The Spirit of Parochialism and Imperial Teleophilia

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


Palanka and the empire

The Philosophy of Parochialism (originally published in Serbian as Filosofija palanke in 1969), by Radomir Konstantinović—a Serbian poet, novelist, essayist, and literary critic—has been described as “a book that seems to be aging in reverse”: as time passes, new and often surprising meanings emerge from its depths. Not only are new historical circumstances making way for new possible readings of the book, but the book illuminates recent historical developments in unique and unexpected ways—so much so that it now appears that the acclaim that Radomir Konstantinović’s book received upon its publication in 1969 stands in reverse proportion to its relevance. At that time, well-intentioned critics asserted that the subjects it addressed, such as radical nationalism, xenophobia, and local Nazisms, constituted anachronisms in modern, socialist Yugoslavia. In the 1980s, as the Yugoslav crisis deepened, the book became reviled in Serbian nationalist circles, whose lists of traitors Konstantinović topped.

Telling of this rejection, in the spring of 1989, a symposium marking the twentieth anniversary of the book’s publication was organized in the capital of Bosnia, Sarajevo, rather than in Belgrade, where the book had initially been published. As the political crisis in the region turned into a protracted, bloody conflict, The Philosophy of Parochialism earned a reputation as both the most despised and the most widely read book of contemporary philosophy in the Serbian language. Otkrovenje, a small publishing house based in Belgrade, published seven new editions of the book in the 1990s and early 2000s alone. However, Konstantinović’s penetrating insights have transcended the local problems faced by small Balkan nations. With the recent publication of an English translation by Ljiljana Nikolic and Branislav Jakovljevic (University of Michigan Press, 2021), the book’s field of relevance has expanded, opening it to a host of new readings.

Situating palanka—the conceptual core of Konstantinović’s book—within its proper historical and cultural context is crucial to a broader understanding of the author’s philosophical and political project. The main difficulty in translating this book into English is the absence of a direct equivalent to palanka. We have to make do with the adjective “parochialism” and the noun “province.” The first is closer to the spirit of the word Konstantinović uses consistently throughout the book, and the second, to its historical context. Like the word “province,” palanka comes from the historical repository of imperialism. Furthermore, seeing as palanka is a special variant of colonial possession, the word speaks to the often neglected range and variety of modern empires. In Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt (1966) makes a distinction between “overseas” and “continental” imperialism, suggesting that “the chief importance of [the latter] lies in the fact that its concept of cohesive expansion does not allow for any geographic distance between the methods and institutions of colony and of nation […]” (223). Rather, the continental empire is ruled by decrees, so that the main sources of political and judicial power remain capricious and obscure. If we stay close to Arendt’s juxtaposition of the two kinds of imperialism, we could say that palanka is the continental equivalent of an overseas colony or “province.” Arendt’s continental empire is reminiscent of the world of Franz Kafka’s The Castle, but also of Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General. As an internal possession within a contiguous empire, palanka illuminates one aspect of the imperial project that even Arendt sometimes struggles to highlight in her thorough and incisive analysis characterizing modern imperialism as a double expansion. Expansion through colonial acquisition is always accompanied by a parallel expansion in the opposite direction: an internal colonization. This internally focused expansion is much more readily observed in continental rather than in overseas empires. As an internal possession within a contiguous empire, palanka has two principal traits: the establishment of full hegemony within the empire and the internalization of the logic of empire by its subjects.

These defining characteristics of internal colonization are already evident in the etymology of the word palanka. While in its common usage this word designates a provincial settlement or a small town, neither one of these words covers its full range of meanings. Like “province,” palanka designates a distinct place or a locale; however, it differs from it insofar as it does not designate a region but a small and enclosed community—a township. Etymologically, this word came into Serbian from the Hungarian palánk and French palanque, which designate a timber stockade, as suggested by the word’s Latin root planca: a board, plank, slab, or piece of timber. Palanka is a settlement that is enclosed, fortified, and on guard from the outside world, which is perceived as foreign and hostile by the people inside. As the name suggests, insularity and closedness are the key properties of palanka, from which all of its other characteristics stem. Palanka’s closedness comes from its physical and geographical separateness and extends to its self-exclusion from temporal and historical processes, to the closed-mindedness of its inhabitants, and to the general opposition to (and fear of) any kind of openness. “Forgotten” by history, “between village and town, the world of the province is neither,” writes Konstantinović (2021, 25). Closed upon itself, palanka is always on the lookout for that which comes from without, the “worldly chaos” that lurks “beyond the hill” (25). What lies “beyond the hill” is not only the world of big cities but even more so nature itself, which palanka considers the “genuine world” of ultimate openness (128). Like an overseas province, palanka seems in closer proximity to nature or, at the very least, closer to it than urban metropoles could ever be. However, it regards itself as severed from and opposed to nature.

The parochial spirit does not envisage nature as the “environment” or as something that benignly surrounds it; instead, according to Konstantinović, this spirit is besieged by the environment. Located outside of its enclosure, nature is the province’s active negation.


In its absolute fidelity to closedness, the parochial spirit relates to nature as to the ‘world’ […]. Just like the world, nature is the denial of the province, precisely by this principle of openness. Contact with nature is contact with irrational openness, which this spirit does not manage to rationalize (129).


For palanka, nature “is non-province because it is non-word and is a non-world because it is not rational. It is outside the province; hence the request to return to it” (127). The province wants to return to nature only to conquer it and submit it to the crystalline order, which is exemplified in the way it conceives of language.

In its aspiration towards permanence and stasis, the parochial spirit favors the language of nouns to that of verbs. It idealizes the language of clarity, purity, and rationality, i.e. a language resistant to movement and change. Palanka’s attitude towards language reflects one of its internal qualities. Namely, if it is insular and hostile toward the outside world, its internal order is defined by what Konstantinović calls “the principle of publicness.” This doctrine emerges from the parochial adherence to empirical reality. The province believes only in what it sees. It mistrusts everything foreign, unknown, and mysterious. This “naïve realism,” as Konstantinovic calls it, is “in line with an entirely primitive positivism, its immersion into Day, defense of Day from Night, which remains elusive to this view, just like the depth of being” (55). In the same way that it mistrusts Night, the province is suspicious of nature, which it sees as an intrusion of irrationality in the rational order of Day.

If nature marks the limits of the province, then the province marks the limits of nature. The province knows nature solely through violence. “Province is the caesura of nature, its disavowal with the very disavowal of the animal-irrational; nature in the province would be the (avowed) caesura in the disavowal of nature, introduction of nature into province” (129). This introduction signifies the introduction of Night into the realm of Day, of the irrational into the region of the rational, of the unknown into the field of the familiar and the known. In other words, this intrusion of nature into the province marks the limit of nature itself. In its rejection of openness, the parochial spirit can construe the Earth not as nature, which means openness, but as the only thing that is above and outside of it, as Law. The Law of nature and of the Earth is beyond the province’s reach.

The duality of nature as independent of the province and as its limit resonates with two ideas that emerged twenty years after the publication of The Philosophy of the Parochialism. In the concluding pages of the first part of the book, Konsantinović pointed out that even certain forms of historical periodization can be seen as a parochial attempt at closing off the world as “the end of history” (169). This idea antedates the main thesis Francis Fukuyama presented in his controversial and much discussed “The End of History?”—which came out in the summer of 1989 in the conservative journal The National Interest. Here, Fukuyama claimed that the defeat of real socialism, which had been the greatest rival to liberal democracy since the end of WWII, was not the simple conclusion of a historical period, but that of history as such. He held that this final “resolution of all prior contradictions” is not reducible simply to the global expansion of liberal democracy (Fukuyama 1989, 4). Instead, he found the true significance of the defeat of Soviet-style socialism in the internal universalization of liberalism. That defeat demonstrated not only that liberalism had no competitor in the realm of political ideas but also that it had reached full completion, so that “the basic principles of the democratic state could not be improved on” (5). The key evidence for the end of history was to be found in the full (self)realization of Western liberal democracy.

The same year Fukuyama published his thesis about the end of history, Konstantinović delivered a short address at a gathering in Sarajevo on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of The Philosophy of Parochialism, where he identified the desire for unfettered unanimity as the deepest source of the tragedy of nationalism. Looking back, it is hard not to recognize in his warning about “unity without contradictions” the unipolar world Fukuyama was describing. Konstantinović (1989) warned that


violence begins at the point where “pure” unity begins, and it ends at the unity of opposites. Violence inevitably contradicts the world of contradictions; violence is an attempt of violence over contradictoriness, destroying everything that is non-identical, different, and other, in short, the destruction of negation (278).


It would be all too easy to heed this warning as the anticipation of new forms of violence that would erupt only a couple of years later with the First Gulf War and the new military doctrine of “overwhelming force” as the main characteristic of warfare in a unipolar world. I want to suggest that Konstantinović’s insight goes beyond this and other conflagrations to engage a deeper form of violence—the slow violence that motivates all other conflicts in the post-end-of-history world. This sort of violence brings us to the second idea that emerged out of another “the end of…” pronouncement in 1989. A case in point is Bill McKibben’s (1989) book The End of Nature, which was the first attempt to introduce the general public to the sources, extent, and risk of global warming. McKibben does not approach nature from a literary or philosophical perspective but from an ecological one. Still, the voice of Konstantinović’s provincialism emerges in McKibben’s depiction of the loss of nature: “What happens in here I control; what happens out there has always been the work of some independent force” (56). As a realm of vast, untrammeled open-endedness, nature is inherently beyond the province’s control. The only way to assert control over nature is to overcome it. This overcoming is then mourned as the “loss” of nature. Mired in contradictions, palanka desires what it rejects and represses what it desires. It wants nature in the same way it looks for its own end. And that is a never ending process.


“No end to the end”

“No end to the end” is the final sentence of the first part of Radomir Konstantinović’s The Philosophy of Parochialism. Climate change constitutes a planetary event of dizzying proportions. The numerous data produced by climate studies scholars are staggering. Currently, humanity is burning approximately 40 billion tons of fossil fuel every year, and it needs to burn another 500 billion tons for the average temperature on the planet to rise 2 degrees Celsius over what it was prior to industrialization; for sea levels to rise by one centimeter, 3,600 additional cubic kilometers of water are needed; at the rate at which polar caps are melting, we are soon going to measure the rise in sea levels in meters. The list goes on. Theories aiming to explain these changes are equally large-scale. Among these theories, the Anthropocene is likely the most known. The biologist Eugene Stroemer and meteorologist Paul Crutzen started using this term in the late 1970s and 1980s, respectively, to suggest that the epoch following the Holocene is the first and only epoch in which a single species became responsible for geological changes affecting the planet. Jason W. Moore narrows the Anthropocene down from the entire history of humanity to one particular political and economic order, which he renders responsible for all of the damaging extraction and burning. However, for him, this “Capitalocene” is not limited to the period since the industrial revolution but goes back to the sixteenth century, i.e., to the time capitalist relations of production began to emerge. So, what does the phenomenology of a meager-form municipality stuck halfway between village and town have to contribute to this game of large numbers and sweeping theories? For one, it shifts the considerations of the climate disaster away from the hegemonic discourse of economics. Also, it suggests that the focus on the end(times) is not an archaic leftover, but, to use Konstantinović’s phrase, a “technique of living” that is fundamental to capitalist modernity.

In The Philosophy of Parochialism and in the eight-volume Being and Language on which he worked during the 1970s, Konstantinović makes Serbian lyric poetry from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century his main object of study. What attracted him to that topic and that time period were the simultaneous formation of the modern state in Serbia after gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of its modernist literature. In this new nation-state, certain aspects of modernity were more readily observable than they were in the developed capitalist states of the northern and western parts of the continent. In his articles on Vuk Karadžić, Jovan Skerlić,and Bogdan Popović, which he published during the 1960s, he presents the modern Serbian state and its culture as a case study to observe the accelerated formation of class-based, bourgeois, and capitalist society out of a peasant and agrarian culture. Superficial readings of Konstantinović’s book that reduce his idea of palanka to a trope of cultural topography thus miss some of his insights about capitalist modernity, which extend far beyond the specific time and place examined in the book.

While exploring Serbian literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the book’s main focus is on larger cultural and historical formations. One of the key insights emanating from these works on parochialism in Serbian culture is that the province and the empire constitute a dialectical couple. The empire is at once a negation of palanka and a full realization of the spirit of palanka. Contrary to popular understanding, the main property of the empire is not its openness. In ancient times as well as in the present, the empire is concerned with enclosures and walls, from Roman limes to “fortress Europe” and #buildthewall in the US. One of the main paradoxes of the empire comes from its need to maintain its expansionist agenda, while at the same time insisting on the necessity of fortifying its boundaries. Another insight, which follows directly from the latter, is that the province’s closedness and insularity do not pertain only to geographical space but also to historical time. Palanka sees itself not only as removed from history, but it also wants to exclude itself from historical processes. This exclusion is both a curse and a point of pride.


The main assumption of the parochial spirit is, roughly, that it is a spirit that, forgotten by history, seeks to transform its misfortune into privilege by forgetting history in return (as one nail drives out another), and with this oblivion become eternalized in itself, committed to existence out of time (25).


In trying to deny history, the spirit of parochialism tries to do the impossible: to step out of the flow of time. It sees itself positioned at the end not only in spatial (away from an imaginary center and opposed to it) but also in temporal terms. The time of palanka is the endtime, which, paradoxically, never ends.

Konstantinović is categorical: “there is no belief in the end through which the parochial spirit does not speak,” and the “end is the largest, perhaps a crystal-clear parochialism of the spirit” (168). Every aspect of palanka’s philosophy—its positivism more than any other aspect—is fueled by this end-orientation. And here, the “end” can be understood in the dual meaning of the Greek telos, as both a goal or objective and a termination or conclusion. Konstantinović recognizes that the parochial spirit is characterized not only by a “dedication into the end” but also by a “love for the end” (216). This investment in the end speaks not only of the teleology of the province, but of its veritable teleophilia: an obsessive attachment to the idea of the end. This investment in the end is a glaring example of the spatialization of time. Surrounded by the contiguous vastness of the empire, palanka is positioned at its very edge. It is the place where the “world” ends: the world is even larger of an enclosure than palanka. This boundary has its temporal counterpart in palanka’s relation to history. If it is a caesura in nature; it is also a caesura in (historical) time. As the province’s dialectical other, the empire also aspires to establish control over its spatial and temporal order. The empire projects itself into the past, where it retroactively inserts its beginnings; it also projects itself into the future, where it works to establish its ends. In so doing, the empire sets up an internal caesura that acts as a split between two different temporal orders: the “natural” time (that of the world, nature, and Earth) and the time of the empire. Every empire, including the capitalist empire, is a province in time.

In complete adherence to the principle of the Day and therefore of appearances, palanka finds itself in an endless search for truth about itself and hopes to find that truth where its own unreality ends. Thus, the province’s search for its own reality generates a fantasy of catastrophe.


What is true, as that which is real because it has its end, and is true only by means of that end, appears here, in this dream of destruction, as the guarantee of fear from the spirit of freedom as the spirit of unreality and the guarantee of aspiration toward that destruction as the absolute end at the base of the absolute truth of all things (77).


Every empire has a particular way of imagining its own historical limits and of projecting itself beyond these limits. In order to extend its borders, empires need to first establish these boundaries. Unlike ancient emporium, modern imperialism has succeeded in expanding both outwardly and inwardly through the double movement of external and internal colonization. For outward expansion, an empire must find and recognize its internal limits and use them to its own advantage. In contrast to other great political and economic formations of the past, capitalism has succeeded in absorbing criticisms leveled against it and even in profiting from them. Here, “criticisms” are not only discursive interventions but active negations and full-blown crises. Capitalism has survived the disasters of colonialism, slavery, industrialization, fascism and Nazism, coups and revolutions, and deindustrialization; it has also succeeded in using these crises to its advantage in the interest of growth and global expansion. These conditions gave rise to Fukuyama’s proclamation of the end of history. Once the capitalist empire had encircled the globe, it confronted the planet as the limit of its growth.

This context does not produce the idea of the end of the world as a thunderous catastrophe akin to the Christian apocalypse but as the icy motionlessness of entropy. The idea of entropy allows the parochial spirit to imagine the end of the rational and ordered world and at the same time to survive that end. In other words, when rising against entropy, the empire rises against—and above—the principle of rationality (and positivism) while preserving that principle. The parochial spirit does not see the demise of the world in irrational terms, but precisely the opposite. The end of the world in a frozen state of entropy is the final outcome of rationalism and positivism (exemplified in the principle of the Day and publicness it espouses, in the language of nouns it promotes, etc.) as the main mental techniques of parochialism.


[T]his infantile-rebellious dream of the world’s end, this anticipation of the entropy of Earth that omnipotently overwhelms the spirit and imagination, is the dream of entropy, of this rationalizing Law, of the ruin of absolute rationalism frozen in the absolute Response within the Law (76).


It is only in the end of the world as the entropic termination of the Earth that the parochial spirit dares to imagine its escape from the shackles of rationalism.


The freedom dreamed of and shown to the spirit in its reveries is the freedom from rationalism, from the world of frozen rationalism which, anticipated in advance, is an exhausted and old world, turned into an Iceberg, the one that grows cold and inexorably disappears. The coldness of rationalism here invites the coldness as the outcome of entropy, the absolute ice desert devoid of any enthusiasm for life (76).


If a decade ago popular imagination presented the end of the world as an ice desert, the present anticipation of its watery end is but a variant of the idea of the end as entropy.

All of this is not to suggest that the parochial spirit is suicidal and self-destructive. The province actively seeks its end precisely to reassure itself of its ability to survive. Self-exiled from any temporality, the province endures, whereas the empire grows by conquering and controlling time. However, these two movements are opposed only in appearance: in fact, they share an unrelenting focus on the end and represent different articulations of the same teleophilia. When Konstantinović suggests that the idea of the end of the world is one of the key properties of the parochial spirit, he does not place that end within the long history of millenarian ideas. Nor does he refer to the myopic vision of an unenlightened culture that is incapable of seeing over the hill. Instead, he refers to the parochial spirit’s self-limitation, which invokes its own demise, while also seeking to benefit from its own recovery: there is no end to the end and “there is no final renunciation of the final meaning” (169).

The province—and the empire—does not only anticipate and fetishize the end: it actively produces it. “Decline is the only truth, because it is the creation of the end, and thus the creation of every reality” (78). In light of this statement, the ongoing transformation of the climate crisis into climate condition that comes as a result of the inaction of powerful governments and corporations should not be surprising. In adopting this kind of response to the impending catastrophe, the empire falls back into its deepest parochial instincts. This dynamic has been evident in the industrialized world’s attempt to resolve the climate crisis even as it preserves an economy of endless growth. This is a parochial contradiction if there ever was one. In it, we encounter the kind of thought that is incapable of imagining life based on principles different from those on which it is built. The empire fears nature and time, which are beyond its control, demonstrating its inability and unwillingness to accept a different form of social life. One of the early chapters of Konstantinović’s book is titled “The Ideal of Pure Poverty.” This concept not only refers to petit-bourgeois frugality but, above all else, to the tragic poverty of the parochial imagination and of the imagination of the empire as its dialectical twin.


Branislav Jakovljević is Sara Hart Kimball Professor of the Humanities at Stanford University’s Department of Theater and Performance Studies. He co-translated, with Ljiljana Nikolić, and edited the English translation of Radomir Konstantinović’s The Philosophy of Parochialism (University of Michigan Press, 2019).



Fukuyama, Francis. 1989. “The End of History?” The National Interest No. 16 (Summer): 3-18.

Konstantinović, Radomir. 1989. “Iskušenja duha—anti—duha palanke” in Filosofija Palanke danas. Okrugli sto Sarajevo 21. Mart 1989. Sveske. Tuzla: Institut. 276-278.

Konstantinović, Radomir. 2021. The Philosophy of Parochialism, tr. Ljiljana Nikolić and Branislav Jakovljević. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

McKibben, Bill. 1989. The End of Nature. New York, NY: Random House.

Moore, Jason W. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso.


Published on February 15, 2024.



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