New Affiliated Faculty Spotlight: Djordje Popović

Djordje Popović, Assistant Professor, Slavic Languages and Literatures

Djordje Popović’s research and teaching interests include 20th- and 21st-century South Slavic literature, Yugoslav modernism and state socialism, critical theory, and intellectual history. Popović’s 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 journal Contradictions and in History, Imperialism, Critique: New Essays in World Literature (Routledge, 2019).

Critical Theory: Could you tell us how, personally and professionally, you became interested in the work of Critical Theory more generally?

Popović: I grew up in the former Yugoslavia and many of my formative experiences, including my introduction to what I would later come to understand as critical theory in the broader sense of the term, are tied to the violent demise of the Yugoslav state. I was a politically active kid and, in 1992, I began attending weekly talks organized by the Belgrade Circle, a group of public intellectuals, artists, and activists opposed to ethno-nationalism. I still remember a dark concert hall where the group met in Dom omladine; I hid in the corner, attempting to take notes so that I could later think about what was said. At some point, Miladin Životić, a philosophy professor once affiliated with the Yugoslav Praxis Group, took note of my efforts and began introducing me, patiently and generously, to the world of ideas and their social and political import. My more formal introduction to Critical Theory began in graduate seminars on the dialectical tradition at the University of Minnesota where I worked closely with Keya Ganguly, Timothy Brennan, and Antonio Vázquez-Arroyo. If my earlier experiences in Yugoslavia at the moment of its passing are responsible for the types of questions I tend to ask in my research, my professional encounters with Critical Theory have introduced me to the methodology, concepts, and past thinkers I find most productive when pursuing the objects of my study.

Critical Theory: Can you tell us about a current project that you’re working on, and more about your research interests? How do you utilize the concept of critique, and(/or) related philosophical work from Critical Theory scholars, in your work?

Popović: I am interested in the mutually constitutive relationship between homelessness as a cultural worldview and statelessness as a political condition. In my current project, I examine this relationship first in the works of Danilo Kiš, the so-called “last Yugoslav author,” and then in the emerging field of post-Yugoslav literature that is largely modeled on his literary and ethical example. Today Kiš is considered a paradigmatic figure of the stateless author, his work ostensibly offering a prescient model for a transnational turn in post-Yugoslav literature and beyond. It is often sufficient to point to the uncanny parallels between his works—all written before the fall of Yugoslavia—and the fate many of his former compatriots would suffer in its violent aftermath, and to deduce from this comparison some larger lessons about the recursive nature of history and the impermanence of any human effort, political or cultural, to rise above the futility of existence. By returning to his fictionalized autobiographical triptych—Early Sorrows (1970), Garden, Ashes (1965), and Hourglass (1972)—I show that Kiš develops a different philosophy of history from the one commonly attributed to him. Understood in terms of alienation, existential homelessness is precisely the metaphysical, historical, and formal problem Kiš tries to work through, rather than accept as an essential human condition.

Critical Theory: What is it about the former Yugoslavia and its fairly rapid disintegration that warrants continued attention?

Popović: Two very different theoretical approaches can be said to inform scholarship on the political and historical significance of the Yugoslav “experiment” in socialist statehood. The dominant approach takes the disintegration of the Yugoslav state as an axial event and a lens through which its history is to be viewed retroactively. The assumption underlying this approach is that the fall of Yugoslavia was an unavoidable outcome of the folly inherent either in the socialist state-building project or in the failed idea of an affiliative community, to use Edward Said’s phrase. In either case, the state was seen as having no future. By contrast, the alternative approach argues against the sense of historical inevitability embedded in the first set of perspectives, emphasizing instead the myriad historical moments, formations, and agents who battled over the future of their state and ultimately lost it to other political, rather than mythical, forces. I am especially interested in the complex ways that literature and history converge in these two approaches. The first approach displays its reactive and even reactionary relation to the past by ascribing the advent of ethnic and religious violence to ethno-mythological literary production. While a number of ethno-nationalist authors did indeed bear direct responsibility for the madness that eventually engulfed the region, my point is that the right-wing imaginary cannot and must not be the only symbolic force shaping the future. With this in mind and in accordance with the latter approach, I turn my attention to the deeply humanist prose of Yugoslavia’s tragic defenders (then and now) and, in their seemingly futile resistance, I look both for a vision of what might have been and for signs of all that went wrong in defending the socialist state and its culture.

Critical Theory: When you’re not working, how do you enjoy spending your time? Any particular pastimes, hobbies, etc. that you would like to share?

Popović: My partner is an ecologist so I have learned to like the outdoors. We moved here from Washington, D.C., where we cherished the arts, culture, and opportunities for political engagement. I look forward to getting to know the Bay Area better after the pandemic.