The concept of the “region” glitters with a multitude of shades and nuances of meanings, reflections and imaginings, and transformations of the sense, it projects the richness and multiplicity of meanings, often double, multiple, ambiguous. It is saturated with longings, desires, fears, visions, utopias, and mythologies. A few questions arise from the above. How did this happen? What exactly lies behind this supposedly clever concept, and what truth does it betray about us and our present? Why the region? Why exactly does this very concept have the right potential and valence to become a repository of meanings with so much importance to our contemporaneity? Why is it suitable for generating and maintaining such an improbable multitude of so improbably subtle connotations? Why do they partly remain so obscure that they have to parasitize on other concepts? Is not the plurality, the polyvalence of this hidden semantics, the energy and the driving force behind this incredible dynamism? Is it not the case that the multiplicity and dynamics are not simply dialectical, but they are contradictory, all the way to mutual exclusion, and therefore ambivalent?
The “region” belongs to these – not all that numerous – concepts that over the last few years and decades have conveyed ever more new shades of meaning. Indeed: they continue, they do not cease, showing an astonishing amount of enthusiasm, productivity, flexibility, variability, and ability to adapt – as it seems – to the similarly changeable contents and meanings. All this may perhaps explain why it is that by using this concept we try to capture and express some extremely important, but – probably hardly expressible, sometimes almost hopelessly difficult to express – messages and meanings, which are almost impossible to articulate, and which often remain inaccessible to our conscious mind; and nevertheless, we continue to make new attempts still to identify them anyway. And since it often does not work too well, we navigate the ship of that word around the inexplicable, driven by a force akin to a nagging pressure, to compulsive repetition, relentlessly, in the fierce, desperate hope that we will be able to bring that inaccessible treasure of meaning to the surface – this treasure that is so precious to us, although we do not fully know, really, what it is that we care about so deeply. As a consequence, the concept of the region evolves into categories that can well be described as “suggestive” without any exaggeration. And suggestive categories, after all, serve to help us understand ourselves and each other – and to communicate – at the level of basic intuitions contained therein. In other words: it seems that eventually, in a certain manner, we are adopting ideas carried by the concept of the region, even if we cannot fully formulate them as they should be formulated. Otherwise the term would have fallen out of circulation as unwieldy and unnecessary, and it would never have enjoyed such a – literally – dazzling career.
Similar suggestive packages, concepts which today present analogous inexhaustibility, include for example such terms as: “Europe”, “myth”, “globalization” or “digitalization”. What do they have in common?
As it seems, both the suggestiveness and the productivity of these concepts fly on two wings, equipped with two engines: the first is the importance, combined with the quality of being hard to grasp and difficult to talk about; while the other, a fundamental mechanism of their dynamics, is their dialectical ambiguity, so full of contradictions that there are serious reasons to consider it ambivalent.
Perhaps it might be possible to understand a little better the nature of suggestive forms and ambivalent formulas that sometimes resemble spells, if we look at them as substitutes. What does the concept of the region change, and what does it contain within it? The answer is that it contains not only that which it actually contains and can contain, but also that which is hidden behind it, which disguises itself as it, which stealthily uses its name, which takes its form by mimicry. So: authenticity and truthfulness, an alternative to …, an alternative as such, identity, Heimat, definition, clarity, comprehensibility, invariability, credibility, defense, outlines, contours and boundaries, profile and relief, local patriotism, constancy and the immutability of childhood, the ability to preserve a child’s perception of the world without falling into infantilism, refraining from acting, cognitive integrity and spiritual clarity, identity with one’s self, but also: project and projection, and finally, mythology, cosmogony and utopia.
Thus, two contradictory and (as we might have expected) essentially opposite groups can be highlighted here, but following from the very essence of ambivalence is the requirement to reconcile the various categories of experience: to simplify, one adheres to constancy, continuity, invariability; and the other, to possibility and variability. One serves the static, the other, the dynamic.
Regional products, regional vegetables, regional cuisine, regional restaurants, regional recipes: these collocations, especially important in recent years, seem to express a variety of needs: longing for truthfulness, incorruptibility, authenticity, for non-polluted identity, for the lack of contamination altogether, for freedom from uncontrolled influences of business – whether in terms of globalization or climate, ideological or conceptual (postmodernism, deconstruction, political correctness, globalization). The region is an imagined, uncontaminated landscape.
Regional festivals, regional crafts, regional architecture, ceramics, materials, stone, clay, regional customs, traditions, costumes, processions, language, dialects – all speak volumes about the identity complex. The region in the present sense is also a territory of identity that is free from contradiction: it must be here somewhere, says the longing, where else should we look for it, if not in the region, while elsewhere it has been overstretched, discredited, or deconstructed. Somewhere there must be some substrate, or even the remnants of the substrate, which had not been dissolved and decomposed, and constantly questioned, constantly reiterating that everything is imagined, that everything is – merely a construct. Longing for imponderability, for a “pre-condition” – this is one of the most decisive driving forces behind the enviable dynamics of the region. And also a static, essential, substantial version of identity that counterbalances the dynamic, process-oriented, constructive version.
Regional climatic conditions, regional winds also condition the emergence and continuation
of regional species, regional types and regional ways of life. There is even such a term as “regional endemic species”, that is, those adapted to the living conditions in the given region – here they will grow and thrive, elsewhere, they may even perish.
This bears a striking resemblance to our fantasies and myths related to wine and wine regions: only here the wine has its unique terroir, barely a few kilometres away the same variety tastes completely different. There are the paths dividing the fields, there are limits and borders – they are given and indisputable.
Sometimes we wish so much for all things on the other side, behind the clear line of the border, to be immediately different, and distinctly so: the dialect, the taste of the dishes, the ceramics, the shape of the hat, the landscape, perhaps even the variety of cherries and of potatoes. Not to mention the wine and the cheese. In this region everything works this way, and in the neighbouring one – quite differently.
This flexible dialectic does not mean that the understanding of the notion of a region is completely arbitrary, boundlessly flexible, malleable or even devoid of principles. No, despite all the semantic flair, it has its limitations too. Not everything can be called a region, and that which can be called a region, is not always one. It would be very important to show what these limitations are.
Being a region is not so easy. Not every specific territory can be a region. To be a region, you have to earn it, to deserve it. How is this earned?
The region is a concept which, in the meaning that we refer to herein, was almost completely emptied, evaporated, of the original semantic content – coming from the verb regere, meaning ‘to govern’, ‘to manage’, ‘to cultivate’, ‘to direct’.
It seems that only recently, in the late twentieth century, the term “region” was simply construed as a certain defined administrative territory, smaller than the whole country. The division, especially the official, top-down division into conveniently separated, appropriately named administrative districts, has in itself a large charge of arbitrariness. So how did it happen that this freedom, this coming-from-above destiny, gave way to such connotations as “ancient quality”, eternity and immutability, appropriate for the earlier concepts: of the province, or the German Heimat? It seems that the term “region”, thus understood, has followed the dynamics of the term “province”, which originally also meant a unit of state or imperial administration. The arbitrariness of even the oldest provinces, the fluidity and variability of their borders – but also the changes in the meanings of the very concept – can be seen clearly in the example of Śląsk (Silesia).
But then something changed. A new multiplicity of the aforementioned signs and connotations has arisen, and in the 1990s it has become a daily reality that continues to develop now in the 21st century. The fact that the new semantisation is closely related to the two new notions, previously unknown, cannot be overlooked, namely: the notion of Europe (both the realized idea of the European Union, and its utopia), and the notion of globalization.
Aspects of the concept of identity, the preservation of diversity, above all the diversity of customs and “culture”, began to appear in the definition of the region under the influence of globalization, and of Europe, as well as the result of yet another, third factor, in which the two preceding ones seem to have merged into one: the category of Europe experienced as a cause and manifestation of such globalization, which blurs the age-old differences. It was about feeling threatened and desiring to preserve identity, and because in the accepted rhetoric at the time, identity was also recognized as the principal source of potentially unpleasant extremism, nationalism or broadly understood selfishness, the way towards defending identity began to subtly deviate towards the affirmation of the regions. A mimicry of concepts and parasitism has occurred – that which we usually call “a change of meaning” and “connotation”.
It was then that the concept of the region began to serve and replace many important experiences. In Germany, for example, it could be a dignified substitute for the discredited and dangerous Heimat, as well as a substitute for a disgraced and compromised sense of patriotism.
In many other parts – and regions – of Europe, this concept also seemed a credible alternative to the compromised and discredited nationalism: regionalism can be said to provide the opportunity to experience such important emotions as belonging, identity, patriotism, without the danger of falling into atavistic or even racist, and at least chauvinistic nationalism.
For many European regions, however, regionalism has become a form and figure of resentment, an attempt to distinguish and separate oneself from the poorer parts of a single nation state (as in Catalonia, Flanders, Padania, the movement and the party of the Northern League, Bavaria) – the trick being to use the region as an excuse to wriggle out of national social solidarity and commitment under the rhetorical mask of “European patriotism”.
Haider’s Austrian Carinthia reveals yet another aspect of “regionalism”: a radical, anti-liberal, pre-modern opposition to the official political liberalism of the nationwide system, the exclusion of itself from that system (also, the value system), by using the mechanism of the region.
It seems that for most, regionalism has then become a great way to express being in favour of Europe, the European project and European patriotism, to cut off dangerous nationalism, but without sacrificing the warmth and security which the Heimat provides.
Sometimes regionalism acted as a substitute for political and cultural isolationism, secessionism, exclusivism, for the sense of superiority, and the need to separate oneself from the more common, indeed, from theprovincial megalomania; as the expression and the expressee of the sense of being the chosen one, the elect; of the myth of exclusivity (as in Galicia). Or for the desire for national emancipation, masked by regionalism (as in Catalonia, or the Basque Country).
Something similar happened also on the plane of ecology, in the paradigm of “climatic hazards”: the region has come to be the place where we are able to believe that the impact of climate change might be minimized, where we might bar ourselves from pollution and toxicity, but also where we might actively contribute to saving the environment without getting involved in megalomaniacal utopias – but simply by reducing emissions thanks to limiting the transportation (of food), thanks to using alternative energy sources at a local level, and to a more informed control over the changes that occur.
New vocabulary and regional nomenclature have also become the advent of this era. They appeared in two forms: in the official nomenclature of “Euroregions” and – however paradoxically this might sound – in the bottom-up-elitist, intellectual formula of the “Europe of the regions.” Contrary to the fact that the two expressions sound similar, and it may seem a simple case of changing the word order, we would be hard pressed to find another equally vivid example of such dissimilar, even antagonistic messages, as carried by these two apparently kindred concepts. They are related, but only by the time of their birth, followed by the growing gap of conflicting visions, rather than any similarities. It is precisely in this pair that the dialectic of the binary opposition is revealed, which the notion of the “region” is capable of, and which it beyond doubt contains (at this time I will not mention the notion of “Europe”).
The Europe of the regions is not as simple an affair as it might seem at first glance. After all, on the surface of this notion there is a very noble aspiration to emancipate oneself from atavistic nationalism, and having done that, to declare our support for Europe as a modern supranational creation, while at the same time, to preserve within this great Europe the possibility of finding a form and a place for quiet seclusion, for refuge, for the intimacy of a small homeland, a private motherland, what the German language calls Heimat which – as it seems – has no counterparts in other languages.
The euroregion is a wholly different thing: these centralized structures, brought to life in connection to the quest for greater European consolidation and cohesion, to the stronger co-operation of its members, have nothing to do with the real experience of identity, with voluntary self-determination, or with traditional, even if imaginary borders.
And in this sense, the Carpathians constitute a Euroregion, but they do not constitute the Europe of the regions – or plainly, they constitute its total opposite. At most, the Carpathians might be, and indeed they are, a coherent region from the point of view of the representatives of six occupational categories: geologists, geographers, climatologists and meteorologists, politicians, particularly the so-called Euro-politicians and – perhaps – also for musicologists who use the category of Carpathian melos.
However, for ethnologists, and still more so for ethnographers; for linguists, and even more so for dialectologists; for scholars who study traditions, crafts, migrations; for wanderers, and even more so for people who live in different parts – and in different regions – of the Carpathians, the latter are just too big and too diverse to be included in one region, considered in the various aspects presented in this essay.
Furthermore, the inhabitants of the Carpathians do not want to emancipate themselves altogether; nobody had imposed upon them – like for example the Balkans were imposed upon – any bad connotations; moreover, they themselves have not self-imposed their own – either good or bad – connotations, they did not develop any common mythology or identity; actually, they are rich enough in numerous separate “identities” and thus do not feel the need to define one common identity. In this sense the Carpathians – probably fortunately so – never became like the Balkans.
If we follow the logic of identity, we will find an overload of identities in the Carpathians; identities too diverse and above all too original and “authentic” to require, firstly, any kind of generalization; secondly, being squeezed into the box of any broader concepts; and thirdly, avoiding the conclusion that even considered separately they are sufficiently numerous to meet the basic criteria for the region to be interesting and important, for which and by the force of which the region actually exists, namely the criteria of being determinate, distinctive, authentic, unique, and identified.
The Hutsuls, the Lemkos, the Górale highlanders, the Wallachians, the Carpathian Rusyns, the Boykos, the inhabitants of Verkhovyna fulfill the conditions of authenticity and legend – and to them, this seems to suffice. Geographical and landscape subsystems of the Carpathian Mountains: Beskidy, Bieszczady, Gorgany, Chornohora, the Tatras – are each so distinct in their own right that they are more inclined to distinguish themselves than unite within a category that would go beyond the boundary of the neutral (at least for now) Carpathians. The peculiarity, uniqueness, originality, mythology of each one of these would have been sufficient – and indeed is sufficient – for a whole, separate “region.” Within the Ukrainian part of the Carpathians, we distinguish regions smaller and more discrete than the Carpathians as a whole, including: Pricarpathia, Subcarpathia, Pokuttya, Hutsulshchina, Boikivshchina, Verkhovyna-Bukovina, Carpathian Ruthenia …
The region must produce a sense of structure. In principle, this is one of its main determinants.
The region is a space where I can determine the passage and meaning of time. This space, therefore – with all the significance of the specific physical space, and the cultural construct behind it – is rather imaginary in character, it is the project and the projection of my internal mental space.
In my imagination, I create and shape my region according to my needs, for my own use and following my imagination, my own. Not only do I receive therefrom the fundamental values for myself – I can also insert the values thereto, and make them reality. This is my place of adding.
In the region I can set up a brewery, restore an old, now forgotten beer recipe, or come up with a completely new one, I can set up a regional restaurant with regional dishes, I can start to grow old, forgotten varieties of fruit – or I can create a start-up, high tech company, open a museum, realize art projects, collect old dresses or design my own – either, or, or one and the other; I can collect songs or write my own, I can bury myself deep in the wilderness and write a novel, or blend into the crowd in a traditional church procession. These are the territories best maintained by the desire for feasibility, Machbarkeit.
Now the region is a rather intimate, private territory, where I can (still) feel at home and organize the world according to my tastes and my own imagination. I can drive its acceleration and deceleration myself, the way I like it.
The constitutive feature of the territory is the dialectic between invariability, the defense against the changes that are happening too fast, and the plane of the most daring projects. The underlying theme of such a dialectic is the ardent desire to reconcile the contradictions, but the contradictions are so complex and important that they cannot be called anything less than ambivalent: so that the region can simultaneously be a reserve of the immaculate, the permanent, the constant – and an environment of the unlikely modernity, but in a very specific sense: my own modernity, one that is pleasant for me, coveted and dreamt of rather than uninvited and destructive.
Similarly so, with the region’s relation to globalization: apart from the fairly obvious illusion that the region may perhaps become the last refuge from unrestrained openness, where everything remains like it used to be during our childhood, at least two other issues are relevant: the region makes it possible to suppress and level the alleged national-global opposition (let the national become globalized if it really cannot be helped; but let the region – my region – remain an exception); while the dialectic of exclusivity and isolation is also important: the region allows for the fantasy of “portioning”, of globalization in just the right measure that I wish and that I can bear. The region is a complex and powerful machine, a vehicle, a modern-day modus operandi of my dreams and desires, my fears, fantasies, visions and utopias, designed and located outside but ruled, managed and directed by myself from within.
However, this individual dimension of fantasy must be balanced again and harmonized with the dimension of collective imagination. For “I” and “me” alone will not create a region, there must be an imaginary community of “we”, of “us”.
The region is one of the last refuges of the illusionary utopia – exiled from everywhere else, today utopias are best preserved and constructed precisely in the region. This is why the region is not only a place of refuge, but also a spatium operandi, a way of scale regulation and control.
The original semantics behind the concept of the region, referring to the words: “to govern”, “to manage”, “to direct”, evaporated a long time ago. However, it is in that sense – and only in that sense – that it retained the original significance of the verb regere. Sometimes circles come full in the most paradoxical ways.