“Our Experience”: Two Postwar Readings of Radomir Konstantinović’s Philosophy of Parochialism

This is part of a roundtable, Serbian Philosopher Radomir Konstantinović: “Parochialism” in Translation.


Radomir Konstantinović published The Philosophy of Parochialism in 1969. I read this book twice: first in Sarajevo around 2002 in its original Serbian and again in Chicago in 2022, just after it was published in English translation.[1] Thinking about these two contexts—temporal and geopolitical—made me reconsider Konstantinović’s enduring critical thought, which still resonates today.


Poetry by other means: Sarajevo, 2002

I first encountered the book in postwar Sarajevo. I had grown up in the city and left because of the war that began in 1992 and ended in 1995. I returned to the city several years later and then lived there for two years in the early 2000s. At that time, the war was still palpable in Sarajevo; the war was there as one walked past ruins on the way to school or bought homemade plum jam at a street market, which, just a few years earlier, had been the scene of a massacre that had since then receded into the warm, charred background of daily life. The city had a kind of quiet, post-apocalyptic radiance, having survived 1,425 days of siege at the hands of a Serbian army in pursuit of an ethnically pure statelet.

At that time, poets led a state-building project. One of those poets was a petty fraud who tried, rather unsuccessfully, to peddle some poems alongside psychological advice in the 1980s, but the prospect of war boosted his lyrical business; his name was Radovan Karadžić, and he had been a state laureate. Another state laureate was his friend Nikola Koljević, a professor specializing in Shakespearean sonnets and the author of The Poets of Lyrical Action, an anthology of Bosnian verses in which he conveyed a near-mystical connection “between the poet and his given historical and biographical context.”[2] Both Karadžić and Koljević could very well have presented their research at the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies conference or similar academic gatherings, had they not decided to fight in a war instead. In 1992,  Karadžić declared himself a stateman and welcomed other poets such as Eduard Limonov—a Russian writer from Moscow—to the mountains above Sarajevo, from where they fired upon besieged civilians from a weapon attuned to irregular meter. They stood there, on top of a mountain, with rifles and cannons, pursuing poetry by other means.

In Konstantinović’s The Philosophy of Parochialism, the connection between lyric poetry and politics is a crucial theme. In one of the essays that comprise the book, Konstantinović described a pervasive nationalist attitude as one that holds that “the highest value”—in poetry as well as society—“is completeness, which, again, presupposes organization, that is to say, a strict rationalism without which there is no organization.”[3] In explicating how nationalism links poetry and society, Konstantinović identified an entire set of philosophical assumptions that went far beyond strictly literary or sociological analysis. His approach insisted—already before the war in Yugoslavia—that we take the prose and poetry of nationalism with utmost seriousness.

In Sarajevo, The Philosophy of Parochialism was talked about in reverent tones, especially among the prewar generation of Yugoslav intellectuals. One night on television, I watched a discussion of Konstantinović’s book by a group of Sarajevo intellectuals. There was, for example, Hanifa Kapidžić-Osmanagić, who, before the war, had written about Simone de Beauvoir, Hélène Cixous, and modern French literature; but she was probably best known as an expert on surrealism, specifically on the relationships between interwar French and Serbian surrealists. When the war came about in the 1990s, Kapidžić-Osmanagić continued to work although the city was under siege; she once left Sarajevo in 1994 to go to Paris to give a series of lectures entitled “Surrealism against Nationalism,” before returning to the besieged city. In the 1990s, there was an air around The Philosophy of Parochialism that suggested that it could explain, perhaps, the coming of the war before the war. However, if the book offered insights on the outbreak of war, it did so indirectly and in challenging ways. For his part, Konstantinović made his political stance clear as Yugoslavia was violently dismembered; he organized against the war, identified the key instigators of violence in people such as Karadžić and Milošević, and even traveled to besieged Sarajevo in 1993 to show where he stood. In a paradoxical turn, his profoundly abstract and convoluted philosophical 1969 book came to stand in the 1990s as a political boundary marker. By pinpointing the roots of Serbian nationalism and, ultimately, of “Serbian Nazism [as] the most radical expression of … bourgeois rationality”—a complex cultural field that Konstantinović termed “parochialism”—the book appeared as a symbol. The book came to separate those who embraced its content, and thus “rejected the atrocities of Yugoslav wars,” “from those who justified them” using copious whataboutery while rejecting Konstantinović’s ideas.[4] But the book, published before the war, could not speak of the actual war. It has remained a demanding, abstruse, and elusive attempt to articulate the theoretical problem of “parochialism” by meticulously working through the political assumptions embedded in the Serbian literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Equally elusive were physical copies of this book after the war. Since the prewar edition was not available in Sarajevan bookstores, I went to the National Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which Karadžić’s acolytes had deliberately burnt down in 1992. What remained of its collections had been moved to a damaged but functional building that was once used as barracks by the Yugoslav National Army. By some miracle, a copy of Parochialism remained, but it could not be borrowed. The library could not risk lending the few books it still had unless it possessed them in duplicate. In the end, I borrowed a friend’s copy, and a few years later I bought the 2004 reprint in Belgrade.

That was the context in which I first read Radomir Konstantinović. His Philosophy is a difficult book, and it takes considerable acclimation to get into its flow, argument, and distinctive style. Even its title and first words, which contain expressions such as filosofija, palanka, and palanačko—translated as “provincial” or “parochial”—stand apart from usual philosophical terminology. The book’s extended discussion of palanka appears quite abstract but also strangely specific in talking about the “spirit of parochialism.” According to Branislav Jakovljević’s (2021) succinct definition of the term in his introduction to the translation of the book, palanka “is not an ethnographic category” but Konstantinović’s conceptual designation for “a small, enclosed community.” This key tenet entails an explanation of different forms of anti-intellectualism and anxiety about change and about “the outside world, which it [palanka] perceives as foreign and hostile.” If Konstantinović’s exploration of parochialism feels belabored and packed with dense reflections on the positions of parochialism itself, it is because the author is laboring to find his way out of the anti-philosophical context of national literature even as he seeks to illuminate and dissect palanka’s key tenets.

In the first half of the book, Konstantinović explores the inner logic and illogic of parochialism abstractly, making relatively few concrete references. In the later chapters, and especially in the concluding notes, he develops an incredibly erudite analysis of pre-1945 modern Serbian literature. His literary range is subtle but vast, unearthing both unjustly neglected poets and literary zingers. In one characteristic example, Konstantinović relates a sarcastic interwar remark by Miloš Đurić, a leading Serbian intellectual of the first half of the twentieth century, who said that he “would arm Henri Bergson with Prince Marko’s mace to kill off all Latins,” thus suggesting an underlying provincial attitude behind contemporaneous French and Serbian philosophies.[5] Konstantinović’s creative re-situating of the classics of Serbian literature—from Vuk Karadžić to Đura Jakšić to Jovan Skerlić—suggests new ways of understanding a seemingly stable oeuvre. Instead of returning to Vuk Karadžić only for his linguistic standardization of Serbian in the nineteenth century, Konstantinović unearths lesser known stories from his opus, reading them as particular expressions of underlying political thought. Some of the references to Karadžić’s works such as the folk story of “The Dark Country” (tamni vilajet) and raskovnik (an herb that can open any lock), require substantive background knowledge, which is helpfully elucidated in notes to the English translation.[6] But Konstantinović’s imaginative, close reading, daunting as it may seem at first, rewards the reader with insights into the larger cultural context in which modern Serbian literature emerged. In that sense, Konstantinović made me realize how certain classics, usually reverently cited only for certain ideas, could be reopened, inviting new research rather than the repetition of established canons.

Aside from an exploration of parochialism, Konstantinović’s book can also be read as an analysis of nationalism. While he prefers the concept of palanka to identify the logics and attitudes of parochialism, Konstantinović also explicitly discusses nationalism as an unusually generative political and literary force. In his analysis, we see nationalists relentlessly striving toward their abiding obsessions—national unity, purity, and a sense of completeness of one’s nation—in “the spirit of final answers” as well as “final solutions.” These nationalists are thus shown to seek a kind of permanent “fulfillment of [an] end”: a territory consolidated, a people united, an enemy wiped out, a sense of completeness achieved. At the same time, nationalists are anxious about this elusive sense of completion, ultimately bringing their aspirations into question and leading to “a confrontation that is unfinishable and is, therefore, a lasting obligation and inexhaustible inspiration.”[7] Konstantinović’s insights proved especially useful in my own work, in which I tried to reframe the history of nationalism not as a set of distinct stages of development progressing toward the final attainment of an independent nation-state but rather as a kind of sentimental politics driven by endlessly multiplying desires and unfinishable demands that compel nationalists to keep pursuing their impossible aims.[8]

Above all, even though I struggled through its abstract and rarified reflections, I instinctively appreciated the root impulse of the book, which is to take “the spirit of parochialism” seriously and never shy away from its specificity in the Serbian context, but also to insist on the permeating presence of this spirit beyond the Serbian context. As Konstantinović wrote, “there is no country where the spirit of parochialism is not possible, because it is everywhere equally impossible in its demand for the ideally closed, out of time, and thereby eternal nothingness.”[9] No matter how belabored and convoluted the book may appear, it helped me identify and pinpoint the spirit of parochialism that resists philosophizing and is hostile toward abstraction; the book also simultaneously directs its critical approach to and beyond the province.


Bringing our experiences into it: Chicago, 2022

In one of his televised broadcasts from the 1960s, Konstantinović talked about another dimension of anti-intellectualism, but this time as it pertained to literary markets and their peculiar geopolitics. Though his comments were seemingly unrelated to the book under study here, Konstantinović was again working his way out of a trap. He considered that the enclosed space of the province, the palanka, presented itself as merely a self-evident and entirely natural way of being and thinking in the world. Here, too, Konstantinović worked his way out of an anti-philosophical province in an underlying move that is deeply relevant to our time and place:


For too long, Europe considered itself the rightful place for a literature of a higher rank; Europe considers itself the natural home of what we might call “philosophy” in everyday speech. And also Europe thinks that all the so-called non-European lands and cultures deal with something entirely different, that [non-Europeans] express a kind of exoticness, that they express a world of Oriental character, as we from the Balkans know very well. Thus a writer from Yugoslavia or Greece is not someone who can bring a philosophical dimension of broader cultural or human significance, but instead he is seen as bringing certain overtones, or some kind of raw material, which other European languages may not have, but which they can refine and adapt.[10] (translation by author)


As Konstantinović’s book recently came out in English translation (Jakovljević and Nikolić 2022), his Philosophy risks being provincialized in precisely the ways he critiqued in the 1960s, with Western literary markets situating it as merely a Serbian or Balkan work whose contributions do not exceed its given “area studies.” My own reflections here draw from one such context; I began drafting this text for a roundtable conversation with Gordana Crnković, Đorđe Popović, Aleksandar Bosković, Matvei Yankelevich, and Branislav Jakovljević about The Philosophy of Parochialism at the annual convention of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), held in 2022 in Chicago. It is worth reflecting here on the larger framework of the association. Like other “non-European” or “questionably European” fields, the field represented by the ASEEES makes the organization a provincial manifestation in the sense that it is an institutionalized space of area studies knowledge production where scholars primarily address the kind of “raw materials” that Konstantinović mentioned. Writing about this book in English from or against an area studies perspective brings us back to some fundamental problems this book challenged and tried to reframe. Readers in English, however, do have one advantage: Branislav Jakovljević’s superb introduction to the 2021 edition addresses these questions head-on, showing how Konstantinović’s book ultimately “asks for a hard labor of necessary change: of a revolution that is not an overturning, but an opening, a breakout of temporality from the province of history.”

What might such a “breakout” look like for those of us who, like Konstantinović, experienced the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s as an epoch-defining rupture? In one interview, Hanifa Kapidžić-Osmanagić said that after the siege of Sarajevo, she was immensely disappointed in the notion of “Europe” as a site of seemingly emancipatory politics. She expressed frustration at the powerlessness of academic life, although she still retained faith in the power of writing. As she stated, “the experience of the war changed my life, my values, my criteria and relationship to literature. Today, I write more freely than before, bringing my experiences and my own witnessing into it.”[11]

“Experience” returns us to the first words of Konstantinović’s book: “Our experience is parochial”—Iskustvo nam je palanačko. When I read these words in Sarajevo some twenty years ago, I fell for them, feeling an intuitive affinity with this sentiment. Today, I feel a distance. Experience is a deep and cheap word. It is often used as an abbreviation for the accumulated layers of knowledge and sensory memory of the changing world around us. As such, experience has a ring of intelligence to it, suggesting something like sedimented wisdom. And that is precisely that sense of experience that Konstantinović mocks with his opening words, exposing the contrast between the intellectual accumulation of wisdom and the anti-intellectual world of the self-enclosed province, the palanka.

Have the experiences of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s made us any wiser? Looking back, some of my experiences, including my readings and re-readings of Konstantinović, made me question the idea of history as a branch of knowledge that can confidently explain where we are today and how we got there. If I dare speak more collectively, the experiences of post-Yugoslav generations, whether from Kosovo, Bosnia, or elsewhere, continue to be marked by political pressures that relentlessly provincialize us. At the same time, our experiences are world-historical ones, worth no less and no more than the experiences of others around the globe. Rather than seeing them as a crushing weight, our histories can open up unexpected connections, making it possible to write toward a different kind of literature, even if engaging in such a task constitutes difficult labor.


Edin Hajdarpašić is a historian teaching at Loyola University Chicago. He is the author of Whose Bosnia? Nationalism and Political Imagination in the Balkans, 1840-1914 (Cornell University Press, 2015), which received the Rothschild Book Prize in Nationalism and Ethnic Studies from the Association for the Study of Nationalities in 2016. His writings, which have been translated into Italian, Chinese, and Turkish, concern the politics of history and memory in and beyond the Balkans.



[1] The original publication was Radomir Konstantinović, Filosofija palanke (Belgrade, 1969); the English translation appeared as Konstantinović, The Philosophy of Parochialism, translated by Ljiljana Nikolić and Branislav Jakovljević (University of Michigan Press, 2021). Subsequent citations refer to the English translation.

[2] Omer Hadžiselimović, “Uncle Radovan,” Spirit of Bosnia Journal (2008); last accessed October 30, 2022 at http://www.spiritofbosnia.org/volume-3-no-4-2008-october/uncle-radovan/; and Mirnes Sokolović, “Sabornost poezije na skupštini srpskog naroda,” XXZ Magazin (2021); last accessed October 31, 2022 at https://www.xxzmagazin.com/sabornost-poezije-na-skupstini-srpskog-naroda

[3] See Branislav Jakovljević’s analysis of this theme in his introduction to Philosophy of Parochialism, 10-16.

[4] As Konstantinović wrote in 1969, “Serbian Nazism is not an ‘import’ from German national-socialism… but the ultimate expression of the parochial spirit… It is not the work of ‘foreignness’… Every absolutization of every myth (including the one of Kosovo) leads to an intolerable nationalism and even its final consequence—Nazism.” Konstantinović, Philosophy of Parochialism, 300-313. On the later symbolism of this book, see Vladimir Zorić, “Small Town as the Scene of a Memory Encounter: Portraits and Commemorations of Radomir Konstantinović,” in Vlad Beronja and Stijn Vervaet, eds., Post-Yugoslav Constellations: Archive, Memory, and Trauma in Contemporary Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian Literature and Culture (Berlin, 2016), 209-210. On cutting through the tropes of whataboutery, see Adnan Delalić, “Wings of Denial,” Mangal Media (December 2019); last accessed online at https://www.mangalmedia.net/english//wings-of-denial

[5] Konstantinović, Philosophy of Parochialism, 290.

[6] E.g. see ibid., 329-330.

[7] Konstantinović discusses these themes in several places in his book, notably 88-89 and 167-173; indeed, he titled the last chapter of the book “In Lieu of a Conclusion: No End to the End.”

[8] I explored these dynamics particularly in the last chapter of my book; Edin Hajdarpašić, Whose Bosnia? Nationalism and Political Imagination in the Balkans, 1840-1914 (Ithaca, 2015), 1-17 and 199-206.

[9] Konstantinović, Philosophy of Parochialism, 26.

[10] The undated program, which likely aired in the 1960s, was rebroadcast on RTS television as a part of “Emisija s povodom: Radomir Konstantinović;” last accessed on October 22, 2022 at https://youtu.be/vr0z9naFGNM

[11] Hanifa Kapidžić-Osmanagić, interview by Enver Kazaz; “Jesu li biljke nešto drugo,” Sarajevske sveske 8 (2005): 13-48.


Published on February 15, 2024.



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