Albert Hirschman Centre for Democracy
02 September 2022


Dragan Prole contributes to our commentary series on the Balkans and the challenges of democratic transformation.



Our premise is that Serbia lives in Europe as a stranger on the threshold; it is neither wholly inside nor entirely outside. There is no doubt that Serbia belongs to European soil in the geographical sense, it is also an integral part of its cultural and political history, but it is never complete, without exception. The consequence is reflected in the disharmony between Europe in general and the particularities of Serbia or the Balkans.

By its very definition, particularity is an immanent moment of the general. This means that in the particular, the general is not found as in some foreign body but in itself. The logic of the relationship between the general and the particular usually dictates concretization, a closer determination of the general through the particular. As such, Europe in itself does not mean much. The talk about Europe remains mere speculation until it is concretized, which means until it descends from the level of generality to particularity and individuality.

Europe is always something more than a set of nations. Europe is either an idea of ​​philosophical and scientific rationality freed from the admixture of myth and religion, as a political idea based on democratic participation, or a legal idea of ​​equality before the law, or an economic idea that observes with specific sensitivity the relationship between politics and economics.

Whether the idea of Europe has ever been at home in the Balkans and Serbia remains an open question. Can the Balkan uniqueness be taken as a medium to concretize what ‘European’ means and determine its essence? According to Bogoljub Šijaković, the Balkan “proximity” represents an opportunity for European self-understanding, even if it is tied to the dark sides of history: “The Balkans today might provide a chance for Europe to perceive its own violence and destructiveness, its hidden, yet familiar face.”[i] The impression is that, in its Southeast, Europe has always been on its own doorstep: it recognized its culture, heritage, customs, and food. On the other hand, Europe saw its Ottoman neighbour on that threshold. A rather profound imprint of Eastern actions and thoughts, sometimes fictitious and sometimes accurate, is written into the collective experience of who we are. In everyday life, it is about the state, law, tax, and government. The secret of the successful Europeanization of Serbia also includes dealing with all the elements of indiscipline, arrogance, and corruption. Under the tradition of Eurocentrism, these are usually identified as oriental origins: “A conscious differentiation from the Turks as imposed ‘others’ [...] created an internal conflict in tradition.” On the other hand, from Turkey's perspective, the Balkans are still synonymous with their European identity. Sometimes the same aspects of life, depending on the perspective, can be interpreted in opposite ways. What is oriental for modern Europeans is European for modern Turks.


The transitional status of the Balkans

Historically, peoples under centuries-old Ottoman occupation first had to emancipate themselves from the imposed legacy identified as far-reaching historical backwardness. To that extent, transition is not just a term that aptly names the processes after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since the beginnings of modern statehood, Serbs and their neighbors have practically been in a permanent transition from backward to advanced, from premodern to modern. The split between the real and the desirable, the encountered and the intended, seems to constitute a metahistorical constant: “What practically all descriptions of the Balkans offer as its central characteristic was a transitionary status. The West and the Orient are usually presented as incompatible entities, anti-worlds, but complete anti-worlds.”[ii] At first, the transitional efforts had a cultural dynamic that focused on the modernization of all aspects of life. It was necessary to make up for the centuries and bring the housing culture, traffic, education and health system, and production closer to the current European standards. To do this, former Ottoman subjects turned to Western Europe, but there they had to face the image of themselves as European “others.” This is where we come to the modern initiation of the Europe-Balkans contrast.

It is no coincidence that the very concept of the Balkans was constructed in the middle of the First Serbian Uprising and that its creator was a geographer (German Zeune, 1809). The drama of the nineteenth century was undoubtedly also geographical: with the weakening of Ottoman rule, the redefinition of borders in the European southeast was expected.

During that process, the dream of freedom and emancipation prevailed. The promise of liberty could not be that of equality, and the dialogue with Vienna, London, or Paris also brought awareness of the lower value of one’s own in the eyes of those same role models. The consequences were far-reaching: Europe never turned into the ‘soul’ of the Balkans. The reasons for this largely stem from geopolitical power relations. Freed from Ottoman rule, fed for decades by European cheers for freedom, the Serbs did not manage particularly skillfully, being caught in the power struggle of the European leading states.

On the other hand, the Balkan peninsula was never considered undisturbed and equal to itself, or identical. This slightly more extensive introduction was necessary for us to indicate that we interpret the Zenit project as the ‘most European’ of all our artistic collective achievements, but at the same time as a far-reaching testimony of the European and Serbian/Balkan conflict.

The formation of the Balkan identity as another from the point of view of European power centers necessarily came along with undesirable qualities. This is particularly visible in the slang of contemporary guest workers of Serbian origin who reaffirm the disqualification of their own country by referring to their trip to their homeland as going ‘down there.’ As if they were living in the West in some ontologically higher order, in some better world, and sometimes almost ‘forced’ to visit their homeland, which is located somewhere lower, below. As if there were a Western world and a lower, underground, ‘cave’ world. The special feature of the lower one is unregulated. It is also perceived as dirty – dirt is always a sign of the absence of regulation. This perception impacts the Balkans: “A polluting person is always in the wrong. He has developed some wrong condition or simply crossed some line which should not be crossed.”[iii]

Ljubomir Micić’s concept of barbarogenius puts a salient name on this proximity-and-distance dramaturgy between Europe and the South Slavs. For Micić, barbarian is not just a passive designation through which a subordinate instance acknowledges its inferiority. On the contrary, Micić’s determination of the barbarians goes from passive to offensive, because the mission of the barbarians is no longer to be the ‘other’ of – or in front of –  civilization. On the contrary, the barbarians are now the ones who are civilizing, moreover, ‘balkanizing’ Europe.

Micić’s concept of barbarogeny does not have any national cultural peculiarities. Therefore, there is nothing specifically Serbian or national about him that could be offered internationally, exchanged or made international. The barbaric in the avant-garde sense is not of the past and overcome, but of tomorrow and still unreached. Rather, it is about subjectivity that is not reconstructed by the memory of the beginnings of humanity. On the contrary, it has yet to come into existence. As such, the barbaric is an artistic product, it has nothing to do with tradition, neither Serbian nor Balkan customs. It is not good to be a barbarian in the former sense of the word, but it would be very good to become an avant-garde barbarian. To think barbarically does not mean evoking or simply repeating the forms and contents of a certain style of thinking, represented at the beginning of humanity. To think barbarically means to think creatively, authentically, freely, therefore so different from the spirit of the times, but also necessarily different from one's own national tradition. The innovativeness of barbarogeny, Micićs conceptual creation, the keyword of zenitism, at the formal level consisted first of all in recognizing the status of genius to the barbarian, until recently despised. What was black, or primitive, wildfor Western artists, became barbaric for Micić. All those terms had a common characteristic that they actually functioned as counter-terms, and that they arose as a kind of objection against the fantasy and artistic needs of the bourgeois European.

The avant-garde utopia of the "purgatory" of art aimed at a total displacement from the horizon of inauthenticity and alienation into an environment of undisturbed freedom and creativity. Hence, it perfectly agreed with the idea of ​​"cleansed" subjectivity, emancipated from all the corrupt deposits of failed ideals, rotten compromises with time, media, government and economy. Bearing in mind precisely such subjectivity, Boško Tokin defines the barbarian with the expected conceptual trio: beginning, possibility, creation. Therefore, we are talking about determinations that are the very opposite of tradition, realization, already created. The revolutionary tendency of the avant-gardists, and their sympathies towards revolutionary ideas, arose as a consequence of this understanding of subjectivity.

One hundred years after the first publication of the magazine Zenit (1921), we will analyze the appearance of early avant-gardes in the constitutive imbalance between the national and the international. The generality and supranational character of the New Man most often failed to amortize national particularity and even less to offer a solution for all national difficulties and challenges. The conflict between the general and the particular in the case of Europe and Serbia, that is, the whole ‘region’ of the so-called We define the Western Balkans as unresolved due to the specific position that Serbia and the Balkans traditionally occupy in the broader European horizon. After the post-war cry due to the destruction of European bourgeois culture, the massacred millions, and the destroyed youth, the impression of nakedness related to the tendencies toward the elemental, primary, i.e., primitive. To illustrate the longing for the primordial human, we will refer to Zenit contributor and promoter of the term “postmodern man,” Rudolf Panwitz. In his letter to Gerhart Hauptmann dated June 16, 1926, this philosopher of culture announced an unheard-of move from the Germanic to the Slavic world at the time, which was not motivated by official, business reasons but by a profound avant-garde aspiration towards the unity of art and life: “however close they are to me German values ​​made it impossible for me to live with Germans. I have the closest relationship with German culture and the German individual, but it is easier and preferable for me to live among the Slavs than among the Germans.”[iv] For most of his life between 1921 and 1948, Panwitz resided on the Koločep island near Dubrovnik and the neighboring island of Korčula. Zenitists, above all Micić and Gol, together with Panwitz, reckoned that the primary feeling is collective, not personal, and therefore close to man. If the new conceptual construct of barbarogenius was reserved for personal use, then the concept of the Balkans, i.e., the “Balkanization of Europe,” was responsible for the collective moment. In the works of Micić, these two terms rarely appear together, probably because they denote different perspectives, individual and collective.

That is why the interpretations that unite them and consider their mutual connection deserve special attention: “Barbarogenius [...] adapted for the Balkans, which provided him with equivalent civilizational counterpoints to Europe, namely in the images of hawkishness and Balkan primitivism, which can also be read as an ironic boomerang to Western Orientalism.”[v] We are convinced that Micić would vigorously and vehemently oppose this interpretation of the concept of the Balkans. Namely, Micić was convinced that the colloquial notion of a “primitive” and a harsh and crude ‘hajduk’ (guerrilla fighter) whose ethos knows neither morality nor shame, but only grabbing and snatching from others, represented a calculated strategy of Western European portrayal of South Slavic peoples.

Instead of accepting and appropriating epithets, which necessarily lead to the formation of an inferiority complex, Micić tried to “revalue” the Balkans and enable it to become a positive creation instead of a burdensome ballast. It is by no means that the geopolitical calculations of the superpowers, European greed and aggressive imperialism cannot be defeated or overcome by forcing the lowest characters of humanity. Instead, Micić proposes “a strong will and a strong personality beyond all traditions,”[vi] which means that his vision of the ‘Balkans’ has nothing to do with heritage and especially has nothing in common with the indisputably present and rooted hajdučija in terms of public action from the other side law and order. It seems that the firm will of members of unaffirmed cultures that have just freed themselves from centuries-old occupiers and formed their own state is all the pledge that Micić’s concept of the Balkans expresses. They are unencumbered by tradition, do not carry the heavy burden of cultural heritage, and have an intense desire to express themselves and present themselves on the international stage. Suppose the balkanization of Europe could connect to the project of “decivilization.” In that case, this connection has nothing in common with some alleged spread of separatism, aggressiveness towards the neighbor, or emphasizing one’s own at the expense of the other. This means that the suggestion of balkanization as decivilization is opposed by foreign words “in German Balkanisieren, in French balkaniser, in Italian balkanizzare and in English to balcanize,” which means that it does not refer to divisions and mutual enmity.[vii] On the contrary, to decivilize Europe means to break with all elements of parasitic existence and outdated power relations, which have a particularly unfavorable effect on new actors, inexperienced on the European stage. To barbarize means to decivilize, in the sense of discontinuity with the inherited institution of art, but also with the warlike colonialism on which bourgeois Europe was born.

Micić defines “primitiveness” as follows: there is the Western European, who does not see the paradoxical nature of his effort to achieve immediacy with the help of imitation, which is mediated by its very concept: “The West is consciously forcing primitiveness (new imitation). They in turn fall into the mistake of becoming modern naturalists. Differentiation: nature and human naivety stood behind the old unconscious primitiveness. Behind the new conscious primitiveness stands culture and human sophistication. Therefore, culture is used to refine primitiveness – regression.”[viii]

It is impossible to be original, authentic, and immediate if you are not that by yourself, but only by others, in an effort to be like them or to create like them. This is the contradictory character of the Western trend of avant-garde ‘primitivism.’ However, Micić falls from this constructed primitiveness into naturalism: convinced that he has around him an invisible but gifted community of unadulterated creatives who will achieve unprecedented success if they are given the right opportunities to do so, Micić, it turned out, once again demonstrated his personal naivety.


The unresolved conflict between the national and the European

Avant-garde artists agreed with the initially romantic idea that creative truth is present only in the absolute freedom of subjectivity.[1][ix] However, unlike the romantics, they no longer saw such freedom in the contact with the past or a foreign culture. Instead, a step beyond thought, i.e., an abandonment of rationality, was the only source of legitimation. Where the origin of one’s own vitality is established on the other side of consensually accessible ideas, the only remaining source of gathering is the medium of movement, displacement, and revision of current poetics. This is precisely what Ljubomir Micić lacked. When he starts to repeat himself, the avant-gardist ceases to be an avant-gardist. His departure from tradition cannot become a tradition itself, but he must also abandon and deny himself. On the declarative level, such self-denial exists in Micić, but a personal poetic transformation does not accompany it. When we remember the Dadaist imperative from Cafe Voltaire that there is no repetition of the same performances, no same program, no same evenings, we are faced with an artistic task that is extremely difficult to solve. However, the avant-garde showed disdain for art, convinced that it must cease to exist and become something else, namely life. At the same time, leaving art and entering life necessarily introduces heterogeneous moments that might be foreign to art.

For the sake of illustration, one of the first critical reactions to the appearance of Zenit stands out, according to which it is an international artistic mimicry, but surprisingly not Serbian, but German national interests. Ivan Gol's collaborative hand in writing the Manifesto of Zenitism, his poem Paris brennt written and published in German, as well as the unusual for the standards of the time, the presence of other collaborators from the German-speaking area did not go unnoticed. Admittedly, the magazine represented a novelty by publishing articles in the languages ​​of their authors, so one could also talk about Russian, French or Italian interests. Be that as it may, the Croatian journal from Osijek on August 4, 1922, noted that “Zenitism carries within itself the symbiosis of German propaganda in the Balkans, under the guise of internationalism.” We did not single out this critical remark as an example of a successful insight, but rather as the diagnosis of a missed symptom in this particular case.

It still hit something in its failure. In principle, the phenomenon of barbarogenius can be defined as an artistic expression of critical political awareness for the conflict between the national and the European in ourselves, which has not been resolved to this day. Since his name is associated with the power of starting over, we can only hope this conflict will be resolved one day. Is the confluence of historical circumstances responsible for Micić’s fate, for the permanent misunderstanding and conflict with both nationalist rightists and internationalist leftists? His concepts undoubtedly remain an extraordinary challenge for understanding historical changes, the awakening of early avant-gardes, and attempts to communicate with the European West without an inferiority complex with the help of new conceptual creations. An important lesson a country can learn from an individual is that becoming who you are and staying the same are not interchangeable phrases.


Dragan Prole is Full Professor at Faculty of Philosophy, University of Novi Sad.


Read more about our commentary series on the Balkans and the challenges of democratic transformation HERE.




[1] Maurice Blanchot, “LAtheneum,” L’Entretien infini, Gallimard, Paris 1969, p. 525.

[i] Bogoljub Šijaković, A Critique of Balcanistic Discourse. Contribution to the Phenomenology of Balkan “Otherness,” Serbian Literary Company, Toronto, 2004, p. 93.

[ii] Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, Oxford University Press, Oxford [et al.] 2009, p. 15.

[iii] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger. An Analysis of the Concept of Pollution and Taboo, Routledge, London/New York 2002, p. 164.

[iv] Thurit Kriener/Gabriella Rovagnoti, Dionysische Perspektiven. Gerhart Hauptmanns Novelle “Der Ketzer von Soana” und sein Brifwechsel mit Rudolf Panwitz, Erich Schmidt, Berlin 2005, p. 123.

[v] Saša Ilić, “Ljubav i smrt posle avangarde,” Anuška Micić/Ljubomir Micić, Strašna komedija. Prepiska 1920-1960, Narodna biblioteka Srbije, Beograd 2021, prir. S. Ilić/D. Peruničić, p. 21.

[vi] Ljubomir Micić, “Čovek + život,” Zenit 1921/10, Zagreb, p. 12.

[vii] Vesna Goldsworthy, Inventing Ruritania. The Imperialism of the Imagination, Yale University Press, New Haven/London 1998, p. 5.

[viii] Ljubomir Micić, “Čovek + život,” Zenit 1921/10, Zagreb, p. 12.

[ix] Maurice Blanchot, “LAtheneum,” L’Entretien infini, Gallimard, Paris 1969, p. 525.