- Normalizing the Balkans: Geopolitics of Psychoanalysis and Psychiatry by Dušan I. Bjelić
What should we make of the fact that the ideological architects of the Bosnian genocide were psychiatrists well acquainted with psychoanalytic theory? This discomfiting question reverberates throughout Dušan Bjelić’s fierce and learned book. Where the American Psychiatric Association (1993) hastened to condemn Dr. Radovan Karadžić for “actions as a political leader,” actions that represented “a profound betrayal of the deeply humane values of medicine and psychiatry,” Bjelić argues forcefully that politics and psychiatry can never be separated from each other—especially with respect to the Balkans, whose political geography has helped to constitute the humane values that the APA claimed as universal. And where a number of Western psychoanalysts have since turned their professional sights on Karadžić and his mentor Jovan Rašković, seeking to discern in their childhood and adolescence the roots of their genocidal crimes, Bjelić would suggest that psychoanalysis can hardly be applied neutrally when its ways of imagining otherness were prerequisite for the execution of those very crimes.
Normalizing the Balkans contends that what propelled psychoanalysis on its violent course is an inherent geopolitics—a “foreign policy” obsessed with the Balkans’ putative otherness—that permeated Freud’s life and thought and was then absorbed by his theoretical heirs, both Balkan and Western. For Bjelić, psychoanalysis is fundamentally an orientalism in that its conception of civilized selfhood depends on the abjection of its primitive Balkan Doppelgänger—what Bjelić memorably calls Europe’s “inner Africa.” If to be Balkan is therefore never to be “normal” with respect to the West, then Balkan identity is perennially in want of correction, a violent normalization that Dr. Karadžić, for one, was happy to apply to the “insane geography” of the former Yugoslavia. The “Balkan” theorists Julia Kristeva and Slavoj Žižek share Freud’s (and Karadžić’s) orientalism, Blejič suggests, in that they all rely upon stereotypically degraded versions of the East when positing as the norm a psychoanalytic subject much less universal than each thinker can admit: “The work of Julia Kristeva and Slavoj Žižek, though not directly advocating violence, plays into the self-orientalization internalized into Balkan identity.” Even when, for instance, Žižek proclaimed that the geography of the Balkans “is structured like the unconscious of Europe,” his remark is said to further rather than resist the pathologizing terms of the West’s colonial dominance. Concluding with bravura readings of Leo Tolstoy, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Herman Melville that seem to offer less violent ways of imagining otherness, Normalizing the Balkans seeks to bring to consciousness what psychoanalysis has constitutively repressed—that [End Page 317] the Balkans” is less simply a geographical referent than part of a political orthopedics whose provenance and impact has to date remained elusive.
Though I fear the foregoing’s inadequacy as a description of this book’s complex polemic, I hope that it conveys the tone and the stakes of its provocative engagement with psychoanalysis and its geopolitical conditions. Though there is much here that I admire—situating Kristeva and Žižek in this context strikes me as particularly original and powerful—I find myself unpersuaded by the notion that orientalism is Freud’s fatal flaw, one that repeats itself unchanged decade after decade. Not that Freud could ever be immune to orientalism: Edward Said’s Freud and the Non-European (2003) makes clear that, in this respect as in others, Freud was very much of his time and place. The question is whether Freud is therefore only of his time and place—reducible, that is, to some constitutive part of what made Freud Freud. Bjelić seems to believe so. Freud is his orientalism, and Kristeva’s, Zizek’s, and Karadžić’s orientalisms are all in turn Freud’s. Indeed, there is only one orientalism, which, in Normalizing the Balkans, appears to have no history after Freud—a strange consequence for an argument that intends to recover what psychoanalysis repressed from the outset. Where we might have expected some...