Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

One Response or a Multitude of Stories by Michael D. Higgins

When Spyros Mercouris contacted me with an invitation to participate in this Symposium, I had a little reservation, I pressed him on what it was that I could possibly contribute. I did so out of a feeling that to discuss Culture in a European context in many ways might appear to be simply an exercise in bad faith. I have after all been present at conferences on Our Creative Diversity of U.N.E.S.C.O., of In From the Margins of the Council of Europe – both impressive, if not complete, agendas for action. Both are comprehensively neglected by European Governments, Parliaments and the European Union.

I was President of the Council of Culture Ministers and of the Council of Audio-Visual Ministers of the European Union in 1996 when we sought to resist the definition of film as simply a commodity. I witnessed the victory of the neo-Liberal market theorists over nearly all aspects of life. Faced with the major tendencies of convergence of technology, fragmentation of audiences and concentration of ownership, the Commission and Council abandoned all outcomes to an unregulated market which was reconstructing itself into new harsh, homogenized, and philistine forms. Ministers had an encounter with culture all right – one that was visited on them more as a preprandial exercise rather than as a crucial policy area affecting humanity.

No directive came to curb the monopolistic tendencies of the international media. In his day Commissioner Monti refused to act, and with the support, sadly I say this, of Jacques Santer, stated that the market would resolve the complex issues of the application of the new technologies in the European Union.

So for me Spyros Mercouris’ invitation is Gramscian. I am invited yet again to assert an optimism of the will in times when not only is there great reason for pessimism of the intellect but, that the role of intellectual in Europe is devalued and perhaps has even been discarded.

“Perhaps you might deal with” Spyros Mercouris suggested: “the homogenizing tendencies of the global economy and of the consumerist culture that goes with it – what are the chances of Europe’s cultural diversity?

Is it possible to combine the Cultural diversity with the Construction of a distinct European Cultural identity? Is the integration of Europe alone not only economic but also socio-political and cultural lines a precondition for resisting the so-called McDonaldisation of the world?”

I will try to respond to these questions briefly and out of respect for the organizers to do so in a way that might perhaps be programmatic.

When we consider cultural diversity in Europe we must remember that the concept of a United Europe is not new. It has happened before and the boundaries constructed have at times led to more intolerance than diversity. It was not that a varied tapestry was woven. It was more that a dominant coloration was imposed.

Again we should remember that there are reasons for the comprehensive neglect of culture in the European Union. After all it had been abused to sustain Fascism and Totalitarianism. European leaders have, in the European project, been more comfortable with the transcendent concept of markets than the concept of culture with its near historical negative resonance. Then too, the Council of Europe, it was felt, would deal with Culture. It had done so since 1929. The European Union could ignore it. It did, and it does today. Culture has a residual, or at best diffused, existence in the European Union.

Before I left the Council of Commissioner’s D.G. X produced a document showing flavourings of culture across several lines of expenditure. Yes, we could discern cultural aspects of things but they had no policy basis in the Council or Commission’s proposals, decisions, directives or Treaty Amendments. Article 128 of Maastricht is a back-door concession not an acceptance of a principle.

Culture was and is residual, peripheral and neglected. In Europe now the invitiation is to be useful cogs in a knowledge economy – capable of competing with the U.S. and Japan. It is not to be citizens in a creative society with a diverse past and future.

In my lifetime cultural rights will not be added to those other rights recognized after we were shocked by the Death Camps and the nadir to which human behaviour could fall. No government that I know is committed to implementing Our Creative Diversity or In from the Margins. Even Vaclav Havel, a most recent and enthusiastic convert to neo-liberal market hegemony was shocked when he visited Brussels and felt he was looking at the cogs of a machine.

Havel’s problem was moving. His was a faith delivered with courage in the act of dissent only to find that the enemy had re-emerged in a form in which it would be impervious to the techniques of dissent. I say this in respect for the poet’s insight and courage, but also his recognition that he can hardly articulate the price that has been and will be paid for constructing a new space of unaccountable power – the internationally networked forms of informational capital that have been given the title – Globalisation.

Globalisation is a relationship between markets and it is the process by which a new form of international capital flows assert themselves in real time and deterritorialised space. It is facilitated by a new informational order that constructs forms of unaccountable power. That unaccountable power distorts even more the connection between science, technology, economy, and society that has created an unacceptable arms production industry at the heart of so many European economies.

In the past citizens could organize, agitate and protest. Having made the transition to an exclusive existence as consumers it is more likely that they will drift to a new unfreedom, a new form of alienation. That alienation, of the consumers consumed in their consumption, is but one of a spectrum of alienations that now prevail. Others include the alienation of those who are ageing, those with obsolete skills, those in public services, whose life-worth is slipping away. They had lesser aspirations. They just hoped for security, tenure, a frugal pension. The world of such solidarities, such securities is fading away…As society fragments, as the Civil Society finds public trust eroding from it, as politics becomes no longer a vocation to be sought, we find ourselves on the edge of a new confrontation. This new confrontation will not be mediated by Trade Unions, Social Contracts or indeed by Social Democracy. It will be between those excluded from migration to cyber space regarded as backward, left on earth to construct a response, and the super-rich consuming from speculative gain in commodities never experienced before. Information technology – potentially liberational in terms of communication, could become the greatest fissure in a class confrontation for which there will be no mediation. What could have liberated and deepened communication will become an instrument of the information industry, a tool of surveillance and control.

Today, there are few forums, academics or journalistic, where it is acceptable to raise an ethical, political or social reservation to the hegemonic discourse of neo-liberal market economics.

If a cultural space, as I advocated to the Council in my time, were to be accepted as at least equal, if not more important, than the economic space, then we would have had a space for a more morally informed discourse. We are now in the era of a single, limited, intolerant, inhuman, discourse, that, in media terms, has decontextualised events, shortened time.

Globalisation has frightened the European Union into becoming an economic fortress under siege from U.S. software and the Japanese hardware of informational capitalism.

There is one story – the neo-liberal economic one. In its time it will allow cultural manifestations for the diversification and titillation of its leaders. It may even construct in cities and events a bogus nostalgia that abuses memory, that ransacks the cultural heritage for potential of commodification. All manifestations of the cultural are, of course, selective, are politically charged, are aspects of control, subversion, liberation. The moment of creation is a moment of artistic power however and the Left has to accept that it may arise at the point of consumption as well as production. The act of selection discrimination is a creative choice. All reproduction, distribution, mass consumption, follows the logic of capital. It is in the act of origination that most creative power is located.

In the absence of an awareness of the importance of the cultural space and process, the real danger now is that the ethnicities, the nationalisms, the primordialisms, which will become available for fictive constructions of reaction and hate will fill the vacuum created by abandonment of the cultural space. The evidence is already to hand.

In any properly validated cultural space there needs to be a dialogue on the politics and ethics of memory, on the freedoms and responsibilities of the imagination.

There is no time more than now that we need to acquire the capacity to construct Utopias. It is the least promising environment. We have after all moved in the Social Sciences from the end of ideology, past the alleged end of history, to the near proscription of Utopia.

We are in exile from a moral sensibility, from an untrammelled cognitive aesthetic, from even a memory of homo ludens. Slaves of an international economy, we mourn in exile for our spiritual home, for a reflective life. For us space is changing in such a way that territories have no meaning. We live, we are told, in diasporic public spheres. Our need for a moral philosophical framework is then all the greater so that we might actively communicate. Useful in the short term to the knowledge economy we are losing the elements of a creative society.

We need to draw from the experience of those we may have neglected if we are to make a journey home – even if it is to encounter the more terrible truths of our ancestral and imaginary hearths. Migrants have always had to face the task of constructing new imaginings of space and time – not reducible to point of origin or of destination. Their constructed localities have often been the more ethical for their absence of the mark of property. Social Science, following a positivistic paradigm has not drawn for theoretical insight on migration as embodied experience, as theoretical construct, mythic source.

We need to put an ethic in place, drawn from, but not reduced exclusively to, diasporic reality, from uncertainty lodged in imagination, rather than certainties rooted in suspect reason. We have more to gain in this project from Aristotelian wonder than from Cartesian doubt.

The globalisation to which Spyros Mercouris referred in his questions is no simple process. Beyond its essential economic assumptions it brings a bundle of consequences. Commodification of experience and memory is one near inevitable consequences. It is well, however, to remind ourselves that the moment of creating something is a powerful moment of artistic sovereignty. From that moment follows reproduction, distribution, exploitation, manipulation that may follow the logic of capital accumulation. That moment of creation, as I have said, is crucial in offering a space of resistance. The artistic moment may constitute a frontier, where the paradox of the terms ‘cultural product’, ‘cultural industry’, may be used for a defence of diversity. The creative movement can be front loaded with rights for example. The education to a sensibility of art among the public saves film for example, for culture, rescues it from product as mass entertainment.

Information, the new fifth factor of production, is not a neutral instrument, no more than globalisation is an even evolutionary process. Manuel Castells, in perhaps the most comprehensive recent account available of the Information Society, describes the unevenness of both resources and access. Hans Magnus Enzesberger has written of an “immaterial exploitation” where material exploitation must camouflage itself in order to survive.

Of what then would Culture consist? Time and space does not allow a full treatment to suggest that the selection of cultural forms, artifacts and events is a profoundly political act, as is the exclusion of certain events. For example, how many events or manifestations of culture from the cities and events would come near the principles of Carnival, as enunciated by Bakhtin? To validate the space of culture against the narrowly economic requires being open in public spaces and events to the hidden transcripts of the oppressed and the excluded.

The nation in its history is of course more inclusive than the state but there are consequences for both as they are transcended by diasporic identities and mass produced identities of consumption. There are those, such as Appadurai, who see the variety of instruments that constitute Globalisation being absorbed, repatriated and re-exported as heterogeneous dialogues. This I find unconvincing. There is no such simple contemporary commercial flux amenable to the influence of some post modern imprint. Coca Cola and McDonals may localize the global, and globalise the local on rare occasions, but they do so under patent, protected by law and the power of transnational corporations.

At the heart of globalisation lies an impulse to construct a single discourse, an imagery of modernity. It is a paradigm that makes an evolutionary suggestion of global information capacity on the one hand and backwardness on the other. What is constructed usually is a hybrid of the multi-national owned patents protected product and some local content. The power is in the patent. Whether it be cricket in the West Indies or Coca Cola in Dublin, there are rules that prevail. Local content there may be. Local genres there will not be.

Alice-Mary Higgins, contrasting Arjun Appadurai’s and Veena Das’ treatment of this tension, points to the former’s neglect of power in the domination of the global genre on the return route of the image. This process Veena Das describes as the assimilation of “varied histories into one master narrative of conquest”.

The European Union has chosen to compete at the level of knowledge economy. It has capitulated on the humanistic project of building the creative society with all its discordant voices and multitudes of stories. In its bunkers it emits occasional longing sighs for a better, more humane, project. Competing in the short term for one version of the knowledge economy it distorts education, imperils creativity and condemns itself to obsolescence and to miss out on the next several waves of innovation.

If the Union had gone for regulation where it was appropriate it would have enabled a cultural space to be created. It has expressed its loyalty uncritically to a new-liberalbe version of the economic. It has watched on as nation-states and the political space have lost influence. What it may yet reap is the reaction, expressed in hundres of distortions of ethnicity, nationalism and race. I hope I am wrong, that it is not too late.

I believe that there is no single, ancient, unified, uncontested mythic source which we can call home. I profoundly believe that the imagination, decolonised from the mechanistic distortion of economics that we now suffer, can discover new homelands of the spirit, can recover unknown, as well as known mythic heroic journeys, but also, and even more important, we can create a myriad of hope-giving and truly human utopias. We have to accept that there is a distinction however, between fantasy and imagination, and between individual and collective imagination. Imagination above all has to be accepted as a space of contestation available for hidden as well as public transcripts.

And as to a practical agenda which Hatto Fischer always seeks, we could in the short term at the level of Civil Society, Market Institutions and Political Institutions seek to achieve the following:

Civil Society:


Market Institutions:


Political Institutions:


In the end it is always about Power. Power has not been dissolved in the process of globalisation. The taking of power into a democratic accountability is necessary if we are to substitute an ethical universalisation for a globalisation of misery.

We have the right to ask that European Union’s version of us and our children be one as active agents of diverse narratives rather than well fed European dreamers of the collective fantasies of informational capitalism.





Hans Magnus Enzenberger’s Raids and Reconstructions, Pluto Press, 1976

Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large, University of Minnesota Press, London 1996

Veen Das, Universalisation versus Globalisation (yet to be published - ? )

Veen Das, “Critical Events”, Oxford University Press

Imre Szeman, “Cultural Logic”, 1997 – www.eserver.org/clogic/1-1/szeman.html

Philip J. Deloria, “Playing Indian”, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1998

Higgins, Alice Mary, “Appadurais Theory of Context and the Creation of Locality”, 2000 New York Private Circulation



The full title of the presentation was: "One Response or a Multitude of Stories – Creative Society or Knowledge Economy? Issues for the Cultural Space in an era of Globalisation."

It was given at the cultural symposium held in Athens 2000 with the aim to initiate a day of culture on May 5th of every year.

Organised by Spyros Mercouris, Honorary President E.C.C.M. Network of the European Cultural capitals and months.

Michael D. Higgins

Dail Eireann

Irish Parliament Buildings

Kildare Street

Dublin 2

was at that time Statutory Lecturer for Political Science and Sociologyat National University of Ireland Galway (on leave), and

Former Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Ireland.

In 2012 he was elected as President of Ireland.

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