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Yearnings in the Meantime: “Normal Lives” and the State in a Sarajevo Apartment Complex

0 Comments 🕔29.Sep 2016

Debates over social transformation in post-Yugoslav societies have gained increasing prominence over recent years. Yearnings in the Meantime builds on a gathering body of ethnographic work in the region, including Jessica Greenberg’s (2014) work on youth, democracy, and the politics of disappointment in Serbia, Elissa Helm’s (2013) writing on gender and victimhood in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Andrew Gilbert’s (2013) research into the politics of social transformation. Each of these works aim, through the systematic study of people and their cultures, to move beyond the Balkanistic interpretations of structural studies that often limit any real understanding of the environment under the lens. These anthropological contributions pay particular attention to the notion of normalcy, explored both as a critique of local conditions and of resident’s expectations against European standards.

This engagement has provided a rich mining ground from which to extract and theorize practices, which are often perceived as apathetic, anti-political, and corrupt, enabling more nuanced debates around democratic, capitalist, and nationalist forms of imaginaries embedded within the contradictions and tensions across contemporary Europe. Following suit, Stef Jansen’s work, through a focus on everyday dynamics of the Sarajevo apartment complex of Dobrinja, constructs a critical portrait of people’s shared concerns in Dayton BiH.

The book is organized in three parts that intricately weave together four central themes of analysis: normal lives, the state, hope, and politics. As the most common way in which Jansen’s interlocutors phrased their hopes and fears, first it deals with figuring “normal lives.” Chapter one locates this through theoretical debates concerning an anthropology of yearning. Jansen engages with notions of normality, hope, and temporal reasoning as the backdrop on which to build a compelling critique against the normative and binary anthropological view of the world as either normal/stable or sensational/chaotic. This view, he argues, fails to take into account the temporal dimension, which would recognize extended periods of time where things are more moderate—abnormal/unstable—such as in post-socialist, post-war BiH.

This condition, Jansen argues, is based on the Dayton Peace Accord that brought an end to the 1990s conflict by dividing the country into three constitutionally mandated nationalist constituencies (Figure 1); a process which has largely perpetuated the very tension it was designed to resolve. The resultant expansive and fragmented governmental apparatus is often held to bear for the lack of normality of the state or the “lack of system” it produced, an analytic frame that Jansen contends elides the significant dimensions of everyday life. The emphasis is placed on the analysis of regimes of temporal political reasonings at a particular historical conjuncture in a particular location. The book therefore shifts the focus from identitarian categories of enquiry to embedding life trajectories—through past and projected lives—in the political ordering of sociality, because a “normal state” was considered fundamental to realizing normal lives in BiH.

Perhaps of greatest salience is Jansen’s argument against normative anthropological studies of the state. Through an analytical distinction between notions of statehood (what the state is, claims to be, and should be) and statecraft (what the state does, claims to do, and should do) the core argument is that it is less about “sightings of the state” and more about “the desire to be seen by it.” Rather than resisting state oppression and surveillance by circumventing its radar, Jansen inverts James Scott’s influential line of analysis by tracing people’s sense of abandonment and frustration to become legible and governed by it instead.

Chapter two charts this narrative through a number of everyday occurrences that illustrate the relationship between yearnings for normal lives and Dobrinjci’s daily requirements for ordering frameworks of statecraft. The concept of “gridding” is introduced using the example of waiting for Sarajevo’s notoriously unreliable bus system as a metaphor for people’s “grid desires” for forward movement. The debate is extended in Chapter three, both conceptually, and as a more radical understanding of the libertarian paradigm in the anthropology of the state. Dobrinja’s wartime staircase schools are employed as the example of the collapse of the state grid. Despite the abnormality of life under siege, Dobrinjci nevertheless maintained a sense of normality by ensuring that class continued, in an act Jansen refers to as “self-gridding.” This illustrates the hope for rather than against the state that contributes to an emerging body of anthropological work, which moves beyond registers of human agency framed in opposition to the state grid.

On my reading, the strongest insights are to be drawn from those concepts that bring together critical arguments with powerful analysis of people’s relationships to the state and thinking about their hopes for the future, which follows in the second section entitled Daytonitis. Daytonitis is the way in which the anatomy and constitutional symptoms of Dayton BiH systematically afflict normal life. Chapter four focuses on the lack of a system that was augmented by structural dispersion through the states over presence in its labyrinth-like structures and near absence in its grids. The case of housing and housing maintenance therefore narrates the reality of a state “not yet” and a state “not anymore.”

The second system, detailed in Chapter five, foregrounds BiH’s spatiotemporal entrapment, resulting in an overwhelming sense of “pattering in place” on the European “outside.” More than a decade after the war, Jansen argues that his interlocutors did not really hope for normal lives, rather they yearned for them, longing to progress from the deadpoint of the Dayton Meantime. In this way, the Dobrinja apartment complex provides the conduit through which Jansen explores broader and more widely applicable problems of stasis in post-socialist and post-war contexts.

The final section highlights the politics in the Dayton Meantime. The structural moral diagnosis by Dobrinjci of the lack of system and pattering in place held a great deal of political criticism, which nevertheless reinforced their engagement with politicians for clientalist rewards, along ethnonationalist party membership. Through a materialist understanding of hegemony, the final chapter explores the notion of anti-politics amongst Dobrinjci and the role of complicity in the persistent domination by a group of ruling elite.

In the midst of rapidly increasing inequality and suffering caused by neo-liberalisation, the retreat of the state in the second half of the twentieth century and sharp military imperialism at the turn of the twenty-first century, Yearnings in the Meantime thoughtfully and provocatively explores the conjuncture between the temporal and spatial dimensions in which we position our hopes and fears—the kinds of political configurations that exist and our geopolitical location.

It highlights the global challenge of moving beyond anti-politics by grappling with ways in which to direct growing moralizing resentment into actions that deal directly with issues of redistribution. Ultimately, Jansen confronts some of the most urgent political and academic debates surrounding citizen’s ties to their state and their projected futures. His contribution is of great significance beyond the discipline of anthropology alone. It provides an interdisciplinary understanding of post-socialist and post-war environments in stasis, struggling to achieve effective transformation. It may be a small hope, but it is nonetheless an important one, in which a book such as this might contribute not only to the awareness, but the response to such conditions.

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Figure 1. The Dayton Accord divided the country by imposing ethnic divisions, which created two government entities with further subdivisions: an ethnically cleansed Republika Srpska and the ethnically ordered Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Illustration © Bronwyn Kotzen (Kotzen & Garcia, 2014)

Reviewed by Bronwyn Kotzen, University of Witwatersrand

Yearnings in the Meantime: “Normal Lives” and the State in a Sarajevo Apartment Complex
by Stef Jansen
Berghahn Books
Hardcover / 262 pages / 2015
ISBN: 978-1-78238-650


Helm, E. (2013) Innocence and Victimhood: Gender, Nation, and Women’s Activism in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Greenberg, J. (2014) After the Revolution. Youth, Democracy, and the Politics of Disappointment in Serbia. Stanford University Press.

Gilber, A. (2013) “War and the Politics of Historical Imagination in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Srdja Pavlovic & Marko Zivkovic (eds.) Transcending Fratricide: Political Mythologies, Reconciliations, and the Uncertain Future in the former Yugoslavia. Baden-Baden; Nomos Verlag. 165-188.

Kotzen, B. & Garcia, S. (2014) “Politics Of Memory and Division in Post-Conflict Sarajevo.” In Kotzen, B & Garcia, S (eds.) Reconstructing Sarajevo: Negotiating Socio-political Complexity. London: London School of Economics & Political Science


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