Alain Kessi on Thu, 15 Apr 1999 22:38:56 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Re: Kosovo and the Economics of Attention

Dear Michael Goldhaber, and other <nettime>rs,

> Kosovo and the Economics of Attention
> by Michael H. Goldhaber April 13,1999

Several things in your analysis have struck me as potentially
problematic. I'd like to write you about some of my thoughts on this.

Generally, the problem I have with your text is on two levels. First,
you use categories such as "the Serbs", "the Kosovar Albanians" (at
least you don't say "the Kosovars", implying like some do that the
people rightfully living in Kosov@ are necessarily of Albanian
background) in such a homogenizing way that it seems your discourse
serves the ethnization of the conflict, which has been forced upon the
people through the hard work of the likes of Milosevic and the KLA
leaders (and to some extent, even Rugova, it seems to me).

This is related to the second problem I have with your analysis: You
deny material economic interests (this is of course the aim of the
ethnization of the conflict - to distract from the economic roots of the
social conflicts in the context of which Milosevic chose nationalism as
the basis on which to ground his power). This is another type of
homogenizing - indeed, you do not go into the question about why there
are "big players" in the "economics of attention", and smaller players,
or even an invisible majority that does not seem to participate in the
game. I challenge you to recover some sort of explanation of power
structures such as these, leaving out the sphere of "material

I think that what you call the "economics of attention" certainly plays
a role, and a large one at that, in a world several realms of which have
turned into a "spectacle". However, I would like to suggest that the
power struggles, even when apparently their actors are seeking
"attention", are not disconnected from material questions, and that
there is a dialectic relation between the material interests and the
"economics of attention". Though the "economics of attention" may have
some dynamic of its own, independent from material economic interests in
some stretches, it is in most cases rooted in the material economics.

Concretely, in Kosov@ - and here I think you go over this very
superficially, rejecting the thought in a nonchalant way - the interests
are indeed very closely linked to economic strategies, and on
geostrategic power struggles among the different NATO states and with
Russia, power struggles which eventually have the aim of controlling
physical, material resources and shaping economies in such a way as to
allow extraction of (material) profits. The role of IMF (International
Monetary Fund) policies aimed at extracting profits from the Yugoslav
economy by forcing the Yugoslav state to service its debt, giving
Milosevic (and already his predecessors) the role of exploiting Yugoslav
workers in order to collect the money to service the debt, is not so
much part of the "economy of attention" as of material economy. However,
the strategy followed by Milosevic to distract from the economic
exploitation, namely the ethnization of the social conflicts, may be
seen as closer to this "economy of attention", of "spectacle", the
staging of a distraction.

I would argue that it is rather the mechanisms of legitimation of the
war actions (whose origins are nonetheless material economic interests)
that draw on the "economy of attention"; that it is a cloak used to
cover other, material interests. When a war that is about redefining
power relations (including control over markets and resources) between
the various NATO countries (chiefly the USA and Germany) can be staged
in such a way that it is perceived as TV entertainment, and that the
people seen as the main actors look like they are acting out of an
hollywood-like interest for "attention", it becomes so depoliticized
that it seems difficult to find a way to struggle against it.

> As far as strategy goes, the US has long quite happily ignored Kosovo.

If the US have (seemingly) ignored Kosov@, Germany definitely has not.
The German government has followed a consistent strategy of destroying
Yugoslavia. With the NATO attacks on Kosov@, it only finishes off what
it started in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia.

> How could it suddenly be at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle
> East? In fact, for centuries it has been a backwater, and no more than
> the little traversed crossroads between Albania, Montenegro, Serbia and
> Macedonia —a naught within a naught when it comes to strategic value to
> outsiders.

Actually, if you go back to reading Zbigniew Brzezinski, you will find
that some years ago already he had an eye on the Caspian region, and for
the transport of the oil in that region to US refineries. Brzezinski is
not adviser to the government any longer, but his geostrategic thinking
still plays a major role even for the Clinton administration.

In fact, a quite substantial interest of the United States is
exemplified by massive investments all along what is known as the
Corridor VIII (from the Black Sea through Bulgaria, Macedonia and
Albania to the Mediterranean - creating a link from the Caspian region
where the US government is intent on taking over the oil fields from
Russian control, all the way to US refineries). The fact that US-TDA
(United States Trade and Development Agency), which oversees projects in
which only US companies may bid, is involved in all the intermediate
points of the path from the Caspian to the Mediterrean, shows a very
focused interest of the US government. There is therefore not only a
German interest in the demise of Serbia (an ally of Russia which even
after the destruction of Yugoslavia is playing a role in the Balkans
which is uncomfortably large from a US or German perspective), but also
a US-American interest.

> As for oil, since it is found just about anywhere, it can always be
> brought up as a reason for anything; but the fact is there is if anything
> too much oil on the world market, and even quite recently, the US
> demonstrated that its stand on oil could be subservient to other concerns.
> (American economic planners looked favorably on an attempt by OPEC to
> raise prices form their historic lows, since that would help prop up the
> tottering Russian economy.)

Even though the attack on Yugoslavia by NATO is most certainly linked in
some way to the US-American will to control Caspian oil, and more
generally to cut back Russia's influence in the region, the war in
Kosov@/Serbia is also the expression of the most virulent struggles
between the EU and the US (who are the biggest rivals in material
economy) in a long time. Only superficially can this be seen as a
competition for the "attention" of TV consumers. We have a better chance
of understanding these antagonisms when we look for causes in the
material economy.

> In the course of this, presenting the Serbs as embattled and outnumbered
> he has certainly created a climate in which desperate, even genocidal
> measures—such as those taken at Srebrnica can be construed by Serbs as
> simply necessary for survival. Unlike Germans under Hitler, the serbs are
> not holding themselves up as a master race, but rather as perpetual
> victims, whose victimhood confers the right to do anything. It is a
> dangerous and ugly stance, but not one unique to the Serbs, unfortunately.

This is one instance in which you make sweeping judgements over "the
Serbs" as a unit, thus confirming the "ethnic" categories set up to
divert the attention from the real interests involved in the destruction
of Yugoslavia.

> Kosovo and the bombing campaign thus represent a dangerous new trend in
> the future direction of interstate relations, ironically occurring at a
> time when the state is loosing its purpose and function. If we are to
> prevent this sort of war, those of us who are against both sides must find
> new means of getting attention, the attention of the very audiences now
> fixated on the wars, yet not wanting really to become involved.

Your evaluation that "the state is losing its purpose and function"
seems rooted more in the hegemonic discourse on globalization (a
discourse which serves material economic interests in that it frames
discussions in such a way that there seems to be no level on which to
struggle against material economic oppression) rather than in a close
look at the actual evolution of the role of states. I suggest that you
find a translation of Joachim Hirsch's works on the new roles of states
in a globalized economy (mostly police and military roles, but also in
social control, legitimation, selective opening and closing of borders
to people according to economic interests). In parallel, you could look
at Saskia Sassen's description of the new role of cities, which also
works to debunk the myth of the globalized economy not being
geographically rooted.

> That is but one possibility. The challenge to would-be peaceniks, who
> almost certainly cannot be expected to be governments, is to come up with
> attention-getting ways to make the war-fighters look bad that can compete
> with war itself in media effectiveness, meaning in timeliness and
> attention getting capacity.

The problem with such approaches, in my opinion, as with your
description in the present analysis, is that you join the club of
"entertainers". Try politicizing a discussion by entertaining! The
danger, it seems to me, is that you will be one of those many actors in
search of "attention", playing along in a game of offering a "spectacle"
which distracts from the points where the material struggles are taking
place behind the back of the spectators and consumers. It's great to
diagnose the "society as spectacle", but having diagnosed it doesn't
mean one has to embrace it.

The strategy, then, I think, can only be to deconstruct the "economy of
attention", to go back to an analysis of material relations, to a
radical critique of capitalist, patriarchal, state systems of oppression
and exploitation, and to develop ways of struggling against both the
distracting discourse and the attacks on the autonomy of people that it
distracts from.


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