- Guilt, Responsibility, and Denial: The Past at Stake in Post-Milošević Serbia by Eric Gordy
The intellectual integrity of cultural anthropology is based largely on its commitment to cultural relativism as a compelling notion. Cultural relativism is the principle from which the discipline achieves its sense of objectivity. Cultural differences are cherished as just that, cultural differences. No difference is stipulated as superior or inferior, better or worse. The commitment guards against ethnocentric judgments, colonizing prejudices, and, worst of all, grand theorizing. This ethos in cultural anthropology guides the recent book by Eric Gordy titled Guilt, Responsibility, and Denial: The Past at Stake in Post-Milošević Serbia.
While cultural initiatives rarely investigate and never sentence, they offer some of the keys to understanding that have been missing from political legal projects: the ability to hear and identify with the lived experiences of individuals, a route to engagement that participants in the public can understand, and an openness to interpretation that constitutes an invitation to dialogue.1
There is a contrasting notion in sociology to the principle of cultural relativism, namely, the assumption that social sociology has a valid knowledge-base and ethical responsibility from which to demonstrate how some societies are healthier than others and some social structures are better for community life. Certain normative orientations and collective sentiments are depicted as more functional for the vitality of human life and sociability. For example, human rights scholars assume that a genuine respect for the principle of human rights is good, good for people in society, good for their communities, and good for their governments. While Gordy understands this perspective, he critiques its unintended consequences. As Max Weber argued in his famous lecture, “Politics as a Vocation,” in politics, it is always necessary to employ force in realizing one’s values. Whenever force is employed, however, no matter how good the intentions behind the use of force, bad results follow or evil consequences occur. Weber calls this the ethical irrationality of the world, which is the reason for the sense of disenchantment that characterizes the spirit of the modern world. In politics, political actions with motives that are seemingly good can lead to bad results. The reverse is also true; political actions with motives that are seemingly bad can lead to good results. Weber calls this the paradox of consequences, an ever-repeating empirical and historical fact, and Gordy understands this matter well. Hubris informs the forceful use of law and legal process at the national and international level, and Gordy wants to debunk the hubris that guides international interventions in societies experiencing conflict and social violence. [End Page 473]
To introduce the structure of his book, Gordy writes, “The ordering of the chapters is meant to lead readers through the logic that brought the study from apparently clear and relatively simple moral questions to greater complexity and uncertainty, and to an insistence on the importance of the cultural and social context.”2 After simple moral questions implode upon themselves when confronted with empirical scrutiny and historical accounts, the significance of cultural variables within their own milieu and their own historical context assume their rightful place. Gordy demonstrates this truism in several ways: he analyzes surveys and opinion polls on the political attitudes and political self-understanding of people in Serbia; he critically reads newspaper reports and media commentaries on important political moments such as the arrest of Slobodan Milošević, the assassination of Zoran Djindjić, and the trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia of Vojislav Šešelj. He shares vignettes and personal memoirs from popular culture, and passes on folklore from everyday life in Serbia.
In the last chapter, Gordy undertakes a New Yorker style analysis of a recent iconic film, a snuff film titled “A Serbian Film.” The analysis is provocative in that it intellectualizes how the film does not romanticize the victim. In recent Eastern European cinema, Gordy points out that the victim is depicted as righteous by default...