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The Likeness: Semblance and Self in Slovene Society

The Likeness: Semblance and Self in Slovene Society

Автором Gretchen Bakke

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The Likeness: Semblance and Self in Slovene Society

Автором Gretchen Bakke

293 pages
4 hours
May 19, 2020


The Likeness is a close ethnographic study of subjectivity in the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia. In this highly imaginative work, the author argues that much of what matters in Slovenia plays out on surfaces—of people and things, systems and locations—rendering the complexity of expression external and legible, but rarely unique or original. Here likenesses are everywhere in bloom and powerfully deployed. Moving blithely from Slovenia’s most famous thinkers to its most confounding artists, from grammatical categories of number to the particularities of history, The Likeness explores alternative modes of self-expression as postsocialist Slovenia gains visibility on the world stage.
May 19, 2020

Об авторе

Gretchen Bakke is a cultural anthropologist at the Institute for European Ethnology at Humboldt University in Berlin. She is the author of The Grid: The Fraying Wires between Americans and Our Energy Future and a coeditor of Between Matter and Method: Encounters in Anthropology and Art and Anthropology of the Arts: A Reader.

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The Likeness - Gretchen Bakke

The Likeness


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The Likeness


Gretchen Bakke


University of California Press

Oakland, California

© 2020 by Gretchen Bakke

Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress.

ISBN 9780520320031 (cloth : alk. paper)

ISBN 9780520320048 (pbk. : alk. paper)

ISBN 9780520974173 (ebook)

Manufactured in the United States of America

29  28  27  26  25  24  23  22  21  20

10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1

With thanks, to Georges Bataille

Time and again for more than two millennia the people we call Western have been haunted by the specter of their own inner being: an apparition of human nature so avaricious and contentious that, unless it is somehow governed it will reduce society to anarchy.

Marshall Sahlins, 2008

Couples are wholes and not wholes, what agrees disagrees, the concordant is discordant

Heraclitus, -535 (give or take)


List of Illustrations

Preface: Andandpersand


I. Of Semblances and . . .

II. Of Selves

A Break in the Pattern

Chapter 1

I. Walter Benjamin, Ljubljana, 1986

II. Walter Benjamin (et al.) Speaks His Mind, Ljubljana, 1986 (2001, 2003)

Chapter 2

I. Technologies of Self-Protection

II. By the very cunning of the scene

Portraits of a Three-Headed Mountain (1968, 2004, 2007)

Chapter 3

I. Two in the Same: Janez Janša, Janez Janša, Janez Janša, and Janez Janša

II. This Is Going to Hurt a Little

Chapter 4

I. Is Slavoj Žižek Full of Shit?

II. More on the Same Subject

Chapter 5

I. Inside the Body Is Blood and Bone

II. . . . or at least fail while trying

Afterword: Melania Trump (née Melanija Knavs)





1. Slovenia in Europe

2. Laibach on Mount Triglav

3. Makrolab

4. Melania in her I Really Don’t Care Do You? jacket

5. Walter Benjamin, Ljubljana, 1986

6. Maja Licul, Untitled

7. Laibach as if shopping at the mall

8. Marko Peljhan lecture, Ljubljana, 2003

9. What Does Contemporary Art Demand of Its Institution?

10. Mount Triglav, OHO, Ljubljana, 1968

11. Like to Like / Mount Triglav, IRWIN, Ljubljana, 2004

12. Mount Triglav on Mount Triglav, Janez Janša, Janez Janša, and Janez Janša, Mount Triglav, 2007

13. Old Name, New Faces

14. Slavoj Žižek: a scene of repose

15. Žižek happy (with trash)

16. Ok, a little unnecessary gore

17. Speaks for itself



There is a fictive marker of punctuation called the andorpersandIt is described as one simple symbol for ‘and/or’ and included on a short list of punctuation marks that should exist but do not. This list also includes the Morgan Freemark—a kind of quotation mark that intimates one should read what is written in the voice of Morgan Freeman—and the sinceroid, which lets the reader know that what comes next no matter how sarcastic-seeming should in fact be taken as truth (its opposite, the sarcastises, also makes the list—all from themuse.com). Graphically, the andorpersand has a pivot point, such that one could build a mandala of them—or a compass rose—an ampersand for each of the cardinal directions (four, eight, sixteen), one layered upon the next until it looks like a crappy picture of a flower.Still a punctuation mark, this odd floret—now an andandpersand—would be used to signal moments of aesthetic thickening (Lewis 2019). When adding the flower to the soup, one gets not a deeper or more flavorful outcome, but a denser, more complex one, marked by layers of meaning and interpretation (four, eight, sixteen) that are also relatively easy to overlook.

This is after all part of the fun, not seeing the trees for the forest they constitute, yet nevertheless feeling them there (oak and oak and pine and linden and ferns and badgers and blackflies and a wind that blows through it all). One can call it by the name forest but in so doing the nuance is lost—the infinite and and and of interrelated constituents that makes a forest what it is. The andandpersand does not name every element that could possibly constitute a thing—this would be dizzying—rather it points only to those that can be simultaneously perceived just by stopping, taking a breath, pivoting, and noticing. In this, it is the anthropologist’s punctuation mark; a method in ink. The andandpersand is minimally artful—which will matter to this story—and it is surprisingly uneasy, because it marks a sentence, an utterance, a claim with an emphatic partiality. The whole, to quote Adorno, is the untrue (1978, 50). Indicating, Slovene curator and theorist Igor Zabel continues, that the effect of completeness and wholeness is essentially ideological. If this is so, then that which is incomplete, unordered, and heterogeneous might, in fact, point a way to the true (Zabel, n.d.).

All that is a long way from here. It comes into full flower around page 105; this is only the second page, incomplete and heterogeneous by its nature (slightly unordered by my own). Let us begin, rather, in a proper and scholarly way with a parable and a trap.

The philosopher Mladen Dolar in a short book published in English with MIT Press in 2006 presents on page 77 the story of Zeuxis and Parrhasius, two Roman painters engaged in a not entirely friendly competition. Dolar attributes his version of this story to Lacan, who told the tale in his eleventh seminar, published first in 1964, and later included in the 1979 Penguin volume entitled Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis edited by J.-A. Miller. Lacan, for his part states that he borrowed the story (via what intermediary I do not know) from Pliny the Elder who recounted it in his Naturalis Historia, written some time around the year 78 AD. Where Pliny got it from is unclear, but by the time he put it to paper the story had been around at least five hundred years (rumor has it that Aristotle really did loathe Zeuxis back in the fourth century BC). The point of relaying this flow of attribution is that, as I string this parable (which is also a trap), it would be wise to consider yourself warned that borrowings, in this book as a whole, will be rampant. The origin stories of likenesses, which fall everywhere and all about with a gentle patter like rain, can be traced, as I have done here, but this is often the least interesting thing one can do with them.²

The story Dolar (and all the rest) tells goes like this: Zeuxis and Parrhasius were both remarkable painters, the best of their generation. Their brilliance at their art, however, did not translate into friendly relations, as both wanted the matter of who was the best painter definitively settled. They decided to enter into a competition in which each would attempt to out-paint the other. Their theme was deception.

Zeuxis painted some lovely grapes hanging heavy upon the vine and Parrhasius set himself to the decoration of a wall. Here is Dolar quoting Lacan, himself paraphrasing Pliny the Elder:

In the classical tale . . . Zeuxis has the advantage of having made grapes that attracted the birds. The stress is not placed on the fact that these grapes were in any way perfect grapes, but on the fact that even the eye of the birds was taken in by them . . . his friend Parrhasius [however] triumphs over him for having painted on the wall a veil, a veil so lifelike that Zeuxis, turning toward him said, Well, and now show us what you have painted behind it. (Lacan 1979: 103). (Dolar 2006, 77)

Dolar, without Lacan, continues:

There are two opposed strategies of deception: the birds are duped by looks, the animals are deceived by the appearance of reality; while the humans are deceived by the veil which does not merely imitate reality but conceals it. The properly human way of deception is the lure: the deception lies in the fact that the gaze has been enticed to penetrate behind the veil of appearance, [yet] there is nothing behind the curtain except the subject himself who has been lured behind. The gaze has already pierced the veil and entered what cannot be seen; it was duped into taking a step behind the appearance . . . (Dolar 2006, 77)

The trap is sprung. The human animal with its proclivities has been duped as surely as the birds. Each painter knows his audience; each has devised a temptation suited to his prey. As every trap maker knows, the psychology of the animal one seeks to catch must be reflected in the structure of the trap. If you want to catch a chimpanzee, you build a trap that appeals to his curiosity.³ If you want to catch an eel you make a long dark tube within which she might comfortably secret herself. If you want to catch a mouse, cheese—like grapes to the birds—has long been acknowledged a formidable bait. Of this proclivity of effective trap makers—a category within which both Zeuxis and Parrhasius should be included—anthropologist Alfred Gell says, It is not really the case that the trap is clever or deceitful, it is rather [that the hunter] knows his victim’s habitual responses and is able to subvert them (1999, 201).

Parrhasius is not, thus, the better painter because he caught Zeuxis in his artful trap while all Zeuxis caught was birds. Nobody in fact wins (despite Dolar’s claims to the contrary): both have proven themselves equal in their skill and equal in their knowledge of what might snare their intended prey. But Parrhasius gets a point, and has lived long in history, for having caught a more interesting quarry. Gell’s point is that, in revealing both something of its maker and something of its victim in its very form, a trap is much like an artwork, so much so in fact that we’d be right to put more of them in museums (203).

Dolar, following Lacan, is interested instead in the difference between what traps a bird and what traps a human. The bird is confused by appearances (it pecks at painted grapes) while the human is trapped by the impression that appearances conceal something else and thus attempts to brush aside a painted curtain. But, there of course is no behind to step into, just as there is no veil to be pushed to the side; it is just a colorful bit of wall. The birds’ beaks were thus bent; the humans’ pride wounded. Though there is no behind to the veil, there is the assumption on Parrhasius’s part of a rapacious human curiosity and the desire to uncover, reveal, discover, and divine what might be hidden behind or within what is given. The trap for the humans, Dolar says, is their own proclivity to search even when everything they need is already available to them on the surface of things.

If the andorpersand exists to signal that two things may, or may not, be true—one can be taken in by the curtain and/or see that it is just a pretty bit of wall—then the trick of the andandpersand is, in contrast, to hold both realities present in mind simultaneously: it is a curtain (and one can be taken in by it) and it is just a pretty bit of wall. The trap is to believe that only one reality or one facet of the story is the case. Gell’s unlucky eel, for example, chooses to secret itself in the trap because it lives in a world governed by the or; when the choice is safety in a dark tight space or exposure in a wide open ocean, the path to continued well-being seems clear. It also makes a dinner of that eel.

Zeuxis is equally trapped, not simply for believing that a painted curtain is a real curtain, nor because he attempts to seek the truth behind the veil of the given, but because he fails the test of the andandpersand; he is snared as easily as any beast for he cannot see that the wall and the painting and the curtain and the trap all hang there together. Much as the andandpersand brings unrelated things into weird graphical interrelation, the wall, painting, curtain, seeking, and trap gain their substance and effect by virtue of being intertangled. Untangling them, much like tracing the historical providence of a two-thousand-year-old story, may yield a string of datums but it misses the point. It is the simultaneity of the incongruous, of history, of verbs and nouns, of interwoven references (some explicit, others left unremarked upon) that give this story (like any story) both its ferocity and its efficacy.

Parrhasius made all that needed knowing—the deception and the substance necessary to overcome the deception—complexly and intimately available to the eye. It was all there. One can be taken in by the painting and be attentive to the wall—Parrhasius’s likeness marks out both paths. The beauty Dolar holds, and I with him, is seeing the folly of Zeuxis’s single mindedness. One might learn, rather, to walk both paths simultaneously, to live in the andandpersand, such that one might come to see the demand for the inner as both trick and truth, so that one might see a stone surface as both an expressive surface and a barrier, both an utterance and a quote, both an anticipated response and a quilting of historical references (Bakhtin 1986).

This simultaneity of doubleness is what gives this book, The Likeness, its form and its purpose. It also motivates the Slovene artists and philosophers whose work sits central herein, pulling the jokes and practices and scalpel slices of subjectivity into consonant knots. The search for what lies beneath what is given, this parable and trap intimates, might be a human proclivity, a cross-cultural constant as predictable as the eel’s search for safety in the narrow and the dark. But, if true, thwarting this inclination, as the andandpersand reminds us, is an equally viable pastime, one that can be turned for personal profit and political efficacy and philosophical ferocity and simple play.

In The Likeness surfaces are accorded their power, traps are strung and sprung, and the fight is on. The fight, not so much to fool the birds, though this can be a happy side effect, but to claim provenance over the proclivities of the human.

Figure 1. Slovenia in Europe. Design by Stinson Lenz.



a copy is out in the open, obvious and blunt; once it is incorporated into the system it starts questioning everything.

Walter Benjamin, On Copy, 2006

Most of the months, short dry months and long wet months, between January of 2001 and October of 2003, I spent in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital city, doing research with artists and curators whose work was—in decidedly backhanded ways—helping to build a postsocialist, post-Yugoslav version of that nation. I had chosen to study Slovenia because there was something odd, or at least unfamiliar, about the ways in which mimicry was being used there for self-expression, most especially in the last years of Yugoslavia (1980–91) and through the first few years of independence (1991–2003). Not that the oddities in this regard ceased somehow with Slovenia’s entry into the European Union (2004), its startlingly quick leap into the Euro zone (2007), or even when one of its own gained the White House (albeit by marriage) in 2016.

In The Likeness I braid and twist these strands of resemblance through the whole of this historical period, from Josef Tito’s death to Melania Trump’s ascendance. Proliferating incidences of the unoriginal and the difficult-to-differentiate are here laid side by side to give a glimpse of the artful complexity at work in Slovenia, where likenesses were often effective vehicles for change—whether on the intimate sphere of the individual or the much larger scale of the national. These likenesses are not all of a type. There are many forms of resemblance: one can borrow names or appearances; disrupt or make obvious a symbolic order; copy a sound, a rhythm, a walk, a taste, an institution, or a document. Likenesses can be used to increase legibility or to diminish it. Like most anthropologists, I am interested here not in the catalog of different instances (even when these are conducted in the tune of the same) but in the uses to which these instances are put socially, politically, and, in Slovenia’s case, also playfully. It will be a funny book, in which power, the capacity for change, and the ability to protest what cannot be changed are given form in the idiom of repetition. Likenesses here tie geopolitical transition to the more intimate register of self-conception and self-performance as these mattered to local experiences of social, cultural, economic, and political upheaval.

These three and a half decades of transition were far from Slovenia’s alone. Between 1989 and 1991 the Soviet Union slipped almost magically into history and as the literal (cement) walls and figurative (iron) curtains were brought down the whole center of Europe lurched back from East to West, from communism to the free market. The roots of this shift were older than twenty short months of surprising politics (Ost 1990). There is a joke, with a nut of truth in it, that in Poland the revolution took ten years; in Hungary—ten months; in East Germany—ten weeks; in Czechoslovakia—ten days; and in Romania—ten hours. In Romania it seemed there was just enough time to execute the emperor Ceaus,escu (a sentence carried out on film and widely distributed) before stepping blithely over the line from West to East, marked only just hours before by men with machine guns, barbed wire, and impossibility. In Berlin the last man to be killed trying to escape died just half a year before the wall was brought down by hands and hammers on both side; the people scrabbling to bring the city and, shortly thereafter, the nation together again.

In Yugoslavia the aftermath of state socialism was worse, though during socialism things had been better. The borders had not been closed, nor had the nation been under the leaden wing of Soviet protection. Yugoslavia had not been threatened by tanks, occupation, and other grave sanctions as had the nations of the Eastern Bloc. After its admittedly stressful break from the Soviet Union in the 1950s, Yugoslavia became a founding member of the movement of nonaligned states. These countries—India and Egypt, Indonesia and Ghana—sought to forge a route between capitalism and communism. Their aim was to build a future that would not be determined by an alliance with one superpower or the other. In other words, throughout the second half of the twentieth century Yugoslavia was a driving force toward a hopeful alternative. An alternative politically and economically, but also in other domains, as Tito, its erstwhile leader struggled to bring the world together under separate cover. There was a third way, a path between ideological communism and ideological capitalism, and Yugoslavia’s economic as well as diplomatic successes proved it possible (Gupta 1992; Rubinstein 1970).

A conglomerate nation, Yugoslavia was a linguistically, ethnically, and religiously diverse country that worked. This too made it unusual in the twentieth century. Many of its people felt themselves to be Yugoslavs, marriages crossed lines of all sorts, there was free movement, intellectual interchange, commerce, and uplift as generation followed generation in which things got better. The rapidity with which all of this shattered in the 1990s was breathtaking even to those in the midst of it, as neighbors turned to hate neighbors and Yugoslavs turned back into Serbs, Croats, Muslims, each at the throats of the others. At the speed of a blink (it seemed) enmities turned to massacres.

I remember a friend showing me an empty field in Bosnia that had been a Muslim neighborhood, now emptied

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