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Mesoaesthetics: Xenofeminist Writing in Mars and Sweetlust

Méso-esthétique : l’écriture xénoféministe dans Mars et Sweetlust
Luka Bekavac

Résumés

Cet article étudie les nouvelles d’Asja Bakić (recueillies dans les volumes Mars et Sweetlust) en tant qu’exemples d’une fiction spéculative xénoféministe politiquement engagée, qui fusionnent l’héritage féministe de cette région avec des articulations théoriques contemporaines. Il aborde le travail de l’autrice selon une triple approche, analysant sa résistance aux stéréotypes culturels et sa quête d’agentivité politique au-delà de la binarité Balkans/Europe, ses liens conceptuels avec les nouveaux matérialismes, notamment à travers son approche non anthropocentrique de la sexualité et de la technologie, et son appréciation de la place d’une écrivaine dans le champ littéraire du capitalisme contemporain, étroitement liée aux questions d’écriture, de style et de genre.

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  • 1 Bakić Asja, “‘Ne zaboravimo, i Hitler je bio slikar amater!’” [‘Let’s not forget, Hitler was an ama (...)

1Speaking to Asja Bakić in a late interview, Dubravka Ugrešić blamed the unfavourable position of female writers on the absence of their own canon: “Every ten years, a new generation of female writers and artists is born, and they have no idea about what the previous generation did before them, which is a pretty comfortable position, because the history starts with you, doesn’t it?” This symbolic matricide is coupled with their reluctance to “conquer all types of writing” instead of remaining confined to genre literature: “romance and pornography, young adult fiction, science fiction and speculative fiction. Choosing this, they pose no threat to male writers, which is the safest way to remain beloved, cuddly pets.”1

  • 2 See Matijević Tijana, From Post-Yugoslavia to the Female Continent: A Feminist Reading of Post-Yugo (...)
  • 3 Haraway Donna J., Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York, Routledge, 1991 (...)

2The scene of this conversation, never transforming into an explicit attack on Bakić personally, nevertheless testifies to a number of pressing questions of contemporary literature: the stakes of cultural and political struggle, the merits of popular genres as tools of this struggle, the understanding of one’s own history and tradition, and finally the contours of a future worth fighting for. In this paper, I will try to consider these questions by reading a number of stories from Bakić’s collections Mars (2015) and Sweetlust (Sladostrašće, 2020), as well as some uncollected pieces. Despite the decisive influence of former yugoslavia’s feminist canon, the theoretical background to this reading will not be provided by this shared history2 – of which Bakić is well aware – but by certain new moments, cultural articulations specific to the twenty-first century, where “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.”3

  • 4 For a comprehensive look at Bakić’s fiction, emphasizing precisely the alliance of feminist perspec (...)
  • 5 Laboria Cuboniks is an international collective of feminist writers, scholars and artists, initiall (...)
  • 6 Cuboniks, Manifesto, op. cit., p. 15.
  • 7 Ibid., p. 65.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 43.

3The feminist political angle certainly remains the most important factor for a thorough understanding of Bakić’s work,4 but the thematic scope of her writing seems to require a more specific designation to acknowledge new developments. The concept of xenofeminism, developed by Laboria Cuboniks5 and extending cyberfeminist politics to a wider range of non-human agents, accommodates the hybridity of her stories in a number of ways, allowing for a different critical take on the issues of gender, heredity, nature and technology. One of the cornerstones of this perspective is the notion of alienation as “an impetus to generate new worlds,”6 liberating us from an essentialist ontology and opening a path toward a broader understanding of nature as heterogeneous material reality: “nothing is supernatural. ‘Nature’ – understood here as the unbounded arena of science – is all there is.”7 This does not automatically enable us to treat xenofeminism as a shorthand for every type of contemporary materialist feminism, but I will try to emphasize its posthuman and non-speciesist prospects: in its broader sense, it can become a focal point for a wider network of approaches “insisting on the possibility of large-scale social change for all of our alien kin.”8

  • 9 Ibid., p. 33.

4I will try to examine the most prominent themes of Bakić’s work in the light of xenofeminist concerns, analysing its resistance to cultural stereotyping and its quest for political agency beyond the confines of the Balkans/Europe binary; its conceptual links to new materialisms, most prominent in her approach to sexuality and technology; finally, its evaluation of a writer’s position in the literary field of contemporary capitalism, closely related to questions of identity, style and genre. Mesoaesthetics – echoing Cuboniks’ mesopolitics – will be proposed as an umbrella term to describe this narrative poetics of redeploying “existing technologies” to “invent novel cognitive and material tools.”9

The way to the future

  • 10 Haraway, Simians, op. cit., p. 245.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 149.
  • 12 See the editors’ introduction in Mijatović Aleksandar, Willems Brian (eds), Reconsidering (Post-)Yu (...)

5Bakić’s fictions can be read as exercises in Donna Haraway’s “radical culture politics,”10 “an effort to build an ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism, and materialism”11 while remaining aware of the local cultural and political context, still dominated by largely antiquated notions of history and identity, and biased toward forms ideally placed to represent them (memoir, family novel, historical fiction etc.). In the first post-yugoslav decades, themes of war, exile and history monopolized the literary production, to be followed by narratives of transition and new capitalist reality, only recently retreating before a wider variety of approaches. However, the common thread of this era, even more than the melancholy and nostalgia of the 1990s and acerbic social commentary of the 2000s, was a “new realist” style, as it was commonly known in the region.12 The sharp contrast to these prevailing formats provided by Bakić’s stories, clearly visible in themes, styles and overall attitude, makes them a great example of what politically charged feminist fiction can be, employing precisely the conceptual resources of speculative fiction and contemporary posthumanist theory, from Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1985) to Cuboniks’ The Xenofeminist Manifesto (2015).

6One of the key narrative engines of this project is the notion of progress, although its viability is persistently questioned. There are at least three complex semantic fields underpinning the corpus of Bakić’s fiction, each with its own stereotypes, iconographies, agendas and redeeming qualities: the “Balkans” (standing for antimodernist patriarchy, archetypes, myths, religions, cyclical temporal structures), “Europe” (or European Union, as rule of law, capitalism, colonial exploitation of “minor” cultures, stagnation or controlled growth), and Socialist yugoslavia (often as an exemplar of real progress and antifascist futurity, an active ideal lost within a defunct timeline, still offering a possibility of a “reboot”). Each of them simultaneously figures as a distinct socio-historical configuration and as a general “principle,” as Bakić is not primarily interested in factual reconstruction. This is a conscious choice: the stories fight the political and conceptual lockdown, but rather than assuming a rigid viewpoint allowing the narrators to pontificate, analyse or agitate, they engage with certain stereotypes on multiple levels: inhabiting them, playing upon them, fighting against them, finally destroying them from the inside – instead of simply cancelling them out by a progressive rhetoric.

  • 13 The term (and the connotation of Saïd’s “orientalism”) comes, of course, from Todorova Maria, Imagi (...)
  • 14 Bakić Asja, “Cassandra,” in Aferdita Bytyqi, Whitney Gray, Louise Holly (eds), Imagining Health Fut (...)
  • 15 Bakić Asja, Sweetlust, trans. Jennifer Zoble, New york, Feminist Press, 2023, p. 93.

7The Balkans are an extremely rich narrative resource in themselves: a treasury of motifs and cultural schemata which are critically represented (as a framework of backward and oppressive political structures), mocked (used as a matter of comedy or parody) and read against various “balkanisms”13 (particularly against a romanticized outsiders’ view of the region’s most regressive aspects). One of these ambivalent clichés has to do with the structure of time: the Balkans are habitually represented as a place that time has left behind, forsaken by history, caught in a perpetual timelag, “bound by time that permanently stood still.”14 This stasis could be read as resistance to temporality itself, to linear time as a condition of possibility for progress, and Bakić describes this cultural torpor as a conflation of “genetics, money, and rakija.”15 If we add religion and its stand-ins (myth, superstition) to the equation, we can outline the cultural matrix of a “Balkans Peninsula” in these fictions, represented as a closed circuit allowing for the perpetual return of the repressed and rejecting the rule of sensus communis.

  • 16 Ibid., p. 69.
  • 17 Ibid., p. 73.
  • 18 Ibid.

8These elements tend to be intertwined. “Fellow’s Gully” is, for example, a take on the myth of Hades and Persephone, rewritten as a story about an inherited property breaking up a modern couple’s marriage. It is typical of Bakić’s handling of mythological and religious themes: irreverent recasting of ancient motifs into contemporary narratives and identities, while retaining some of their more offbeat or numinous qualities. However, the ancient past has a capacity to overpower modern Europe; destructive and regressive structures cyclically resurface, rising from a different ontological zone, inaccessible to thought. The irrationality of this domain is inextricably linked to its alien temporality: the “timelessness” of the mythological, the archetypal, the unconscious, is structurally incompatible with modern rationality and manifests as the structural enemy of change. The protagonists’ return to this “timeless” level is narrated as coming into a dubious inheritance: a literal piece of real-estate, “a bare landscape, dreary and hostile,”16 tied to an ancestry that claims the offspring along with their future. The narrator leaves her husband in this locus horridus where his mother’s “sick, suffocating” embrace17 manifests as a place of burial, concluding: “I loved my mother, but I needed a weaker love, something that wouldn’t last a lifetime.”18 From this perspective, family – closely intertwined with the concepts of tradition, timelessness and irrationality – is both a political structure and a corporeal force to be combatted and abandoned.

  • 19 Ibid., p. 146.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 142.
  • 21 Ibid., p. 140.
  • 22 Ibid.

9Δάφνη” (Daphne) is even more bizarre in its iconography and the mash-up of classical and contemporary themes, depicting the breakup of yugoslavia and the ensuing wars as a fallout of a failed love affair between Artemis and Apollo. The Dionysian principle is explicitly invoked as the reigning paradigm of the Balkans, “untouched by Apollo.”19 Combining the motifs of wine, regression into myth and resistance to temporality and progress, “Δάφνη” foregrounds alcohol as the agent of a severe structural and cultural backslide: it renders the protagonist unable to foretell (or plan, or forge) the future, bringing her into a counter-historic state of stupor, indifference and a cynical lack of faith in progress. The fight against atemporality also has a pronounced feminist and atheist slant: men are described as lacking a sufficient understanding of “verbs, and the passage of time,”20 while Apollo states that “the future is not for women”;21 the narrator claims that “no one who sees the future clearly can believe in god”22 meaning, conversely, that religious submission firmly rests on a foreclosure of an unscripted futurity.

  • 23 See, for example, Le Guin Ursula K., The Birthday of the World, New york, HarperCollins, 2002.
  • 24 Cuboniks, Manifesto, op. cit., p. 79.

10As already noted above, “genetics” is also a crucial part of the “Balkan complex,” and traditional family is one of Bakić’s most prominent targets: it is always represented as a decrepit mechanism of oppression and cultural hibernation, a rigid matrix of social and economic reproduction, therefore the key structural container for various backward politics and power relations. Consequently, Bakić’s stories tend to read as deconstructions of this concept of family through various excessive situations, often including an implication of incestuous investment. The institution of family is frozen in hierarchical stasis to such a degree that even “new families” appear as another form of exploitation. In “Dorica Kastra,” family is conceptually disbanded from heredity and recast in accordance with the factors of economy and desire: any odd number of people can register and “incorporate” as an asymmetrical family, creating a complex and counterintuitive model of living together, superficially reminiscent of Le Guin’s alternative families of the Ekumen;23 this is an ongoing xenofeminist concern, “an integral component in any process of feminist futurity”24 which aims to surpass the constraint of nuclear families, but also of communes or single parenting as insufficient alternatives. However, this turns out to be a dystopian way of commodifying sexuality: “families” are actually companies producing films in order to pay for their utility bills, taping either their daily lives or their sexual relations.

11This leads us back to the problem of progress. Prevailing stereotypes would equate it with Europe, transcending the cryptofeudal shackles of the Balkans and dissolving them in the political, cultural and economic networks based on rationality, cosmopolitanism and equality. However, the Balkans’ own experience of the free market, circulation of capital and its human attendants and dissolving of borders in the name of commerce, belies the false optimism of this narrative; in these fictions, the current state of Western democracy and global capitalism has little to do with emancipatory processes and is more likely to be represented as their enemy. This is underscored in a sobering and unsettling way in a number of texts; beyond the platitudes of diversity, integration and equal opportunity, a different Europe emerges: one of exploitation, segregation, utter compliance with the utilitarian imperative, an entity driven by greed, claiming others as resources, ultimately manifesting as something utterly inhuman.

  • 25 This resonates with Haraway’s criticism of communications sciences, quantifying everything in order (...)

12This vision of Europe sharply highlights the Balkans’ liminal position in the political and cultural geography of the Global North. “Cassandra” is set in the Golden Dome sanatorium where the WHO conducts a research project on premature puberty and menopause, resulting from climate change. This phenomenon is exacerbated further for the Balkans, which have been reduced to a dumping ground for the EU’s expired medications (or even a secret medical experiment that failed). However, it is implied that the telepathic network developing between the protagonists, providing an opportunity to build a resistance movement, could be an unforeseen side-effect of this. In the sanatorium, the protagonists are placed with women from West Africa and Central America: this testifies to the persisting “Third World” position of the Balkans, but it allows for new possibilities of transnational solidarity and a cosmopolitan viewpoint “from below” which, for Bakić, offers the only chance of a brighter political future. Marginalization can be turned against its perpetrators: no archives were digitized in the Balkans, so an immense sea of data remains beyond the reach of European power centres and the adverse effects of their control networks.25

  • 26 Bakić Asja, “Posljednja večera” [The Last Supper], Beogradski književni časopis no 68-69, 2023, p.  (...)
  • 27 Bakić Asja, “U ljudskom liku” [In Human Form], in Sarah Cleave, Sophie Hughes (eds), Europa 28, Zap (...)
  • 28 Ibid., p. 95.

13However, even though Europe is treated with extreme caution due to its fetishes of calculability and planning, it exerts a powerful cultural and economic pull, provoking a will to belong, to gain acceptance, to “pass.” In other words, the EU itself is an object of desire, an ideal promising the possibility of salvation through identification; I will return to this theme in the final section. In other instances, this “otherness” manifests as something menacingly alien. It is highly significant that Bakić’s EU-themed stories also form a distinct corpus of zombie narratives: Europe cannibalizes its others in order to replenish and reanimate its own dilapidated, highly articulated and protected, but increasingly entropic, futureless and empty structures: “I have spent less than three days in Berlin, and it seemed like I have reached a ripe old age in this forest. Germany makes one old in unexpected ways.”26 “In Human Form” assumes an extraterrestrial viewpoint for a further Verfremdungseffekt: “Europeans seemed to be different beings too. We had a lot in common: we observed human suffering from a polite distance, with curiosity. We learned, but with difficulty.”27 The matter is explored aphoristically, and the final estimate is that a European is “a nothing, a nobody.”28

14Nevertheless, a third paradigm emerges, sometimes apparently in jest, sometimes with an air of cosmic tragedy, but often steeped in a deeply bizarre imagery. Socialist yugoslavia in these stories is sharply differentiated not only from the Balkans and Europe respectively, but also from its own typical representations in recent fiction, either as a site of a hypernationalist bloodbath and a brutal clerical-capitalist backslide, or as a bittersweet, nostalgic apparition, prone to degenerating into a sentimental caricature. In Mars and Sweetlust, it is still a framework which fights age-old narratives of nation and religion, resists Western capitalism and remains non-aligned, striving for a completely decolonialized world; however, it also evolves into a principle, a non-temporal matrix, a cultural and political ideal which differs from its historic counterpart. This is an unrealized hypermodernist project, therefore the complete opposite of the actual former yugoslav states, contemporary Europe and the Balkans as a half-mythical Arcadia; it is aimed at an unmapped future, the ultimate goal of radical political fiction.

  • 29 Bakić Asja, Dođi, sjest ću ti na lice [Come, I’ll Sit on Your Face], Zaprešić, Fraktura, 2020. Almo (...)
  • 30 A biweekly magazine (1969-1991), featuring articles and interviews on politics, culture and the med (...)
  • 31 A mass-produced illustrated erotic magazine (1985-1990); print run varied between 70,000 and 400,00 (...)
  • 32 The biweekly magazine Arka (1988-1992) is the case in point here: subtitled “The Miraculous World o (...)

15yugoslavia is uncanny even when Bakić employs evocative motifs culled from everyday life: its popular and material culture surfaces as an eerie archive, bringing about surprising or forgotten artefacts, persons and characters, often in an anachronous or nonsensical way. In contrast to Bakić’s high regard of popular culture as a field of resistance (as testified by her essays),29 there can be a distinctly ominous tone to its presence in these stories: this is an arena of fantasy and fascination, but also of new types of indoctrination, bulwarks against progress, rationality and collectivity. For instance, the paranormal is a peculiarly prominent motif in Bakić’s representation of late 1980s yugoslavia. In “Δάφνη,” one of her most abstruse juxtapositions of the mythological and the historico-political, Apollo, serving as a “front” for Artemis and as a vessel for a variety of repressive factors, attempts transtemporal communication with Daphne via yugoslav magazines Start30 and Erotika,31 writing to her in the classified ads, using the past as a passive material to be rewritten in accordance with present needs. Daphne ignores this, using digital networks: Twitter and “Finstagram.” The cultural ambience of the late 1980s, with rising inflation and nationalist tensions, serves as a setting for a murder mystery in “Buried Treasure.” The contemporary media are employed to great effect to generate an oblique sense of threat in otherwise ambiguous events, narrated from a child’s perspective: cheap and easily available erotic or paranormal magazines32 which flooded the newsstands provide children with a rudimentary vocabulary to interpret their immediate surroundings, the actions of adults, and the premonition of war.

16On the other hand, yugoslavia is an abstract token of progress, elaborated through a prism of the fantastic, a key factor of Bakić’s poetic. In “1740,” one of the most poignant variations on this theme, several strands of her work are intertwined: a dystopian take on future ecology as a victim of rampant capitalism; tradition as a ballast – not only on progress, but on survival as well; a counterintuitive, borderline-nonsensical revolutionary potential of art and science. The ecological breakdown is described as a descent into timelessness (echoing J.G. Ballard’s 1962 novel The Drowned World): in 2040, the Balkans are flooded on account of severe climate changes; extreme heat devastated the biotopes, led to food shortages and forced monoculture growth, finally bringing life to a halt. Trash is the index of this historic and material stasis: recycling is impossible, all circulation in nature and culture is obstructed. The protagonist, an alcoholic in desperate withdrawal, attempts to sabotage a utopian time-travelling project in order to completely surrender to her addiction. This is a politically important narrative decision: employing the perspective of an antagonist, a character with significant flaws, problematic values and destructive goals, in order to achieve a Brechtian moment of sharp dissociation from the story for the reader.

  • 33 See also Bakić Asja, “Yugofuturism as a Trap,” Maska, vol. 37, no 209-210, 2022, p. 10-18, for a di (...)
  • 34 Bakić, Sweetlust, op. cit., p. 84.
  • 35 Ibid., p. 101.

17Therefore, in terms of gauging Bakić’s own political standpoint, “1740” has a critical place,33 vividly depicting the conflict of progressive politics and collective projects with personal obsessions and self-destructive regression rooted in tradition and family ties. In the protagonist’s life, money, family and alcohol are the vectors of corruption or dissolution: a former theoretical physicist turned investment banker, she let the abstraction of financial capital take over her career, but the vast quantity of money she gained “helped raise the air temperature by one and a half degrees Celsius, which ruined [her] life.”34 However, when a former colleague describes the connected threads of inflation, global warming and unemployment, the narrator is unmoved: “She’s always seen the big picture. But the picture in the forefront of my mind is my family photograph.”35

  • 36 Vojin Bakić (1915-1992) was one of the foremost Yugoslav modernist sculptors of the post-war period (...)

18However, the central plot actually follows the completion of a code written by the narrator’s ex-colleagues from the Ruđer Bošković Institute. It proceeds from their pre-cataclysmic time-travel studies, hitherto dismissed as “too abstract” and non-profitable, and is applied to build a real time-machine, using sculptures and monuments of Vojin Bakić as constructive elements.36 They intend to travel back to 1964 and disrupt the Eighth Congress of the Communist Party in Belgrade, believing it to be the turning point towards market economy and emerging capitalism which will eventually destroy the entire region. This time-machine, therefore, stands as a corporeal representation of high science and cutting-edge modernism, propelling one another towards crucial points in history in order to change them.

  • 37 Marx Karl, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, New yo (...)

19The story culminates in the protagonist’s hijacking of the time-machine: she sends it to a one-way journey to 1740, the reign of Louis XV, the absolute antipode of Socialist yugoslavia, precluding the possibility of avoiding the climate disaster. “After me, the deluge” – the famous saying attributed to him – therefore becomes the hidden epigraph of the story: literally facilitating the flooding of the planet for the second time, the protagonist submits to her regressive tendencies and chooses the satisfaction of personal needs instead of restarting the entire collective future of her country. The contextual message is clear: if “après moi, le déluge” is truly “the watchword of every capitalist,”37 the very notion of progress and futurity is thoroughly incompatible with capitalism; its only logical outcome is death.

  • 38 Bakić, Sweetlust, op. cit., p. 154.

20“Δάφνη” ends in a different, but symmetrical resignation from the struggle for progress: “Dionysus was indeed the Liberator: he’d gotten me drunk, relieving me of my duty to prophesy. I closed my eyes. The Socialist Federal Republic of yugoslavia no longer existed. I didn’t care about the rest.”38 But if the parameters discussed thus far actually delineate a political, cultural and conceptual deadlock, what could actually open a different way forward?

New solidarities

  • 39 Haraway, Simians, op. cit., p. 173.
  • 40 Haraway Donna J., Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham and London, Duke (...)
  • 41 Bennett Jane, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham, Duke University Press, 2010, p (...)

21Even though the most obvious polemical aspect of Bakić’s writing is in the explicit political themes, there is a wider subversive potential in her understated conceptual alliance with philosophies of new materialism. As already noted in the introduction, the xenofeminist framework of her fiction is best understood as an open platform for exploration of nature and technology: these stories of “taboo fusions,”39 new and unpredictable affinities conceived as a “fierce reply to the dictates of both Anthropos and Capital,”40 regard inorganic nature, animals, humans, technology and pure information as a continuum, a locus of possible solidarity, transforming the received notions of corporeality, virtuality, family, sexuality, economy and progress. A different understanding of the future stems from this interference between categories; therefore, speculative fiction will be the optimal medium to both represent and embody these emerging kinships, the distribution of forces across an ontologically heterogeneous field motivated by a “nonlinear, nonhierarchical, non-subject-centered mode of agency.”41 This theoretical horizon is shaped by the work of Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, Rosi Braidotti, Jane Bennett and many others, hailing from various contexts and disciplinary affiliations. Bakić doesn’t explicitly reference their work, but I believe that her writing shares a significant affinity with it, enabling the foci of political change in her stories to shift away from the inherited historical options into two distinct thematic circles.

  • 42 Bakić Asja, Mars, trans. Jennifer Zoble, New york, Feminist Press, 2019, p. 61. French translation (...)
  • 43 Deleuze Gilles, Guattari Félix, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Mas (...)

22The first one is a new understanding of future as an unprogrammed influx of events, mergers and interconnections, rather than as a realization of a utopian plan or a reinstatement of a previous state of affairs. Progress is not about a certain set of values already present today, to be implemented tomorrow; the real futurity is something unscripted: “The future is impossible to predict because there isn’t just one future.”42 Therefore, the new defence of the future abandons the linear dialectics of overcoming one fixed position in favour of another; it occurs in the uncharted continuum of fusions and interferences between states and categories. If it occasionally seems that there is no clear outcome to this process, that is because it strives to avoid the finality of a certain identity: the sharpest and most distinct product of its work is processuality itself, which has a higher subversive potential than any given fixed position. This sounds very abstract, bordering on mystification, but these processes are at work between very real agents and materials, dates and sites, and do not create empty concepts but what Deleuze and Guattari call “haecceities,” non-personal modes of material individuation “assembling elements, things, plants, animals, tools, people, powers, and fragments of all of these.”43

  • 44 Barad Karen, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meani (...)
  • 45 Bakić, “Posljednja večera,” op. cit., p. 42.
  • 46 Derrida Jacques, La voix et le phénomène, Paris, PUF, 2005, p. 89.
  • 47 Deleuze Gilles, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson, London & New york, Continuum, 2006 (...)
  • 48 Bakić, Mars, op. cit., p. 125.

23The second one is inextricable from the first: it is corporeality, but refocused as a space of these mergers, rather than a site of identity. A body, understood in its vital materiality rather than in its cultural import, is a locus of various intersecting agencies and processes, scales and temporalities, a zone of multiplicities and non-personal collectivity rather than subjectivity. “Existence is not an individual affair.”44 If selfhood is traditionally imagined as a Cartesian, un-embodied, self-aware matrix of rationality, then corporeality is always already a field of alterity: the ultimate alien resides within or “below” what we perceive as “ourselves.” In that sense, corporeality precludes thinking in terms of monadic identities and requires different models of explication, engaging the material exteriority and its agencies. “I couldn’t hear myself think from all the noise produced by the rest of my body.”45 If we remember Derrida’s pinpointing of a phenomenological “voice that guards the silence,” s’entendre-parler, as pure auto-affection, i.e. the forge of subjectivity,46 it is literally drowned here in the clamour of corporeal machinery. Sexuality in Bakić’s stories functions as a subset of this problem and becomes a key point of interference: a field of danger, transformation and processes (rather than positions) of power. Paraphrasing Deleuze’s take on Spinoza – “we do not even know what a body can do, [...] what forces belong to it or what they are preparing for”47 – we come upon the ultimate question of Bakić’s fiction: “What if I created something that you didn’t even know existed?”48 We can interpret the subject of this sentence as a body awakening to its capacities, but also as literature itself becoming a site of change.

  • 49 Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, op. cit., p. 33.
  • 50 Braidotti Rosi, The Posthuman, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2013, p. 94.

24This position can certainly be described as “posthuman” – not as something “after” or “beyond” human, but as a shift in the balance of agencies, where humanity is just one factor interconnected with a plethora of others in a complex heterarchy which is, moreover, to a large extent unknown, unmanageable and unpredictable. This is the domain of Barad’s “intra-actions”: processes that involve “mutual constitution of entangled agencies49 rather than interactions of discrete elements. Braidotti accentuates the ethical dimension of this “not-Oneness” as a “zoe-centered egalitarianism.”50 One could provisionally differentiate between examples of these mergers belonging to a “technological” crossover as opposed to the ones engaging the “natural” world, but this binary would be misleading: the most interesting events occur when categories stretch, morph or break.

25Idiosyncratic alliances between humans and technology occur in many of Bakić’s stories: this is the area where her affinity with science fiction and its tropes most readily comes to the fore. “Gretel” from Sweetlust explores a complex interaction between sexuality and technology, where the liberating potential of sexuality is severely curtailed. The Croatian title of the collection (Sladostrašće) is an ordinary if somewhat archaic word which could be rendered as jouissance, benefitting from Lacanian overtones. In Bakić’s fiction, this is always something liminal, impossible to recount, overflowing subjectivity and eclipsing analytical capacities, therefore representing danger: a field of tacit ideological maneuvers, but also a possible channel of release and transformation. In “Gretel,” however, Sweetlust is the name of an erotic amusement park in the near future: after the extinction of men due to a pandemic of syphilis, pleasure is no longer a zone beyond the Symbolic, inaccessible to quantification and calculability, but a regimented and commodified activity, open to programming and control.

  • 51 Bakić, Sweetlust, op. cit., p. 37.

26The dramatic confrontation occurs between the impresario of Sweetlust, Karla L, who is a virtual entity and an anthropomorphic avatar of the Code, and the narrator, a transwoman belonging to a group which is planning to hack the system behind Sweetlust using the Gretel virus. The principal axis of their conflict is the fact that the underlying structures of society, power and sexuality remain binary even after the extinction of men. Karla L was built by men, and even though Sweetlust is presented as an epitome of liberal feminism, an expensive place of entitled entertainment, it hides a dark undercurrent. Karla L could be a self-programmed AI, built on the code no-one can follow; this implies that the AI is inherently a human enemy – a theme increasingly topical in the age of ChatGPT and debates regarding the legal status of AI, the ontology and ethics of non-human intelligence, its capacity for progress towards technological singularity, its impact on our understanding of identity, collectivity, temporality, history, life and mortality. However, Karla L could also simply be a product of the former regime; she is an enforcer of traditional binarity, the cornerstone of contemporary transphobic and TERF discourse (against which Bakić is very active publicly): “if you were born a man, you can’t be a real woman.”51

  • 52 Ibid., p. 39.

27The narrator initially enters the final struggle with the Code as a hacker, becoming the bait, turning into a character in a prefabricated narrative, and finally acting as “the virus in person,” planted to destroy Sweetlust: she offers herself as a decoy, while her friends (highly placed employees of Google and the Ministry of Interior Affairs) deliver the final blow. This is where clear borderlines between biology and technology blur, and a hidden political motto of the book appears: “Information is information.”52 Nevertheless, it is crucial that the narrator had to step in personally to play a certain role in order to gain a specific effect. Haecceity is a political category: it is impossible to fight the Code through pure abstractions; only a particular action taking place in a context of material entanglement effects a real change.

  • 53 Ibid., p. 133.
  • 54 Ibid., p. 131.
  • 55 Ibid., p. 130. The assertion that intelligence was “never artificial” squarely confronts both the m (...)

28Parallel plots of “The Abduction” explore a different sexual dynamics between humans and technology: one describes experiments of an apparently sexual nature, performed by an android on a human captive, and the other relates the human’s backstory, her work as a copywriter, and the disappearance of sex from the Earth dominated by the advertising industry. The plot slowly reveals her to be a conduit towards the “rehumanization” of the Earth’s population (which has degenerated into productive solitary cells) via sexual and other programs inscribed by historical humans into androids. The robot still runs on a man-made program, and it is writing it back into her in a narrative climax, depicting a posthuman sexual scene: “I learned from a robot. I imitated him in order to be human.”53 In this scenario, clear opposition of the natural and the artificial ceases to exist, giving way to a multitiered interaction between hybrids (a defunct humanoid robot; a technologically enhanced human, “half body, half computer program”54) in order to transform them both into more self-reliant and agential versions of themselves. The initial paranoia towards AI dissolves with a new insight: “intelligence was never artificial,”55 so a human/AI hybrid might open a path towards a new definition of humanity. Again, corporeality is the key factor in this process of coming back to oneself: sexuality is a way of claiming back one’s own body.

  • 56 Bennett, Vibrant Matter, op. cit., p. 6.

29Moving on from technology to processes within the “natural” world, we can roughly divide them into interferences with animals or plants, with the elements (fire, water, oil, but as material fluxes rather than abstractions), and with inorganic nature embodied in objects demonstrating a particular sort of “thing-power,” “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects.”56

  • 57 Bakić, Sweetlust, op. cit., p. 162.

30Many stories entail human-animal interactions, hybrids or transformations: the protagonist changes into a nuthatch in “Fellow’s Gully” and into an eagle-owl in the unpublished “The Golden Apple”; in “The Guest,” pig ears are rumoured to grow on the adepts of a cult, enabling them to communicate telepathically or ultrasonically; “Mama” features disturbing and very explicit interspecies sex scenes. In “MCSB,” Bakić’s lyrical and dense homage to Georg Trakl, human/animal interferences create a scene of sexual violence which plays out in hypnotic tenor; a bed is a nest, and the perpetrator is a raven-human hybrid: “Its face is covered with gray feathers. Its chest is a man’s. The stripes that line its thighs are a cuckoo’s. Strong legs end with claws.”57

  • 58 Bakić, Mars, op. cit., p. 35.
  • 59 Bakić, Sweetlust, op. cit., p. 49.
  • 60 Bakić, “U ljudskom liku,” op. cit., p. 94.

31Plants play an equally important role, but with considerably less anthropomorphic agency, making it easier to present them as a part of a vibrant continuum including other layers of nature. The story about “Madame Liken” (sic) starts with this vignette: “Lichen: nature’s chaos. A body of algae and mushroom, the symbiosis blanketing the corpse [...].”58 In “Blindness,” the descriptions of a primrose – “its thick, sticky hairs, and its pink flowers”59 – assume an oddly sexual slant. “In Human Form” recognizes a different temporality in the plant life: it can “travel through time by its own seeds, hibernating and waiting for an opportune moment to sprout. Plants have premonitions of drought and simply skip a dry year, but people [...] can’t postpone time.”60 This type of networked existence, beyond naming and individuality, allows for an “immortality” which implies a fundamentally different concept of identity and collectivity.

32The elements ostensibly take up a similar position, but tend to operate differently, as they are even closer to the idea of nature as flux (i.e. hyle rather than a universe of discrete entities). “1998” and “Blindness” are complementary narratives in that sense, presenting water and fire respectively as sexually charged liminal matter, tempting the protagonists into a transformative experience. However, while fire in “Blindness” provides both a sexual release and a rite of passage, “1998” is a different take on corporeal self-awareness, representing sexuality as a threat: this is a coming-of-age story, and the narrator is at pains to resist physical change. Sexuality manifests through a number of “objective correlatives,” including a young man, but it initially comes through impersonal multiplicities (a cockroach infestation) or hostile natural forces – most importantly, water.

  • 61 Bakić, Sweetlust, op. cit., p. 7.
  • 62 Ibid., p. 18. Zoble’s translation reads: “She was overcome with lust”, but it is modified here to r (...)

33Throughout the story, sport occupies the opposite role: a non-sexual corporeal activity, closely tied to control, discipline, strength and training, placing the agency firmly within the narrator’s reach, while sexuality displaces and deterritorializes it, opening her to an exchange with an unknown outside. Water manifests as a portal providing an ontological shift from articulated chronology and clear forms into a “timeless” zone where the noise of matter and its processes submerge all structures of quantification and classification. This “chaos” of elements exists on the same level as the body, morphing with it and compromising its integrity: “When she swam, time stood still. She stared down at the water: the surface of the lake thickened, grew more viscous. She swam with difficulty, as if through pancake batter. She felt herself becoming gooey, like a piece of dough changing shape.”61 The narrator ultimately resists the regressive lure of this continuum, a “reversed” world of harmony and bliss – predicated, however, on accepting a definitive sexual and gender role, opposed to the androgynous tweendom of sport. “She had to get out of there. She was overcome with sweetlust.”62 What triggered the escape was a false feeling of relief offered by this world: the political imperative of these fictions is retaining the awareness of the problem, “staying with the trouble.”

34Processes of decomposition, considered as another elemental flux, dominate “The Season.” Superficially, this is one of the “zombie” narratives, also legible as a grim take on dehumanized work policies of the tourist industry. It presents oil as an element: “The Adriatic Sea turned into oil in her half-sleep: all the dead creatures were in it,”63 and the end of the story depicts this literally, as a nation of the dead rises from the sea. However, the setting is more interesting because it proposes a site of extreme black vitalism echoing Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia (2008), a continuum beyond the life/death dyad, which is the first binary to collapse from a posthumanist viewpoint.64 The flow of matter between the living and the dead structures agency in a deeply counterintuitive manner, moving beyond individuality, causality and time, and enabling generation without birth; decay is an emergence of new shapes, more persistent than the visible structures of “high season.”

  • 65 There is a long line of notable examples of this genre in literature, ranging from Mary Shelley’s F (...)

35Pharmaceutical chemicals initiate a similar “thing-power” exchange with humans in “Cassandra”: this inorganic agent turns the protagonists into its own “subjects,” a new collective entity, or at least a dispersed organic field of its own distribution, a subsystem of its transformative power. A recognizable line of motifs places Bakić’s work in a tradition of biomedical body horror:65 medicine is explored as a hazardous field threatening the characters, but leading them towards fusions where one can’t tell if certain anomalies are simply pathological symptoms, or signs of a deeper transformation – “the new flesh.” The body as such becomes a zone of biosemiotic “noise”: a space of interference between paradigms, a temporary field of undecidability which is provocative because it employs codes of multiple systems within a single corpus, a heterogeneous and “monstrous” braid of living matter.

  • 66 Deleuze, Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, op. cit., p. 289.

36In these stories, transformation is not simply a switch from one fixed and stable state into another, but an ongoing process in which identities are nothing but arbitrary, ephemeral “snapshots” of this flow. A different solidarity emerges from this deterritorialization of agents, and it radically differs from the concept of aligning with others (because of empathy, principles, profit etc.) while clearly keeping an awareness of one’s self and its alterity to others. This awareness would be the first thing to disappear in the new constellation: the new solidarity would not be an ethical “gift” (of one’s time, money, safety, life) to another, given from a position of a fixed identity; it would take place across an uncharted shared corporeality. In a very Deleuzian sense, this would be a perpetually emerging solidarity as becoming-other, having one’s identity (as the site of ethical responsibility and political struggle) deterritorialized in favour of a more complex assemblage of agents. This collectivity would be predicated on the recognition of one’s existence as a part of a material flux: an entanglement with the outside that liquidates both the myth of human superiority over the rest of creation, and the concept of mind detachable from matter as the supreme and originary element. One can only participate in this as “raw material,” as a catalyst or as an “instrument”: a crucial component, but not the initiator of a process. It should be stressed again that this is not an appeal for passivity, political quiescence or the deconstruction of identity providing an alibi for inaction; to the contrary. This is the final unravelling of the anthropocentric illusion: being one step removed from everything, residing in a godlike mental reality, indifferent to the world, having the power to decide on whether one will act or not. The ultimate posthuman conclusion of these fictions aligns with A Thousand Plateaus: it would be a mistake to think as if “there were on the one hand formed subjects, of the thing or person type, and on the other hand spatiotemporal coordinates of the haecceity type”; a haecceity is “what you are, and [...] you are nothing but that.”66

  • 67 Bakić, Sweetlust, op. cit., p. 53.

37Sexuality is a catalyst or a focal point in these processes; it can be a regressive element, but its threat is often a side-effect of incompatibility with the ego-based notions of individuality. In “Blindness,” sex is an agent of liberation into a new, collective body: “Fingers, tongues, and teeth sought to destroy me and civilisation, or so I thought – but I soon lost my train of thought. I was only skin, stretched taut by pleasure, like a drum. I didn’t need any senses but touch.”67 Bakić’s stories establish an extremely wide scope of interferences, the potential collective body – perceived as a continuum rather than a sequence of discrete elements – comprising codes, machines, characters, clones, bodies, minds, animals, aliens, plants and minerals. The vector of jouissance clearly signposts a crossover into a zone of non-identity, a “smooth space” where this non-personal corporeality comes alive as a substratum of new and unpredictable events and forms. In these narratives, a breakthrough never occurs as a consequence of planning, forced agency, individual effort or competence; but neither is it something that comes exclusively from the outside, descending upon a passive recipient and wiping them out. It emerges “impersonally” from uncharted and unprogrammed intra-actions within a heterogeneous multiplicity: a new quality, situated and perfectly real, but not deriving from any single entity or a preconceived calculation.

38These non-subjective intensities are presented as a revolutionary factor, very different from planned and rational activity constrained by historical geopolitical formations: if obsolete forms of identity (inextricable from the notions of the personal, the spiritual, the divine) are the first obstacle to be surmounted in the struggle for a new type of progress, they can hardly shift if they are simply confronted with another preexisting identity. Something different emerges here: a “monstrous” occurrence that manifests as a heterogeneous multiplicity (elements are not to be counted easily), lacks a clear structure, centre or hierarchy, includes a wide ontological spectrum of agents, and is hard to perceive as a “unity,” a single object of analysis. Nevertheless, it is real, it is there, it has clearly recognizable effects. It only lacks a subject to whom all of this would be ascribed.

The literary assemblage

39A crucial question remains: the status of writing in Bakić’s work, especially writing fiction. It is inevitably ambivalent, bearing in mind that these narratives strive to subvert and overcome the pivotal position of identity. Of course, the bulk of the twentieth century theory argued that identity is not a necessary foothold for creative work: against the backdrop of semiotic processes, subjectivity tends to fade into an anthropomorphic mirage, losing its originary position. Nevertheless, the institution of authorship persists in terms of economy and social status, and Bakić mercilessly explores its pitfalls: the writer’s position is exceptionally vulnerable, open to exploitation, manipulation and dismissal. This is, however, a slippery field of power, always threatening to backfire into the echelons that profit from it: despite of occasionally being represented as an activity with a generative capacity bordering on the divine, writing is depicted as becoming a genuinely disruptive factor only after the abdication of the self as its conceptual constraint. As already noted in the introduction, I will follow these conflicting perspectives on writing to outline a xenofeminist mesoaesthetics of Mars and Sweetlust as a specific take on form, genre, literary devices and political activism.

40Writing is consistently described as poorly paid work in Bakić’s fictions, a humiliating activity deeply embedded in the network of capital, its cultural extensions and institutions. Its status tends to be so low that it occasionally crosses into physical exploitation: the pointless, atomized Taylorist netherworld, allowing for comparisons to sex work, trafficking and even cannibalism. This dark tone marks even the ostensibly lighter narratives, dealing with writers’ residencies, societies, subsidies and so on, bitterly ridiculing the life of authors in contemporary (particularly transitional) capitalism. The afterlife of “Day Trip to Durmitor” depicts “heaven” or “hell” as “a room of one’s own”: a place of indefinite work where one is obliged to write. Money is a catalyst: it initiates the work of writing, but demands that the writer submits to existing power structures in order to receive some of that power back.

  • 68 Ibid., p. 113.
  • 69 Ibid., p. 123.
  • 70 Barthes Roland, Œuvres complètes III, Paris, Seuil, 2002, p. 43.

41“The Abduction” depicts writing as quantified productivity opposed to the very possibility of humanity. The protagonist creates advertisement narratives, product-placement fiction and, finally, human-targeted copy for advanced AIs which have abducted her. The epigraph reads: “God has given us hands, so we must work”68 because her mechanical productivity defines her, both for her corporate employers on Earth and her AI captors; she writes automatically even in her sleep: “I wrote nonstop; every thought had to be commodified, every piece of food typed out. [...] [O]ur hands would continue their nocturnal life without us. They didn’t really belong to us anymore.”69 A writer is, therefore, literally reduced to a hand: writing is manual labour, giving a dark twist to Barthes’ notion of a scriptor, bereft of intention, as a modern, de-essentialized descendant of a classical Author.70

42The narrator of “Asja 5.0,” a porn writer in a sexless future, is forced to transcribe the work of another author and tailor it to the specific needs of a single consumer, a tyrant “benefactor” attempting to regain sexual potency. Storytelling has a sole purpose of providing a double deixis for him to inhabit, a hypertestosterone identity to enter and hopefully translate back into reality. This is the ultimate form of capitalist monopoly in the arts: without creative freedom or formal experiment, the purpose of writing completely occludes its revolutionary potential; more importantly, there is no practical iterability, no audience, no history to evolve or disseminate from a text: its sole telos is its consumption.

  • 71 Bakić, “Sezona,” op. cit.

43A different type of carefully managed and highly professionalized production of a semiotic illusion for a strictly controlled use is explored in “The Season.” Its protagonist is a wedding photographer stuck on the Adriatic seaside out of season, which increases her awareness of the “Mediterranean” as a manufactured mirage; its “backstage” reveals material fluxes of oil and decomposition, an abandoned construction site, a territory of suffering and political persecution, with the sea itself unforgettably described as a “night stick.”71 The story revolves around precarious work and the “invisible” forces (unpaid “zombies” or “ghosts”) that actually produce this tourist setting for someone’s enjoyment, and the photographer is just one more cog in the machinery of builders, waiters, sex workers and writers, constituting a new type of assembly line of modern capitalism: the service industry, producing an “ambience,” a backdrop for a certain preprogrammed experience.

44However, various social and cultural aspirations are closely connected to this type of work. Bakić examines the writers’ position not only in regard to the impersonal and “equalizing” forces of capital, but also in the interplay between the global West and its others: writers are prey to the declining and moribund power centres that exploit them, but they remain deeply susceptible to their lure and the illusory notion of true “recognition” these centres are in a position to grant. This recognition – relying on a very specific méconnaissance, a distorted projection of one’s own self-image – is the principal theme of several stories.

  • 72 Bakić, “Posljednja večera,” op. cit., p. 36.
  • 73 Ibid., p. 43-44.

45“The Last Supper,” as the best example, unites this theme with the problem of subsidized writing: “Moths are attracted to light, poets are attracted to money.”72 An obscure, mediocre poet from the Balkans receives 5,000 euros from a Stiftung to participate in a residency in a villa on Wannsee; the narrative develops as a black comedy, a parody of overblown horror clichés, but the underlying theme is actually the horror of assujettissement. The ability of the oppressor to exploit and destroy its subjects stems from their compliance: the allure of interpellation, the promise of a craved position in a certain cultural hierarchy (“a translated writer,” “an internationally recognized poet” etc.), the idea of being accepted as “one of us,” the ability to “pass.” However, this identity is ultimately fictional: it only exists as an object of desire, a bait that seems real and attainable exclusively from the displaced, peripheral position of a “minor writer.” The important aspect of a subject’s vulnerability to this identity trap is their reluctance to acknowledge and examine it too closely; already prone to the impostor syndrome, they avoid uncomfortable questions because they want to keep this narrative of recognition alive: the illusion requires them to keep on playing the role, like enacting a dream which would necessarily be disrupted or unravelled if observed from an exterior viewpoint. This is what the exploiter counts on: the desire to truly embody this role will keep the subject playing it up to and beyond their own death. The poet comes to realize that the residency is actually a thinly disguised vampiric cult: all the writers are killed in order to resurrect Schiller’s ghost who will take over the poet’s body. She manages to escape, but her awakening sweeps away literature itself, along with the dream of becoming a “European writer”: “I ran and ran, guided by the profound conviction that poetry was the worst thing that had happened in my life. I drew strength from this hatred of literature which was erupting in me uncontrollably [...]. I kept on charging ahead, into the future without poetry.”73

  • 74 Bakić, Mars, op. cit., p. 16.

46Schiller might have been introduced into this narrative on account of comedy value (and the fact that his body is missing from his Weimar grave), but this actually provides continuity with the themes discussed above: Europe as a locus of a desired identity which simultaneously attracts, directs, excludes, oppresses and exploits its others; a cultural tradition as an “undead” force seeking to perpetuate itself, feeding on the living and obstructing the advent of a true futurity. These themes resurface in another allegorical horror narrative: “Day Trip to Durmitor,” where the supreme position is held by Njegoš, the Montenegrin national bard. The narrator had published two collections of poems during her lifetime; they ended up buried in a local library of her hometown, and her own appraisal of them is sombre: “As if all the best literature had already been written in the past, long before me,”74 a feeling well known to all writers, but particularly poignant in the provinces, where this remoteness is both temporal and spatial. Someone in this position is more easily impressed by the cultural myths assigned to literature, but they are eventually revealed as traps for aspiring writers, playing on their vanity and desperation, and delivering them to zombified literary classics as fodder.

47All of this leads to a specific notion of writing as establishing one’s own identity: fiction as a possibility to “tell one’s own story,” write oneself into existence, counteract the master narratives of one’s culture. Bakić’s fictions indicate an acute awareness of the ambiguous nature of identity: it is not already there, to be simply represented by text; however, the fact that it is textually constructed, “virtual” and fluid doesn’t make it any less real, politically viable or potentially dangerous. Identity can be an interface which keeps the received values and notions in place, a concept that enables power structures to subjugate and exploit its others. This explains the pronounced resistance to naïve autobiographical approach in Bakić’s stories: it is a fairytale of authenticity, transparency of language and stability of the self. A prompt for an autobiographical enunciation may be presented as a potential space of freedom, self-realization, stating one’s own “truth,” but it will actually play into the hands of the power structures, reinforcing the identities tailor-made to the audiences’ expectations and prejudices. This is what the process of writing a journal – as a rudimentary, day-to-day autobiography – transpires to be in “Abby”: a trap, a matrix allowing for a new “person” to accrete and come to life, therefore becoming fully available to her warder or “owner” precisely on account of “becoming human.”

48“Day Trip to Durmitor” touches on this theme as well: the narrator is pressed into writing a book of stories as collateral; she will be released when it is completed. The captors, however, want to see only autobiographical narratives, slices of life, and explicitly warn against metafiction, writing about writing, examination of her own position as a writer; all that is needed from her is a performance of a life-story, an identity conforming to certain stereotypes, allowing for easy consumption. The demand is clear: the reward will follow if writing perpetuates an old form of identity, ready to be instrumentalized by third parties. The stories themselves, however, steadfastly refuse this offer: they develop a clear and aggressive political stance precisely by avoiding the prefabricated angle of personal confession.

  • 75 Bakić, Sweetlust, op. cit., p. 29.
  • 76 Ibid.
  • 77 Ibid., p. 23.

49Identity and narration clash to produce a different type of authorship in “Gretel.” A global concern builds centres around the world, processing a large archive of romances into exclusive and personalized VR pornography, carefully profiling users via social networks, online shopping, search histories etc. The results affect the visitors as a “surprise,” while actually keeping them locked in an existing cycle of enforced consummation. It is impossible to breach this fantasy screen of narration: “All you could see was the set – never the scaffolding.”75 Imagination is the key to captivity, and the role of advertisement is to keep the locks firmly in place. Narratives are tactical weapons: they help prepare a political, commercial or physical terrain for subjugation, and Sweetlust’s selling point sounds like a threat of final depoliticization through enjoyment: “Soon you’ll be coming so hard you won’t think about money for ten years.”76 The narrator attempts to implant Gretel, a highly destructive virus, into Sweetlust’s infrastructure to clear the way for a new and non-binary vision of sexuality. However, the virtual bulwarks are not attainable by force or by a single strike: she needs to “cast the ones and zeroes slowly – bit by bit, as if flicking pubic hairs one at a time into sterile enemy territory.”77 What it will take is a narrative attack: to overthrow the system, one must destroy “the lie,” rather than its technological support. The true medium of this fight is a story.

50This is where the positive power of storytelling comes to the fore, implying different types of agency and resistance. If writing as an identity-forming pursuit inevitably falls prey to exploitation and co-optation, then fiction must tap into something other than a deification of a self to dissolve these structures and access new ideas. The speculative thrust of these stories most forcefully presents writing (fiction) as a source of power, sometimes hyperbolized to include cosmic consequences. “The Underworld” is the finest example: it deals with a specific assemblage: a sentient metallic surface capable of mimicry and memory, seeking a human counter-object to fuse with them, but by way of writing, rather than physically. Similarly to “1740,” the story depicts a new machine of a worldmaking capacity, strong enough to disrupt the rhythms of history and interfere with the natural laws, but it will only come about through a synthesis of cutting-edge technology and a radical work of art. This counters the depressing historical position of art in other stories: instead of a commercial product or a tool of oppression, a work of art is an irreplaceable element, created without recourse to codes and stereotypes, enigmatic and fascinating enough in its own right, but achieving its full force only upon engaging with the outside world in unprogrammed ways. What ultimately surfaces in this interaction will be similar to a work of art itself: a new object, only partially legible within extant parameters, arriving into a given situation as an alien presence and demanding a “reverse engineering” for us to understand the scope of its effects and its eventual purposes.

51This is an important point: literature’s capability of reaching out, traversing contexts and producing unscripted interferences in the world and with the world. Rather than reinstating it in a sanctified plane and claiming a new type of barren autonomy for it, Bakić’s narratives decisively place all processes of literature in the material world, withholding the power to prescribe these processes from the world itself. The world and the literary work are an assemblage, an inorganic symbiosis: one uses the other in order to propel itself to the furthest reaches of its possible development.

52However, there is no universal aesthetic recipe that would safeguard fiction from co-optation into repressive or exploitative systems, while still providing a conceptual arena capable of inciting actual change. Bakić’s own narratives of deterritorialization draw on a large cultural archive – literary classics and popular genres, mythology, politics and religion – as a resource for a postmodern parody, but they have little to do with the previous generation’s canonized examples of melding “high” and “low” culture, such as John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) or Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980). Mars and Sweetlust belong to a different moment in cultural history – the world of contemporary masters of cross-genre short forms like Carmen Maria Machado, Joanna Walsh or Samanta Schweblin. As an educated take on the “New Weird” paradigm, itself a genre of the “second degree” that grafts and upgrades elements of older traditions (science fiction, horror, fantasy, mystery), Bakić’s writing is a new hybrid: the literary equivalent to the ontological interferences of her stories.

53Consequently, her approach does not rely on a text’s convertibility into its intertextual history; thematic, stylistic and cultural factors are employed for their end result, an indefinite literary intra-action, not as a catalogue of tropes and repertoires to be listed taxonomically. This can be done, of course: there is speculative fiction as a conceptual background, combining science fiction themes with the styling and narrative dynamics of horror (ranging from sophisticated eeriness, across witty homages, to highly schematic tropes of trash, zombie or slasher horror); the latter sometimes merges with oneiric scenarios, closer to surrealism or fantastic fiction in general; pornography is a highly active factor: from the imagery to be employed, criticized or enjoyed, through its narrative tropes (roleplaying, repetitiveness, stereotypes) bleeding into other genres, to the political aspects of the sex industry in general; romances are both used and critiqued for their escapism and political volatility; there are rewrites of the classics, myths, fairytales; there is a clear awareness of comics, videogames, television narratives and social media formats. However, the main point of interest is not the exact breakdown of the stories’ content or devices, but rather the as-yet unshaped, vague and inclusive poetics that all their processes foreshadow.

54This is underscored by a recurrent compositional feature of Bakić’s stories. Aside from the tendency to emphasize the enigmatic setups by ellipses, the majority of narratives end with a sudden reversal, at a point where a more complex worldbuilding might ensue. The purpose of this minus-device is clear: the cognitive goal of the story is not to extend the readers’ residence in a carefully crafted fictional world. Bakić’s micronarrative strategy typically works like a sequence of pared down information, selected by careful elimination of anything superfluous, kept to a necessary minimum where nearly every sentence or paragraph brings a significant change in the understanding of the plot. This unusually tight control of the narrative, dosing the information in such a way that the meaning is occasionally unclear or highly ambiguous, results in a skeletal construction, constant buildup of tension and a high rate of turning points in a very compressed space. Logically, this severely anti-immersive tendency finds its structural complement in the abrupt endings: the elementary grid of a certain situation is complete, anything else would simply be a redundant episode in a fully formed world. Rather than encourage the readers’ dwelling in these narratives, the stories bring them to the threshold of an indefinite new condition; the point is not to go on, but to imagine a similar opening in a different context, perhaps in one’s own world.

  • 78 Cuboniks, Manifesto, op. cit., p. 17.
  • 79 Ibid., p. 91.
  • 80 Deleuze, Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, op. cit., p. 28.

55All of these devices and tropes are therefore used as political tools, repurposing and “strategically deploying existing technologies to re-engineer the world.”78 It should be stressed that this re-engineering aims for “a transformation of seeping, directed subsumption rather than rapid overthrow,”79 a gradual distortion of accessibility rather than a complete subversion of the dominant narrative codes and collapse of readability. It is a matter of finding a middle ground between the stereotypes of popular genres and abstruse hermeticism of pure textual experiments. However, this “middle” is not a blank style or a politics of compromise: it is an unmapped zone of “interbeing,” an intermezzo of identities. “The middle is by no means an average; on the contrary, it is where things pick up speed.”80

  • 81 Cuboniks, Manifesto, op. cit., p. 83.
  • 82 Ibid., p. 31.

56Mesopolitics is introduced in the Xenofeminist Manifesto as a speculative attempt to bridge the conceptual gap between two political or even ontological perspectives: the “horizontal” one, pragmatic and efficient but tied to local gestures of limited relevance (i.e. singular acts which necessarily remain irreproducible in other contexts), and the “vertical” one, privileging a systemic outlook that reduces every phenomenon to a preexisting category and operates as a series of “top-down impositions of values and norms.”81 The oxymoronic mesopolitical imperative would be establishing a “lateral” flexible network between universal codes and singularities while “transitioning between multiple levels of political, material and conceptual organization”82 in order to inaugurate the intersectional as the new universal.

  • 83 Ibid., p. 83.
  • 84 Ibid., p. 93.
  • 85 Ibid., p. 65.

57Echoing this project and attempting to translate it into the field of aesthetics or literary theory, I’m proposing mesoaesthetics as a term of poetics: an instrument for outlining the hybrid profile of Bakić’s stories, although it could potentially be applicable to a wider variety of cultural phenomena. The formal, narrative, political and ethical matter of her stories embodies a quest for the midstream of all ontological crossovers precisely through “contamination as a mutational driver”83 between fixed positions. This is why speculative fiction is the optimal medium for fostering new agencies: both a genre and a program of political struggle, it allows for “new affordances of perception and action unblinkered by naturalised identities.”84 Xenofeminism redefines nature to better accommodate this shift: “nothing is so sacred that it cannot be reengineered and transformed so as to widen our aperture of freedom, extending to gender and the human. [...] [N]othing is supernatural. ‘Nature’ – understood here as the unbounded arena of science – is all there is.”85 Departing from antiquated forms of science fiction, taking pride in their dialectical capabilities, these narratives do not aim at a new set of clearly defined values to substitute the real or historical ones: this would simply foreclose the future in another way. Beyond any notion of passivity that this might entail, the interferences described above are active to a vitalist degree, but they depict the transfer of agency to various interconnected multiplicities producing unforeseen results, rather than to a single agency projecting its own transformation into the future. Inherently post-anthropocentric, this type of agency sharply differs from the previous generations’ political claims for science fiction, and requires an umbrella term as wide as speculative fiction to describe the stakes of possible change.

  • 86 Bataille Georges, Œuvres complètes II, Paris, Gallimard, 1970, p. 61-62.

58Contrary to the notion of “trivializing” the political by allowing it to be contaminated by the fantastic, xenofeminist fiction of this type creates a margin of “non-sense” where a true speculative rift appears: an opening, but toward the unknown, rather than to a tired utopian or dystopian inversion of the extant world. A clean and didactic science fiction would certainly shy away from the incongruous elements Bakić gladly interpolates in her narratives, but this is a structure that verges towards unresolved openings as the ultimate goal. This type of transgression aligns with a textual “heterology”86 – the “outrageous,” the “unusable,” the detritus of fiction – which just might be the way to the outside of the system.

  • 87 Bakić, Mars, op. cit., p. 159.
  • 88 Barthes, Œuvres complètes III, op. cit., p. 820.

59A book required to trigger these processes doesn’t have to be a collection of stories, a novel, a narrative at all: in “The Underworld,” the first volume of Mars (a book ostensibly signed by an entity called Selena) contains complex and undecipherable drawings, perhaps depicting a sacral object or a machine, while the second is largely illegible, resembling a natal chart and containing a handwritten gloss on the “authorial imagination” and “the power of the written word.”87 A book is, therefore, neither a mimetic representation of an actual situation, nor a self-contained object with no paths of cognitive access: it is a tool-box, a mode d’emploi to be tested, as Barthes suggested,88 less in its capacity to adequately and realistically depict or reflect the world, and more in its power to install itself into the world as a program, waiting to be put into performance in a material exteriority.

60In “1740,” a new machine is invented: a technological hapax, the only one of its kind. Coding takes the traditional creative place of writing here; but what if all writing could be considered as a program which will perform or produce something as yet unseen and “impossible,” seeking its potential applications only upon its contact with the outside world – consequently, in the future? This is anticipated by Deleuze and Guattari in their introduction to A Thousand Plateaus:

  • 89 Deleuze, Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, op. cit., p. 4.

a book has neither object nor subject; it is made of variously formed matters, and very different dates and speeds. To attribute the book to a subject is to overlook this working of matters, and the exteriority of their relations. [...] A book is an assemblage of this kind, and as such is unattributable. It is a multiplicity – but we don’t know yet what the multiple entails.89

61This supports the notion of the inaugural power of literature, materializing something no one knew was possible, but it also explains the close surveillance of literary practices in these stories: literature is not simply worthless, its margin of the unpredictable makes it dangerous to the outside systems seeking to absorb it. To paraphrase Juri Lotman, it is fortunate that literature exists – as a linguistic performance exceeding its parameters, always simultaneously translatable and untranslatable, legible and illegible, capable of meaning a variety of things at the same time, and yet surviving not only the death of its immediate authors and audiences but also civilizations, economic and philosophical systems that surrounded them – because if it didn’t, one could probably prove that it can’t exist.

  • 90 Bakić, Mars, op. cit., p. 116.
  • 91 Mallarmé Stéphane, Divagations, trans. Barbara Johnson, Cambridge and London, The Belknap Press of (...)

62If this is the case, then any vision of futurity must reach the conclusion offered in “The Guest”: “Nothing matters more than writing.”90 The stories of Asja Bakić, seeking for a new approach to political fiction, place the decisive emphasis on the power of writing to break the current conceptual limits. It’s hard to side with Hegelian overtones of Mallarmé’s famous dictum “everything in the world exists to end up as a book,”91 but it is quite possible that a book will be necessary for a new world to come into being.

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Notes

1 Bakić Asja, “‘Ne zaboravimo, i Hitler je bio slikar amater!’” [‘Let’s not forget, Hitler was an amateur painter too!’], an interview with Dubravka Ugrešić in Express, 20 February 2018, online: https://express.24sata.hr/kultura/ne-zaboravimo-i-hitler-je-bio-slikar-amater-14294 (accessed in December 2022). All translations from the Croatian are provided by the author unless stated otherwise.

2 See Matijević Tijana, From Post-Yugoslavia to the Female Continent: A Feminist Reading of Post-Yugoslav Literature, Bielefeld, Transcript Verlag, 2020, for an exploration of the feminist continuities, employed to conceptualize the corpus of (post)-Yugoslav writing.

3 Haraway Donna J., Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York, Routledge, 1991, p. 149.

4 For a comprehensive look at Bakić’s fiction, emphasizing precisely the alliance of feminist perspective and the “New Weird” paradigm, but also offering important insights about her place in the regional literary context, see Grdešić Maša, “Asja Bakić’s Feminist Weird Fiction,” in Miglena Dikova-Milanova, Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov (eds), Women’s Writings in Balkan Literatures: Subversive Readings and Identity Challenges (forthcoming).

5 Laboria Cuboniks is an international collective of feminist writers, scholars and artists, initially comprising Diann Bauer, Katrina Burch, Lucca Fraser, Helen Hester, Amy Ireland and Patricia Reed. The name is often presented as a pseudonym of an entity (“born” in 2014), seeking to “dismantle gender, destroy ‘the family,’ and do away with nature as a guarantor of inegalitarian political positions”; see Cuboniks Laboria, The Xenofeminist Manifesto, London, Verso, 2018. For further development of Cuboniks’ ideas, see Hester Helen, Xenofeminism, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2018.

6 Cuboniks, Manifesto, op. cit., p. 15.

7 Ibid., p. 65.

8 Ibid., p. 43.

9 Ibid., p. 33.

10 Haraway, Simians, op. cit., p. 245.

11 Ibid., p. 149.

12 See the editors’ introduction in Mijatović Aleksandar, Willems Brian (eds), Reconsidering (Post-)Yugoslav Time: Towards the Temporal Turn in the Critical Study of (Post)-Yugoslav Literatures, Leiden and Boston, Brill, 2022, for an attempt to thoroughly rethink the (post)-yugoslav literary and cultural corpus beyond the obvious thematic continuities, employing a specific understanding of temporality instead.

13 The term (and the connotation of Saïd’s “orientalism”) comes, of course, from Todorova Maria, Imagining the Balkans, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009.

14 Bakić Asja, “Cassandra,” in Aferdita Bytyqi, Whitney Gray, Louise Holly (eds), Imagining Health Futures: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction Stories about the Future of Health, Geneva, 2021, online: https://www.governinghealthfutures2030.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Anthology-1.pdf (accessed in December 2022), p. 25.

15 Bakić Asja, Sweetlust, trans. Jennifer Zoble, New york, Feminist Press, 2023, p. 93.

16 Ibid., p. 69.

17 Ibid., p. 73.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid., p. 146.

20 Ibid., p. 142.

21 Ibid., p. 140.

22 Ibid.

23 See, for example, Le Guin Ursula K., The Birthday of the World, New york, HarperCollins, 2002.

24 Cuboniks, Manifesto, op. cit., p. 79.

25 This resonates with Haraway’s criticism of communications sciences, quantifying everything in order to achieve absolute power through universal translatability: a code becomes “a common language in which all resistance to instrumental control disappears and all heterogeneity can be submitted to disassembly, reassembly, investment, and exchange.” Haraway, Simians, op. cit., p. 164. However, Bakić is wary of cultural attitudes disparaging digital media; her public work has largely been conducted via her blog In the Realm of Melancholy (https://asjaba.com), the feminist website Muf (https://muf.com.hr) and her Twitter account (@asjaba).

26 Bakić Asja, “Posljednja večera” [The Last Supper], Beogradski književni časopis no 68-69, 2023, p. 41.

27 Bakić Asja, “U ljudskom liku” [In Human Form], in Sarah Cleave, Sophie Hughes (eds), Europa 28, Zaprešić, Fraktura, 2020, p. 94.

28 Ibid., p. 95.

29 Bakić Asja, Dođi, sjest ću ti na lice [Come, I’ll Sit on Your Face], Zaprešić, Fraktura, 2020. Almost all of the essays collected in this book were initially published online (see note 25).

30 A biweekly magazine (1969-1991), featuring articles and interviews on politics, culture and the media; it was, however, notorious for photographs of female nudes on its cover and centrefolds.

31 A mass-produced illustrated erotic magazine (1985-1990); print run varied between 70,000 and 400,000 copies.

32 The biweekly magazine Arka (1988-1992) is the case in point here: subtitled “The Miraculous World on the Edge of Science,” it had an initial print run of 100,000 copies.

33 See also Bakić Asja, “Yugofuturism as a Trap,” Maska, vol. 37, no 209-210, 2022, p. 10-18, for a different, more explicit and personal take on the contemporary pertinence of Yugoslavia as a totem of an unrealized future. The original text is available at: https://asjaba.com/2023/06/06/jugofuturizam-kao-zamka/ (accessed in September 2023).

34 Bakić, Sweetlust, op. cit., p. 84.

35 Ibid., p. 101.

36 Vojin Bakić (1915-1992) was one of the foremost Yugoslav modernist sculptors of the post-war period. His radical abstraction helped showcase the non-aligned politics of yugoslavia, maintaining the distance from the Stalinist Soviet Union, the capitalist West, and Yugoslavia’s own pre-World War traditions. The fate of his works in “1740” vaguely echoes a series of incidents in the 1990s, when his monuments were “repurposed” (i.e. vandalized, dismantled, destroyed or sold as scrap metal).

37 Marx Karl, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, New york, Random House, 1906, p. 296.

38 Bakić, Sweetlust, op. cit., p. 154.

39 Haraway, Simians, op. cit., p. 173.

40 Haraway Donna J., Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2016, p. 2.

41 Bennett Jane, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham, Duke University Press, 2010, p. 33.

42 Bakić Asja, Mars, trans. Jennifer Zoble, New york, Feminist Press, 2019, p. 61. French translation by Olivier Lannuzel was published in 2021 (Paris, Agullo).

43 Deleuze Gilles, Guattari Félix, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, London, Continuum, 2004, p. 179.

44 Barad Karen, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham, Duke University Press, 2007, p. ix.

45 Bakić, “Posljednja večera,” op. cit., p. 42.

46 Derrida Jacques, La voix et le phénomène, Paris, PUF, 2005, p. 89.

47 Deleuze Gilles, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson, London & New york, Continuum, 2006, p. 36.

48 Bakić, Mars, op. cit., p. 125.

49 Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, op. cit., p. 33.

50 Braidotti Rosi, The Posthuman, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2013, p. 94.

51 Bakić, Sweetlust, op. cit., p. 37.

52 Ibid., p. 39.

53 Ibid., p. 133.

54 Ibid., p. 131.

55 Ibid., p. 130. The assertion that intelligence was “never artificial” squarely confronts both the motto of “information is information” and Brassier’s idea of biological housing as a contingent and ultimately unsatisfactory substratum for intelligence. See Brassier Ray, “Liquidate Man Once and For All,” in In/Appearance, online: https://inappearance.wordpress.com/2009/11/03/liquidate-man-once-and-for-all/ (accessed in December 2022). A “deconstruction” of the natural/artificial binary would probably engage both options: interferences explored in this chapter tend to bring the organic and the cybernetic to the same ontological level, and the quickest way to achieve this is precisely via intelligence. There is a further feminist note to be stressed here: “Reason, like information, wants to be free, and patriarchy cannot give it freedom.” Cuboniks, Manifesto, op. cit., p. 21.

56 Bennett, Vibrant Matter, op. cit., p. 6.

57 Bakić, Sweetlust, op. cit., p. 162.

58 Bakić, Mars, op. cit., p. 35.

59 Bakić, Sweetlust, op. cit., p. 49.

60 Bakić, “U ljudskom liku,” op. cit., p. 94.

61 Bakić, Sweetlust, op. cit., p. 7.

62 Ibid., p. 18. Zoble’s translation reads: “She was overcome with lust”, but it is modified here to retain the original phrasing (“Obuzimalo ju je sladostrašće”); see Bakić Asja, Sladostrašće, Zagreb, Sandorf, 2020, p. 32.

63 Bakić Asja, “Sezona” [The Season], in U carstvu melanholije, online: https://asjaba.com/2022/07/09/sezona/ (accessed in December 2022).

64 Braidotti, The Posthuman, op. cit., p. 133-134.

65 There is a long line of notable examples of this genre in literature, ranging from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) to Clive Barker’s Books of Blood (1984-85). However, the “body horror” designation itself comes from the world of cinema, and it was initially used to describe David Cronenberg’s early works, from Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970) to Videodrome (1982) and The Fly (1986). More recently, Julia Ducournau’s Grave (2016) and Titane (2021) garnered significant critical acclaim and brought the genre closer to wider audiences.

66 Deleuze, Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, op. cit., p. 289.

67 Bakić, Sweetlust, op. cit., p. 53.

68 Ibid., p. 113.

69 Ibid., p. 123.

70 Barthes Roland, Œuvres complètes III, Paris, Seuil, 2002, p. 43.

71 Bakić, “Sezona,” op. cit.

72 Bakić, “Posljednja večera,” op. cit., p. 36.

73 Ibid., p. 43-44.

74 Bakić, Mars, op. cit., p. 16.

75 Bakić, Sweetlust, op. cit., p. 29.

76 Ibid.

77 Ibid., p. 23.

78 Cuboniks, Manifesto, op. cit., p. 17.

79 Ibid., p. 91.

80 Deleuze, Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, op. cit., p. 28.

81 Cuboniks, Manifesto, op. cit., p. 83.

82 Ibid., p. 31.

83 Ibid., p. 83.

84 Ibid., p. 93.

85 Ibid., p. 65.

86 Bataille Georges, Œuvres complètes II, Paris, Gallimard, 1970, p. 61-62.

87 Bakić, Mars, op. cit., p. 159.

88 Barthes, Œuvres complètes III, op. cit., p. 820.

89 Deleuze, Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, op. cit., p. 4.

90 Bakić, Mars, op. cit., p. 116.

91 Mallarmé Stéphane, Divagations, trans. Barbara Johnson, Cambridge and London, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007, p. 226.

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Luka Bekavac, « Mesoaesthetics: Xenofeminist Writing in Mars and Sweetlust »Balkanologie [En ligne], Vol. 18 n° 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2024, consulté le 19 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/balkanologie/5375 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11qf8

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Auteur

Luka Bekavac

Department of Comparative Literature
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
University of Zagreb
lbekavac[at]ffzg.hr

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