On the Injustice of Postmodernism: Peter Handke in Serbia


by Keith Doubt

When addressing the significance of postmodernism, it is helpful to keep in mind that the founders of postmodernism—Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Jacques Derrida—are admirers of the ancient Sophists. Foucault, for instance, identifies positively with Callicles in the Gorgias and Thrasymachus in the Republic. He resents the “reassuring dialectic” that Socrates employs to refute his ancient friends. It is as if Foucault believed that, if he were himself to encounter Socrates or someone like him, he, unlike his ancient friends, would remain firm in his defense of sophistry and antipathy toward Platonic philosophy and its metaphysical assumptions. Postmodernism is the revival and celebration of the Sophist’s overturning of ancient philosophy.

With the publication of A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia, translated by Scott Abbott (New York: Viking, 1997), Nobel Prize laureate Peter Handke exemplifies the postmodern understanding of evil. Shortly before the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord, Handke traveled to Belgrade and drove to the Drina River, thirty kilometers from the Srebrenica enclave, where five months earlier the Bosnian Serb Army and the Yugoslav People’s Army methodically massacred approximately eight thousand men and sadistically abused women and children in a United Nations declared safe haven.

Why did Handke travel to Serbia and record his reflections on its people?

It was principally because of the war that I wanted to go to Serbia, into the country of the so-called aggressors… Nearly all the photographs and reports of the last four years came from one side of the fronts or borders. When they occasionally came from the other side they seemed to me increasingly to be simply mirroring of the usual coordinated perspectives—distorted reflections in the very cells of our eyes and not eyewitness accounts. I felt the need to go behind the mirror; I felt the need to travel into the Serbia that became, with every article, every commentary, every analysis, less recognizable and more worthy of study, more worthy, simply of being seen. (A Journey, p. 2)

Handke opposes the one-sided news coverage of the violence in Bosnia. The more analysis and commentary there is about Serbia, the less understood Serbia is. News coverage simply bears witness against the people of Serbia. To counter this tendency, Handke wants to bear witness on behalf of the people of Serbia. Serbia now has the right, “simply, to be seen.”

What, though, do we get behind this mirror where journalistic representations no longer disfigure our vision? Handke makes this observation:

And on Serbian state television that farewell scene of President Milosevic, immediately prior to his departure for the peace talks in Dayton, Ohio: walking down a long line of military and civilian people on the runway and hugging each one long and hard, the whole time visible only from the back—the departing man for long minutes only as a picture from the back. (A Journey, p. 37)

When Handke watches Milosevic depart for Dayton, Ohio, what does he see? What do the people of Serbia see? Does Handke believe that the people of Serbia “simply” see?

At its best, Handke’s narrative takes pictures. As few words as possible are connected with these pictures. As little discourse as necessary frames the photographs and their significance. Whatever meanings are connected to the images appear random. The notion of randomness holds together the photograph and what it signifies. Walking on the Serbian bank of the Drina, Handke asks, “Was I being observed from the opposite bank? Nothing moved there in the ruins, or was it an unfinished building?” (A Journey, pp. 37-38). What do we see? Perhaps a destroyed building; perhaps an unfinished house. Concretely speaking, who can say? With the skeptical logic of probability, Handke protects the people of Serbia from the metaphysical certitude of Western journalists. Meaning is conditional. There are no absolutes, no necessary significance behind a picture. With the sword of deconstruction, Handke frees the people of Serbia from the onslaught of the world’s indignation. Such is the righteous sword of anti-righteousness that Handke, the postmodern prophet, dons.

According to Handke, the problem with most accounts of the violence in Bosnia is that they are constructions disfigured by moral perspectives, and, according to Handke, these accounts are unconnected to the actuality of events. Violence is not necessarily evil, and victims are not necessarily innocent.

Who can tell me I am mistaken or even malicious when, looking at the picture of the unrestrainedly crying face of a woman in close-up behind the bars of a prison camp, I see also the obedient following of directions given by the photographer of the international press agency outside the camp fence; and even in the way the woman clings to the wire I see something suggested by the picture merchant? (A Journey, pp. 20-21)

In a way, Handke is right. The relationship between a photograph and its meaning, an image and its significance, a signifier and its signified, is never absolute or impregnable; like any discursive relationship, the photograph of the unrestrained crying face of a woman and its meaning is conditional and subject to skepticism.

Handke wants to teach his readers that there is never an authentic relationship between an image and its significance except the randomness of its construction. There is never an essential, compelling, or integral relationship between a sign and the significance of what is signified. The relationship is always relative, never wholly authentic. Here is the postmodern truth that Handke heralds. Here is the notion of social intelligibility, which, according to Handke, is true not only for others’ but also for his own representations. Handke’s advantage is simply that he embraces the postmodern epistemology that insists upon the randomness of what we assume we understand, and disavows any principled character of discourse.

Handke wants to understand the Serbian people in an unfiltered way; he takes exception to authors who are unwilling to understand Serbs on their own terms, who fail “simply, to see” the people in Serbia. We understand Handke’s motive. We comprehend the conditions that provoke his action and the situation that centers it. What, however, we need to consider carefully is the normative orientation that makes sense of the author; his motive, his conditions, and his situation, that is, the value commitment that holds these different elements of his action together as a meaningful course of action.

According to Handke, to understand the people of Serbia, one needs to become like the people of Serbia:

And how would I, as a Serb in Croatia, have related to such a state, established as an enemy to me and my people? Would I have emigrated “home” over the Danube to Serbia, although perhaps deeply bound to the place, in part by generations of ancestors? Perhaps. Would I, even if suddenly a second-class citizen, even if a coerced citizen of Croatia, have remained in the country, reluctantly to be sure, sad, full of gallows humor, but in the service of precious peace? Perhaps. Or, had it been in my power, would I have taken up arms—naturally, only with many others of my peers and, in an emergency, even with the help of a disintegrating, aimless Yugoslavian army? Probably, or, if I were, as such a Serb, halfway young and without a family of my own, almost certainly. (p. 16)

Handke imagines himself as a Serb. He simulates what, according to him, it means to be a Serb. Notice the escalating and final content of each progression: “Would I have taken up arms…if I were, as such a Serb, halfway young and without a family of my own, almost certainly. And wasn’t that how the war began, as is well known, with the marching of the first Croatian state militia into the Serbian villages around Vukovar?” (A Journey, p. 16). The destruction of Vukovar did not start spontaneously like a forest fire. The Belgrade regime carefully planned and executed the urbicide; it was not a defensive response to a Croatian state militia, who at this time in 1991 were the Yugoslav police, marching into the Serbian villages around Vukovar. What would Handke have done during the war and why would he have done it?

If Handke bears witness on behalf of the people of Serbia, how does he do so? What is the self-consciousness Handke ascribes to the Serbian people? Handke’s particular mirroring of the Serbian self-consciousness resonates with the barbarian’s rejection of the stranger. There is, Georg Simmel argues, a positive meaning in the expression, “the stranger.” The stranger is a member of the group itself. The stranger is simultaneously familiar and remote, near and far, close and estranged. The expression “the stranger” indicates how differences are preserved and not encompassed, cherished and not collapsed in the culture of modern societies. The barbarian, though, is intolerant of the stranger. To the stranger, the barbarian says, “We cannot live together.” For the barbarian, there is no relation to the stranger. When, moreover, the stranger, culturally and historically, is a member of the group, the barbarian’s rejection of the stranger is violent. The more the stranger is a familiar member of the group, the more violent the barbarian’s rejection. The barbarian, in other words, disallows the stranger “the general characteristics one takes as peculiarly and merely human,” as Georg Simmel would say.

Let us take an example directly from Handke’s writing, “How, my immediate thought had been, is that ever supposed to end well, the high-handed establishment of a state by a single people—if the Serbo-Croatian-speaking Muslim descendants of Serbs in Bosnia are in fact a people—in a region to which two other peoples have a right, and the same right!” Handke’s conditional phrase, “If the Serbo-Croatian-speaking Muslim descendants of Serbs in Bosnia are in fact a people,” rejects the particular cultural identity of Bosniaks and denies the history of Bosnians in general. Handke negates the historical notion that Bosniaks as well as Bosnians are distinctive. It is true that the history of Bosnians is intertwined with the history of Serbs and Croats, but it is also true that the history of Bosnians is independent of Serbs and Croats. Only after the modern establishment of the Patriarchate of Belgrade did Orthodox Bosnians begin to see themselves as Bosnian Serbs. Under Turkish rule, the Orthodox Church was more favored in Bosnia than the Catholic Church; the Orthodox Church grew while the Catholic Church declined. Before the establishment of the Patriarchate of Belgrade, Bosnian Serbs did not think of themselves first as Serbs; they thought of themselves as Orthodox Bosnians. Not only Bosniaks, but also Bosnian Serbs have a distinct history from the Serbs in Serbia.

Notice the barbarian’s logic that undergirds Handke’s statement: “If the Serbo-Croatian-speaking Muslim descendants of Serbs in Bosnia are in fact a people” (The Journey, p. 18). On the one hand, if Bosniaks are distinct from Serbs, they have no relation to Serbs. On the other hand, if Bosniaks are not distinct from Serbs, they are the same as Serbs. They are derivative and do not exist as Bosniaks. Here is the logic that animated Serb propaganda and guided their genocidal activities in Bosnia. Not only does Handke simply hear, but he also simply echoes.

How does Handke’s postmodern travelogue help us understand evil? Taking another enigmatic picture, Handke writes the following:

In the main hall of the bus station, the destination board, as large as a monumental painting. Here the Cyrillic letters I had grown accustomed to felt like calligraphy: [Srebrenica] and under it, at the end [Zepa]. This tremendous and seemingly ancient board, however, was no longer valid. The current timetable had been pasted over a corner, a tiny, formlessly lettered piece of paper, and there were, for the two last-named places as well as others, no more departures. (The Journey, p. 71-72)

From Handke’s barbarian point of view, this lonely destination board in the main hall of the bus station is no longer valid. Strangers, who were members of the society called Yugoslavia (that is, the Serbo-Croatian-speaking Muslims who lived in Srebrenica and Tuzla) have recently been assaulted. They have been either driven out of their homes with unconscionable terror or sadistically murdered. How ancient then is this destination board? What culture, what values, and what normative orientation within a community do this ancient monumental painting represent? Handke takes pictures; he takes pictures randomly and indifferently, feeding parasitically off the interior meaning of the images that his prosaic camera captures indifferently.

There is, however, one image in Handke’s travelogue whose significance is not random, and this image is the Drina. The Drina becomes the guiding trope in Handke’s narrative.

And I squatted down there, which made the river stretch a little wider, nothing now from the tips of my Serbian winter shoes to the Bosnian bank except the water of the Drina, smoky cold.…Downriver, perhaps fewer than thirty kilometers, began, apparently, the region of the Srebrenica enclave. A child’s sandal broke the surface at my feet. (The Journey, p. 73)

What now links Handke’s Serbian winter boots with the Bosnian shore? Nothing. Nothing except the cold water of the Drina. Handke is not, as Schneider naively suggests, trying to build a bridge between enemies. If Handke were, standing there on the Serbian side of the Drina is where he would begin to build such a bridge. “A child’s sandal broke the surface at my feet.” Why didn’t Handke pick up the sandal? Why didn’t he ask where the sandal came from? Where is the child now? Handke allows the image to float by him and sink into the smoky, dark waters of indefinite possibilities.

For one brief moment, Handke crossed a bridge over the Drina from Serbia to Bosnia. Before quietly and quickly turning back, here is what he reports: “The border guard with the eyes of a sniper—or wasn’t it rather a kind of incurable, inaccessible sadness? Only a god could have relieved him of it, and in my eyes the empty, dark Drina flowed past as such a god, if a completely powerless one” (The Journey, p. 60). In Handke’s narrative, the Drina is an image whose significance is authentic. The Drina is Hanke’s muse from whom he discovers no foundation upon which to build a bridge between Bosnia and Serbia. This is the political point of his book. For Handke, the Drina represents a postmodern god, a living, ineffable, metaphysical, bottomless, impotent chasm, over whose waters it is impossible to build a bridge between Bosnia and Serbia despite the fact that such bridges have both historically and symbolically existed. Even postmodern prophets lapse into grand metanarratives, grand narratives whose import is totalizing and oppressive. Handke is human; he, too, needs order; he, too needs limits.

Handke admires the self-consciousness of the Serbian people, and he believes that the Serbian people live closer to reality than any other people. What normative element, what principle of justice, does Handke see himself bringing to the people of Serbia? Is it what they need? Handke recounts a striking event in Belgrade, and his narration of it shows the degree to which he is riveted to his simulation.

A kind of panel discussion was now supposed to take place about general conditions, about the Bosnian war, about the Bosnian Serbia, Serbian Serbia role in the war. For a long time we sat in near silence, edgy, at a loss, with a huge bottle of Frascati, and an ancient one at that.…And then gradually, as a matter of course, the subject changed to contemporary Yugoslavia. One man in the room finally literally screamed at how guilty the Serbia leaders were for the present suffering of their people, from the oppression of the Albanians in Kosovo to the thoughtless recognition of the Krajina Republic. It was an outcry, not an expression of opinion, not simply an oppositional voice from a cultural gathering in a dark room. (The Journey, pp. 48-49)

Handke has trouble tolerating this stranger, who, in fact, is a Serb. When the man speaks, Handke hears a scream expressing no opinion. Handke hears an animal rather than a human.

For Handke, if conditions are such that to speak one can only speak like a voiceless animal, the decision that preserves one’s humanity is silence. This man failed Handke’s criteria of what would preserve his humanity. Why? “And this Serb spoke only about his own leaders; the war dogs elsewhere were spared, as if their deeds themselves screamed to heaven, or to somewhere else” (The Journey, p. 50). For Handke, the man’s words (no matter how valid and compelling) carry no weight because they are only about Serbian leaders and not about other war dogs. Here is the logic behind Handke’s critique: one must first speak negatively of “them” before one can speak positively about “us.” Loyalty must first be demonstrated, and loyalty is demonstrated by speaking negatively about “them” and never about “us.” Handke’s account not only displays but also polices this rule of loyalty.

In Handke’s report, we hear of a voice that resists. From a moral point of view, this event at a panel discussion is heartening. However cosmopolitan the self-consciousness of the Serbian people, may or may not be; we are not interested in this self-consciousness. We are interested in their conscience. The reason Handke finds the Serbian people “overly self-conscious” is because the gap between their self-consciousness and conscience is great. Such is the work of evil. Evil destroys the relation between the self-consciousness of the subject and the conscience of the subject. For Handke, the Drina now symbolizes the void separating the self-consciousness and conscience of the Serbian people. “Only a god could have relieved him of it, and in my eyes the empty, dark Drina flowed past as such a god, if a completely powerless one” (The Journey, p. 60).

Handke rejects the man who speaks up; the man who demonstrates a significant relation between his self-consciousness and his conscience; the man who resists evil. Handke rejects as well the part of himself which identifies with this man:

Strange, however: although in this man’s presence I finally lost my sense that anything was official or calculated about the situation—rather than making statements, he suffered, angrily and transparently—I did not want to hear his damnation of his leaders; not here, in this space, nor in the city or the country; and not now, when a peace was perhaps in the works, after a war that had been started and finally probably decided with the help of foreign, utterly different powers. (That he then hugged me as we parted was, I thought there, because he felt understood, and I ask myself now whether his motivation wasn’t rather that he hadn’t.) (The Journey, p. 50)

This man abandons the role of voiceless barbarian, but Handke suffocates him with the nationalistic rhetoric from which the man himself wishes to escape. Handke disallows the man “the general characteristics one takes as peculiarly and merely human.” Indeed, the general characteristic that makes us peculiarly and merely human is the relation between our self-consciousness and our conscience. While the two are not interchangeable, neither are they independent of each other. Handke returns the man to the void from within which the man strongly objects to having been placed. In this interaction, Handke refuses to see an authentic human being living in an inauthentic society. Instead, Handke stipulates the barbarian’s banal line of reasoning: the Serbian leaders are not the ones who started the war; the war was started by foreign powers, foreign powers which are “utterly different,” in other words, non-Serbian.

But justice as a value is neither outmoded nor suspect. We must thus arrive at an idea and practice of justice that is not linked to that of consensus…any consensus on the rule defining a game and the “moves” playable within it must be local, in other words, agreed on by its present players and subject to eventual cancellation.
— Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge



A version of this essay appeared first in the literary journal, Izraz: Časopis za književnu i umjetničku kritiku, Spring 1999, Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

About the Author:

Keith Doubt is Professor of Sociology at Wittenburg University. He is the author of Towards a Sociology of Schizophrenia: Humanistic Reflections (University of Toronto Press), Sociology after Bosnia and Kosovo: Recovering Justice (Rowman & Littlefield), Sociologija nakon Bosne (Buybook, Sarajevo), Understanding Evil: Lessons from Bosnia (Fordham University Press), Through the Window: Kinship and Elopement in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Central European University Press), and, recently, Ethnic and National Identity in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Kinship and Solidarity in a Polyethnic Society (Lexington Books) co-authored with Adnan Tufekčić.