I woke up the morning of December 4 to the sad news that Vesna Ognjenovic passed away the night before at her home in Belgrade Serbia. Vesna was a friend, a comrade and an inspiration to me and my community for over 20 years. We met in Geneva in 1996 and saw each other nearly every year from then until three years ago. She got to know and be loved by so many in the broad development community I introduced her to. And I got to know and love so many in her organization and community in Serbia, called Zdravo da Ste (Hi Neighbor). Vesna was a committed, passionate developmentalist, whose love for children took the form of finding ways to spread their freedom to create and their joy of play to adults and those suffering hardship at any age. While I will greatly miss her presence—at once subdued and strong—she will always be with me.
I share here two portraits of Vesna. The first is her own, an essay entitled “Life is Where We Are.” She wrote it for a book edited by John Morss and me—Postmodern Psychologies, Societal Practice and Political Life (Routledge, 2000).
I wrote the second portrait. It is taken from my “autobiography” entitled Performing a Life (Story) that was published in the 2005 book Narrative Identities: Psychologists Engaged in Self-Construction (edited by George Yancy and Susan Hadley).
Life Is Where We Are by Vesna Ognjenovic
I live in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, in Serbia, a small country where one dogma was destroyed by another that proclaimed the ethnic/national interest as the prevailing human right. Enormous human suffering has pervaded all of the former Yugoslavia, which, for 45 years had been common space inhabited by people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. In March 1999 the creators of global international policy decided to change the local government in Serbia by laser-guided bombs. This lasted 78 days and nights.
Under the heading “Critique and Beyond,” Morss argues: “But in many ways critique is too good a weapon, too sharp for our wit. It is like the laser-guided bombs of modern smart warfare, and like the official statements that go with such high-technology destruction. ‘We have hit him hard …’ Critique is designed to hit the enemy hard and then move on to the next target” (Morss, this volume).
I will articulate an alternative way related to the same topic. There are at least two reasons why I separated this statement out of its context. Firstly, for us who live here, the critique by laser-guided bombs is not metaphoric. This was and still is a matter of life and death for us. Secondly, the fact remains that people live all over this earth. There are parts that are highly exposed to the laser-guided bomb critique, and other parts that are highly protected from it. The divisions are due to an oppressive international power, which uses killing technology as game-like activity. There are millions of people experiencing this kind of game right now and there are millions who are highly protected from it at the very same moment.
We are in the unprotected zone and after the intrusion of wars internal resources were the only ones available. When the war began in 1992, the Vygotskian cultural developmental approach was the only one that could help us create meaningful and proper activity for the sake of preserving and building aliveness. Social interaction was the powerful source of life, almost the only one left. Our main investment was in developing interactive activities involving as many participants as possible. Turning points in developing our activities emerged within the activities themselves. The participation of ordinary people of different backgrounds, especially the participation of children, was the main source of creating new guidelines and keeping the process going. “Undiscovered Treasure” and “Human Beings” are the titles given by the two young refugee boys, Sasa and Dusan, to our interactive activities involving many participants of different ages and backgrounds. This was more than encouraging for what we were doing. We recognized the many meanings that could be built into the joint activity of adults and children.
Human Being rel Homo Humanum
The first significant turning point not based on internal resources was the “Vygotsky in Practice” presentation by Lois Holzman at The Second Conference for Socio-Cultural Research held in Geneva in 1996. Among the varying theorizing and practicing of Vygotsky which were presented at the Conference, I recognized the uniqueness and asymmetry in Holzman’s presentation. This was the only approach which keeps intrinsically alive the relationship between the work of Marx and Vygotsky. The significant experience I gained can be briefly summarized: Homo Humanum is resistant to extermination and a real chance for “becoming” still exists. This has a special meaning for the group of us living here because the fall of socialism brought a strong and violent wave of anti-communism and a total denial of Marxism. This is much more than a matter of personal and sentimental experience. This is a matter of deadening the substance of meaning in human life.
Undiscovered Treasure rel New Sense of Possibilities
My attendance at the conference “Unscientific Psychology: Conversations with Other Voices in New York in 1997 was the next relevant step. I went there guided by the desire to meet psychologists joined in an endeavor to make the world a better place to live in. This is a very simple, even trivial, articulation but one that grows out of my experience that not many psychologists are challenged by world pain. The voices in New York cared.
In this commentary, the papers of Lois Holzman and John Morss will be linked for the purpose of sharing how we are further building new activities. Being a participant in building developmental activities for years, I found this to be a good way for me to comment on this volume. My thoughts will take the form of concise statements.
Constructing Common Joint Activities
This term may sound confusing because of the use of the words “joint” and “common,” which carry the same meaning. By making such a construction I wanted to integrate inclusiveness/accessibility of activities and their participatory nature.
- There are no tools for results. There are tools and results.
This is the only way to keep the totality of the life process going.
- There are no target groups of enemies, privileged or beneficiaries.
The common joint activities are open enough to permanently extend and involve more and more participants. There are no special exclusions or inclusions. The activities are not designed for special groups since the real life context is fully contaminated by social exclusions/inclusions. The severely traumatized—children and adults–do not exclude non-severely traumatized and vice versa. Refugees–children, adults, the elderly–do not exclude non-refugees and vice versa. Talented children do not exclude non-talented and vice versa.
- There is no critique by hitting.
- There is no consensus and there are no differences that are mutually exclusive.
Since consensus is replication rather than creation it has no relevance for joint common activity. Mutually exclusive differences are fighting opposites rather than differences. The small fine differences, which are not easily heard or seen, have decisive value for building common joint activity.
- There are no I/self and I/you dyads.
Common joint activity does not serve the growth of I/self multitude nor I/you dyads. It goes beyond the co-action of different selves or their balanced expansion. The activity of self is transformed into joint activity, creating a new social entity, which is flexible and alive. At the moment it is difficult to articulate this more clearly.
- There are no centers or margins.
Common joint activity is a collective activity of giving and getting, listening and hearing. It is flexible enough to make the center/margin positions fluid and unpredictable. This keeps the source for joint creation open. The undiscovered treasure can be reached and transformed into real social treasure.
- There are no knowers and non-knowers.
The participatory relevance of experts and ordinary people is relative. This makes the common joint activity transformative. The knowledge and practice of experts in the different fields of art and science are demystified. The move has been made from subculture toward the culture without any propositions. This means that “live and perform/create culture” will be extensively accessible.
- There are no limits of ages and stages.
This statement is related to two different meaning patterns. The first one is easily recognizable and I am not going to elaborate on it. The second aspect is more challenging since it involves time/space issues in the broader sense. Through common joint activity the past-present relation is unchained. The cultural/historical move through ages/centuries for the sake of the present is liberated. So Hamlet, Don Quixote or Ostap Bender could be involved in the creative/performatory construction of new meanings.
Forced to live under “to be or not to be” pressure, our response is spelled out through the discovery of the ways of how to be. Life is not somewhere else, life is where we are. There is no end.
Excerpt from “Performing a Life (Story)” by Lois Holzman
Tall and thin, Vesna Ognjenovic looked wispy at first. She spoke, too, in a soft voice. I walked in a little late and sat in the back of the room where she was presenting her work on poetry and drawing workshops with children affected by war in what had been Yugoslavia. Then I noticed her strong hands, watched her expressive face and listened to what she was saying and I felt what a strong woman she was. Her strength – I was to learn over many coffees that day – was born of pain and sadness (of war and destruction) and love and passion (for the work and play of creating life). It was 1996, and we were in Geneva for the Second International Conference for Socio-Cultural Research: Vygotsky–Piaget. I went up to Vesna at the end of the session and said, “We have to talk!” She and her colleagues were focusing on the emotional develop- ment of these children, not on their psychic states. The children’s collective engagement in creative activity (poetry and drawing), they believed, was growthful for them – and growth was the way to deal with trauma.
I’d say we fell in love those days in Geneva, so moved were we by each other’s lives and work. Vesna kept shaking her head in disbelief that here I was, a Marxist from New York, who had a practice and a community that were giving expression to all that she believed about building a better world. She said it gave her hope. I was deeply touched by this – and by her story. I heard how when the war broke out, she had sat in a café for days despairing over the end of socialism, the end of Yugoslavia, the horrible war, the end of meaning. How she then left the university to do something (she wasn’t sure what) for the tens of thousands of refugees (especially the children), the trickle (at first) of friends and students who joined her, the growth of their community (called Zdravo da Ste/Hi Neighbor), and how much there is to do. Vesna was a Vygotskian who saw the revolutionary Vygotsky. She was a kindred spirit.
Just about every year since then, I have gone to Serbia or Bosnia- Herzegovina to participate in Zravo da Ste’s trainings and seminars or Vesna and her colleagues have come to New York to participate in the broad commu- nity of which the institute is a part. Our separate work has been growing and expanding over these years. (Through its dozens of educational and cultural projects involving many thousands of children, teens and adults, Zdravo da Ste/Hi Neighbor is doing among the most radically humanistic educational, human development and community building work anywhere.) So has what we have been creating together – at first out of our similarities and then, once we gave voice to them, our differences (for starters, we relate very differently to country and land, to tradition, to ritual, to performance, to emotionality). I think we have learned from our being together how American and how Slavic we each are, how these differences play out in how we support people to exercise their creative power to develop and build community, and how to accept and be more playful with these cultural identities. I feel greatly enriched.