Bojan Bilij


Life is lived, history is recounted.

Paul Ricoeur[1]


     Despite the fact that many of us might think of history as of a process that can be scientifically and therefore objectively studied, the idea of its ‘relativity’ is nicely epitomised in the platitude that history belongs to the victors.

However, expanding on or, rather, unfolding this hackneyed saying, it can be suggested that history necessarily becomes the possession of those who are in place of telling it. This is in line with the idea of Fredric Jameson that History is not a text, but we can access it only through its (re)textualisation.[2] Thus, as Paul Ricoeur said in his essay On Interpretation: “Between living and recounting, a gap – however small it may be – is opened up...the reconstruction of the the work of imagination”. It seems that history is constructed and reconstructed every time we try to give an account of it.

     Furthermore, it goes without saying that the potential or necessity of history to be narrativised (in order to become accessible) can serve as a very powerful political tool. This is particularly so if we bear in mind the fact that, as Sean Homer argued, narratives of history are by no means objective but they contain specific ideological assumptions which automatically imply how that history should be understood.[3]

This actually represents the notion of ‘emplotment’ that was propounded by Hayden White and that refers to the selectivity with which a historian chooses to organize and recount historical events. This is to say that it is at the discretion of historians to focus on specific events and decide what is and what is not to be included in their historical account. By doing this, historians inevitably shape the ‘meaning’ of history.[4] Also, it should be emphasised at this point that historical evidence do set limits to emplotment. That is to say that historical events are intrinsically constrained in their capacity to be narrativised.[5]   

     Moreover, there is another concept related to the narrativisations of history that seems to be particularly relevant to the topic of this course. It is Ricoeur’s idea of a narrative’s intelligibility, that is, its capacity to encompass and at the same time simplify a large amount of historical data. It could be then plausibly argued that the potential of history to be manipulated resides exactly in the oversimplified and readily understandable recounts of historical narratives which thus become potent historical/cultural myths that tend to be employed in everyday political discourse as well as to stimulate a creative response that only perpetuates them further.

     More specifically, I would like to focus on two events (from Serbian history) that have been, according to my opinion, the ones most frequently put under the process of mythologisation and therefore most politically manipulated. The first among these is the famous battle of Kosovo (that took place in 1389 when the Serbs were defeated by the Turks), and the other is the Second World War (National Liberation Struggle [NOB]). These two events, although very different in their ideological content (the second actually repressed the first only to encourage its subsequent tragic outburst), were both for a long period of time the focal points around which people conceptualised their (supra)national identity. 

However, Renata Salecl posited that the people’s acceptance of these myths is not simply the consequence of the government’s imposition of them. Rather, “people adopt old myths because in those myths a fantasy is articulated that touches upon some utopian desire of the people”.[6] There is another idea that ties in with this one very nicely and that is what Ivan Čolović terms ‘supra-temporal experience’ which refers to the notion that the reincarnation of folk heroes allows people to enter the celestial/divine land in which their desires are fulfilled.[7] This actually highlights a close relationship between mythical time and mythical space which Čolović defines as a ”supra-historical realm where the living, dead, and not-yet-born members of the ethnicity are bound together”.[8] It seems therefore that the analysis of mythologised historical narratives should take into account the emotional or rather irrational level at which these narratives very often operate.

Finally, although it may not be particularly easy to recognize the presence of the mythologised historical narratives in the everyday political context, it remains the task of social scientists to examine and criticise political mythology which can, if out of control, have very destructive consequences.


                                              Bojan Bilic










[1] Paul Ricoeur, ‘On Interpretation’ in Philosophy in France Today, ed. Alan Montefiore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 179.

[2] Sean Homer, Fredric Jameson – Marxism, Hermeneutics, Postmodernism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sean Homer, Narratives of History, Narratives of Time, forthcoming.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Renata Salecl, The Spoils of Freedom – Psychoanalysis and Feminism After the Fall of Socialism (London: Routledge, 1994), 64.

[7] Ivan Čolović, The Renewal of the Past: Time and Space in Contemporary Political Mythology. Other Voices, 2, (2000).

[8] Ibid.