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Musine Kokalari and the Power of Images: Law, Aesthetics and Memory Regimes in the Albanian Experience


Tarot cards are one means to unlocking an image. In this article, the image is that of the Albanian writer and political dissident Musine Kokalari at her 1946 trial. Her photograph features in Albanian discourses about its communist past. I argue that the image provides clues as to the manner in which the country has faced up to its own history. For what is certain is that the Albanian account of the Enver Hoxha dictatorship (1944–1991) remains incomplete. Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘here-and-now in a flash’, and Roland Barthes’ and Italo Calvino’s reflections on photography and the power of the visual, we can identify at least two distinct memory regimes in the relevant historical, legal and political narratives.

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  1. Freedberg [1, 440] observes, in referring to Roland Barthes, ‘So much for the magnificent fullness of the photograph. It transcends death and peculiarly replenishes the lost being. What is lost or absent seems present, but we cannot know why. As soon as we strive to grasp that presence in all its fullness, we either fail or set out to tame or destroy it’.

  2. Such as King [2].

  3. In this article image is used interchangeably with photograph. Of course, image can refer to ‘any likeness, figure, motif, or form that appears in some medium or other’, Mitchell [3].

  4. Barthes [4, 9] refers to the Spectrum of the Photograph, and its relation to the ‘spectacle’, which ‘adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead’.

  5. Yates [5, 6].

  6. Kirchheimer [7, 419].

  7. This is a point discussed in semiotics and semiology, beginning with the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, in his Course on General Linguistics [8], based on a summary of his lectures delivered at the University of Geneva between 1906 and 1911. His work serves as a foundation for modern investigations into what underpins perception and communication. Charles S. Peirce, who worked on similar problems at the same time, made an important contribution to the debate with his notion of ‘Firstness’ as the primary perceptive event that is endowed with semiological meaning. See Buchler [9, 80].

  8. This paper develops the work set out in Fijalkowski and Grosescu [10]. There is now a wealth of studies in the field of transitional justice. See for example, Teitel [11]. For considerations of domestic accountability in post-dictatorial societies, see Stan [12], Nalepa [13], David [14], Serrano and Popovski [15], Czarnota et al. [16]. Other works in this field analyse the politics of memory applied through historical commissions and museums, such as de Brito et al. [17]; and, finally, Mark [18].

  9. Rush [19, vii].

  10. Rush [19, vii].

  11. Girling [20, 109].

  12. During her exile Musine was extremely careful about making contact with anyone. Under constant surveillance by the Sigurimi, she never discussed her account, or perhaps only with select family members, but contact with them was severely restricted. Interview with Linda Kokalari [21]. Musine’s writings have not been revisited or reissued by the state in the post-dictatorial period. This was done only by private initiatives, with financial support from the Albanian Ministry of Tourism, Cultural Affairs, Youth and Sports.

  13. Benjamin [22, 395].

  14. Benjamin [22, 395].

  15. Benjamin [22, 395].

  16. Sontag [23], Butler [24].

  17. Heard [25, 130].

  18. For example, see Douzinas and Neal [26] or Mitchell [3, 27].

  19. Carrabine [28] and Carney [29].

  20. Douzinas and Neal [26, 13].

  21. Goodrich [30, vii].

  22. Goodrich [30, vii].

  23. Goodrich [31].

  24. As argued by Wittgenstein, in his lectures on aesthetics. Allen [32], quoted in Turvey [33, 478–479].

  25. Calvino [34].

  26. Images can also be found at the heart of a mnemonical community. In other words, a memory holds communities together, for example, in relation to specific events. Interpretations of these occurrences can vary, which makes the memory ‘fixed’, as a commemoration site, or ‘dynamic’, serving as a catalyst for a ‘memory event’. See, for example, the discussion concerning the Katyń massacre in Etkind et al. [35], Terdiman [36].

  27. Barthes [4, 25–28]. Calvino [37, 71–76].

  28. Stoehrel [38].

  29. Stoehrel [38, 558].

  30. Barthes [4, 25–28]. Calvino [37, 75].

  31. For Benjamin, what weakens during this period is the ‘aura’ of the work of art in question, something that occurred for the first time with photography. ‘Aura’ concerns the object’s authority, which derives from history and originality. Benjamin [39].

  32. Barthes [40, 31–37]. Also [41].

  33. Emphasis in the original. Barthes [40, 44].

  34. Elander [42].

  35. Smith [43, 72].

  36. Smith [43, 72].

  37. Smith [43, 72, 73].

  38. Bell [44, 1–15].

  39. Bell [44, 1–15].

  40. Bell [44, 1–15].

  41. Cover [45] discusses the meaning of jurisgenerative as referring to the ways in which law is given meaning through a community’s narratives and rules, ‘their somewhat distinct nomos’, at p. 40. Bell uses Cover’s notion in her work [44].

  42. Bell [44, 1–15].

  43. Packard [46, 68–69 and 62–63], respectively. The tarot card images are taken from Commons Wikimedia and in the public domain because the copyright has expired PD-US-not renewed.

  44. Effendi [47, iii].

  45. Biberaj [48, 407–408].

  46. The Sigurimi permeated the society to the extent that every third citizen had either served time in labour camps or been interrogated by the secret police. Austin and Ellison [49, 179]. See also Vickers [50].

  47. Pipa [51, 25].

  48. Packard [46, 72, 73].

  49. Packard [46, 54, 55].

  50. The tarot card images are taken from Commons Wikimedia and in the public domain because the copyright has expired PD-US-not renewed.

  51. Literary circles were hubs of intellectual and political activity, and Albania was no different to Europe during this pre-war period of 1918–1939. Mak [52].

  52. But she was very much engaged in politics. This increased as the war was drawing to a close and her political vision for Albania became tangible. Interview with Kokalari [53].

  53. Pepa [54, 117], translation modified. This scene recalls Sophie Scholl’s stance at the trial of the members of the White Rose. See Dumbach and Newborn [55] and ‘Sophie Scholl: the Final Days’ [56].

  54. Pepa [54, 118].

  55. For a personal account of this labour camp see Lubonja [57].

  56. Gjyqësor, file 1624, item 1051/2, microfilm [58].

  57. ‘During work hours she was what they wanted her to be. But, after work, she was what she wanted to be: well dressed, beautiful and with a book in her hands. One needs to keep in mind the time and place we are referring to, the Rrëshen of those years’, interview with Kokalari [21].

  58. Austin and Ellison [49, 182].

  59. But see Aliko [59].

  60. Martirët (The Martys) [60].

  61. Packard [46, 64, 65]. The tarot card images are taken from Commons Wikimedia and in the public domain because the copyright has expired PD-US-not renewed.

  62. Packard [46, 70–710].

  63. The first show trial, called the ‘Albanian Nuremberg Trial’, was held from March to April 1945 and presided over by Koci Xoxe, Minister of Defence and the Interior. Xoxe was instrumental in creating the infamous Sigurimi, the Albanian security or political police. The 60 defendants in the trial were government officials, who were charged and sentenced on multiple counts of treason and collaboration with the enemy (then Italy and Germany). The main fabricated accusation was that they were ‘traitors and enemies of the people’. Aliko [59, 17].

  64. ‘Groups of resistance', such as the ‘Groups of Legalists’ or the ‘Group of Social Democrats’. Pepa [54, 117].

  65. Moran et al. [61, 121].

  66. Gjygjsore, file 1615, item 1081, microfilm [58].

  67. Shehu [62, 487].

  68. Aliko [59].

  69. Sarat [63].

  70. Sarat [63].

  71. Pepa [54, 119], translation modified.

  72. Packard [46, 90–91]. The tarot card images are taken from Commons Wikimedia and in the public domain because the copyright has expired PD-US-not renewed.

  73. Interview with Ndoja [64].

  74. Tufa [65]. See also Davies [66].

  75. As in Northern Ireland, see McNamee [67].

  76. Austin and Ellison [49, 182].

  77. Austin and Ellison [49, 182]. Genc Ruli was the Minister of Finance at the time.

  78. Austin and Ellison [49, 182].

  79. Albania's first multi-party elections were held in 1991. Austin and Ellison [49, 182].

  80. Austin and Ellison [49, 182].

  81. Austin and Ellison [49, 182]. Berisha was from the Democratic Party. He was President of Albania from 2005 to 2013. Prior to that he was Prime Minister from 1992 to 1997.

  82. Packard [46, 52, 53]. The tarot card images are taken from Commons Wikimedia and in the public domain because the copyright has expired PD-US-not renewed.

  83. Osiel [68, 114].

  84. Osiel [68, 114–115].

  85. Rush [19, vii].

  86. Přibáň [69, 145].

  87. Osiel [68, 276].

  88. I am grateful to Kadare for drawing my attention to this [70].

  89. Again I am grateful to Kadare for drawing my attention to this [70].

  90. Such as Professor Sabiha Kasimati. See Saraçi (Mulleti) [71, 231–232]. The basis for the charges was the same: suspicion of collaborating with the West. By 1948 the Stalinist show trial had been perfected and applied across communist Europe. See Hodos [72].

  91. Saraçi (Mulleti) [71].

  92. de Rapper and Durand [73, 221].

  93. I am grateful to Elez Biberaj for the information.

  94. See Lubonja [74].

  95. Attributed to Lubonja, book presentation of The False Apocalypse: From Stalinism to Capitalism, Anglo-Albanian Association Meeting, London School of Economics, 15 October 2014.

  96. The legend would later form the basis of Kadare’s story The Ghost Rider [75]. The spelling of Kostantin varies, from Konstantin, Constantine, or Constantin. I have used the spelling from The Ghost Rider.

  97. Rubinlir [76, 77, 78], translation modified. Sad Rubinlir is the name Sadri Ahmeti assumed as a writer.

  98. Lubonja [74]


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Lancaster University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) Research Fund enabled me to carry out vital archival work in 2012/2013. I am extremely grateful to Florian Allagiu and Davjola Ndoja for their research assistance, and to Cosmin Cercel, Bela Chatterjee and Martin Thom for invaluable suggestions and support. Any errors are my own. The archival materials referred to in this article come from the Albanian Ministry of the Interior Archives, the Albanian National Archives and the Albanian Telegraphic Agency. The Ministry of the Interior Archives are denoted by Dosje Gjyqësor (Judicial File), file [number], item [number], microfilm.

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Fijalkowski, A. Musine Kokalari and the Power of Images: Law, Aesthetics and Memory Regimes in the Albanian Experience. Int J Semiot Law 28, 577–602 (2015).

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  • Law and aesthetics
  • Tarot cards
  • Photograph
  • Musine Kokalari
  • Albania
  • Memory regimes
  • Transitional justice