The Subject in Palanka: “The Philosophy of Parochialism” and the Work of Immanent Critique

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

If today the subject is vanishing, aphorisms take upon themselves the duty “to consider the evanescent itself as essential.” They insist, in opposition to Hegel’s practice and yet in accordance with his thought, on negativity.

—Theodor W. Adorno in Minima Moralia


The vanishing (philosophical) subject, whose self-destruction under the prevailing conditions of modernity is the core concern of Radomir Konstantinović’s Filosofija palanke (1969), makes a barely perceptible appearance in the famous first line of this most idiosyncratic work of Yugoslav philosophy: Iskustvo nam je palanačko, or in English, “our experience is parochial.”[1] This pithy, seemingly categorical statement in Konstantinović’s native Serbo-Croatian, the language known today as BCMS (Bosnian- Croatian-Montenegrin-Serbian), is quite unlike any other in the volume. Some of the ways it differs from the rest of the text are apparent in translation. Standing apart from the first full paragraph of the book, the sentence appears on the opening page of The Philosophy of Parochialism (translation by Ljiljana Nikolić and Branislav Jakovljević 2021) as an epigraph of sorts, an assertion seemingly borrowed from another source or made in someone else’s voice. Its simplicity is also at odds with Konstantinović’s far more elaborate philosophical idiom, a style so severe—to borrow Gillian Rose’s term for the style of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right—that it intentionally pushes even the highly-inflected original language to its breaking point, making no concessions to the reader, and, more importantly, resulting in a kind of prose from which it is difficult to extract anything resembling an aphorism.[2]

It is thus significant that the author who thinks in paragraphs and who aspires to a style difficult to cite begins his work with a proposition that both functions as a citation and readily lends itself to becoming one.[3] And that is indeed what “iskustvo nam je palanačko” has become: a perfunctory quote whose declarative nature is somehow self-evident even to readers who agree on little else about the book. The copula (“is”) joins a fixed grammatical subject (“our experience”) with a contingent grammatical predicate (“parochial”), establishing a relation of identity or equivalence between the two terms and giving this ordinary proposition its unmistakable meaning. And yet there is more—a lot more—to this sentence than meets the eye. As I will show by the end of the article, a twist in the grammatical subject, one that involves the possessive dative case in Konstantinović’s original formulation, calls into question the seemingly inescapable law of identity in the exact proposition in which it is affirmed. In other words, the archaic possessive dative allows Konstantinović’s programmatic proposition to be read “speculatively,” as Rose would put it, so that the subject of this proposition, “our experience,” can acquire a new meaning by wresting another kind of experience from the parochial conditions that preclude it.[4]

Interpreting Konstantinović’s opening sentence gets even more complicated when one realizes that this statement never had a future in which it would not function as an aphorism. Konstantinović appears to have anticipated as much: it is at times “dangerous” and “punishable,” he writes in the very next sentence, “to whisper this into the ear of parochial arrogance” (25/7). While the warning ends here—and appears to point squarely to the well-known perils faced by critical social philosophy since the time of Socrates—the compound sentence that contains the warning spills into the next clause: “sometimes, however, this word stretches right to the concept of predestination [pojma sudbinskog]: the palanka is, as they say, our fate, our lot in life.” Two distinct outcomes (in two parallel clauses) are set apart here by the disjunctive adverb. Suggesting that our experience is parochial may sometimes (ponekad) expose the critic to some ominous fate; “at [other] times, however” (ponekad, medjutim), the same opening sentence and its predicate may lead to a new realization about the nature of totality as a self-identical and unchanging whole. The latter is only the first of many fleeting definitions of palanka in Konstantinović’s work. In this particular articulation, palanka, a historically-produced phenomenon for Konstantinović, is theorized in terms of its compulsion to eternalize itself in response to what it perceives as its belatedness. Making a virtue of necessity, palanka ensures that there is no future different from its present, and this ruse becomes one manifestation of the process by which everything is made identical or commensurable. Exactly how this insight is produced from within the confines of the same dangerous proposition is the topic of what follows. If true, however, this new realization about the power of total identity makes the propositional identity-affirming form of Konstantinović’s opening statement necessary. The sentence was condemned all along to the only meaning it could have in the propositional form it had to take, and in which, as we shall see, it could not be entirely understood. There is no escaping the machinations of identity—not in logic and not in language—and this seems to be the meaning of the peril Konstantinović flagged at the outset.

To understand the exact danger Konstantinović warns against is to understand the depth of the distinctly modern challenge confronting any genuinely critical analysis. The danger is not that of (reason) daring to speak truth to power, as we may be inclined to conclude, but of having no means—conceptual or linguistic—and no independent standpoint from which to mount a critique of total power, the exercise of which has itself become rational. The danger is methodological in nature and involves the problem of transcending (in the age of non-transcendence) the immanence of identity.[5] One cannot just will oneself out of the world, logic, and language, which are themselves built on the semblance of identity. Whether this semblance is a function of thinking itself or a historical manifestation of the logic of equivalence and exchange, it is still a binding category, our “second nature,” determining the limits of what can be said, thought, or done.[6] To put it simply, one can speak of the experiential content of palanka only in the language of palanka—or not at all. This presents a problem for the critic averse to these limitations, a critic who wishes for a world beyond palanka. Whence comes the knowledge of another kind of experience? From what perspective within the binding appearance of total identity could a critic possibly discern traces of difference?

No such perspective exists outside of palanka. Positing the existence of difference in some realm beyond palanka’s physical and conceptual palisades is, according to Konstantinović, a defining feature of parochial reason and thus not a viable methodological alternative—even if it is one widely shared by traditional metaphysicians and their critics alike. For the later, for instance, difference may reside in the ecstatic essence of Dasein, in the arbitrary nature of language, in the interstitial space of hybridity and ambiguity, or in other equally abstract receptacles in which difference is supposedly spared the ravages of history. Such hypostasizing of difference may even be the most significant expression of parochial reason because it best captures the process and logic of deception (načelo prevara) that permeates all other principles. According to this logic, palanka is constituted through more than just a series of deceits it carries out itself. For palanka to come into existence, its own work of deception must also be externalized so that deceit suddenly confronts palanka as an objective force, one that is not of its own making and that threatens palanka from without.

As a technique of agitation, deceit is a common analytic in studies of fascism. So is the importance of the constitutive other to the creation of the self. But if this was all Konstantinović had in mind with his repeated discussions of deceit as the logic of palanka, The Philosophy of Parochialism would be little more than a positivist study of an aberration—say, a paranoid style in certain politics—one that could be avoided in the future by making the gullible a little less susceptible to the charms of fascism. I think that Konstantinović has something far more insidious in mind. Something more akin to the fragmentation of human experience produced by the phenomenon of reification: in a world enchanted anew, history reverts to nature, and the activity of the historical subject is once again relegated to that of passive observance of social forces and of reality as given.[7] In this respect, deceit is the form in which the unfinished project of modernity is experienced. One knows one has descended into the realm of palanka when one discovers reason sheltering from itself in the indolence (lenjost) it attributes to hostile fate.

But how does one detect deceit when the hell of palanka, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, is not “some place that awaits us” in the Balkan semi-periphery but “this life here and now”?[8] The recent resurgence of nativism across Europe and in the Americas makes it perhaps easier to grasp that fascism, according to Konstantinović, is always a homegrown phenomenon regardless of where it springs up. The soil it grows in is the so-called liberal or bourgeois society and the abandoned work of universal freedom. No one place or culture is condemned to it—or spared from it—by virtue of some trait supposedly intrinsic to it. And I say this and point to the spirit of palanka in our own midst in the “West” not to exonerate or minimize its sway in the “East,” i.e., under the cultural and political conditions in which Konstantinović first detected it. In fact, Konstantinović’s ethno-nationalist critics at home seldom fail to add more empirical evidence to his original claim that “Serbian Nazism” is very much a homegrown phenomenon, not an imported one.[9] Branislav Jakovljević makes a similar point in his introduction to the work we are discussing in this roundtable: Konstantinović is interested less in various manifestations of totalitarianism than he is in “investigating their source, which appears to be divorced from particular historical events and is, at the same time, their basic condition” (“The Drone of Dialectics,” 2-3). Under this view, Nazism is not an exception but “the most radical expression of bourgeois rationality” (ibid., 9).

One way to proceed without ignoring the severity of the problem or giving in to its immensity is through a methodological approach that in the left-Hegelian intellectual tradition goes by the name of immanent critique; arguably, this critical methodological stance is even older, epitomized already in Giambattista Vico’s poetic philosophy and his verum-factum principle: one can always know the truth in what one makes. Unlike the external standpoint posited in conventional or transcendental criticism, to use Theodor Adorno’s well-known distinction, immanent critique moves from within the object of its analysis, measuring it according to its own principles, its own reason.[10] Konstantinović’s critique, immersed in the appearance of total identity as it must be, cultivates no escapist fantasies at a methodological level. This would be an act of pure ideology since, as I suggested above, one cannot hypostatize difference or change at the methodological level of a philosophical investigation and hope to arrive at anything but empty abstractions that ultimately absorb all difference and prevent any change. There is virtually no way out of the palanka, and this realization—neither a literary contrivance nor the confession of a mind resigned to its lot in life—is instead a sign of reason doing the one thing that it can and must do: canceling or negating itself so that actual emancipatory struggles can be fought in history instead of theory.

The only genuinely critical perspective lies within palanka and it allows Konstantinović to break through the untruth of the self-producing social totality by means of its own measure—via the principle of identity. Every one of the fundamental principles through which palanka is constituted as a totality is shown to be contradictory: for instance, insularity turns out to be predicated on world-making; indolence requires exertion; transparency acts as a screen; determinism results in arbitrariness; naïve realism is mediated by symbols; and naivete itself, in a particularly effective turn of phrase, achieves its purest expression in its “rejection of naivete [found in] children and poets, lovers and saints” (151/169).[11] The reader may get a sense of how Konstantinović moves through contradictions in the following excerpt from The Philosophy of Parochialism:

The necessity, forced onto [the subject] by his strictly determined world, seems to be shattered precisely by what constitutes it, the absolute determinateness. […] I am [or I exist] only in one definite way of a strictly defined world, and therefore I am not, i.e., every one of my ways [of being] is not mine and, therefore, is a way not necessary for me. In this attitude about necessity, the parochial spirit’s determinism is essentially self-contradictory; the principle of arbitrariness, as the expression of this non-necessity, […] is inevitably established and so is thereby also the principle of replaceability: if a real change is impossible (the world is finished, complete, once and forever preordained by a will that negates our own), then any change is possible; that is to say, any attitude is replaceable by the very fact that this attitude is wholly deceptive because it is irrelevant. (43/30-31)

Taken seriously and judged by its own standards, palanka’s claim to total identity is shown to be false. It is untrue both because it is mired in conceptual contradictions and because it falls short of approximating the actual totality, an idea Konstantinović very much retains.[12] I will focus on contradictions, but the latter point is also important to bear in mind. The Philosophy of Parochialism is not a critique of totality but of its semblance. It is a critique of whatever deceptive abstraction passes for totality by excluding more than it can admit. And what it excludes above everything else, what it must exclude to maintain its hold, is the activity of the subject even if that subject is merely an object of history, a vanishing subject with no experience of his or her own. In the age when most critics have learned to habitually recoil from the term totality—in part because of its nominal association with “totalitarianism”—I find it in fact useful to think of palanka as a concept that replaces the ideologically-laden term “totalitarianism,” making “totality” an operative concept again and allowing for a more critical analysis of political reaction.

Not only does immanent critique not posit difference, it also discovers none in the process of showing how palanka is constituted of contradictions. Nonidentity is here an effect of immanent critique, not a trace of some difference that survives within the false totality of palanka. Again, there is no heterogeneity here that does not express itself as a contradiction, no difference that is not mediated by identity. This is important because immanent critique is not an attempt to tell an untold story or let some subaltern speak of a miraculous feat of survival from a catastrophe that is both total and yet not all-encompassing. Only parochial reason can maintain such contradictions (in the form of antinomies). Nor are we dealing here with Ideologiekritik in the narrowest sense. The task ahead of critical philosophy entails so much more than exposing deception or lifting the veil of appearances. No reality hides behind such veils as long as it does not include an active subject—and the subject is not a “thing” to be discovered in the course of a critique. Or, in Konstantinović’s own words, palanka’s is a life on stage, “an actor’s life, with masks, but without real faces behind them” (44/31). Immanent critique is after a different kind of truth—a social truth implicit in the failure of parochial reason.

One part of this truth points to the coercive means by which palanka is held together. This, in turn, allows us to understand why no historical manifestation of palanka has ever collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. Philosophy cannot bring an end to palanka. Only social and political practice can do that. But neither will palanka collapse without critical philosophy exposing as false the purely conceptual reconciliation of these contradictions. The other part of the social truth produced by immanent critique involves reason or the subject reasserting itself in a realm from which it has long been banished. Immanent critique’s determinate negations push through the bounds of parochial reason, past the limits it placed on the experience and knowledge of a reality less impoverished, illusory, and unfree than the one immediately given to palanka. Reason knows not what lies on the other side, and as long as it does not give in to the temptation to imagine that other world, it can be certain of its existence and perhaps even of its own ultimate triumph over the semblance that is palanka. How? There are two possible explanations for this overcoming of restrictions intrinsic to the idea of palanka. Both explanations will appear dynamic, but only the latter is transformative and dialectical.

Having just witnessed its ability to generate contradictions and render palanka’s claim to total identity false, reason may be tempted to ground its newly demonstrated power in the process of negation itself. The content of the actual contradictions will then recede in importance in comparison to reason’s rediscovery of its own dynamic nature as a formal and inalienable property. Experience here becomes a function of some abstract capacity, an ontological ground that always-already defines the ontic or empirical subject while remaining independent of it and, as importantly, independent of the object of experience. The active dimension belongs to this new subject as some fundamental quality or mechanism, and not as something the subject produces through conceptualization or labor.[13] The influence of literary and philosophical existentialism on Konstantinović’s thought—along with an overall tendency in today’s criticism to view existentialism through the lens of its most conservative adherents—makes it possible that this process-oriented explanation of a reinvigorated intellectual experience is indeed the one Konstantinović endorsed.

I believe that the more plausible explanation involves reason awakening from the dream it had of itself by recognizing its own work in the object—and not the process—of its analysis. Immanent critique wrests truth from semblance by isolating active elements in palanka’s inert nature. If the object can be shown to contain the evidence of social and historical labor that goes into maintaining its integrity, then immanent critique can render that object not only knowable in the Vichian sense I mentioned above, but also subject to change. To realize that the objective world is but the objectification of the subject—and thus not engendered by some transcendental force or a realm of necessity independent of the subject—allows that same alienated subject to alter the object by altering herself in history.

The subject capable of experiencing, knowing, and changing the world she has made unchangeable is the absent telos of Konstantinović’s study. He cannot posit the subject’s existence any more than he can deliver it to the reader in the form of a definitive conclusion. Taking Konstantinović’s word for it—or, worse, taking my word for it—would return the reader to the gates of palanka’s intractable reality. One has to instead produce intellectual experience anew by witnessing this active subject come into existence not only on the pages of The Philosophy of Parochialism, but in one’s own thought. Reading Konstantinović is necessary but it is not in itself sufficient. Or, to put it more bluntly, the experience Konstantinović seeks to create in his readers and interlocutors is not the experience of internalizing, emulating, or citing any one of his revelations (in this respect, the habit of referring to Filosofija palanke as a sacred text by Konstantinović’s liberal readers at home is quite unfortunate). The point, instead, is to think alongside Konstantinović in order to break free of our own parochial experience.[14]

Those reading Konstantinović in the original may have a slight advantage over other readers when it comes to recognizing the subjective force in the objective form that surrounds them. If they listen carefully, they may hear in the first “whispered” sentence of the book the barely detectable sound of an absent (philosophical) subject making her presence known within the exact proposition that establishes that no such thing is possible. As I indicated at the outset, the relation of possession in the grammatical subject of the first sentence (“our experience” or “iskustvo nam” in Konstantinović’s original phrase) is expressed with a possessive dative construction (the clitic “nam” or, roughly, “to us”) instead of the more standard possessive pronoun (naše or our). The use of the possessive dative is not unusual in Konstantinović’s native language and it does not, in this case, affect the conventional meaning of the phrase. The practice is considered archaic, however, and a reader thinking about the formal features of this phrase will certainly sense a folksier register in use. In fact, between the title of the book and its first two sentences, Konstantinović employs three archaic formulations. Along with nominalization, archaisms are the most obvious linguistic expression of palanka’s resistance to temporalization and it is thus likely that the possessive dative is simply an example of immanent critique not ignoring the language of palanka as it attempts to break through it.[15] But I think there is more to it.

The archaic possessive dative also creates the effect of a nascent speculative proposition within the ordinary identity-affirming one. If Konstantinović’s first sentence had an indirect object, it would be inflected the same way and the meaning of the proposition would change from “our experience is parochial” to “experience is (made) parochial to us.” What we think is inalienably ours and what largely constitutes us as subjects, i.e., our experience, turns out to be a function performed by someone or something else—by palanka. In other words, palanka experiences our own experience for us. Our experience is an object in this proposition, palanka is its logical subject, and we are reduced to passive recipients of an act we were supposed to be capable of. This is the grim reality of “living” in palanka until we catch, within the illusion of having our own existence, a glimpse of recognition that “our” experience has been stolen from us, expropriated by a force that is social and historical, rather than natural. This recognition is what makes experience possible and thus invalidates the claim that “our experience is parochial.” The way out of palanka goes through it. Konstantinović saw this clearly in part because he had no illusions about his own parochial reality. Rereading Konstantinović now in the “West” and in the new English translation, I am realizing that not only have we given up on the methodological work of immanent critique, we also largely lack the insight—or is it moral courage?—to even admit that palanka is within us.


Djordje Popović is Assistant Professor of South Slavic Studies in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at UC Berkeley, where he is also affiliated with the Program in Critical Theory. He specializes in twentieth- and twenty-first-century South Slavic literature and culture, comparative and transnational literature, and the Frankfurt School of critical theory. His essays on the appropriation of the dialectical tradition and on the ontologizing of alienation in the Western reception of East European modernism have appeared in the journals Contradictions, Critical Quarterly and Qui Parle, and in an edited volume, History, Imperialism, Critique: New Essays in World Literature (Routledge, 2019).



[1] Radomir Konstantinović, The Philosophy of Parochialism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021), 25; Radomir Konstantinović, Filosofija palanke (Belgrade: Nolit, 1991), 7. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text with the first page number referring to the English translation and the second number referring to the 1991 Nolit edition.

[2] On writing political theory in the “severe” style, see Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2009), esp. 54-55, 156-157.

[3] For Konstantinović, Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy (1951) was an important literary model of a work irreducible to any one line: “Here is an author whom you absolutely cannot cite,” Konstantinović declared in the afterword to the 1959 Serbo-Croatian translation of the novel; some 40 years later, Konstantinović returned to this assessment in his final work, Beket: prijatelj (Belgrade: Otkrovenje, 2000), 84 (trans. mine).

[4] Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology, 52.

[5] On ‘transcending without transcendence,” see Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, Vol. 3 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986), 1373.

[6]  On the Hegelian term “second nature,” see Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 62-65.

[7] I am drawing here on Georg Lukács’s classic definition from his 1923 essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.” See Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1923), 83-222.

[8] “Hell,” for Benjamin, “is not something that awaits us, but this life here and now.” See Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 473.

[9] For one contemporary example of “Serbian Nazism” flaunted in response to Konstantinović’s work, see the genesis of the BCMS phrase slučajni Srbi (accidental Serbs).

[10] See Theodor W. Adorno, “Cultural Criticism and Society,” Prisms (MIT Press, 1981), 17-34. The original articulation is Hegel’s. See Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 53-55.

[11] If a single passage could encapsulate Konstantinović’s argument, then it might be the following one: “The parochial spirit finds its greatest deception in the fear of deception, just as the greatest naivete of this spirit is its rejection of naivete. It is […] naïve because it isn’t naïve. It really does not know the naivete of children and poets, lovers and saints, though whom existence speaks up most profoundly precisely owing to their naivete, capable of receiving the totality of that existence that cannot be accepted by the limited (and limiting) sprit of the attainable-real or the verifiably-meaningful” (151/169).

[12] For one example of Konstantinović’s use of “totality,” see the quote in the footnote above.

[13] This particular approach to “overcoming” the shortfalls of modernity has become a signature move in what Pierre Bourdieu aptly called the “conservative revolution” in philosophy. See Pierre Bourdieu, The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger (Stanford University Press, 1991), 62–63.

[14] For a similar heuristic recommendation on how to allow intellectual experience to spring forth from the language which precludes it, see Adorno, “Skoteinos, or How to Read Hegel” (Hegel: Three Studies (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 89-148, esp. 138-139.

[15] On nominalization and palanka’s attempt to “establish a language that is based on nouns,” see Jakovljević, 3.



Adorno, Theodor W. “Cultural Criticism and Society.” In Prisms, 17-34. Translated by Samuel Weber and Shierry Weber Nicholsen. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.

—. “Skoteinos, or How to Read Hegel.” In Hegel: Three Studies, 89-148. Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1963.

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope, Volume Three. Translated by Neville Plaice et al. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Hegel, Georg. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by Arnold Vincent Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Jakovljević, Branislav. “The Drone of Dialectics: On Parochialism and Deprovincialization.” Introduction to The Philosophy of Parochialism by Radomir Konstantinović, 1-21. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021.

Konstantinović, Radomir. Beket: prijatelj. Belgrade: Otkrovenje, 2000.

—. Filosofija palanke. Belgrade: Nolit, 1991.

—. The Philosophy of Parochialism. Translated by Branislav Jakovljević and Ljiljana Nikolić. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021.

Lukács, Georg. “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” In History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, 83-222. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1990.

—. The Theory of the Novel. Translated by Anna Bostock. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971.

Rose, Gillian. Hegel Contra Sociology. Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2009.


Published on February 15, 2024.






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