Stef Jansen: Yearnings in the meantime

“Normal lives” and the state in a Sarajevo apartment complex

Yearnings in the Meantime is a volume of the “Dislocations” series published by Berghahn Books. The immense dislocations and suffering caused by neo-liberal globalization, the retreat of the welfare state in the last decades of the twentieth century, and the heightened military imperialism at the turn of the twenty-first century have raised urgent questions about the temporal and spatial dimensions of power. Through stimulating critical perspectives and new and cross-disciplinary frameworks, which reflect recent innovations in the social and human sciences, this series provides a forum for politically engaged, ethnographically informed, and theoretically incisive responses.

Jansen1Gdje to ima!? [Where does that exist!?] In contemporary Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), this common exclamation is a rhetorical question: whatever “that” is, it is thought to exist nowhere else. Such self-proclaimed exceptionalism runs parallel to outside dismissals of BiH as a basket case, and I consider it unhelpful as a framework for analysis. It is, however, of interest as an object of analysis. My recently published book Yearnings in the Meantime therefore tries to put this exceptionalism in its place and in its time. It asks, what is the specific “when” and “where” in which Bosnians come to feel that their predicament is exceptional? What are the conditions of possibility for their exasperated yearnings for “normal lives”?

My ethnographic study of everyday dynamics in an outlying apartment complex of Sarajevo (2008–2010) found that my interlocutors themselves—adults with continuity of residence before, during, and after the 1992–1995 war—reasoned about the “where” and “when” of their predicament. In turn, I frame their political reasonings in the spatiotemporal configuration called “Dayton” BiH after the United States airbase where the 1995 peace agreement was signed. My interlocutors had lived through vast changes, including sharp losses during the Serbian nationalist siege and dispossession at the hands of elites tucked up in war-facilitated local and global alliances. Through predatory privatization and party-political clientelism, the latter captured what remained of assets from the Yugoslav socialist era and channeled the incorporation of BiH into neoliberalizing globalization in a not-quite neoliberal manner. Yet for all this turmoil, a decade and a half into foreign-supervised Dayton BiH, the country was permeated by an affect centered on a sense of non-change, of being suspended between a war that had not really ended and a “Road into Europe” that was continually deferred. Entrapped in the European semi-periphery, people felt stuck in a seemingly endless “Meantime.”

My reconstruction of broadly shared concerns in this Dayton BiH Meantime—a particular constellation of “when” and “where”—resulted in a book that is haunted by many paradoxical slippages, just as the phenomena it describes. Here I comment on four of them.

First, this is a book about “normal lives” that aren’t. Conceived of as secure, ordered, modern, Fordist lives, with realistic aspirations for forward movement, they always remained out of reach. Continuously evoked but unobservable because no one believed they were actually there, “normal lives” appear as a central figure in my analysis because they draw in experiences from previous lives governed by (actually existing) Yugoslav socialist self-management and normative future projections shaping up in a world marked by neoliberalizing capitalist processes. In that way it is the figure of “normal lives” that drives my exercise of historicization.

Second, this is a book about a state that isn’t. Despite a vast, if dispersed, governmental apparatus, including in-country foreign supervision, my interlocutors lamented that “there was no system” in Dayton BiH. And without a “normal state,” they reasoned, “normal lives” could not unfold. Rather than detecting and denouncing state oppression and surveillance, so common in anthropological studies of statecraft, I thus trace people’s sense of abandonment and their exasperated desires to become legible, to be interpellated and governed. This is a story of an elusive state effect.

Third, this is a book about hope that isn’t. While I framed my research questions in terms of hope, more than a decade into the Dayton Meantime, my interlocutors did not really hope for “normal lives.” I argue that they yearned for them, longing to finally move on from the “dead point” at which they felt stuck. My turn to yearning is an attempt to contribute to the anthropology of hope by refining the terminology used to formulate our answers to its questions.

Fourth, this is a book about politics that isn’t. Despite my interlocutors’ pervasive critical commentary on the shortcomings of supervised BiH’s geopolitics and on dispossession by corrupt elites (largely organized in three parallel ethnonationalist pillars), such political reasoning mostly ended up being anti-political. For most Bosnians there is no politics outside of politika—the immoral play of crooked, kleptocratic party politicians. Going beyond my interlocutors’ diagnoses, the book therefore includes an attempt to mobilize a dynamic, materialist notion of hegemony to explain the longevity of despised yet repeatedly re-elected ruling elites.

With the later 2014 Winter Revolt in mind, I hope readers will find that the Dayton BiH Meantime allows us to crystallize a looming global challenge of our time: how to think oppositional politics beyond anti-politics and, particularly, how to mobilize popular moralizing resentment into projects that address questions of redistribution directly rather than through the categories of identitarian recognition that often seem to serve as its ventriloquist dummy. From a postsocialist, postwar vantage point in the European semi-periphery, this book thus seeks to contribute to conversations on how to understand the “when” and the “where” of political reasoning, asking how our past and current (geo)political location and conjuncture conditions our hopes and fears.

Stef Jansen is a Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester. He is also the co-editor of Struggles for Home: Violence, Hope and the Movement of People (Berghahn 2008, with S. Löfving) and has conducted ethnographic research in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina since 1996.

Cite as: Jansen, Stef. 2015. “Yearnings in the meantime: ‘Normal lives’ and the state in a Sarajevo apartment complex.” FocaalBlog. 14 October.