Saturday, September 13, 2008

Boycotts Through Barcodes

While discussing Kaspar Hauser the other day, the comment was made that language was "embedded" in his surroundings. This comment seems to fit with an experience I had while living and studying in Prishtina, Kosovo in 2006.

By the time I began studying at the University of Prishtina, seven years had elapsed since the Kosovo War of 1999. Seven years may seem like a long time to an outsider, but it is taking Kosovo a long time to recover from the conflict, and feelings of animosity toward Serbia are very apparent in everyday life.

When I first moved to Kosovo, one of the first things I noticed were posters like this one plastered all over the city:
The text translates as "Boycott Serbian products/ Boycott this barcode/ Hurt Serbia, help Kosova." I discovered that the first three digits of any barcode, or universal product code (UPC), indicate where a product was manufactured (or, as is the case for many American products, it indicates what country the item was produced for). This numerical code, which is often ignored by consumers, has become an item of major interest for Kosovars. In the interest of "hurting Serbia and helping Kosova," many Kosovars actively avoid any product whose UPC begins with "860." I still remember standing in the aisle of Ben-Af supermarket with a Serbian bag of flour in one hand (860) and a Croatian bag in the other (385) and wondering what kind of difference my selection would actually make.

To this day, I find that I still check the UPC on many products, trying to ascertain more information on the item. I learned that we really are surrounded by language in all forms, whether it be in speech, text, or somehow "embedded" in code or symbols. It's just a matter of how much attention we want to devote to these embedded forms.


Grabloid said...

very interesting, i'll take note of that
i usually just look on the tag (if it has one) to see where it was made/produced, or on the packaging it is usually printed...mostly to avoid buying material made in countries that don't have laws against sweat shops, or other adequate labor laws...
but sometimes it isn't printed, and knowing those codes would be helpful.

Scott Abbott said...

When countries go to war with each other, everything, like the information from these barcodes, becomes black or white, Serbian or Kosovar, American and French (when the French wouldn't join the "Coalition of the willing" to invade Iraq). But it's always more complicated than that, at least in my mind. What if, for instance, the flour in the bag with the Croatian barcode was milled by a Croatian nationalist who hated all Serbs and Bosnians and Kosovars and Montenegrans and who still thought that the German occupation of the country that allowed his fellow Croatians to dispose of Serbs and Jews and Gypsies in the concentration camp in Jesenovac was the highpoint of history in the land of the Southern Slavs? Or if the flour milled in Serbia was the product of a woman who stilled believed in a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia and who had vigorously opposed Slobodan Milosevic at great danger to herself?