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Albanian-Serbian Match – A War Minus the Shooting

Source: BBC
Source: BBC

In the preface to Tractatus Philosophicus Wittgenstein makes the widely quoted claim that Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent. Unfortunately there are some cases when one cannot speak but cannot and must not be silent and the football match Serbia and Albania played in Belgrade on the 14th of October is doubtless one of them. Not only because of the few incidents that occurred, but mostly because of what followed.

I would start with the simple consideration that if one must write about the event, it should be done through an angle or point of view independent of the radicalized nationalistic rhetoric and that displays a sincere commitment to not sustaining or  justifying any of the violent outbursts from either side. Without losing the awareness that the problem is serious and does not confine itself only to the football field. Second, it is important to mention although in the most telegraphic manner the actions that eventually lead to the match’s suspension. The Albanian fans couldn’t attend the match due to the delicate relationships between the two countries, although they did manage to fly a banner above the pitch that exposed a hypothetical map of Albania, significantly including Kosova; what was followed by the chanting Ubij, zakolji, da siptar ne postiji kill, slaughter so that Albanian doesn’t exist. The root of this violent articulation can not only be found in the physical desire to destroy the enemy but in something more dangerous still, in constructing a collective configuration of the everlasting enemy by establishing firmly the historical antagonism between the two countries.

However, this event creates a new possibility for understanding to what extent Albanians and Serbs have managed to remain faithful to their personal narratives and to what extent are ready to sacrifice certain interests, in order to live up to the Idea of the Enemy. We are perhaps now after the event, despite its shocking brutality, in position to understand that neither the Albanians nor the Serbs could ever be able to forget the past qui ne passé pas.

In Hegelian terms historical facts occurs as it were, twice but going back sixty-eight years ago, in the far away October of 1946, we run into another football confrontation between the two countries but with a different scenario; the national Football Team of the People’s Republic of Albania played its first international match against what was at that time known as Yugoslavia. The match not only did not degenerate into violent social outburst but could be considered one of the first expressions of Albanian-Yugoslav friendship; in July, the two countries signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation. Their relationship at that time, according to Stalin, was such that Yugoslavia should swallow Albania, yet not only was Albania not swallowed by Yugoslavia, but subjected itself to a fresher form of bittersweet romance with the Soviet Union, forgetting its former flame, Belgrade, one of the first to recognize its provisional government. As expected, the reaction of Yugoslavia to this political shift was vindictive toward the impatient, diffident and rebellious Albania. It did not take long for it to withdraw its diplomatic mission and to cancel the friendship treaty.

Fast forward half a century: it took only one banner to provoke violent outburst, but this act shouldn’t be reduced to a mere subversive provocation, it is a confirmation that neither Albanians nor Serbs are yet capable of putting politics aside even when it comes to a mere football match. At the same time attacking with chairs cannot be reduced to an emotive reaction since beneath its surface lurks the fantasy of satisfying the desire of distorting an interpersonal recognition through attacking the Other, and fascinatingly and unfortunately, the Other was present.

In the Treatise on Human Nature, Hume states that reason is prone to passion. And motion is caused by the desire that motivates action. If we subject the last football match between Albanian and Serbians to this approach, one cannot hold back the question of what motivates football, as a collective action not restricted only to the players when it comes to national matches. Why do we need national teams? Is it the only physical mean left for nationalistic antagonism to manifest itself? Mill in a hedonistic approach states that desire has as a sole subject pleasure; in order to achieve pleasure one should find an object for the desire. If Serbs and Albanians gain pleasure from manifesting their patriotism, then anything can turn out to be the object through which pleasure is reached as long as it can fulfill the desire, even a football match.

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, though, distinguishes desire from need and demand, stating that the only way to make desire appear in the full sense of the term is to formulate it and name it in the presence of the other. What better environment can be found that that of a football match between two nations, to express this desire? Consider the last scene of Bergman’s Summer with Monica, a romantic drama about Monica and Harry who meet and spend a summer together. Monika becomes pregnant and they marry, stepping into adulthood in bourgeois style. Eventually Monika leaves and in the final scene Harry stares at his reflection in the mirror, and sees the product of his attempt to reach pleasure through his desire – a baby. Like Harry, the spectator, seated in his/her couch with the remote in hand or in the benches in the Stadium, is subjected to the same encounter, only that the reflection in the mirror is a physical reflection not only of eleven men wearing national symbols, but of twenty-two men wearing their national symbols and running after a ball. This reflection is no longer a private reflection of oneself, but a collective reflection; and the baby, the product of desire, is represented by twenty-two men aware of being the mean through which thousands pretend to reach their pleasure. In this moment, the football match goes far beyond what it is supposed to be and awaits appropriation by politics. It ends up being what Orwell describes as a contest leading to orgies of hatred and mimicking warfare.

In such a match the odds are that pleasure will not be confined to the expression of patriotic feelings in response to the results. Facing victory or defeat may expose the supporters to a collective trauma. However the suspension of the game at the last minute saved the fans and the players of both teams from such a trauma. Unfortunately, since the most obvious clinical characteristic of trauma is that the subjects cannot verbalize it – the opposite is valid when the trauma is absent, the ability of the subjects to be aware of what did not happen and to be able to verbalize exactly what did not happen. This reminds me of a memorable scene from Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby, a memorable drama of the thirties whose plot evolves around a French soldier, overwhelmed by feelings of guilt for having killed a German soldier during the World War I, and driven by the unbearable heaviness of discovering that the soldier killed was more similar than different to him, decides to meet his family. Renalds, the French soldier enters the studio of Dr. Hoderlin the father of the man he killed, and pretends to be someone else, so that what happened was to be regarded as something that did not happen, but also to undergo a catharsis through which to be the impossible, that is, the friend of the departed. This shift has its roots in the fear of confronting the consequences of the actions and by negating the trauma of the act, which does not offer a definitive solution but just postpones the moment of confrontation in time.

Unfortunately, it would take several more years until the Serbs revise their actions and assume responsibility for an unprecedented violent response to a provocation, and we Albanians, even though it may sound inappropriate or even tasteless to many, are no longer dealing with a genuine fear of the Serbs – the mockery of a flying banner was a naïve attempt to project an enemy as it was in the past, but that has from long abandoned its previous form. There is a need to move forward from the victim complex that we so spontaneously manifest and try to provoke. This remark however should not be taken as a positive argument into justifying, but more as desire to learn to let it go and paraphrasing Žižek, the attitude of indulgence belongs to those who have the means to afford it, and we could have afforded it. We should have not contributed into turning the match, in Orwell words, into a war minus the shooting, because a mere football match it was not.

Griselda Qosja is an Albanian writer based in Germany, her work has appeared in various (Albanian) newspapers and magazines.