The Western media likes to perpetuate a certain stereotypical view of Serbia which holds that its population is stuck in an archetypal Balkan / Slavic informational dark age. This assumption is based on a type of denial that tries to maintain a polarised image of a Balkan "other," the behaviour of which is inexplicable and at odds with contemporary norms.
This explains the Western reaction to the use of rock and other popular performers to rally anti-NATO sentiment during the war. Western observers reacted as if there were some deception, saying that "they" could not really be using Western forms for their Balkan ambitions.
In reality, independent and semi-independent media in Yugoslavia do not compete with an "old school" state media, but with state and populist private media which are hardly averse to bombarding the population with Western music, film and television. Far from being "starved" of Western cultural forms, as Western stereotypes suggest, Yugoslavs have been intensively subjected to a highly volatile combination of nationalist propaganda, pop culture and deliberate sensory overload, a mixture that can be called "Balkan Hardcore."
Noam Chomsky and others have repeatedly argued that popular culture is integral to the construction of consent for the dominant ideologies of the West, and the situation in Serbia is not different but simply more explicit.
Tito and Yugorock
Some of the roots of this official use of popular culture can be traced back to the 1970s, the highpoint of "Yugorock." Tito's regime tolerated and encouraged domestic rock bands - provided they remained within "safe" political limits - and in return several bands recorded songs in praise of the leader and the system. A pattern was established of buying compliance by permitting greater access to, and limited domestic production of, pop culture than in any other Socialist states.
The music of some of these bands and their successors now features in the anti-NATO video montages on state television. Ironically, the populist encouragement and manipulation of popular culture under Slobodan Milošević can be said to be a continuation of Communist-era cultural practices. The collaboration between musicians, other entertainers and the authorities merely presents an acute image of the reactionary potential of popular culture, which is far from being exclusive to the Balkans.
In the last few months, ever more severe crackdowns on non-state controlled media throughout Serbia have drastically reduced the scope of the infosphere, yet even on the remaining approved outlets there is a plethora of recognisably "Western" pop cultural elements.
An unrestrained riot of colour
The language of the news broadcasts may remain dour and drab, but in all other respects Serbian television and the visual elements of the music scene are an unrestrained riot of colour. Serbian state TV and other channels such as Pink can sometimes seem archaic to the Western eye, not so much because of the "old school" ideological reportage, but because visually they often resemble Western TV in the trashy, consumerist pre-Punk seventies and still bear the signs of glossy late Titoist visual opulence.
This is particularly evident in the more traditional music programmes with female singers' hugely excessive make-up and hairdos, glaring studio lighting and an air of constant, compulsory consumerist enjoyment. It is possible to watch the same studio musicians support scores of essentially similar singers and never see their smiles fade or their clothes become any less lurid.
The songs are monumentally kitsch in the style of German post-war Schlager songs or 1970s country and western. They may appear to be romantically oriented, but through constant repetition the songs take on a militant assertive ethnicity.
Letting ourselves off the hook?
However, too much emphasis on the archaic seventies qualities of Serbian media leave the account at the point of archaicism, letting "us" off the hook and allowing "us" to pity "them" for failing to move beyond a stage of cultural development by which most in the West are now embarrassed. After all, even the worst excesses of the seventies are being rehabilitated and are again beginning to re-infect Western media. Even if one sector of Serbian musical production is definitely "stuck" in an archaic stylistic loop, another has made conscious use of contemporary forms to produce a far more potent nationalist form of popular culture: Turbofolk.
This form fuses love songs and older folk tunes that are either implicitly or explicitly ethnically Serbian with contemporary dance music. "Turbo" is a music in which harmony always overcomes all difference and no space is left for doubt - in yourself, your lover or your nation. It is not just high-octane "party" music, but music perfect for paramilitaries in need of both national(ist) kitsch and high-adrenaline musical forms.
Despite the contemporary packaging and arrangements, Turbo is a hardcore ethnic music, often perceived as such even when the lyrics have no overtly nationalist content. Like the interventions of the Slovene group Laibach, Turbo can be seen as a paramilitarized ex-Yugoslav form of pop culture and as a form of reaction to fears of globalization.
The difference between the two responses is that whereas Laibach's highly conceptual work makes explicit the paramilitarist mode of mobilisation the group detects within Western pop culture, Turbo remains "ostensibly" civilian but, in fact, is a paramilitary form that is never off-duty and even at its most disposable is absolutely committed.
Whilst not centrally directed, the genre is heavily promoted by official channels and its emergence and popularity under the nationalist regime is far from coincidental. The marriage between music star Ceca and Arkan, a paramilitary leader who promoted himself in the style of a pop star, perfectly symbolised the complementarity between the music and the paramilitary nationalist project.
The tactics behind this mutant form are hyper-sophisticated but, aesthetically, are brutally simple and effective. Turbo is an aggressive nationalist adaptation of pop culture used as a generator of a nationalist-consumerist mode of "Serbness."
It is not simply that there is no contradiction between the presence of Western forms of popular culture and the nationalist agenda, but that these forms can be adopted by even more effective vehicles for generating cohesion and transmitting propaganda than the "traditional" national forms.
The language and the "Balkan" melodies of Turbo might seem strange to a Western audience, but otherwise there is little difference to what is heard on Western media, particularly in the case of less overtly ethnic Serbian variants of rock. These local variants and modifications of Western pop forms are used for psychological mobilisation at least as much as "pure," pre-contact modes of national music.
This reprocessing of Western forms has taken to the extreme their repressive potential. As with any reprocessing operation, there are always some side effects from the hardcore residue or toxic excess. However, in this case, these side-effects - the production of a siege mentality and constant antagonism combined with militant optimism and nostalgia - are what the reprocessors actually seek to produce.
Assimilation of Western techniques
The proliferation of the spectacular in the (pre-war) Serb media illustrates the extent to which Western mass media techniques have been assimilated, and proves yet again that there is nothing automatically democratic about the post-Communist media and the unrestricted transmission of pop culture.
The key difference between the Serb and Western media is over what is legitimate to enjoy and to consume. In Serbia it is what the Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek terms "the national thing," the hard core of unreconstructed enjoyment that adapts to both Communism and capitalism. While in the West, the spectacle is the speed and glamour of consumption itself, in Serbia the spectacle is the consumption, in its fullest sense, of the nation.
By definition, almost every permitted representation in the dominant Serbian media strategy is lurid, vulgar and excessive. Taken as a totality, the signals of the media involved can be read as a type of national pornography. The actual (and extremely lurid) pornography in the Serbian infosphere is dwarfed by a unrelenting pornography of the national that (re)produces constant arousal and constant gratification, making everything remotely national explicit and, for many in Serbia and beyond, obscene.
The combination of "porno-nationalism," media overload and constant propaganda across music, television and print could be characterised as a type of "kineto-catastrophism" using speed, immersion and overload as terrorising, mobilizatory forces, bringing to mind Ulrike Meinhof's critique of what she termed konsumteror: the deliberate and violent instillment of a compulsion to consume.
The contents of the Serb media spectacle are a highly fissile mix of formally incongruous eclectic elements, linked by a centralised agenda. It is not just Turbo and other music videos that enjoy "heavy rotation." Wartime dramas and documentaries, particularly spectacular footage of real and fabricated atrocities against Serbs, blend with turgid historical dramas and national symbolism, massively unsubtle comedies and panegyric news reports. The contemporary visual and musical elements in the mix "sweeten the pill" and increase the efficacy of the core national message.
A quintessentially postmodern product
Although there are archaic elements within the mix, there is nothing archaic about the end result. In fact, its tactical use of bricolage (radical eclecticism) denotes it as a quintessentially postmodern product. The result can be seen as virulent local form of postmodernism: our Balkan Hardcore. The Serb media spectacle is a militant, hardcore form of postmodernism in which "the real" (apocalyptic nationalist enjoyment) has returned with a vengeance.
Even without explicit ideological control, the majority of postmodern popular culture has always tended towards affirmation of whichever system it operates within, if only by confining itself to the realm of the spectacular and failing to engage with political issues, creating a space that can be politicised in favour of the status quo. Balkan Hardcore may be hedonistic, but it certainly is not "playful" in the sense of much of Western postmodernism and plays an overt role in the body politic.
Rather than being random, Balkan Hardcore's eclecticism is systematic, if not militant. Primary colours, the computer graphics accompanying the more "contemporary" music programmes and loud music are all familiar Western elements.
This hyper-hedonistic visual overload is not something we can safely confine to "them," the perverse Balkan primitives. It is an only slightly intensified version of the sensory bombardment of the Western infosphere which is just as prone to fuse tacky "retro" images with state of the art graphics.
Under the reign of Balkan Hardcore, the visual and mobilisational aspects of Western popular culture have fused with a society still heavily structured by patriarchal values and the cult of force, both of which the Serb mass media reinforce through their Western formats - with predictable results.
The apocalyptic return of the real
Why is the "hardcore" paradigm so useful in describing this Balkan variant of postmodernism? Several meanings of "hardcore" are relevant, including pornography, stubborn political intransigence or an unassimilable core of enjoyment, but the most useful parallels come from music.
Turbofolk and Serb dance music are stylistically close to British "happy hardcore." In terms of atmosphere, both are based on a ceaseless rush of kitschy, militant (or even nihilist) self-consuming, optimism, combining high tempo beats with excessively sugary melodic motifs.
Both Serb and British variants celebrate their "mass" nature, their deliberate artlessness. Simon Reynolds describes the style as having made tastelessness into a source of defiantly populist pride, a description equally relevant to the Turbo scene.
It is their ultra-accessible lowest common denominator character that gives these forms such a reactionary potential when compared to more experimental, atonal versions of the hardcore sound. The freely used Western terms "hardcore nation" (to describe the fanbase) and "hardcore apocalypse" (a title used for "happy" as well as "dark" raves) find exact but much more sinister parallels in the Serb national(ist) music scene.
Stalinist origins of postmodernism
Both are apocalyptic modes of consumption, but whereas the British variant can be reactionary in that it stupefies, pacifies and infantilises its consumers, the Serb variant is an agitating, fuelling device for a praxis that extends far beyond the dancefloor and onto the battlefields.
In commercial Serbian popular culture there is an apocalyptic "return of the real." Consumption is its imperative. Consumption of the nation, the self and the Other culminates in executions and mass rapes, the ultimate (but scarcely satiable) end of hardcore apocalyptic enjoyment.
The presence of postmodern media practice (denuded of its progressive elements) both challenges (and perhaps subsequently seems to confirm) Western images of Balkan primitivism, but its presence should not be seen as surprising. The Russian theorist Mikhail Epstein has proposed that Stalinism was already a form of postmodernism, preceding those in the West. According to Epstein, the relativism in totalitarianism made it the postmodern successor to the modernist ideological practice of original Marxism.
Whilst after 1948 Yugoslavia's regime was never actually fully Stalinist, as a state socialist society it contained the same structurally postmodern elements as the Soviet system and was equally adept at the type of relativist eclecticism that can be understood as postmodern. Brandon Taylor has made a similar argument in his essay "Postmodernism in the Third Reich."
A paramilitary recruitment tool?
If these arguments are correct, then the structure of totalitarian and contemporary "post-totalitarian" communication is by its nature partly postmodern, and the structure of postmodern communication at least potentially totalitarian or hegemonic. The simultaneous use of formally contradictory elements in Balkan Hardcore should thus come as no surprise. The postmodern and pop cultural elements compensate for and facilitate the continuity of centralised propaganda and information management.
This blend also ensures against the potentially alienating effects of unreconstructed nationalist propaganda and folkloric archaism on a contemporary audience, demonstrating to potential paramilitaries or nationalists that joining the cause does not demand a rejection of pop culture.
As under Tito, there is no necessary contradiction between authoritarian politics and the presence of Western-influenced popular culture. Indeed, it can be argued that both the Titoist and post-Titoist systems allowed the presence of such, both in order to present an image of cultural pluralism and contemporaneity whilst simultaneously utilising popular culture's potential for populist mobilisation.
Maintaining the new nationalist order
Taking into account these factors, it becomes apparent that the underlying messages of both the Western and Serb media are almost identical: constant compulsory enjoyment. This excess of Western-formatted enjoyment may seem to contradict the nationalist desire to resist cultural Westernisation and the lingering persistence of socialist rhetoric in Serbia. In fact, the two work well together, and any resulting antagonisms are directed outwards onto the nation's internal and external enemies.
Nor can the situation be explained as a triumph of Western popular forms over domestic alternatives; the two are in a symbiotic relationship made essential by the nationalist agenda. Perhaps the Serb media's brutally excessive vulgarity is essential to the maintenance of the new nationalist order, as well as being an inevitable consequence of post-Communist globalisation (Westernisation often implies vulgarisation).
Slavoj Žižek has argued that what he calls the "deregulated production of excess" made possible by the transition to capitalism in Eastern Europe actually produces the demand for a new strong source of authority as protection against the ensuing social, economic and informational chaos. The Serb regime raises the spectre of this chaos by aggressive consumerist bombardment so as to take advantage of the disorientation it generates and, at the same time, adds its own nationalist content to the mix, utilising it twice over as well and further enriching the ever more materialist kleptocratic élites.
The Serb audience is given the maximum possible exposure to what Jean Baudrillard terms the "Hades of Simulation" (or at least a Balkan simulation of the "Hades of Simulation") and the presence of the demonic in the public sphere should be no surprise.
Folklorish elements denote unquestionable good
One of the leitmotifs of this sphere is what Baudrillard terms "the compulsory extraversion of interiority" (1990, 64). There is no shadow or ambiguity under the glare of the nationalist media - if something appears on the screen at all, it is massively highlighted and amplified, whether positive or negative.
What this means in practice is that the quaint, intimate folklorish elements of national culture (even those present only as traces a decade ago) are monumentalised and anything "truly" national is denoted as unquestionably good - a characteristic possibly even more applicable to the Croatian media.
Customs by which other nations are now faintly embarrassed and that elsewhere are performed almost exclusively for tourists have become mainstream domestic entertainment in the nationalist media. It is almost as if the situation has regressed from the modernist, Yugoslavist stance it had before Milošević and has regressed into a postmodern attitude in which the national is an unquestioned good.
What was quaint and touristic under Tito is now a principal mode of interpellation. Serb television sports programmes include coverage of national activities including the firing of arrows at targets by mounted archers in national costume. Such images seem to the outsider like some bizarre parody, especially since it was only as recently as the late eighties that such images were seen as archaic and would never have received such attention.
This is not to say, however, that folk rituals are inherently reactionary: it is their amplification and juxtaposition with aggressive contemporary packaging that makes them dangerous. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether the equally extreme situation in the first world, where globalisation and liberalism seek to eradicate local cultures, is much healthier. Both the destruction and the unrestrained heroicisation of local cultures carry dangers and a balance between the extremes has to be constantly renegotiated.
Failure to participate is deviant
Everything in the nationalist infosphere is exaggerated, hyperbolic and aims at total immersion. As far as possible, distance and subtlety are erased. There is no limit, no deferment, no compromise and, above all, no remorse. No space is left for the Western and Titoist sense of embarrassed distance from national enjoyment, and to display such qualms is to be anti-populist, in effect, an "enemy of the people."
Explicit national(ist) signifiers are so present that they almost become invisible but, nevertheless, the overall spectacle carries within it the implicit message familiar both from Western consumerism and state socialism: failure to participate in the officially supported modes of enjoyment is anti-national, deviant.
Sometimes the signals are so overwhelming that the only way to recreate distance from the national spectacle (or rather, the nation making a spectacle of itself) is to switch off. This lead to the mass actions that attempted to drown out the sound of the main evening news broadcast during the anti-government protests late in 1996. No matter how cynical and despised it is - and the growing sophistication and media literacy of the Serb audience should not be entirely discounted - the official representation of the nation to itself still has deep effects.
Whether consumed or not, the products of the nationalist infosphere are the chief forces behind the demonisation of the Serbs. The perpetuation of an image of a fanatical and violent (in media terms "demonic") people has until recently been in the interests of the Milošević regime, as demonisation by the outside world reinforces the siege mentality and the nationalist persecution complex.
Consolidating Western complacency?
There are two possible conclusions to be drawn from the existence of "Balkan Hardcore." One is naive but optimistic: through their (relative) inexperience of and inability to handle Western forms, or through malice, some Serb media producers are responsible for a dangerous but localised form that has few implications for the West.
The other more sobering, and almost certainly realistic, perspective is this: that the Serbs have read Western media techniques and signals all too accurately and are reproducing the antagonisms that Western consumerist media generate and rely upon.
What seems to the Western observer like a nightmarish hallucinogenic media phantasmagoria is actually a catastrophic intensification of the entropic tendencies of Western patterns of media-directed consumption, which the Croatian-American sociologist Stjepan Meštrović (1994) has argued is symptomatic of a far wider process of political and cultural "Balkanization" affecting the West itself. Whilst Meštrović himself betrays nationalist tendencies in his work, the existence of Balkan Hardcore does support the argument that many of the pejorative qualities and patterns of behaviour that are labeled as "Balkan" are present in the West.
The implications of Balkan Hardcore cannot be confined to the Balkans. To leave the argument at that level is to consolidate Western complacency and ignorance of the actual processes that are a key factor in the contemporary conflicts. However many of these negative "Balkan" tendencies - aggressive media populism, football nationalism, sensory overload - are as characteristic of the West as of the Balkans.
The alarming implications of the success of Balkan Hardcore as a mode of communication should concern the West as much as the countries directly subjected to it.
Alexei Monroe, 19 June 2000
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