Meditations on crises and time in Southeastern Europe

in Focaal
View More View Less
  • 1 Central European University

Jansen, Stef. 2015. Yearnings in the meantime: “Normal lives” and the state in a Sarajevo apartment complex. Dislocations. New York: Berghahn Books.

Knight, Daniel M. 2015. History, time, and economic crisis in Central Greece. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

These two ethnographies deal with crises in the Balkan region through the lens of the mundane, everyday occurrences, and senses of time; David M. Knight narrates of life and temporality in the Greek lowlands amid the financial crisis, and Stef Jansen delivers an account of people feeling profoundly trapped in the postwar “meantime” in an apartment building in Sarajevo. To use Jansen’s term, the books provide a testimony on how “abnormal” times are experienced and handled by their informants, whether through a focus on the state, as in Jansen’s case, or on historicity, as in Knight’s one.

History, Time, and Economic Crisis in Central Greece describes how people in Trikala on the plain of Thessaly reach out towards selective instances of the past that assist them in understanding the turmoil around them. To navigate through the rich ethnographic material that he gathered, Knight uses the term “cultural proximity” inspired by Michel Serres (1995), denoting that distant moments in time can seem close or even superimposed on each other in times of dramatic societal changes. Knight opens his analysis by covering the main recurring themes that surprisingly acquired coevalness in present-day Trikala—the return of the occupation(s) spanning from the Ottomans, the totalitarian land-lords Tsiflikades, all the way to the Axis occupation in World War II and the famine that took place in Greece during the war. The occupations narrative is especially fluid, as the different eras seem condensed, with informants freely floating from one era to another in their accounts. Belief that the little people always bear the consequences and a blame assigned to the Troika and the inner collaborators for the crisis are reflected in a conviction that nothing’s changed for hundreds of years and that suddenly, the past has returned knocking on peoples’ doors. Similarly, famine is collectively narrated as a present-day reality and an integral idiom of oppression and suffering of the Greeks. With hunger and a lack of food in the focus of everyday conversations, Trikala inhabitants not only relate to the graveness of the situation but also look for hope that even the most dramatic crises can be overcome. Knight thus shows how such polytemporal explanations have the power to cloud the present and serve as guidance for the future.

The author also analyzes why some of the past events have entered the contemporary discourse while others are kept silent in the town. Here, Knight coins the term “selective proximity,” signaling the messiness of historical imagination. He demonstrates how people choose the themes and events that suit them, as well as abandon others, especially the ones that are too divisive or painful to resort to. However, it should be noted that Knight’s analysis of why some historical themes appear in one place and not in another is probably the weakest point of the book, as he seems reluctant to explain how exactly traumatic events lose or keep their emotional charge in different places. As a result, we get the impression of the inherently contingent nature of cultural proximity, while missing a compelling argument about why and how it works.

The remaining chapters of Knight’s book are more tightly bound to the canon of Mediterraneanist anthropology, devoted to the issues of transforming presentations in the public sphere and status games in the town. The author gives a good taste of how people never cease to compete for status through consumption, even as they are forced to adjust to financial hardship. Additionally, we get to understand the continued presence of the people in cafés and bars—steadily vilified by Northern European observers—as a gesture of resilience and solidarity.

Overall, the study is an intriguing addition to our understanding of the immense impact that the Greek crisis has on individual lives and the wider fabric of society. Even though the cultural proximity argument in the first chapters eventually becomes a bit repetitive, the book is written in a highly readable and accessible manner and has potential to reach out even toward a nonacademic audience.

Jansen’s work Yearnings in the Meantime: “Normal Lives” and the State in a Sarajevo Apartment Complex paints an almost opposite image of temporal suspension experienced by the inhabitants of a neighborhood on the periphery of Sarajevo. The informants in the book seem to be stuck in a temporal limbo, yearning for the return of “normality” to their lives while not openly daring to hope anymore. The abstention from hope stems from their realization that the desired normal seems to be either too far in the rosy prewar Yugoslav past or somewhere in an unreachable “European” future that cannot even be concretely conceived.

Already in the introduction, Jansen delivers several intriguing theoretical points that he elaborates on with ethnographic examples throughout the book. The theoretical richness of his work and thoughtful engagement with current scholarship on hope, time, normality, and many other topics is impressive. The first such discussion is provoked by the emic notion of “normality” that he identifies in the field. Instead of a slow routinization expected by the literature, Sarajevans have never “stopped noticing” and never conceded that whatever they have been going through in the past decades could ever be considered “normal.” Instead, normality is located in the Yugoslav past and hoped-for European future. Here, Jansen also suggests that many social crises are in fact not turbulent social occurrences but rather take the form of slow, grinding suspensions that refuse to go away.

The author also shows what exactly constitutes the omnipresent normality that his informants invoke. First, he attentively demonstrates how they wish for regular bus arrivals and reliable bureaucracy and school schedules—in short, for functioning public institutions. In contrast to the libertarian literature influenced by James Scott’s Seeing Like the State (1998), Jansen tells us that Sarajevans actually yearn to be seen by the state. Moreover, they also want to see the efficient state themselves. To conceptualize the finding, the author coins the term “gridding,” denoting a desired regularity and predictability that one expects from the state but that is not on offer. During the war, the grids have even been substituted through people’s self-organization-, as the informants proudly recall trying hard to recreate a sense of normality and rigor in the times of hardship. Through such images, it is demonstrated that the grid desire and hope for the presence of the state are at the core of “the normal” that Sarajevans yearn for. Here, Jansen introduces a crucial conceptual distinction between statecraft and statehood that he rightly considers as a major intervention of the book. Statehood is defined as “what state is, claims to be, should be,” while statecraft is “what it does, claims to do, should do” (12). Insisting on the divide allows Jansen to show how the statecraft of a routinely contested state is kept messy, “without system,” and without efficiency, itself somehow stuck, just like the inhabitants themselves.

Jansen’s ethnography is captivating as well as theoretically challenging and deserves the attention of regionalist scholars as well as that of generalists. It paints a vivid picture of everyday life in contemporary Sarajevo and thoughtfully engages with academic debates on normalcy versus crisis, state, and hope.

One of the most salient underlying themes that bind both studies in this review is their approach to the question of time and how people experience the flow of time in moments of dislocation. The perspectives of Jansen and Knight seem to be almost opposite, following the opposite ways of relating to crisis or “abnormality” in postsocialist/postwar Sarajevo and rural Greece. Knight shows how inhabitants of the Greek lowlands come to terms with the grim reality of crisis by employing imageries of past hardships to make sense of their situation. By bouncing around history and experiencing past events as if they were happening now, his informants find both clues for explaining the critical periods and sparks of hope and inspiration. In this manner, the linearity of time is shattered and replaced by a “topological” understanding of temporality, with different historical instances muddled together and organized through contingent yet logical thematic threads. Their comments suggesting that the famine is back or that Greece has been facing yet another occupation not only condense the past and present but also outline the visions of the future. Knight also comments that some of the events such as the famine did not really impact the Trikala region. However, its imagery replicates a nationwide discourse that encompasses all Greek inhabitants and generates a strong sense of solidarity and boundedness—with current as well as past compatriots.

Quite unlike the inhabitants of Trikala, inhabitants of Sarajevo painfully realize that they live in neither the past nor the wished-for future, where everything would be normal again. In emic understanding of their situation, Sarajevans find themselves expelled from a linearly progressive timeline of “normal lives.” Jansen shows how his informants share a profoundly modernist understanding that life should be teleologically moving forward, accompanied with at least some progress. In such a life, one would be able to plan and achieve things, to have a future—a feeling that seems almost exotic in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here, Jansen’s account echoes wider East European hopes that arose in the late 1980s with the regime changes and that were almost completely shattered by the reality of the neoliberal transformation; nowhere has this disillusionment probably been as grave as in the former Yugoslav countries, wretched by a bloody conflict and consequent political isolation. In such an extreme situation, the past is invoked as the time when there seemed to be a future and when one could find “normalcy” (as perceived by the informants). If Trikalinoi console themselves through immersion into a discourse filled with historicity, hinting that whatever is happening has been here before and will come again, Sarajevans insist on the exceptionality of their temporal situation. And not only within Bosnian timelines: as Bosnians sigh, “Pa gdje to ima?” or, “Where do you have this?”

The intriguing question arising from the two studies is why times of hardship brought in such different forms of popular temporal positioning. A possible explanation may be found in the distinction between “the crisis” and “the meantime-.” First, one should note that even though Knight goes out of his way to show transgressions of linear temporal scales, when his informants speak about their precrisis lives, they seem fully immersed in modernist, linear time. A belief in progress, stability, and perpetual growth has been present in lowland Greece as long as the stocks were growing—not different from Sarajevans’ accounts. The sudden, crippling crisis thus literally ripped linearity out of Trikalinoi’s lives and made them replace it, it seems, with a programmatic temporal mishmash.

Still, many of the past events that Trikalinoi are invoking are relatively short-term occurrences that had a clear start and an end—here, especially, the ends have a crucial value for the hopes of the people. As such, they correspond to the expectations of the crisis narrative used in Greece: a temporary suspension of the otherwise progressive course of things. But what if such suspension takes much longer than commonly expected? What if the dramatic event of crisis itself is somehow weathered yet replaced by a prolonged limbo, in which the turmoil is gone but nothing feels quite right anyway? An answer can eventually be found in Jansen’s work. His informants in Sarajevo very well know that their situation is abnormal, but waiting for the return of the yearned-for linearity has taken too long and turned into a never-ending plaintive meantime. Compared to the war, their current situation has lost the urgency of a turbulent crisis. No one likens current circumstances of stagnation to the violent hardships of the recent past. Yet, they can still compare their lives to the perceived past orderliness of life. Similarly, a future under the Daytonian suspension cannot be conceived of; the only feasible way to keep on going is envisioning a future, where things are different for the better, where things have become “normal” once more, however far away that might be.

The years spent yearning also wash away any revolutionary, angry, or, on the contrary, optimistic and determined attitudes and leave the people with a reluctance to engage with anything identified as a source of prolonged abnormality, whether in a positive or negative sense. An example of this can be found in authors’ respective descriptions of conviviality and protest. When Greeks are forced to make compromises with the institutions, they loudly and defiantly proclaim it to be an act of succumbing to the occupation in order to save one’s meager livelihood. When Sarajevans are forced to comply by turning to clientelist networks to get a job or to get something done by the administration, they feel ashamed and silence it, inherently knowing it to be practice that goes directly against their yearned-for image of future normality. On the other side of the spectrum, Greeks protest and vocally manifest their political stance against the local and foreign individuals and institutions blamed for the crisis. Sarajevans instead resort to perpetual complaining, in which only small tangible improvements or, on the contrary, utopian future projects can be conceived. And even when people take to the streets, their protests tend to remain deeply antipolitical.

Apart from the issue of duration, we could ponder about differing depths of crises and their effects on the two societies. While in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the whole political system collapsed and was replaced by a new one with thin legitimacy, the system in Greece remains largely intact, with only minor alterations. Greek citizens had a chance to turn to emergency loans and did not face a breakdown that would come anywhere close to what happened in Yugoslavia before, during, and after the war. Greece has continued to be embedded in international structures and the basic gridding processes have thus been conserved. Among other things, this problematizes Jansen’s assumption that gridding comes from state governments and suggests that we should not forget to look beyond national units.

Along the same lines, by reading monographs dealing with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Greece alongside each other, it becomes striking to see how authors may follow completely different regionalist anthropological traditions despite their obvious geographical proximity. Bringing the two together reveals a lucid comparison that few people expect to be made—maybe this must change.


  • Scott, James. 1998. Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Serres, Michel. 1995. Conversations on science, culture, and time. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Contributor Notes

Jana Hrckova is a PhD candidate at the Central European University in Budapest. She currently resides in Warsaw, where she is pursuing her fieldwork research on vacant and leftover spaces in the city. E-mail:


Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology

  • Scott, James. 1998. Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Serres, Michel. 1995. Conversations on science, culture, and time. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 14 14 1
PDF Downloads 3 3 0