘embassies’ of those people who could mediate between the earthly state and its divine and spiritual shape. Through this mechanism, the presence of Serb memorials in Kosovo could be turned into a potential source of power substantiating Belgrade’s claim to political order. Yugoslavia therefore read the Kosovo-sign in a distinct Wittgensteinian manner, interpreting monuments as something ‘higher’, something ‘spellbound’.
For a Yugoslavia which found itself on the brink of further disintegration, the spiritual extension of its statal power was considered crucial. Even in the West, this invocation of Serbia’s ‘ancient dead’ did not go fully unnoticed. However, in the West, Serbia’s claim to spiritual belonging was not considered a legitimate power resource, but rather as yet another illustration of its propensity to give in to ancient and illegitimate hatred. To nullify their possible effect, Serbia’s claims were called ‘scars’, ‘dividers’ and ‘faultlines’. US Vice-President Al Gore argued in 1999 that the
tensions and hatreds in Kosovo run very deep. Kosovo sits directly atop some of the deepest and most bitterly drawn ethnic, ideological, and religious fault lines in human history. The border between Rome and Byzantium was drawn there. Bitter battles between Muslims and Christians took place there. Turks and Serbs killed each other there. Communism battled for the minds of the people there. All these struggles have left scars, and each scar has fed a lust for vengeance.31
Such words were part of an overall Western strategy to question Belgrade’s claim that Kosovo was part of the spiritual core of Serbia. Gore even quoted W.B. Yeats in this context – suggesting that ‘too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart’32 – thereby trying to neutralise the idea of Kosovo as Serbia’s heartland. This strategy to defuse one of Serbia’s most important power resources – its claim to the moral and historically rooted legitimacy of its presence in Kosovo – may explain why the West emphasised the death and destruction inflicted by Serbia on ethnic Albanians, whereas the losses of the Yugoslavian army were reported in terms of military equipment only. Admitting that the Serbs were again sacrificing their lives in and over Kosovo would have reinforced the historical link between private and official suffering, and might thereby have strengthened Serbia’s claim to Kosovo. Western rhetoric and the media were focusing mainly on the suffering of the Kosovar people – and there was certainly a lot of that – thereby weakening Serbia’s spiritual claim on Kosovo and suggesting that the ethnic Albanian population could now lay their own spiritual claim to the region by spilling their blood during the conflict.
The Western media therefore chose to emphasise the phantasma of hate, both individual and collective. The suffering of the Albanian refugees who were driven from their homes in Kosovo was turned into the most striking image of hate and ethnic cleansing. President Bill Clinton argued that the United States and its
eighteen NATO allies are in Kosovo today because we want to stop the slaughter and the ethnic cleansing; because we want to build a stable, united, prosperous Europe that includes the Balkans and its neighbours; and because we don’t want the twenty-first century to be dominated by the dark marriage of modern weapons and ancient ethnic, racial and religious hatred. We cannot simply watch as hundreds of thousands of people are brutalised, murdered, raped, forced from their homes, their family histories erased – all in the name of ethnic pride and purity.33
In this way, the phantasma of Balkan-style hatred was created, which – together with the notions of ‘suffering’ and ‘despair’ making the actual hate visible – soon became the most obvious target of the Western bombing campaign in Serbia and Kosovo.
However, in itself, hatred was not enough, since it had to be embedded in a more coherent set of phantasmata that would encompass the complexity of the daily events during war. One way to overcome this was for the Western media to show on a daily basis the suffering of the ethnic Albanians, using the most shocking and striking images. Both sides (i.e. NATO’s air forces and the KLA, on the one side, and the Yugoslav army and its militias, on the other) were using violence to achieve political goals. But only Kosovar suffering made Western newspaper headlines and reached Western TV screens, as was illustrated by President Clinton’s remarks in May 1999:
In the last few days we have seen more disturbing evidence of the atrocities committed against innocent Kosovars, including some of the first photographic proof of massacres of unarmed people. In trying to divert attention from these crimes Serbian forces are only committing more by placing civilians around military targets. It’s like pushing someone in front of an on-coming train, and then trying to blame the train for running them over.34
By applying this language game, the West admitted that its bombing raids could be inflicting minor human suffering, but that this should be considered merely as an unfortunate error, and that the real source of all evil was the Milosevic regime. These language games were meant to construct a phantasmal demon which could be exorcised and ultimately defeated in a military campaign.
The massive Western bombing of Serbia to destroy ‘hate’ in the ‘heart of Europe’ has historical parallels with the medieval period when demons were exorcised through torture and fire in a ‘legitimate’ fight of good against evil. Peter Brown argues that for the late Roman Empire, exorcism gave a more ‘palpable face to the unseen praesentia of the saint than did the heavy cries of the possessed’.35 He suggests that these torturers of ‘evil’ were often considered ‘good’ by definition. In a similar fashion, the death cries of the witch burning at the stake were reminding the onlookers of their own relative goodness. It is only the demon that is crying and dying, but not the possessed human being that one sees ‘really’ being burned at the stake. Also, when ‘evil’ is being punished, it is only logical that it should be the ‘good’ that are doing the punishing. The few images of Serb suffering that reached the Western public therefore resulted not in empathy, but, quite to the contrary, helped solidify the identities of the ‘good West’ versus the ‘evil Serbs’.
Thus, one of the most important goals of the West’s incantations was to stress that it was ‘evil’ that suffered from the NATO bombardments. In these language games, the phantasmata of hate and evil were made synonymous to the Milosevic regime which was systematically dehumanised by the media to the point of losing any human quality whatsoever. This was most clearly illustrated by the fact that the destruction caused by Western bombardments was counted only in the loss and damage of military hardware, without any mention of human casualties.36 The reason for this omission was evident, since mentioning the human suffering inflicted upon Serbia itself might have humanised the face of evil. The phantasmata of evil and hatred were therefore legitimately made to suffer by the phantasmata of freedom and unity (i.e. ‘the West’). Punishing hatred and evil was a means by which to drive out the Balkan demon exemplified by the Serbian people. Causing pain and suffering was, in itself, not the goal; on the contrary, it served to distinguish between the righteous ones and the evil ones, and to identify those who had the legitimate right to punish. Pain and suffering, and the striking images thereof, helped to re-establish a new hierarchy of power in Europe which had become less obvious after the end of the Cold War. The Kosovo-sign helped to reinstate this clarity.
The central theme of this essay has been the power of linkages between different political levels – day-to-day politics and its higher normative appeal. Such links can be viewed as either legitimate (the model military actions of the West) or illegitimate (Milosevic’s image as ‘a monster’). The claims and counterclaims have drawn attention to the legitimate and, thereby, forceful nature of one’s own links and the illegitimate and, thereby, weak bonds of the other side. From a theoretical perspective, Wittgenstein’s notion of something higher, ‘spellbound’, in our language games sheds light on the power of these linkages.
For Wittgenstein, these two customary levels – the everyday (‘lower’) and the more normative (‘higher’) – are combined in the same magical language. Tapping into the magical resources of power gives the earthly body of the state an air of eternity, but also reifies its more phantasmal level. The phantasmata were made physical in many ways during the Kosovo war. For example, the dead were represented through material structures, such as tombs. Meanwhile, in a much more radical sublimation, the nameless dead were turned into phantasmata engaged in the fight over Kosovo. Ideas such as honour, pride, brotherhood, sacrifice and unity made no distinction between the dead and the living. The spiritual was understood in material terms (as the ability to destroy the enemy troops), and the material was understood in spiritual terms (the ability to bomb was connected with spiritual superiority). Language games referring to ‘love for one’s fatherland’, ‘honour of the war-dead’, ‘cruel massacres of innocent civilians’ and ‘genocide’, were at once mysteriously intangible and forcefully concrete. These linkages materialised in the power of weapons on both sides; weapons which, just by themselves and detached from the phantasmal, would have been powerless.
All parties to the Kosovo war have aimed their (re)actions at securing their own agency. Both the West and the Serbs wanted to maintain their agency, and their political independence, unrestrained by the other side. It is clear that the orthodox reading of the conflict in Kosovo, based on the interconnectedness of multiple actors and their interests, fails to secure agency either for the West or for Serbia. When the local Serb phantasmata are being removed from the Kosovo-sign in the form of burnt churches and fleeing people, and are replaced by the Western phantasmata of ballotboxes and peacekeepers, the problem of ‘security’ (i.e. how to define peace and order in Yugoslavia) remains. However, the West’s hegemonic desire for the monotonous repetition of its own phantasmata is likely to prevent the necessary variance, and therefore may lead ultimately to the loss of its own agency. The West’s grasp for agency may well be futile, since what it has now seems to be slipping out of its hands. In turn, this will lead to a performance of ceremonies and rituals of European security – comprised of such happenings as the war in Kosovo – to which the West will be increasingly dedicated and without which it will not be able to exist.