The city is a structural chronicle of the emotionality, a chronicle that changes over time slowly enough so that it can be seen as practically unchanging at any given stage of a human life. Various architectural styles and interior designs are introduced into the urban make-up of the city both as a reflection and a living manifestation of the collective (un)conscious of its inhabitants. We can see it, hear it, and feel it as we walk or drive along the city, perceiving and observing all those innumerable images of interspaces—the undefined and evanescent spaces and interstices that appear when clearly defined spaces meet and mix with one another—images that we perceive simultaneously appearing and disappearing, as layers of visual and sonic structures that constantly arouse various experiences that are the living connection with our environment.
Being a complex hub, in both material and non-material sense, the city reminds us that the answers to the questions about what we call society, state, social order and system are indeed simple, but not unambiguous or self-evident—we need to “immerse ourselves” in spatial abstractions, as well as in the utterly real-life situations that the city generates so that we can make them out and understand its environmental-situational vernacular (which is untranslatable into a blabbering narrative of the mass media).
Streets, squares, parks, and crossroads are the backdrop to many different situations (either revealing or hiding them), in which we have unique opportunities, if we are open to it, to see and perceive ourselves in the multitude (literally or fictitiously), to experience/ponder on the connections between the individual and the common, and at the same time to see what power lies in our hands. Being part of the patchwork of the city, we always contribute to its character, by getting ourselves involved in the existing interpersonal fluxes (or keeping ourselves out of them) and by establishing various new forms of togetherness.
Located on left bank of the river Sava, just opposite of the Ušće shopping mall in New Belgrade, down by the Branko’s Bridge, is the neighbourhood called the Old Fairground (Staro Sajmište). During the occupation in the World War II, that landmark commercial site became a detention centre for getting rid of individuals who deemed unfitting according to German imperialist standards and methods. The occupying forces (with the help of local collaborators) turned this area, which previously served for international industrial and technological fairs, into a concentration camp. Changing the purpose of this fairground had a symbolic meaning which was equally jaw-dropping and sinister. Detainees, that is, those who were not killed on the spot, were sent by the camp managers to a number of locations in the vicinities where mass killings took place—namely, to the execution grounds in Jajinci, Jabuka, Bežanijska Kosa and Ostrovačka Ada—then to various German death camps and Jasenovac, the most notorious collaborationist concentration camp in the Balkans. We are talking here about tens of thousands of people who were killed there, aware that any such counting, more than anything else, speak about the heinousness of the perpetrators and the fact that they managed to reduce the lives, personalities and bodies to figures and reference numbers, and to improve to perfection the way people are managed (which is nowadays carried out primarily by means of administration).
On the other side of the river Sava—which, lest we forget, once carried the dead bodies of those slaughtered at the Jasenovac concentration camp, while the corpses of those killed by the Hungarian occupying forces floated down the Danube—lies the Savamala neighbourhood, where Galerija shopping centre has sprung up within the presently fast-growing Belgrade Waterfront estate complex. So, the Old Fairground area is a locality where we can feel huge contrasts and a certain dissonance between that important memorial toponym and the two centres dedicated to shopping and entertainment, which apparently exemplify the very essence of the present-day social system, but in reality, they mask its dehumanizing dimension. In the middle of that contrast, when we are on this location—when we go to the monument or the remains of concrete columns that stood at the entrance to the camp and expose ourselves to the elements, sun, wind and rain, and the ever-present sounds of the city—, we can suspect and feel the contradiction of what we now tend to call democracy.
When we go there, stepping out of the pace of everyday life (we often believe that we must stay in sync with it), we find ourselves in a zone out of time, a realm of fiction which—even though its factual background is rather intriguing—is essentially not descriptive, but contemplative. It emerges only through personal engagement, only as a result of the fact that we put ourselves in an interspace (meta-space) that arises on an intersection of quite disparate (but not heterogeneous) phenomena such as the concentration camp and the shopping centre. Only then can we leave behind the city as machine for work and abide, and step inside its space of intimacy that is always present within us, which is part of us just as we are part of it. Only then, when we disconnect from reality in order to consciously enter it, when we step into a parallel but equally real dimension, we will understand or remember where we actually are, in local and global perspective. Then we will be able to comprehend the banal connection between the monopolistic trading system and concentration camps, between colonization (which has always demanded human sacrifices) and limitations to freedom (enslavement), which is carried to extremes once again, this time as an attempt to impose sanitary and biotechnological dictatorship. We will be able to see our place in that context, not only rationally, but above all through sensory (psychosomatic) perception.
The key word is choice. In the shopping mall or online, we choose and pay for sneakers, movie we are going to watch and lunch we are going to eat. In the parliamentary elections, which are described as the bedrock of democracy, but in fact—ridiculously enough—they mark the beginning and the end of it, giving us a chance, every four years, to choose among (pre-selected) persons and groups that are meant to represent us and our interests in the frameworks called the state and local self-management. Whereas in the first case, paying for the sneakers we, as consumers, are given the right to complain, in the latter, we remain to be merely a consumer who fills out an opinion poll by ticking one of the several options on offer. We choose sneakers, we choose some people who are meant to represent us and our interests in the bright future. In reality, we paid a certain amount of money for the goods we wanted and devoted our energy to endorsing an alienated and oppressive system of government which goes by the name of the rule of the people. However, there is a difference between making consumer choices and electing a representative of the people: wearing sneakers can be enjoyable.
Those sneakers were made by a hard-working army of Vietnamese proletarians, and lest we forget, Vietnam was once demolished by the United States of America. While I was leaving Belgrade for Ljubljana on April 24th, 1999, bombs were falling, dropped by the NATO pact, of which Slovenia is now a member. “Just a few years left for us,” we were singing to the lyrics of the song by the rock band Ekatarina Velika, and so it was. “There is no doubt anymore that the forces that drove us out of our homes have been victorious globally,” Mira Furlan wrote two decades later in her book Love Me More Than Anything in the World.
Bombing is a frequent and important ingredient of colonization. All the way from the Vardar River (in Macedonia) to the Triglav mountain (in Slovenia), which is the area of former Yugoslavia, we can now go to shopping malls that look like two peas in a pod, where we can buy mostly carbon-copied goods of the monopolistic Western industry, usually manufactured in the supposedly poor (while very rich in resources) global Southeast (the term Southeast is relative and depends on what we usually mean by the West). Has the former Yugoslav area become “democratized” by the above mentioned bombing? Yes, it has, insofar as the model of party-list representation has been introduced in it. But party-list representation is just a way to ensure long-term nepotism, which is the groundwork for the so-called democratic model (“free” market), which is, at the epicentres of the empire, brazenly claimed to be the pinnacle and even the very end of the development of human society. The so-called rule of law is a simple invention that clumsily conceals the nepotistic and corporatist essence of the social order that, once the elections are over, requires you to just come to terms with your fate and uncomplainingly fulfil the incessant succession of orders imposed by the (visible or hidden) ruling interest groups.
“There were only four dissentients, the three dogs and the cat, who was afterwards discovered to have voted on both sides.”
Looking on the bright side, this sentence Orwell wrote in the Animal Farm can be a hint that the only way to get out of the deadlock of the theatre of the absurd, which we call democracy, can be found when obedience is questioned and declined, when we somehow dare to break the rule of law (which is actually unsubstantial as long as such rules are standardized, codified, written and imposed from above). We must not forget that it was precisely the rule of law that enabled, legalized and financed concentration camps (including those that allegedly served “reformatory” purposes, such as the special prison on the Adriatic island of Goli Otok) and mass killings. Isn’t it the rule of law in the European Union that enables increasingly radical violations of freedoms that until recently were constitutionally guaranteed (freedom of movement, right to refuse recommended medical treatment, etc.), as well as—to give another example—the ongoing mass hysteria aiming to ban everything of Russian origin (whatever such national denotation might meant) in a community that prides itself on its non-discriminatory character?
But rights that serve as rules and regulations, which is in fact an oxymoron, easily become farcical. For sure, rights can be seen as inalienable, but not within the framework of laws imposed by the state and the police order (as described by Jacques Rancière who saw it as part of the concept of submission required to preserve the class-based social order), but rather as something that is meant to protect the multifarious integrity of each and every individual living in a space shared with many other individuals, where politics is a matter of exchange and constant harmonization, free of the repressive hierarchy, that is, something completely different from the way we usually perceive politics today (that is, what is implied by this term). Because, as Spinoza observed, “a cat is not bound to live by the laws of the nature of a lion”.
A basic feature of what we call democracy is that it has very little to do with being aware of how important it is to be constantly engaged in the pursuit of the common good, which is why we coined the word activism, which is supposed to be a compensation for the actions that we personally fail to practice, because they are done (in our stead?) by those who we like to call activists. This lack of awareness of one’s own power creates the impression that there is a small number of activists and an equally small number of managers, while the multitude, that is, all the others, are just consumers in the theatre of the absurd, reduced to inarticulate (silent, invisible) masses subjected to a governance (of law).
Making oneself heard and visible, becoming engaged (showing one’s own initiative and being self-organized while allowing space to all the others and their needs and preferences), is what makes a difference which means politicization of life. Freedom arises from engagement as a political act which is free from policing.
Democracy is characterized by the permanent passivity of its subjects, while the so-called direct democracy is conditional on proactive attitude of its co-creators. When we talk about necro-capitalism (which is the current state of affairs of the social system in which death dominates over life, both in a paradigmatic and in a very concrete sense, in the sense of constant uncertainty and a multitude of existential threats and psychoses), what we actually talk about is the lack of active participation of (autonomous) individuals who readily tackle all questions relevant for the (local and, subsequently, wider) communities and collectives which they are part of (production, housing, artistic and others). When there is articulated resistance to corporate violence (such as the self-organized movement defending land and natural resources in Chiapas, Mexico), when local community is based on horizontal connections, there are very real and concrete forms and effects of active participation and popular investment in the common good.
Biopolitical interventions made with the intention of surveillance, pacification and utilization of the population (reducing people to consumers) can only be carried out when there is enough passivized individuals in an alienated community, which is defined less and less as state, and more and more as global corporatist entity (and, hence, as radically commodified, speciesist, neo-colonial). Activist response to such passivity cannot be effective as long as activism itself is just another “-ism”.
However, it is not primarily a question of very responding to the challenges of biopolitics, but rather of activating certain mechanisms that affirm the collective while preserving the autonomy of each and every individual in their self-expression. It is not a matter of self-governance being necessary as a (state) ideology, but rather—let’s put it this way—as an organic practice, that is, a practice in which individual bodies deliberately take part in a way that enables communication and interexchange with other bodies, without needing to have any kind of legalistic framework.
Just as a body needs physical training, in like manner the bodies participating in a self-organized constellation need to engage in practices that imply trying out many different skills and abilities that are oftentimes systematically cancelled or eliminated from the normal daily routine (that is, normal on the condition that we accept it as such), or else sidelined so that they become an aspect of our lives generally considered to be pure entertainment, since we tend to forget that, in its essence, entertainment often involves a dimension of sociability which can provide a non-hierarchical perspective (conditions).
The song kept us alive is the catch phrase in the Balkans, exemplifying the non-hierarchical structure of ritual practices that may or may not be connected (usually not) with some of the defined forms of art. What we mean by song is any form of πoιησις (poiesis) that reflects creativity which takes shape as bodily movement/dance, as well as singing, but also in the shape of associated activities that complement ritual practices, that is, any forms and ways of creating an atmosphere, space and environment in which such practices are performed. As a collective act, the song liberates or, more precisely, articulates what biopolitics fails to suppress: the freedom of creativity that can affirm the freedom to decide on one’s place in (any) situation, and the possibility to co-create a situation together with everyone else involved. The practices of joyful resistance that we occasionally see around the world, and in various types of actions and contexts of resistance, are based precisely on the power of the song (in the sense described above).
Due to the great galvanizing power of the song (as an embodiment of vitality, and evasion of constantly looming impacts of the hegemonic economy that destroys all forms of communality among equals), biopolitical measures entail banning public gatherings and celebrations. We also had the chance to experience first-hand this modern updated form of apartheid prohibition. But suppressing vitality in our democratic system inevitably backfires and, consequently, the system becomes damaged, and so it seeks to restore itself along the way, but sometimes it is to no avail.
Aestheticization is the key mechanism that ensures smooth functioning of the system of the theatre of the absurd. Practically everything becomes aestheticized, and hence we sometimes see astonishing contrasts between the logic of saleability (of anything and everything), which largely relies on (wanna-be) alluring packaging—as pointed out by Wolfgang F. Haug in his Critique of Commodity Aesthetics, as well as Robert Kurtz in his book The World as Will and Design—and real human needs that usually have nothing to do with the all-pervasive torrent of advertising.
Aestheticization is also very visible in advertising campaigns carried out for the requirements of party elections, when parties wrap their “political” offers in packages of audiovisual presentations which are marketed in the same way as the goods on supermarket shelves. Aestheticization manages to provide semblance of freedom in choices we make (of either goods or politicians). Namely, we know from experience that there are certain goods that are more in line with the way they appear on the packaging, while other goods are less so, and some not at all.
The mirage effect, which is inevitably caused by the packaging, guarantees (or at least increases) sales, and hence provides profit for the seller. In order to make this form of profit-seeking more effective, it is always required to exert some degree of repression that is compatible with the corporatist model, and is, in fact, integral part of it. However, there is a difference between the dominant sales model and the micro-retailing as the form of exchange of goods, which is nowadays subjected to constant corporate-state pressure all over the world, as evidenced, for instance, by recent protests of green market vendors in Belgrade.
The theatre of the absurd is made possible thanks to a peculiar hybrid mixture of repression and an apparent freedom of choice. Both of these components are garnished and embellished so that their true look often remain invisible at first glance.
Being aware of all-pervasive aestheticization means becoming aware of the fact that there are other possibilities to organize our living which are free from the impact of the panopticon.
Just as the semblance of freedom of choice reinforces the theatre of the absurd, in like manner each decision we make when choosing certain less-trodden paths, possibilities, and modes of existence may lead us to an exit, or even a number of exits, from this theatre. It is certainly possible to make choices with the awareness of the quality of the things we choose, while their aesthetic property itself is neutral, whereas the question of the effect of aestheticization always comes down to the question of authenticity of the correlation between the outer and the inner side of a given thing or person in that choosing act.
Aestheticization serves to seduce, to conquer, to win favour and to forge alliances, and it is always questionable what is the purpose of an alliance, whether it serves a utilitarian or non-utilitarian (“non-instrumental”) purpose. Seduction is what goes on when eros enters the play, either in the shape of love with its potential or its (pathological) twisted form (as is the case of self-styled representatives who require to be loved by masses, or the case of corporate marketing that automatically erases any unbefitting background of advertised products and services). Seen through the lens of choosing acts, which are biologically/existentially very important (we are making choices and decisions basically all the time), we may become aware of the significance of love as a phenomenon. And in its essence, love is unconditionality, because it is possible only when it is free from any utilitarian rule.
From the perspective of unconditional love, what we generally call democracy is limiting, at the very least, because it is based on countless classifications, systematizations and barriers (those quite real and physical, such as the Chinese and Berlin Walls in the past, and now the Israeli West Bank Wall in Palestine, the U.S. Wall on border with Mexico, and barbed-wire fences along the south-eastern borders of the EU, as well as the systems for electronic identification for people and non-human animals that encroach on the freedom of movement—just think of the fact that in most parts of the world visas and other permits are still required to go/be there).
From the perspective of unconditional love, freedom is possible instantly, right here and right now.
On the assumption that freedom is always primarily a matter of individual freedom, it follows, as a necessary consequence, that in any community freedom must be multitudinous. This means, first of all, that an individual who thinks and acts as a slave cannot create conditions for freedom, nor contribute to a free environment in their community; only when individual liberation is attained (which is always achieved regardless of external conditions), it becomes possible to form networks of free individuals (non-hierarchical communities, social arrangements).
The question of freedom is not a difficult one. It is required to make an effort to get out of the comfort zone in which we are usually just a tiny part of the lifeless mechanism that we call democracy. Leaving this comfortable state of immersion means taking full responsibility for one’s own life, right here and right now, which means getting rid of the need to have someone to represent us. It is also a challenge for us to invent and to revive the ways of connecting ourselves which are not based on alienated top-down governance. Exiting the representative logics (the believing that someone else would take care of our well-being) is a necessary step in the process of self-empowerment.
To leave the theatre of the absurd means to stop being in the audience. To stop being an actor who was assigned a role at an audition and who goes on playing that role forever, subject to screenplay and production. To allow one’s own body to freely speak aloud just when it is supposedly not the right time to say something aloud, without conforming to any presupposed canonical rules and norms. To stop being an observer and become a free agent, a performer, someone who lives their life authentically and autonomously, which always means full of joy, freeing themselves from the dominant narrative, breaking the rules.
Freedom implies that ruling necessarily comes down to self-control (self-mastery) because all other forms, including the “rule of the demos”, are exclusionist; such description aestheticizes the understanding of humanity by reducing it to the question of management (trivializing individuals by presenting them as so-called human resources), whereby it justifies parliamentarism as a form of administrative authoritarianism. Demos is made up of an audience that is in charge of nothing (except when it comes to their role to cast their votes in order to preserve the status quo), and only pays for their tickets (while they can) for the theatre of the absurd. Abandoning that conformation means redirecting our powers with the aim of empowering ourselves, in a network of free individuals, a network with no centre and no master.
This essay was initiated by Kiosk. Translated from Serbian by Vuk Šećerović.