Karaoke means “hollow orchestra” in Japanese. You fill the void—drunk or sober, on-key or off. Part of the allure is for the amateur to wrest the microphone away from the stars and, for a moment, to take their place in the limelight. Karaoke is ersatz performance doubling as appropriation art. So it’s fitting that the four long essays in Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture discuss cultural hollowness and the appropriation of stardom by a character Ugresic calls you. Loosely constructed yet thematically linked, the essays hook the reader with the disarming voice of a close acquaintance determined to explore an intricate matter at length:
It needs to be said upfront: I’m not a karaoke fan. This essay was not only conceived, but also half-finished, when it occurred to me to go and catch a bit of real karaoke . . . I’m not sure why I even thought of going to see karaoke in Amsterdam—maybe because of the paradox that sometimes turns out to be true, that worlds open up where we least expect.
There’s a perpetual sense of wonder in these essays, and substantial doses of ironic wit, which Ugresic’s translator from Croatian, David Williams, pulls off with great panache.
“World-opening” is a major part of these essays. But in the deepest sense, Ugresic has set out to uncover cultural voids in domains that range from official European cultural policy organized in Brussels (based on the fantasy of a single—centered—European identity) to art-appreciation in its wildest manifestations on the Internet. A characteristic Ugresic field trip includes a visit to the sinister, helicopter-patrolled, brand-new, pseudo-folkloric village created by filmmaker Emir Kustarita; it just happens to sit right next to a genuine, restored Serbian village that no one visits anymore because the slicker new village (equipped with a swimming pool) is “better.” Inherently a simulation game staged in three dimensions, the Kustarita village has a substrate of modern amenities, so it’s more pleasant to imagine oneself a peasant there than in a real village museum, where you can’t help knowing you wouldn’t last two minutes as a real peasant.
While this and many other examples of karaoke culture are meant to make us uncomfortable, some are too delectable to resist, like Ugresic’s online tour of the nuttier, kitsch-cultural hinterlands that include The Dante’s Inferno Official Game Site. The hallmark of karaoke culture is a preference for faux versions of real things. So why does this world have a large population that opts for the theme park version every time? Because, according to Ugresic, “the very foundation of karaoke culture lies in the parading of the anonymous ego with the help of simulation games.” The denizen of karaoke culture is a cipher addicted to dreaming he’s somebody else: the one whose assertion of ego actually gets him somewhere.
When so many pop-cultural role models are people who become famous for their exhibitionism in spite of their talent, or are simply famous because they have a talent for making themselves famous (they do shoes and makeup well, wind up in jail, marry and unmarry as public spectacle, before breakfast), why can’t we aspire to assert our non-entity too? Pursuing arguments along these lines, taken as a whole, Karaoke Culture reads as an elegy for disappearing values in art and cultural practice. The lament takes in the state of global mores—down to the stocking of hotel minibars and the dark arts of character assassination. Karaoke Culture’s take-home lesson is: we live in a civilization whose center is nowhere and whose circumference is everywhere.
There is a second book “playing” inside the first, though. This one is the product of Ugresic’s bitter personal experience. Under its witty veneer, Karaoke Culture is a nonfiction guide to disillusion in post-Communist Europe. The break up of the former Yugoslavia is at its heart. A section called “A Question of Perspective” begins:
I met Ryszard Kapuściński in Berlin in 1994; he was there on the same scholarship as me. Kapuściński asked me why I had left Croatia, and to avoid telling my story, I spluttered out . . .
“Do you remember the Andrzej Wajda film “Without Anesthesia”? The one about the journalist, you know, foreign newspapers stop arriving at his office, and then one thing leads to another, and he loses his job, his wife, everything . . . ?”
The thing was, I could only vaguely remember the film, and I already regretted such a clumsily chosen example.
“I remember,” said Kapuściński. “I was the journalist.”
In a sense, Ugresic was that journalist too. A professor, novelist and a essayist, she became the subject of a Croatian media frenzy and witch hunt in the early 1990s. Her crime: criticizing the nationalistic purification of Croatian culture in the new Croatian state. Ugresic’s first offence took the form of an essay called “The Dirty Tyranny of Mr. Clean,” published first in Der Zeit and then in the English Independent on Sunday (December 6, 1992). Her second crime, which she never intended, was that the scandal of her persecution led to PEN International’s decision not to hold its 1993 congress in Dubrovnik. She was immediately blamed for having penned an essay that turned the international tide. She was vilified by university colleagues, and newspapers published her address and phone number—an open invitation to malicious and violent harassment. Ugresic now lives in exile in Amsterdam.
The central question now is, what is Ugresic in exile from? What kind of space has she left, exactly? The answer seems to be that Ugresic resigned from a university and a country that, in its breakup, lost its relatively sophisticated, multi-ethnic core of values:
The question remains whether socialist Yugoslavia managed to emancipate and de-provincialize the mindset of its citizens. Apparently it did. World War II had ended. Yugoslavia had come out of the war on the winning side, a victor, which was already in and of itself enough to help most citizens repair their self-image. Tito said his historic “NO” to Stalin. Unlike their communist neighbors, the Yugoslavs had passports in the 1960s, a better standard of living, and open borders. Free schooling, a university education, and self-betterment as fundamental values, a communist faith that knowledge is power, self-management, the non-aligned-nations movement, tourism, festivals of international theater and film, a lively publishing industry, a number of cultural centers (Belgrade—Zagreb—Sarajevo—Ljubljana), and the general impression that life was getting better from one year to the next—all this was the praxis of de-provincialization.
We might naturally wonder if Tito’s mild totalitarianism truly brought stable Enlightenment values to what had been an obscure corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. More important is that in Ugresic’s view, a de-centered country (which is what Yugoslavia promptly became without its dictator) is a provincial one, and the provincial is dangerous.
“The Spirit of the Kakanian Province” analyses provincial malaise. The word “Kakania” refers to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Empire’s official documents were labeled K. und K., which stood, in German, for kaiserlich und königlich, as in the Imperial (Austrian) and Royal (Hungarian) Empire. The denizens of the K. und K. long ago dubbed the Empire Kakania, and since caca means “crap” in all the languages of the former empire, it’s easy to understand that calling your home “Kakania” has long implied deep dissatisfaction, even self-hatred. The circumstances Ugresic describes in “The Spirit” section of Karaoke Culture underline this point.
What Ugresic has to say about provincial Kakania is that insofar as peripheral Kakania knew itself, it felt itself grossly deficient when compared to Vienna and Budapest, the Empire’s two capitals or centers. In a devastating tour of Croatian pre-War novels, Ugresic unrolls a recurring storyline in which the artist-hero leaves the provinces, finds success in the capital, and then returns home, which he’s come to see as the land of the benighted. He finds himself trapped there. He can’t find a way out of the provinces, for one reason or another, so he kills himself—time after time.
The market town of the economic and spiritual (rather than geographic) periphery of the former Yugoslavia is still known as the palanka. Ugresic writes:
The palanka experiences itself as castoff, forgotten, time left out of historical time, and then it bemoans its bitter fate, while at the same time turning this accursed destiny into its privilege. Being closed and forgotten meant being safe, while beyond, outside the circle of the palanka, rules the dangerous chaos of the wide world. Rigidity, petrification, a constant readiness for defense, a strong tribal awareness, infantilism, formulaic patterns of thought, fear of the unknown, fear of change, an apology for purity, innocence, and simplicity, the hermetic, a cult of the dead, security, normativity, conservatism, the static, anti-historicism—are only a few of the features typical of the world of the palanka.
Ugresic forcefully explains that, when Yugoslavia crumbled, the palanka that lacked a sophisticated (and let’s say a sufficiently powerful) center engaged in a violent Bacchanal:
One of the outcomes of the collapse of Yugoslavia, the wars, and new nationalistic state projects is the destruction of what had been the shared Yugoslav cultural space, the material destruction of culture (schools, cultural monuments, libraries, book burning, etc.), vandalism (the demolition of statues), and effacement of cultural segments (for instance, the era of Yugoslav culture). Every state that disappeared from the former Yugoslavia has reconfigured its own national culture. In the tumultuous process of reconfiguration, there are creative figures, works, opuses that have been dropped, some forgotten, some abruptly jettisoned, others degraded, de-throned, yet others over-valued in terms of the current national ideology and interests.
There have been bad writers and artists in this time of over-inflating national culture who have been elevated to aesthetic heights merely because they were Croatian, Serbian, or Bosnian patriots.
Anyone living in former Austro-Hungary will recognize Ugresic’s account as a lament over the civilizing mission of Austro-Hungarian rule. This regret extends all the way to Romania, where this essay is being written. Unlike the rest of Romania, Transylvania was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Romanian nostalgia for the civilizing aspects of Imperial culture is palpable and often voiced, despite remnants of Romanian/Hungarian tension and in spite of the fact that in Transylvania—aka Romanian Kakania—Romanians were treated as second-class citizens. The allure of a mythic, bygone Vienna is so profound that those who live in parts of the country that were never part of Kakania half wish that Bucharest had fallen under the Empire. Ask a Romanian today for a cure to the country’s troubles, and he may tell you, in jest, that the solution is to move the capital to Vienna. That’s how much the provinces long for what they perceive as a true center.
This region-wide longing for the center probably fuels or underlies Ugresic’s perception of our centerless, international, Internet-driven karaoke culture. Experience has shown that where cultural and civil centers do not hold, power vacuums form, and destruction follows. Ugresic’s karaoke culture is the spirit of former Kakania gone global. This is not because the Balkans are spreading their tentacles, but rather, as Ugresic sees it, because the collapse of centers of cultural and civil—and one might add fiscal—authority relegates us all to the periphery.