Monday, July 12, 2010

In recent scholarship, Homo Balkanicus has been depicted as a person emergent in a region either dominated by progressive nationalization (and therefore differentiation), or by stagnant sameness, especially in its historical discursive role as ‘Europe’s’ other. Though analytically divergent, both of these arguments ‘parochialize’[1] Balkan identity by creating unambiguous cultural types bound to a defined geographical space. My work (attempts) to examine the Balkans’ oft-forgotten history of resource extraction and attempts to both ‘deparochialize’ Homo Balkanicus and destabilize the notion of a Balkan cultural area by examining the deep history and structures of mobility necessitated by extractive industry.

Lately, I've been examining the diaries of Dragutin Lerman, a member of Stanley’s exploratory mission to West Africa and eventual governor in Leopold II’s Congo Free State. Disillusioned with Belgium’s exploitation of Congolese labour in its copper mines, yet aware of the potential of mining as a society-altering practice, Lerman returned first to his native Po┼żega and then to Central Bosnia to engage in mining ventures of his own. Armed with both knowledge of colonial rule as well as Belgian, Habsburg and Ottoman investors, this Homo Balkanicus was defined not by a cultural area, but rather by the flexibility acquired on the edges of empires. Lerman's ability to mobilize trans-imperial and trans-national political, investment and labour networks allows us to see Homo Balkanicus as an industrial practitioner, whose multiple roles in the act of cultural negotiation ultimately crucial to capitalist formation, cemented the intercourse of various colonial politics and economic systems over vast distances. The microhistorical perspective offered by Lerman’s diary on his everyday interactions with a range of characters renders inert the idea of the Balkans as ‘separate’ but rather sees Homo Balkanicus as creative and constitutive of a world-scale. Some excerpts from Lerman's letters from the Congo to follow...

[1] Ho, Engseng., “Before parochialization: Diasporic Arabs cast in creole waters” in Transcending Borders: Arabs, Politics, Trade and Islam in Southeast Asia. Ed. Huub de Jonge and Nico Kaptein. Leiden: 2002