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A New Peasant Question: Confronting Epistemic and Material Dispossession in the Yugoslav Region

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A New Peasant Question exposes how the invalidation of peasant knowledge over the past two hundred years has covered over the violent dispossession and exploitation of peasant populations in the Yugoslav region. This research builds on previous work in folklore, anthropology, and performance studies, which has problematized the colonial investments of anthropology and the racism undergirding white modern artists’ infatuation with the visual cultures of colonized peoples. The dissertation extends this line of analysis to representations of Yugoslav peasants and their cultural practices (most commonly referred to as “folklore”). I consider how and why peasants in the Yugoslav region came to be widely seen as backwards, superstitious, and obstinate. To understand this process and its consequences, I examine ethnographic photography, peasant painting, nationalist folklore, performance and video art, and contemporary village healing practices. Combining visual and discourse analysis with ethnographic and archival research methods, this dissertation traces the changing representations of peasants’ relationships to land in the Yugoslav region from the turn of the nineteenth century to the present. As the Yugoslav region currently witnesses some of the worst air quality in the world, an unresolved waste management crisis, and the damming of the last “wild rivers” in Europe, the enduring contradictions of nineteenth and twentieth-century responses to the Peasant Question provoke us to both think critically about the peasant’s historical trajectory in the region and also find opportunities for actualizing alternative horizons.

The dissertation begins with an introduction, which sketches out the history of the Yugoslav region, the history of political and aesthetic representations of the peasant, and the convergent histories of peasant dispossession and European colonial conquest. Following the introduction, the dissertation contains five body chapters that address different structural and historical dimensions of the peasant’s aesthetic and cultural role in Yugoslav political projects over the last one hundred years. The first chapter examines ethnographic village photography produced by ethnographers from Serbia and the Habsburg metropole prior to the First World War. Ethnographic photography and related Romantic discourses on Balkan peasants of this period reveal how imperialists sought to take the peasant out of time in order to invalidate their claims to land and self-determination. The second chapter pulls apart the relationship between communist fine artists and peasant artists in interwar Croatia and analyzes the significant role of self-taught peasant artists in Yugoslav socialism. An anti-Romantic contrast to the pre-war period, the communist-peasant-artist alliances of the interwar period through the early days of socialist Yugoslavia authoritatively recognize peasants as agents of political transformation. The third chapter examines the capture of folklore by Serbian nationalists during the Yugoslav Wars. Tracing the invention of nationalist folklore back to the early-nineteenth century, I argue for the recuperation of popular traditions that have been excluded from the official oeuvre of Yugoslav folklore. The fourth chapter addresses the invocation of rural Balkan traditions by performance and video artists in the postsocialist period. The postsocialist period is characterized by contradiction, thus we see the simultaneous use of Balkan traditions as a critique of imposed austerity and the dismantling of social welfare as well as the revival of a Romantic representation of the rural subject as someone outside of time, without a political life or future. The final chapter analyzes the contemporary experiences of women and men in rural Serbia and North Macedonia, who practice ecologically-engaged forms of traditional medicine while negotiating the precarious material conditions of the village. In this chapter, I demonstrate how traditional healers’ anti-essentialist vision of bodies and the natural world provides an enduring Balkan anticapitalist model for revolutionary praxis. The conclusion reflects on all previous chapters and argues for the importance of continued research on peasant knowledges and practices in our present global context of food insecurity and climate catastrophe.

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This item is under embargo until May 27, 2024.