Monday, July 30, 2012


Vallance, Brenda J. “Shaping Society’s Demands: Russian Soldiers’ Mothers and Military Reform,” Conflict Studies Research Centre, December 1996.

Vallance’s article outlines the various methods used by SOMO to convey their message to civilians. What this article emphasizes above all else is the legality of SOMO and the way in which they conformed to the legal structure in order to gain legitimacy. It seems that this practice definitely made SOMO more appealing to western nations, but I’m unsure how Russian civilians viewed this strategy. Considering the tension between people and state, I wonder I SOMO was conflated with governmental structures, and if this alienated potential support.


Zdravomislova speaks to the prior invisibility of dedovshchina and the Sakalauskas case that made the public aware of problems in the military. This raises the question; is dedovshchina confined to military origins, or is it a manifestation of pre-existing cultural trends? As of now it’s difficult to see dedovshchina as not having roots in cultural trends. Many authors discuss how the military was considered the institution of male socialization, and most of these authors point to the apparent lack of male role models in young men’s lives as the reason for the necessity of this institution. I’m curious if young conscripts go into service with certain expectations of masculinity and violence- or they conflate the two. I want to find a study on this.

The Russian military is often considered a “state within a state” due to its isolationism, and I think this may be the root of the problem. For too long the military was seen as “off limits” to civilians. Zdravomislova argues that SOMOs biggest accomplishment should be that people started talking about military service.

Elkner, Julie. “Dedovshchina and the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers under Gorbachev,” in The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies, iss. 1, 2004.

SOMO largely served in a watchdog position which was met with scorn from the military. This in itself isn’t surprising, but Elkner explains some of the methods the military used to discredit SOMO.
1) Referred to women as hysterical and characterized them as incapable of viewing information objectively and without emotion.
2) Claimed that women knew nothing of military service, and thus could only contribute ignorant ideas to the conversation.
3) Claimed that women were overemphasizing the dedovshchina crisis, and that women would actually make up cases in order to get their son discharged.

Podrabinek, Kirill. “Vozvrashchaias’ k teme,” Index, no. 19, 2003.

Podrabinek explains the historical basis for military hazing (world-wide) and concludes that switching to a contract based military provides the only hope of ending the practice. For the most part, Podrabinek paints a very bleak picture about the nature of individuals serving in the military. Since commanding officers benefit from hazing, there is no chance of reaching them or changing their behavior. Even though hazing would still exist (to perhaps a lesser extent) in a volunteer force, at least soldiers would know what they signed up for, explains Podrabinek.

Podrabinek ultimately raises more questions than he answers. He asks the reader to consider whether or not just abolishing the military altogether would be better for the course of the country since Russia has caused more harm to itself than any external country ever could. This was the first I’ve read calling for the abolishment of the military, and I’m somewhat surprised I haven’t found SOMO at some point entertaining the same idea. I’m curious as to if it just seemed to radical an idea that it would have alienated potential support.

Dedovshchina in the Post-Soviet Military: Hazing of Army Conscripts in a Comparative Perspective
Ed. Francoise Dauce and Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski
Ibidem-Verlag: Stuttgart, 2006.

Bannikov, Konstantin. “Regimented Communities in a Civil Society,” 2002.

Bannikov investigates how dedovshchina spreads beyond military service to pervade civil society. His main argument is that young men go from wielding power and being feared (by men only a few years younger) and inevitably attempt to transfer that new sense of self onto their new social life. He describes three main approaches:
1. Ex-military tend to gravitate towards policing/security positions which require experience with violence. In this way, these men seek to maintain the validation of their authority through civil society.
2. Some men will seek to transform societal structures around their past experience with authority and violence. The workplace becomes a new arena for drastic hierarchical orders.
3. The family becomes a unit to dominate. Hazing is used to socialize children and wives.

What is so striking to me about dedovshchina is the relatively small age gap between perpetrator and victim. Bannikov explains that there is a sense of reciprocity at work; even though new soldiers may not have done anything to warrant hazing (to any degree), older soldiers want to repay the damage done to them. This cycle, unfortunately, seems impenetrable.

Bannikov also talks about the societal expectation for military service, which is something I’ve definitely seen differing accounts of. Bannikov explains that generally middle aged and older men generally felt in favor of conscription, whereas the majority of women and young men opposed compulsory service. While for some it may be easy to explain this by characterizing women as the “weaker sex”, Bannikov sides in favor of SOMO as the emergence of strong women, capable of risking everything for the well-being of their children.

Yet what stands out most is Bannikov’s tacit assertion that boredom is at the root of dedovshchina. It seems that soldiers at posts with little to do, and few resources among them, would turn to treating each other violently as opposed to any other alternative. This is something work exploring.

Lebedev, Anna Colin. “The test of reality. Understanding Families’ Tolerance faced with mistreatment of conscripts in the Russian Army.”

Of everything I’ve read, Lebedev’s article is the only which seeks to explain parental acceptance of the practice of dedovshchina. Several authors talk about apathy and lack of faith in the government to make reform, but none so far go beyond a defensive position.

Similar to Maya Eichler’s argument (and the inspiration for my research) that “the waging of war depends on women’s and men’s acceptance of their militarized identities as patriotic mothers and soldiers,” Lebedev demonstrates the role women can play to support conscription and traditional forms of militarized patriotism. One mother expressed regret for getting her son out of the military service because she fears it made him weak. Contrary to Bannikov’s claims above, Lebedev considers women to have had a stronger hand in pushing militarized masculinity, or at least expressing regret for taking that opportunity from their sons.

Some parents recognized the potential dangers of military service but felt that these dangers were less than those of staying at home. Unemployment and alcoholism awaited young men, whereas some parents believed the military could offer a better/disciplined life for their sons. A corollary to this was the sense of pride some parents felt for their sons not evading military service. One letter from a mother of a dead soldier expressed anathema for mothers who tried to take their sons out of service, claiming that SOMO let sons “stay tied to mother’s apron strings.”

While most parents seem to have taken more moderate positions on conscription evasion, there is again a sense of powerlessness. Many felt that the job of the family was to serve as a watchdog, but not to have the responsibility of fixing societal problems. Again, responsibility is relegated to the government, even though they expressed doubt about its ability to enact reform.

Lebedev also brings to light the economic politics of military service. Several letters from mothers contacting SOMO speak to the high cost of bribing officials and allude to the idea that their sons were fighting the rich man’s war.

Though admittedly anecdotal evidence, Lebedev questions to what extent society actually considered conscription necessary for the socialization of young men. In one letter, the author argues it didn’t matter whether one went to university or the military in terms of their masculinization, which was actually dependent on their prior character. Another author spoke to the importance of attending university as a better tool for socialization than military service.

Obraztsov, Igor V. “The Reasons for Dedovshchina and Ways to Prevent it: A Retrospective Analysis.”

Obraztsov spends the first half of the article defining dedovshchina, explaining it in relation to the technical term “relations violating the regulations.” Though RVR is a wider term to encompass “any negative phenomenon taking place between conscripts,” the term seems sterile and detached. I discovered that while dedovshchina is commonly used in the media, RVR is the preferred term for military reports.

Obraztsov then discusses the modern roots of dedovshchina in the Russian army. He finds two main roots; 1) in the late 1960s  military service decreased by one year, and those who were conscripted before the cut off took their aggression out on those able to serve less time and 2) Khrushchev’s general loosening of discipline in conjunction with the conscription of those with previous criminal records allowed for violence to go unpunished. The point Obraztsov is trying to make is that dedovshchina did not exist in the Imperial army because 1) soldiers were conscripted for much longer amounts of time, making them functionally career servicemen and 2) older soldiers played a more active part in training of young conscripts.

The article also seeks to expel the notion that dedovshchina is an inherently Soviet legacy, instead arguing its spread in any country that does not engage in contract service. Ending conscription, then, would be the first necessary step reversing the cycle. Overall, Obraztsov is optimistic that improving material conditions of soldiers and providing better training would go a long way in ending the practice.

Impressions form the Field IV

            In my previous blog entry Impressions from the Field III, I told the story of one man who was caught on account of his smuggling business. Smuggling, I noted, is common in and around Novi Pazar, and creates jobs. I also noted that smuggling is nothing out of the ordinary. People simply buy and sell counterfeited goods as they do other items.
I too browsed through the shops where forged Luis Vuitton, Channel and Ives Saint Laurent items stood on display next to tracksuits from Nike and Adidas and soon showed interest for one of the various wallets. “You know”, said the young shopkeeper as he watched me fiddling with the purse, “these wallets come from Turkey, those are the best imitations you will find”. The imitation was good indeed. The price was too. The price for the replica is €10 as opposed to the original for which one has to shell out around €500. This was not the last time I was told about the superiority of Turkish counterfeited goods. “We don’t sell Chinese goods here”, said another lady in a store in Novi Pazar’s center. “The quality of our Turkish products is pretty good and we never have any complaints from our customers”, she said, adding, “our boss always personally selects the items for our store on his travels to Turkey”.
Looking up at the mosque were police presence is at times strong at the close of communal prayers
However, should Serbia pursue EU accession, Belgrade will have to enforce the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) that strictly prohibits the reproduction and sale of copyrighted materials and brands. Where then, I asked in my previous blog, are the police in all this?
The police have a strong presence in Novi Pazar. I noticed them most often close by the mosque in the city center nearby the old bakeries and their presence seemed to grow whenever believing devotees streamed out after their communal prayer. Perhaps the police seek to reduce the possibility of clashes through their presence after two rivaling Islamic groups clashed in front of Novi Pazar’s Altum-Alem Mosque in 2007. Yet, the police are not in all circles viewed as a protective force and their presence is at times interpreted with ambivalence.
During conversations and structured interviews in Novi Pazar, I asked what should be done to improve life in this southern Serbian region. The answers where often of similar nature and connected with Novi Pazar’s police. “Life in this region”, I was told in a conversation with a young man in one of the retail booths that line Novi Pazar’s streets, “would be better if the police would punish people who do something wrong”. I don’t understand what you mean, I said. “Look”, he explained, “people who commit crimes here do not get punished sufficiently. Somebody can draw a knife or a gun, threaten a person, and get away with it”. In another conversation, I was told that life in this region would be better if the police would no longer except, or expect bribes to look past one’s offense.
Novi Pazar's streets are lined with vendor booths 
Another common theme was the ethnic composition of the police force. “Most of the police officers are Serbian, you know? Between 80% and 90% of all people that live here are Bosniaks and/or Muslims and yet, the police forces are almost 100% composed of ethnic Serbs, why?”; I was asked of a young man who studies at Novi Pazar’s state University. “Should there not be some sort of an equivalence between the police force and the people on whose behalf they supposedly work?” Consequently, the police are viewed as the long arm of Serbia’s state and not necessarily as the ‘friend and helper’ of the local population. Not surprisingly, graffiti slurs often adorn the walls with the acronym A.C.A.B. – All Cops Are Busted. But what do the police think about their ambivalent role among Novi Pazar’s community?

All Cops Are Busted
A senior police official was to give me some answers about how he sees his, and the role of the police forces in Novi Pazar. I waited somewhat nervously in the lobby to be let in to the policeman’s office and anticipated to meet an official in a stiff, blue suit. Instead, a relaxed police officer in jeans and polo shirt greeted me friendly. “There are problems in this town, you know? But problems in this town are not as bad as the media portray them”, he told me. “It is true that there are more Serbs that serve in the police forces here in Novi Pazar, yet the problem is the following; The men who serve here in the police are not from Novi Pazar. There are men from all over the country because we function according to a rotation principal. One man from Novi Sad may one day enroll to serve but he will not work in Novi Sad, he will come down here, or go to Smederevo or Banatski Karlovac. There might be more Bosniak policemen around, but they serve anywhere in Serbia, and not necessarily here. Look”, he said, “two percent of Serbia’s population are Bosniak and 98% are Serb; We have to look at the big, nationwide picture, and not only at what goes on around here. We are a national, and not a regional institution.” The exchange was thought provoking because I did not know, or think about a rotation principle by which one enrolls in one city or region but has to serve in another altogether. Yet, the police then truly appear to be the long arm of the Serbian state – a state from which the Bosniak population feels alienated. The disconnect is therefore apparent, even though I am sure that the police official does not harbor cruel intentions – to the contrary. 
The police official made me understand the complexity of the situation as he explained that he walks a fine line in his job. “I do not talk to a Bosniak or a Serb when I have to solve a problem”, he clarified, “I talk to a resident of Novi Pazar and a citizen of Serbia. I try to do my job as best as I can, and I believe that the people of this town know and appreciate my work.”
The policeman and I did not talk about counterfeit goods this day, nor did we talk about them on any other day. Perhaps he had more pressing problems on his mind.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bookreview / Article Analysis

Branka Mihaljović. The Bosnian War. “Ćosićeva Rehabilitacija Ratne Politike Devedesetih”. Radio Slobodna Evropa (Radio Free Europe), March 3, 2012.

Dobrica Ćosić published a controversial book called Bosanski Rat (The Bosnian War).
The author was a close associate of the Tito regime, though he opposed Tito’s ethnic policies and the decentralization of the Republic.  He particularly resisted Kosovo and Vojvodina’s autonomy. As Yugoslavia’s government became more decentralized in the late 1980s, so grew Ćosić’s opposition toward the Yugoslav system.  He was convinced that Serbs (and Montenegrins) would be demoted in the ethnical hierarchy of Yugoslavia should the system collapse.  

Following Tito’s death, Ćosić led the opposition that sought to reach equality for Serbia within the Republic. Then, in 1986, the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences (SANU) published the SANU Memorandum. Ćosić served as the SANU’s president at the time of the Memorandum’s publication. Among the cornerstones of the Memorandum was Serbia’s underprivileged role in the Republic, Yugoslavia’s growing fragmentation and lack of democracy. The Memorandum was partially responsible for the re-nationalization of Serbia’s politics. Ćosić supported Slobodan Milośević’s presidency and Radovan Karadžić’s rise to power. He served as the Secretary General for the Non Alignment Movement (NAM) in 1992 and later held Serbia’s presidency between 1992 and 1993.

In all, Ćosić has published over thirty novels and novellas, bringing to light the history of the Serbian people whose demise he decries. “Winners during war and losers throughout peace” is his better-known idiom describing Serbia. Ćosić retreated from his political engagement until Kosovo’s independence in 2008 when he criticized Europe’s ‘betrayal’ of Serbia by recognizing Priština. Since then, Ćosić has propagated a partition of Kosovo whereby its Serbian-populated north would fall to Serbia, while most likely, southern Kosovo would join Albania. His opinions are unlike the popular Serbian political view that staunchly holds to the United Nation’s Resolution 1244 and a unified Serbia.               

Ćosić’s digressive viewpoint with regard to Kosovo is interesting and perhaps telling of Serbia’s political consciousness. On the matter of Kosovo, Ćosić’s assessments may not be the most popular, especially among the Serbs that live in Kosovo’s north.  The fact that Kosovo is and will remain an independent country is also clear to Serbia’s citizenry. Yet, Serbia’s political elite cannot move forward, nor can it move backward. Should Serbia recognize Kosovo’s independence, calamities in Southern Serbia and Northern Kosovo are inevitable. At the same time, Serbia will continue to face political difficulties internationally should it continue to hold on to UN Resolution 1244 – especially regarding questions of EU accession. Serbia is stuck.

Picture taken in Serbia's capital Belgrade; On the left is Serbia's new president Tomislav Nikolić with his slogan "President of the People, not of a Political Party" 

The same may be true for Serbia’s recognition of genocide in Srebrenica. Serbia’s citizens are caught in a political limbo, where politicians jockey to appear apologetic on the international stage (as was Boris Tadić who ‘apologized’ for the genocide) while others, such as Nikolić – Serbia’s new president – doubt that the genocide occurred.

In a recent article published by Radio Slobodna Evropa, former politician and Sociologist Vesna Pešić lamented that Serbia’s youth is not sufficiently informed about what exactly happened during the 1990’s. This may be in part due to Serbia’s partial control of the media and subsequent limited information. Therefore, ideologues such as Ćosić may fill the void and jockey to win the ear of the allegedly poorly informed population. The conservative, anti-lustration oriented faction may have won the latest electoral round (as demonstrated with Tomislav Nikolić’s victory during the last presidential elections). Perhaps Ćosić’s Bosanski Rat was a foreboding that Serbia’s political pendulum has once again swung to the right.
Picture taken in Serbia's capital Belgrade; The sign advertises a new newspaper called the Independent Newspaper. The slogan in the upper left promises a paper that will not lie to the people and reads "I do not want for them to lie to me anymore" - them meaning the popular newsmedia  

Branka Mihaljović. The Bosnian War. “Ćosićeva Rehabilitacija Ratne Politike Devedesetih”. Radio Slobodna Evropa (Radio Free Europe). March 3, 2012.

In his latest book The Bosnian War, Academic and ideologue of Greater Serbia Dobrica Ćosić represents the Bosnian Serbs as the victims of the Muslim-Croat coalition and the Republika Srpska as the only Serb victory of the twentieth century. The book has been published in the form of a diary and records the events between the years 1992 – 1995.

In a diary entry dated to May 16th, Ćosić recorded that “Muslims declared war on Serbs so as to complete the conquest of Bosnia i Herzegovina and the extermination of Serbs form the first Islamic Republic of Europe”. 

Ćosić writes these lines at the time when tanks roll toward Pale and snipers begin their three year siege of Sarajevo, paramilitary troops began to clear Eastern Bosnia, and survivors of Prejodor and surroundings are being deported to concentration camps…

Dobrica Ćosić published his book in defense of Republica Srpska – a place he considers a hard earned war trophy.

In the Center for the Young, Ćosić addressed a crowed of predominantly elderly supporters: “the book The Bosnian War is my defense of freedom and truth and national rights that are contained in Republika Srpska – that much too costly – but single political and war victory of the Serbian people reached in the second half of the 20th century”. 
Among the promoters of the book is Dragoslav Bokan, a former follower of the right wing Nazi guru Dragoš Kalaić.

The vultures from Belgrade, Europe, and the world were hovering over us – this strange parasitic class that mocked Dobrica Ćosić and others like him, arrested and tortured me and people like myself. Between the choice of two concepts – that of Prince Lazar and the Despot Stefan; The concept of leaving the knightly field, dying with ones sword in hand or that of leaving on a shame-wagon into the reality of a new age to come. Unfortunately, the Serbian leadership in BiH chose the latter one under the horrific pressure from the world and Belgrade – left to stand without a concept, to say one thing while thinking about another whilst proclaiming a third.       

“To have abandoned all our war aims, and to have forsaken – not even tried one of two possible concepts, the war and samurai like knights’ or else wise concepts of the mature years and all else Dobrica Ćosićs brings with him”, said Bokan.   

Although the writer Vladimir Kecmanović was young at the time of the propaganda during the 1980’s war preparation, he learned how to use the dead in his favor.

The very people that that marked the Serbian pits and executions of WWII and proclaimed the wars of the 1990’s as warmongering and necrophilia nowadays force us to confront ourselves with the tragedy of Srebrenica. Mentioning Skelani, Kazan Sijekovac and other crimes against Serbs that immediately preceded Srebrenica, leads to a state of ‘truth-seeking’ hysteria.     

Is this event, and this book – in which entries from the 11th to the 15th of July are missing, the dates of the genocide in Srebrenica, the only planned killing in the history of European history since WWII that lead to a redrawing of borders though out by the Serbian state – only a story on the fringe, told by marginalized, though at one time powerful people? Or is this part of the process by which the goals of the 1990’s war are being rehabilitated Serbia never gave up in the first place?

Sociology professor Zagorka Golubović believes neither one nor the other.

“I would say this is a backdoor rehabilitation of the values that promoted the idea of a Greater Serbia, and led to war… No one will tell you this openly, but we have found in our research in which we asked people when they felt the most comfortable, most responded they felt best during Tito’s times and the 1990. It is improbable that Boris Tadić or any other representative will tell you that their plan is to rehabilitate that past. Yet, unfortunately, the issue is a complete chaos of ideas and contradictions, and nobody who solves them”, says Zagorka Golubović.

Historian Branka Prpa was terrified by the words spoken at Ćosić’s book promotion.

It is frightening that ideas that have lead to war are once again affirmed and set in the political milieu as a crucial question of Serbia’s political future. If you rehabilitate the war of the 1990’s, you rehabilitate all those that have been tried at the Hague since. This type of rehabilitation that is if nationalistic nature has been absolutely present for the past 20 years at the political top of this country, concluded Prpa.    

At the promotion alongside Ćosić also spoke the aforementioned Bokan, Kecmatović and professor for communication Darko Tanasković and another, younger representative of ideologies close to the generation of Marko Krstić.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review

Andrew Keen. Digital Vertigo: How Today's Online Social Revolution is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2012. 246 pp. + Endnotes, Index. $25.99. ISBN 978-0-312-62498-9.

Our present technological age is defined by social media. Revolutions in social networking and portable technologies allow users to be in constant contact with people and information while forming online communities based on likes and dislikes. But are these digital communities truly improving our way of life? Are digital identities really an extension of our physical selves, or are we compelled to identify with certain characteristics, communities, and people for the sole purpose of fitting in? Advances in technology and the ability for users to remain in constant contact with their social networks has ushered in a new age of transparency, "The Age of Great Exhibitionism," which entrepreneur and tech-journalist Andrew Keen argues is dividing, diminishing, and disorienting us. Digital Vertigo reflects Keen's measured observation of the dominant trends in the scholarship, and provides a comprehensive introduction to the political concerns about media and individual freedoms, commercial interests and "five-year plans" of tech-entrepreneurs, psychological research concerning the disconnect between our digital and physical selves, and, finally, the prevailing philosophies that inform debates about the 'oil' of the twenty-first century: information.

In Digital Vertigo Keen sets out to understand why "human beings are defined by their desire to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain, to prefer the eternal glare of public exposure over the everlasting privacy of the grave?" (2). The social media and digital revolutions have transformed our everyday lives and interactions by providing the tools to connect to and operate within a global community. Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, blogs, and other social networks allow their users to share their lives and their identities more easily, more quickly, and more totally than before. Keen argues, however, that the benefits of digital interactions are over-exaggerated by tech-entrepreneurs (Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg for instance). Keen writes, that "...rather than uniting us between the digital pillars of Aristotelian polis, today's social media is actually splintering our identities so that we always exist outside ourselves, unable to concentrate on the here-and-now, too wedded to our own image, perpetually revealing our current location, our privacy sacrificed to the utilitarian tyranny of a collective network" (15).

Advancements and proposed innovations in the social media landscape in recent years offer some unsettling changes to the relationship between humans and technology. "Frictionless sharing," as Keen defines the new relationship, is the result of social media's increased integration with our daily technologies. The future of social media, and the dreams of social media entrepreneurs, is more openness, the creation of a transparent network of individuals sharing more and more about their lives by the second. An always-on, always-connected, and constantly sharing world dreamt of by Zuckerberg et al. was depicted satirically in Gary Shteyngart's 2010 novel Super Sad True Love Story. Our devices are the "little brothers" of George Orwell's Big Brother of Nineteen Eighty-four fame: omnipresent and nefarious tools of communication and surveillance: "We see the return of the apparatchik as an omniscient wireless device. We see a society that is becoming its own electronic image, a (dis)unity of little brothers. We see human beings turned inside out, so that all their most intimate data is displayed in the full gaze of the public network. We see a reputation economy in which respect, love, friendship and trust are replacing cash as society's scarcest and thus its most valuable commodity. We see a Super Sad True Love Story featuring global super-nodes with millions of friends who don't know the names of their neighbors. We see digital vertigo. More and more digital vertigo...(144).

The threat that social media poses to the future of society is a digital environment in which users share information about themselves and each other at an alarming rate. Information becomes the leading commodity on the planet, and our digital reputations are more important than our physical interactions with others. Keen asks, however, "What will be the fate of the dissenters, of those who don't update? What, I wondered, in a world in which we all exist on the Internet, will become of those who protect their own privacy, who pride themselves on their illegibility, who--in the timeless words of Brandeis and Warren--just want to be let alone? Will they be alive, I wondered, or will they be dead?" (12-13). Social media's continued evolution and society's increased dependence on social media interactions has the potential to ruin reputations that were otherwise protected before the advent of social media. Scandals used to be the result of intense investigation that used various methods of sleuthing to uncover clues. Our future reputations are now threatened by photos and status updates posted on Facebook, GooglePlus, Twitter, and other social media.

Our relationship with social media is paradoxical because users are expected to constantly share information about themselves or they face scorn from their peers. Our physical interactions are the source of much digital sharing, but we are often more concerned with cultivating our online identities than strengthening our physical relationships with others. The loss of physical interactions is troubling, and the consequence of increased digital transparency is the potential loss of our sense of identity: "In the great exhibitionism of our hypervisible Web 3.0 world, when we are always on public display, forever revealing ourselves to the camera, we are losing the ability to remain ourselves. We are forgetting who we really are" (190). Such a loss of self-concept could lead to future crises of identity, which is a serious concern that Keen addresses in his book, though better treatments of the psychological problems related to social media exist elsewhere (e.g. Sherry Turkle's Alone Together [2012]).

Keen's book is a welcome addition to the literature on the impact of technology on the psyche, society, and globalization. Digital Vertigo is so alluring because it offers a cautionary tale of how social media is a double-edged sword. Keen's observations are not bleak, like those offered in Evgeny Morozov's The Net Delusion (2010), nor utopian like those in Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everyone: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (2008). Keen describes the inherent benefits of social media, but cautions users to think about what they are sharing and how frequently. For an author who has made his living and fame within the technology community through social media and Internet journalism, the observations published in Digital Vertigo accord with those scholarly studies offered by 'traditional' academics. Studies that treat aspects of Keen's work with greater expertise do exist, but Keen adroitly weaves together and synthesizes many of the popular and leading perspectives which dominate academic disciplines tied to technology studies today.

In some instances, however, Keen's book fails to fully convey or misses the mark entirely when treating more complex topics related to technology and society. The book also suffers from editorial oversights in the form of frequent typos and overused adjectives. "Creepy" occurs so often that it becomes hyper-normalized and loses its intended effect. Scholarly publications that treat individual topics with greater depth and expertise exist, but it is safe to recommend Keen's volume as starting point for understanding dominant trends among scholars. In summary, Keen's Digital Vertigo is a contemporary example of thorough scholarship distilled to a single introductory volume that would serve any teacher or student of technology and the digital evolution well.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Book Review

The Burdens of Freedom – Eastern Europe since 1989 by Padraic Kenney. Zed Books Ltd, 2006. pp 192. ISBN 9781842776636. Reviewed by Sandra King-Savic.

Padraic Kenney re-examines Eastern Europe’s recent political and economic history since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. He concentrates his attention on the experience of 15 countries, from Estonia to Macedonia, explaining that though states such as Yugoslavia and Poland had differing systems and experiences, they nevertheless all followed the path to democracy and a market economy. Another common experience, writes Kenney, was the leitmotiv of national liberation and Eastern Europe’s return to Europe. In his own words, “But what is that Europe that East Europeans saw ahead of them? Most of all, it was free of borders, walls and ceilings, in which one could travel, have access to goods or ideas formerly inaccessible; and where one could see, or believe hat one wished. In that Europe, one could finally be Czech or Slovene or Estonian”.[1] Kenney explores the question of Eastern Europe’s place and arrival in Europe by explaining that “Eastern” Europe had simply become the “New” Europe. He explains this process in the introductory chapter “Shock of the New”; and subsequent five chapters he calls “Different Paths on an Open Road: Economic and Social Change”; “In Praise of Ethnic Cleansing? National Struggles”; “Peeling away the Past: Nostalgia and Punishment”; “Portraits of Hubris: Democratic Politics”; “A New Europe: The East and the West” and concludes with “The Edge of History”.
            Kenney’s title is poignant for two reasons. First, with freedom comes the newly formed states and their governments’ responsibility to do right by its people. This is a difficult task as governments often needed to re-define who the people exactly where – a process that is still going on in Bosnia i Herzegovina, for instance. Second, how much freedom is enough, or too much? New Europe needed to re-define its governmental parameters and involvement for questions reaching from individual freedom to practice one’s religion and cultural traditions to economic and social welfare questions.
The economic picture is generally positive, says Kenney. Unemployment is declining and economies are growing as the largely young, urban and educated middleclass coped well with the changes of the 1990’s. Yet, he urges to judge New Europe’s success rate with caution and points toward the neoliberal privatization process. With the end of Communism, Eastern Europe sought to find a third way – an unsuccessful endeavor as the market economy became an inevitable goal. Kenney voices doubts whether the market economy was right for Eastern Europe. In New Europe, he argues, one fifth of the population lives below the poverty line. The economic transition then, argues Kenney in chapter one, cannot be said to have been successful. Interestingly, a great part of the successful transition came about the resourcefulness left behind by the communist era. Kenney explains that the old Communist systems did not produce a lazy people as was commonly believed. Instead, the rigid pre-1989 system demanded of people to be resourceful – a quality that served New Europeans well in the market driven era. A recurring theme in The Burdens of Freedom is Eastern Europe’s proximity to Western Europe. The success of each state’s transition then, Kenney found, was contingent on its strategic importance as well on how close to Western Europe the state was.     
            Chapter two opens with a joke that was told in the former Yugoslav Republic and goes as follows; “How many countries will there be in Europe in the year 2000? Seven: Europe, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia”. Nearly 20 years later, national identity remains at the center of political debates all across New Europe. Importantly, not all states have followed the path of violent breakup and Kenney names the Baltic States as the most apparent example of peaceful dissolution and subsequent continuation of conciliatory relations. Determinant factors to peaceful dissolutions then were not simply prosperity and homogeneity of the state, but the depth of the political society and lustration. Kenney recognizes lustration as important for several reasons. First, a clean break with the past is important for the fundamental legitimacy of the new state while, second, allowing the post communist society to “purify its past”. In addition, according to Kenney, lustration gives the post communist society hope that the future will be unlike the past – “morally upright and free of the evil that was communism”.[2] Serbia may serve as an example here. Though Belgrade ‘apologized’ for its crimes against humanity in Bosnia i Herzegovina, yet its politics may be a continuation of war – to turn Clausewitz’s famous phrase on its head. Serbian politics are still centered on identity and consequently the question on whom was the culprit of the 1990’s conflicts – Dobrica Ćosić’s new book The Bosnian War serves as a case in point. Poland, in contrast, fares well and does not suffer from fears of threats to language, identity or ethnicity, states Kenney. Poland is also successful, Kenney contends, because the roots of civil society and anti-communist resistance are especially deep in Poland.
            In effect, The Burdens of Freedom has correctly identified two common themes – economic transition and national identity – that highlight the transitional story of the fifteen states between Estonia and Macedonia since 1989. Kenney emphasizes in 192 pages that the transition is not complete and not at all identical across the board, yet underlines one important point; New Europe is no longer a borderland between two superpowers, but is turning into a region that promises to be a competitive contender in the modern market economy. Meanwhile, Western Europe’s borders move ever further east thus changing common perceptions about what it means to be European. This is perhaps the most significant contribution of Kenney’s work. While there are plenty of problems and bumps Eastern Europe had to overcome since 1989, he reminds us that New Europe on the whole has moved forward. In Kenney’s words: “Maybe Eastern Europe is riding in the back seat, and can not be certain of the route, but it is now on board.”  

[1] Padraic Kenney. The Burdens of Freedom Eastern Europe since 1989. Zed Books: London / New York: 2006. 11.
[2] Padraic Kenney. The Burdens of Freedom Eastern Europe since 1989. Zed Books: London / New York: 2006. 84.