Vital Constitutions: The Appearance of Health in History


I will be presenting my paper, “Practical Aesthetics: Negotiating Sickness in Eastern Serbia” at Rice University’s Graduate Art History Conference.

As cultural practitioners, traditional healers in eastern Serbia negotiate the materiality of the sick body through aesthetic schemas, which act as social interfaces between healers and their collaborators. Bajanje is a verbal healing practice performed in villages across the Balkan region to cure illnesses including eye infections, snake bites, evil eye afflictions, and fear. Over the past two years I have been conducting ethnographic fieldwork and developing performance art pieces with healers in villages outside of Skopje, Macedonia and Majdanpek, Serbia. In this paper, I seek to broaden our understanding of aesthetics to include bajanje as an aesthetic medium of negotiation. I argue that the healers I work with collaborate with the sick body to develop a mutually informed aesthetic interface that manipulates senses of time, vocal tones, and textures to achieve an affective transformation. Drawing upon David MacDougall’s theory of social aesthetics (2006), my paper synthesizes scholarship on critical ethnography and the affective turn with practice-based research methodologies to demonstrate how, as scholars, we can avoid deterministic exegeses of healing practices by shifting our focus to healers’ practical strategies. By refusing to exoticize bajanje—which practitioners locate in the “everyday”—my model of healing as an aesthetic negotiation allows us to place tradition in conversation with the pedestrian. When we locate tradition as part of everyday life, we refuse to participate in chronopolitical models that mark rural space as past and can begin to focus instead on the powerful futurities offered by community-based healing practices.