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"I wore my anti-sniper shoes every time I was in Sarajevo"

Surely violence would inhibit creativity - Being creative is the last thing one might think about in an environment where conflict, destruction and terror are abundant. However, in an everyday context of tragedy and self-preservation creativity seems to feature heavily in wartime conditions. It unifies, promotes optimism, strength and gives meaning in a times of despair. (Maček, 2009)

This article wrestles with the notion that it is much more than the proximity of death or the way that people create meaning in the face of death, as suggested by Ivana Maček in chapter 2 (Death and Creativity in Wartime) of her book Sarajevo Under Siege, rather it is the parallel effects from the dislocation with what Norbert Elias describes as the ‘civilising processes’ of society which amplifies our creativity in the face of wartime violence.

Associate Professor Ivana Maček employs first-person accounts of the Sarajavan’s every day adaptations for survival during the war in the former Yugoslavia between 1992 and 1996. Maček skilfully articulates the “experience of chaos that was characteristic of Sarajevan’s struggle to recreate familiarity during the siege,” (Maček, 2009, p. 35) and emphasizes the importance of “magical thinking,” “macabre humour,” creative expression, and other survival mechanisms aimed at helping citizens regain a sense of ownership and control over their lives, suggesting that during wartime where death and destruction is all-consuming and relentless, then culture becomes central to the ways society creates meaning in the face of death (Maček, 2009) These mechanisms are only truly accessible in the parallel disruption of important cognitive conditions central to a contemporary westernised civilisation process such as self-restraint and the state’s monopolization of violence through methods of internal and individual pacification. Maček continues to explore the citizen’s experiences of chaos and the struggle to recreate normality during the siege. A condition Maček calls a ‘Limit Situation’ in which making sense or developing meaning within wartime situations often proves useless when confronted with the sudden terror of violent death; meanings that evaporate as soon as the Sarajavan public conjurer them, leaving them in the “Grey Zone” where nothing can be trusted and life conditions are unrecognisable and incomprehensible. (Maček, 2009) When public foundations crumble and meanings fade, Maček argues that we will then use the full array of our cultural resources and inventiveness in order to make sense of a war time existence and that the omnipresence of destruction that makes death a constant companion of people living in a war zone, drives them to respond with startling creativity. The Sarajevans felt compelled to re-create culture through reshaping knowledge and forms of expression but also to deal with profound existential issues. (Maček, 2009)

Maček’s notion of ‘Death and Creativity in Wartime’ is engaging and appears convincingly reinforced by eyewitness accounts and first-hand experiences. That said, there is a subtle yet more profound narrative working in parallel, an alternative and perhaps a provocative position to be taken. It could be argued that Maček’s proposal romanticises the synergy between death and creativity in the context of Sarajevo’s struggle during 1992-96 and that the main reason for the public’s ‘creativity and ingenuity’ was directly attributable to a dislocation from the elements of Norman Elias’s ‘civilisation process’, the rise of capitalism in contemporary occidental society and the unexpected return to a primitive and barbaric existence. Detached from elements such as ‘the apparatus of self-restraint’ and ‘embourgeoisement’, the people were at liberty to express themselves passionately, with an ‘uncivilized’ spontaneity and with uninhibited emotion. A context where macrosocial conditioning interwoven with ego and superego seemed to disentangle, lowering the threshold of shame and embarrassment to a point where natural creativity develops an alternative, deeply personal meaning and expression.

As the conveyer belts running through his existence grow longer and more complex, the individual learns to control himself more steadily, he is now less a prisoner of his passions than before” (Elias et al., 2000)

Norbert Elias explains that civilization is never complete and constantly endangered. It is endangered because the maintenance of civilized standards of behaviour requires particular conditions of self-restraint where spontaneity, a prerequisite for creativity, is replaced by strategy and the trade-off between the uninhibited joy of the moment and the security of controlled planning, which in turn are linked to social structures based on social pacification and an accustomed standard of living. According to Elis the “most important elements of civilized behaviour are the degree of pacification, refinement of customs, and the degree of restraint in social interactions”. (Elias, 1988). A state of social affairs which evidently rupture in wartime and provide occasion for an awareness of a more personal and primitive kind.

Elias’s concept of civilisation is expressed through a variety of conditions which in part echo Max Weber’s characteristics of occidental rationalism and acknowledges Kuzmics argument that the state’s monopolization of violence and power through methods of internal and individual pacification is the answer as to “how it is possible that so many people can normally live together peacefully without fear of being struck or killed by stronger parties” (Kuzmics, 1988) An argument that parenthetically also highlights the contrasting lack of a monopoly of violence on an international level and declares “we are living today just as our so-called primitive ancestors did. As tribes were earlier a danger to other tribes, so states today are still a constant danger to other states”. (Kuzmics, 1988) Elias, Weber and Kuzmic reveal in their publications a more subtle contemporary compromise our occidental society has made to modernise in the twentieth and twenty first century. A compromise of individual creativity, inventiveness and emotional exploration, a compromise which has led to politics, architects and engineers perpetually over compensating and designing-out opportunity for individuality, personal initiative, artistic risk taking and an expressions of emotion. Maček’s text revels examples where during the dislocation from the civilisation processes members of the public override their passive conditioning, feel more empathy with the arts and creativity, experiencing the delicate imaginatory resonance of ‘magical thinking’ (“I wore my anti-sniper shoes every time I was in Sarajevo”(Maček, 2009), performance, storytelling and sculpture, feeling more confident to engage, practice and explore forms of creativity in the their ‘every day’ adaptations for survival during the war in the former Yugoslavia

"Many millions, united into nations, strive for the common good, each individual on account of his own; but many thousands fall as a sacrifice for it. Now senseless delusion, now intriguing politics, excite them to wars with each other; then the sweat and the blood of the great multitude must flow, to carry out the ideas of individuals, or to expiate their faults. In peace, industry and trade are active, inventions work miracles, delicacies are called from all ends of the world, the waves engulf thousands. All strive, some planning, some acting; the tumult is indescribable. But the ultimate aim of it all— what is it? To sustain ephemeral and tormented individuals through a short span of life, in the most fortunate case with endurable want and comparative freedom from pain, which, however, is at once attended with ennui; then the reproduction of this race and it’s striving”. (Camus, 1955)


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