Nomen est omen

ANALYSIS  Petar Atanacković Published: 23. 05. 2023.

The Kosovo Phantasm

What is Kosovo a signifier of?

What is Kosovo? What is it to us? To us both as individuals and as a collective, of which one, completely undefined part (Bigger part? Louder part? It’s not entirely clear.) is convinced that without it there is simply no life for them. And what is Kosovo to the state of Serbia, as a condensation of the relation of force between us?

Obviously, Kosovo is first and foremost a symbol, and one that is extremely overburdened with meanings, which is why we meet it almost everywhere and cannot escape it, even if we wanted to. Because Kosovo stands for identity, sovereignty and legitimacy, vitality and potency, heroism and strength, resistance, success and dominance, past and tradition, future and perspective – therefore, associations are many, depending on what feels good for some and what one likes. However, our focus on Kosovo cannot be explained only by the charged symbolism that characterizes it – it goes beyond that, because Kosovo is actually our greatest desire, with which our imaginary enjoyment is directly linked.

Therefore, it can be said that Kosovo occupies a dominant place in our imagination, becoming our ultimate obsession around which everything revolves and in which we are stuck. It obsesses us to such an extent that everything else takes on secondary importance, which is why we find ourselves in a kind of blockage from which we cannot find a way out. It doesn’t let us live, but it doesn’t let us die either, so we wander around in some kind of limbo between life and death and we no longer know what we are doing. However, such a diagnosis also does not have to mean anything, especially if we enjoy such a condition. Because there are different kinds of people who enjoy different kinds of gibberish, so it’s the same with us.

Our obsession with Kosovo goes back at least a century and a half, or even two: it has been sung and fiddled about for a long time, discussed and planned (both in pubs and in ministerial offices), so then it would have to mean that Kosovo is really something precious and to all of us, literally everyone single one of us. Why this is so can only be understood when – some people say – one realizes that the central part of the network of discourses, politics, plans and narratives surrounding Kosovo constitutes what is called the Kosovo myth.

Precisely the arbitrariness of what ‘resolving Kosovo’ means is one of the problems, because this phrase covers countless meanings and perceptions of time, depending on how it suits different structures of power and other influential groups and circles, which makes it very suitable for various manipulations.

The myth is an elaboration, built around the trauma caused by the defeat in the battle between Serbian and Ottoman armies in Kosovo in 1389 and the subsequent loss of statehood. The trauma of defeat was processed over time, in order to be fixated in the lost Kosovo itself, which as a place of lack then became a place of desire, around which an entire system of system of enjoyment was built and arranged. Because, like any other enjoyment, this is also based on a certain desire, which itself is based on lack, i.e. deficit. In other words, the absence of Kosovo forms the backbone of Serbian enjoyment. That’s why there is so much passion in relation to Kosovo when it is absent, so there is a want for its return, with which we should be able to overcome the trauma and realize the imaginary promise of the return of the original (and lost) enjoyment.

That is why Kosovo is assumed to be a necessary condition for the existence of not only the state, but also the people themselves, who without it lead only a kind of miserable semi-existence. In other words, Kosovo is the main motive of all our actions, because everything we undertake necessarily refers to it in one way or another. At the same time, it is an obstacle to our various actions, because all other problems, no matter how relevant they are, have to wait and cannot be resolved until Kosovo is ‘resolved’. What ever that may mean. And in different times it meant different things. Precisely the arbitrariness of what ‘resolving Kosovo’ means is one of the problems, because this phrase covers countless meanings and perceptions of time, depending on how it suits different structures of power and other influential groups and circles, which makes it very suitable for various manipulations. In addition, its arbitrary meaning contributed to the fact that the phrase itself took on a rather ominous overtone.

But what exactly is the Kosovo myth? Why is it a traumatic place in our history, when we don’t even know what really happened in Kosovo on 28.06.1389? Because little is actually known about the Kosovo Battle – it is not fully known who participated in it, nor how it went, nor what its outcome was. Everything we know about it is mostly circumstantial. And judging by what is known, this event does not have the force of a traumatic experience attributed to it. So then, if we don’t know what happened to us, how do we know that right then we experienced trauma? And whose trauma is it about exactly? The trauma of the wide masses? The trauma of the ruler? Or rather the traumas of various churchmen, poets and fiddlers from later centuries, as key figures in the discourse production of that time? It’s not very clear. Transformation of this particular event into a symbolic historical turning point is probably at work here, the role of which was to create not only a framework for the explanation of socio-historical (dis)continuities, but also to establish a collective narrative. That is why it seems to me that the myth of Kosovo – although its elements are present in various ways before, in epics and other narratives – was fully formed only later, probably only at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. And not in Serbia, but among Serbs in the Habsburg Empire.

So, at the beginning of everything (supposedly) there is a myth. Which in a convenient and simple way gave us an explanation of who we are, what we are, where we come from, what happened to us and why – in other words, to name those that betrayed us1 – as well as what we should do. This Kosovo-mythic discourse permeates every pore of our society, is located everywhere and shapes our thinking from the cradle to the grave, equally in public space and in the privacy of family life, equally at work among colleagues and at the celebratory table among friends. For example, poems of Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj – one of the most popular Serbian poets of the 19th century – tell the story about it in children’s songbooks even today; Because of it the students receive their final school grades exactly on 28th of June each year; Just as Prince Mihajlo points his saber to the south at the monument in the center of Belgrade precisely because of it – in other words, there isn’t a place where one can´t find it. Yet the myth does not really stand at the beginning, for there is, therefore, something beneath the myth: its importance and fatal attraction consist in its promise of unfettered enjoyment. Everything is based on one desire that we inherited from previous generations and which, therefore, is not ours but someone else’s, the desire of the Other, but nevertheless, this desire is the cause of our existence and therefore not only shapes our desire, but it also becomes our desire. Just as Jacques Lacan says also.

And then, way back in 1912, in the course of Balkan wars, the day came when Kosovo defeat was avenged and Kosovo was liberated, which made our wish come true. And that’s where all our problems started.

Dialectics’ of pleasure

The liberation of Kosovo – which, it should be said, was a liberation not for all, but only for some – was an event of epic significance, that moment which had long been dreamt of and longed for, the climax that led to the orgasmic fulfillment of desire after so much time of longing. With it, the circle was closed, the pledge of the ancestors was fulfilled and all of the sudden everything made sense in and around our lives. Although this event was not supposed to mark the end of history, but rather the beginning of a new historical cycle, it marked the end of something else: the fulfillment of desire led to the abolition of desire and created the crisis of our enjoyment.

If on the trail of Lacan I understand the dynamics of desire well, one should actually NOT reach the object of desire and thereby fulfill the desire, but keep desire alive. In other words, we just have to get closer to that fulfillment, but leave it to slip away from us at the last moment, so the object of desire can move away from us, forcing us to gradually approach it again (and repeat this all over again), and thus spin in a Hegelian dialectical spiral of longing/desire, whereby longing/desire (and the pleasure associated with it) carries on ad infinitum. Therefore, the goal of desire is desire itself, i.e. longing itself, which would mean ensuring permanent enjoyment in a kind of ‘dialectical dance’ towards the object of desire. Because when the desire is fulfilled, it is canceled, and enjoyment in it is not possible. That’s why it is always necessary to keep the fulfillment of desire at a ‘healthy’ distance. Those who do not succeed in this and actually fulfill their desire, usually find themselves in a severe enjoyment crisis. This is exactly what happened to us with Kosovo.

The problem immediately manifested itself in our relationship towards Kosovo. Namely, after so many decades of emotional investment and fantasizing about unfettered pleasure, once we set it free, after 1912, Kosovo lost almost all importance in our universe. In other words, as soon as we conquered it, we lost interest in it. We weren’t interested anymore, but we nonetheless wanted to have it with us at all times. Isn’t it a completely symptomatic situation?

One of the problems was that what existed in Kosovo in reality, what was real Kosovo, did not correspond to a fantasy we were so long and carefully grooming. Because the liberators of Kosovo did not find anything of what they were expecting to find there, neither the shiny courts of Serbian lords, nor the romantic existence of benevolent Serbian peasants. Also, neither of our legendary rulers from the middle Ages resurrected because of the liberation, so the liberators have didn´t been greeted by neither Emperor Dušan, nor Prince Lazar, nor King Marko. Instead, they found something completely different – simple everyday life. The ordinary life of ordinary people, some other population in villages and towns, who went about their daily business and that was all. It must have been a shock to the liberators, because to be faced with the banality of everyday life instead of magnificent scenes from the imagination really sounds blasphemous. That’s why it seems to me that glorification of triumphs from later years, with all of surrounding singing and autoeroticism, seems a bit forced, and they could not erase feelings of discomfort and disappointment which replaced the original enjoyment.

Within Serbia, and after 1918 in the new state of Yugoslavia, Kosovo held a position of an ‘internal penal colony’ to which corrupt officials were sent as punishment. And so it was up until Kosovo was lost, after very short April war of 1941 against Axis powers. This loss was short-lived, but it left an important mark on the collective experience, as it showed us that the liberation of 1912 did not have to be for all times and that we could lose Kosovo any time again. This insight seemed to have produced a certain double uneasiness about it, uneasiness due to previous disappointment with Kosovo enjoyment, and at the same time uneasiness due to the possibility of loosing even that uneasiness. The result was that after liberation in 1945, for lack of better ideas, Kosovo was ‘frozen’ and ‘canned’ – because we actually didn’t know what to do with it, but we knew that without it there was no life for us. Which is why we had to keep a close eye on it, so that we would react in case of any danger. And no one was more qualified for that task than Secret state police under administration of comrade Aleksandar Ranković.

The situation in which we have, on the one hand, a fantasy of unfettered enjoyment in regard to Kosovo, and on the other a paranoid vision of the Other that prevents us from enjoying it, is precisely the ‘winning combination’ that perpetuates desire and reproduces identification.

That is why, after Tito removed Ranković from his position in 1966, the feeling that ‘things’ were getting out of control prevailed in part of the power structures in Serbia. And this feeling was then further reproduced in wider public, until it became a ‘generally known fact’ in the early 80s, which made every ‘decent Serb’ upset, if not even wake at night. Mentioned feeling, in my humble opinion, not at all coincidentally corresponds with the more emphasized participation of Kosovo Albanians in socio-political life of socialist Yugoslavia, i.e. their political emancipation, which was actually perceived as the intrusion of the Other into the realm of our exclusive enjoyment. Albanians thereby definitely assume the function of the other-who-steals-our-enjoyment and thus play the role of the main threat to this enjoyment of ours. Because this one is always constituted as stolen. However, by blaming the Other for the theft of our enjoyment, we actually cover up the traumatic fact that we never possessed what we claim was stolen from us2.

The situation in which we have, on the one hand, a fantasy of unfettered enjoyment in regard to Kosovo, and on the other a paranoid vision of the Other that prevents us from enjoying it, is precisely the ‘winning combination’ that perpetuates desire and reproduces identification. (S. Žižek, Y. Stavrakakis and others wrote great lines about this). One of its important by-products is the more precise formulation of the image of the common enemy and the generation of hatred towards him. And it was exactly just what we needed after so many decades of enjoyment crisis! That’s why in the 80s, not only the discourse which exploited the Kosovo mythology experienced a renaissance, but also the sex appeal of the Kosovo myth itself and the mass infatuation with Kosovo. Because all of a sudden it seemed as if it has become a priority in all our lives! After all, how else to explain the presence of a million people (or however many there were) at the famed gathering at Gazimestan in 1989?

This gathering solemnly marked the victory of Serbian government in one round of internal political struggles, because the state of Serbia ‘established sovereignty’ over its entire territory, after defeating regional governments in ‘rebelious provinces’ of Vojvodina and Kosovo. The symbolic and imaginary meaning of this gathering was, however, even greater: with it (again) the defeat of 1389 was sanctified, with it Kosovo was (again) liberated, with it – we tried to convince both ourselves and others – the trauma was overcome and marked the beginning of unfettered enjoyment. Which, as it immediately turned out, was again missing. Because by fulfilling the desire, we canceled the desire (again) and made enjoyment impossible. That is why I find a well-known detail from the speech of Slobodan Milošević at this meeting interesting, where he talks about the ‘upcoming battles’, indicating that the enemy is still lurking and that the struggle to secure enjoyment is not over. By doing so, it’s as if he tried to strengthen the paranoid fantasy of the threatening Other and thus maintain the production of desire.

We will not give up on you, the land of Milos Obilić,

we will not give up on you without bloodshed

The 1990s could be said to have been, in many respects, a ‘condensed’ repetition of the experience from the previous period. However, there were also some new and different moments, first of all the fact that the Kosovo Albanians flatly refused to accept the new situation. Their refusal was peaceful, but it was unequivocal. We were taken aback by that, which is why the feeling that we are running out of time began to prevail among us, which then made us more nervous and aggressive. As we felt that the threat of losing Kosovo was growing, we became more warlike, but also more prone to fatalism, with an ominous feeling that we are all moving together towards inevitable downfall. That is why we were ultimately ready to shed blood for Kosovo, especially if that blood was not ours, but that of Kosovo Albanians. And so a vague, anxious state of tense anticipation arose. Of what? Well, by all accounts, of the very worst, which started somewhere in 1997, and culminated in 1999 in the war against the NATO pact, the varied effects of which continue to this day.

And where are we today with our Kosovo?

Kosovo has declared its independence and is moving along its own path, mostly independent of what the Serbs and Serbia think about it. However, we successfully do not allow them to enjoy that path; we even manage to regularly make their life difficult, in which we then find some special enjoyment. It’s as if now we steal their enjoyment and enjoy in this process. Because we believe that these obstructions of their enjoyment are actually our victories, small steps that slowly but surely bring us closer to… what? What is it that we even hope to achieve? No one knows for sure, but the assumption is that it must be something very good. Good for whom? No one knows how to answer that either. However, it is important that we do something and thus actually buy time to achieve… what? Nobody knows.

From everything that has been said, it’s obvious that Kosovo is our fundamental phantasm.

It is obvious that even we ourselves are not clear about what we want from Kosovo and with Kosovo. Because for us it is not a real territory, with real people and the life that takes place among them, but an image. Something like a still life, or a painting of a Kosovo girl, which one simply hangs on the wall and admires its beauty. It´s something from the field of the imaginary, which suspends time, because while we stare at Kosovo, we are actually staring at eternity. Kosovo is to us what spontaneously comes to mind at a given moment, a concept whose meaning is determined only by us, guided exclusively by our fantasy. And there is no limit to that! And if by any chance the reality does not correspond to the concept – ha! – all the worse for reality.

From everything that has been said, it’s obvious that Kosovo is our fundamental phantasm. Because it is really the place of our trauma (although the trauma may not originally have anything to do with it), that we stopped and fixated – which is why time does not play any role role when it comes to Kosovo – and around which we have developed numerous narratives elaborated to smallest details (= masturbation fantasies), which all merge into one ‘big story’, which provides answers to all possible questions in our life and which is also ‘that something’, the Thing, the residue which can never be fully expressed in words or described well enough, but can still be very well understood and felt. If you are a true Serb. To that extent, it is a line that separates Serbs from those who are not. Because only we are capable of understanding what it is, without having to explain it to each other, it is understood among us that we know what it is – and it is something only ours, on which we have built our unique enjoyment. That’s why a good part of our identity really rests on it3. It really is the object of our deepest desire – even though it doesn’t belong to us at all, i.e. originally it was not our desire, but the desire of other, that’s precisely why it became our desire. And now we want that desire as our own and (we claim to) enjoy that desire, and at the same time we are very unhappy in that enjoyment.

That is why it seems to me that the ‘Kosovo problem’4 cannot be resolved, if this level of phantasm is not taken into account – and until now it has mostly not been taken into account. Because without that, the problem will continue to exist, regardless of which way we look for a solution to it: whether Kosovo is divided between Serbs and Albanians, whether it remains whole, whether it is 120% independent, or it suddenly returns to the state framework of Serbia, whether the Albanians decide to exile or kill all Serbs in Kosovo, whether the Serbs manage to exile or kill all Albanians in Kosovo, whether Kosovo and Serbia unite in the European Union, or in the form of some Balkan socialist (con)federation. So if we care about a permanent solution, we need to deal with the phantasm first.

Going through the phantasm

The problem with phantasm is solved by going through it, ie. by reconfiguring the subject’s relationship to the object of its desire. This would mean going through the positions in phantasm, whereby the subject would subjectivize the traumatic cause of its own becoming a subject, stepping into a place where up until then was only one unknown desire, the desire of the Other. The famous Freudian wo es war, soll ich werden. In other words, it is a process in which the subject subjectivizes the trauma, takes the traumatic event upon itself and takes responsibility for that enjoyment.5

Concretely, it could mean that we ask ourselves the very question from the beginning of this text: what is Kosovo to us? We can break down that question into a whole series of other questions, from how we experience it, to what kind of relationship do we have with it and what patterns of relationship do we keep repeating when we have it, as well as when we don’t have it? Where does those patterns come from, and then even to pose the question why? And what function do Kosovo Albanians have in everything? What is their role in our enjoyment? And what does all that have to do with enjoyment? Is any enjoyment there, has there ever been and will there ever be?

Let our first answers be the usual ones: Kosovo is our Holyland; it´s the “most expensive Serbian word”, it is Serbian Jerusalem… it doesn’t matter, just let them coming, and we will break down and analyze them in detail too. Then many other questions can be asked, following the principle of free associations, which will open up further questions and thus gradually map the phantasm, point out the symptoms and obstacles, feel the bulges and tensions, their mutual connections and symbioses, enable articulation of all previously unarticulated, insight hitherto unseen and those great a-ha! effects which accompany them and force to think and act further. To the point where this phantasm is described, elaborated and interpreted to such an extent, so for the most part it will lose its magical appeal and ‘that something’. And when we arrive to the stage where we only feel relief and in the end we are happy primarily because we are alive, we will know that we have successfully reached the end of this process.6

We need to SEPARATE the place of enjoyment from Kosovo and everything related to it, to move our enjoyment elsewhere, settle it around some other object of desire and build some new phantasm. In this way, we could perceive Kosovo separately from the question of enjoyment, which is why it would lose most of its meaning for us. In this way, we would release large amounts of blocked energy and potentials of both ourselves and the Kosovo Albanians, which could then be aimed in other directions and used for numerous other useful things and purposes. What things and purposes? Well, whatever we want!

English translation: Ivana Purtić


1The belief that someone had to betray in order for us to lose in the first place is a pattern that is found everywhere and at all times – so it is not exclusively ours, but it is very popular among us. And it has an important function even today.

2Slavoj Žižek, Metastaze uživanja (The Metastases of Enjoyment, Introduction made for the Serbian translation), XX vek, Beograd, 1996, 15.

3This is where the slogan ‘Kosovo is the heart of Serbia’ really hits the target, because it metaphorically summarizes the essence of this phantasm.

4By the ‘Kosovo problem’, I specifically mean a permanent crisis, a state of emergency and a constant threat of armed violence in the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo, which paralyzes and exhausts both these societies.

5Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1995.

6The perspective necessarily becomes different after that, which is why many fateful issues ‘suddenly’ seem to lose their weight. Thus, the recognition of independence will lose its importance and will be reduced from the Hamlet question of life and death to its true measure.

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