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Comments on workshop 3: 'Culture and Identity'

Hatto Fischer (chairperson)

Delegates of the series of seminars on the theme "Culture, Building Stone for Europe 2002" were given introductory notes for each workshop; the one dealing with "culture and identity" had the following structure:

  1. Historical Setting: European Culture and European Cultures
  2. Conceptual Setting
    1. European Culture: the problem of definitions
    2. Different kinds of identification
    3. Nationality and beyond
    4. A new cultural model for Europe
  3. Structural Setting
    1. A European Federal Society and the European federal
    2. Protection of smaller Cultures
  4. Value Setting: Common and changing values in Europe

It must be noted that these framework papers were meant to guide the discussions in the respective workshops; they came about without having consulted the chairperson. This is said in the light of a highly controversial thesis being spelled out in this introductory note:
"The third European unification originates at the end of the First World War. The treaty of Versailles carried in itself the causes of the Second World War. The structure of the old Nation State could not be any longer the corner stone of the European development." 1

It is doubtful that such a schematic explanation can do justice to a much more complex history related especially to the rise of Hitler and the reasons for Second World War. There is even political danger in such an explanatory viewpoint, since many Germans did think that they were unjustly treated by the Versailles Treaty, a matter of fact that Hitler exploited skilfully basing his political tactics on nationalistic resentments among other factors. Yet mass psychological manipulations should not be considered as a major historical thesis and thus the astonishment to find that in the introductory note to what should be after all a workshop on 'cultural identity'. For oversimplification may serve arguments Europe needs to refute the national state, but this does not make 'culture' automatically into a building stone for Europe. Furthermore, since no one had really the time to read it prior to the start of the workshop, it was not discussed nor referred to.

The workshop was meant to have many speakers, hence risked to repeat really the elongated panel lectures and therefore again prevent active involvement of the participants. Fortunately for this workshop was that flu, strike and other reasons prevented four of the six invited speakers from attending the workshop. Thus after the two speakers had given their respective papers, the workshop could open to a general discussion involving everyone present.

Prof. Rezsohazy started the workshop discussion by pointing out two different political conditions, one linked with building up a national identity, the other having to do with developing cultural perspectives. In all cases, there is something like a 'collective identity'. It has to do with some idea or sense of the people for themselves. Others call it 'historical consciousness'. It appears that culture is shaped by history, but also how it is interpreted, especially in terms of 'pride' (to be someone). At the same time, culture has to do with 'memory' restored or retained by certain acts manifesting things aside from historical facts.

Culture has equally to deal with the assimilation of other influences. There are objective and subjective levels to be distinguished by different interaction possibilities with these influences. That requires already a first comment: internal and foreign policy can never be identical, yet that contradiction can easily be exploited by the creation of external sable 'enemy pictures', in order to unify internally the society and thus form the basis for a nation. A part of that influence is mediated by means of education that is the ways things are taught as to what has happened in history. If national identity processes are ensured by means of education (and there is this famous question 'as to who educates the educators'), then other identity building processes including literature, media policy and the arts in general are complementary factors to be considered. He continued to argue, that they all add up in what kind of allegiance military service requires from everyone, i.e. the example of Perot's thesis about American soldiers going to fight Hussein in Iraq. Then, culture is touched upon by the fact that there are mythical forces involved. They tend to become evident when things are glorified, or when the existence of the nation is glorified, i.e. Italy and Germany in the nineteenth century when become a nation state.

He considers one thing important in the so-called historical debate, namely what becomes in the end 'mythology', or what are the ramifications of removing statues, i.e. Lenin's after the downfall of the Communistic government, while others are recovered, i.e. of the former Tsar. This extends naturally to the question, how 'history' is taught, but there are other tools to reinforce national feelings, like national independence days with their parades, or in movies using historical dramas to show liberation's and heroic efforts on behalf of the nation. Hence it comes as no surprise that some people have a strong historical consciousness, i.e. the French, while others have a weak one due to their history being full of tragic failures, i.e. Hungarians.

Then, there is the interrelationship between 'culture' and 'political culture'. For instance, Italy faced in 1861 several problems:

Thus when it comes to 'Democracy', one has to ask what the social and cultural conditions for democratic life are? This question can also be formulated into what one has to protect and what needs legitimization, given, for instance, the existence of the Queen in England as guarantee of 'sovereignty', while there are protest movements against a parliamentary system from being still connected with Royalty. It is always difficult to judge who is right, who is wrong, when different groups do not participate in the overall shaping of not only the public opinion, but the 'political will'. Some changes in the concept of democracy have occurred with the development of the so-called 'Grass Root movements'.

Such developments point in the direction of self-organised 'civil' society. In it, certain key aspects have to be clarified and secured as such:

These are considerations that touch upon the 'ethics' of democratic life. They include the art to resolve conflicts peacefully or in a non-violent manner. Needed for that is a dialogue outside official roles and the readiness to compromise. Indeed, in the political-social field, there cannot be claimed any 'absolute' truth. It seems to Prof. Rezsohazy, therefore, essential that the following principles are upheld:
- If conflicting forces oppose each other, then one side should not take everything (as in America);
- in the conflict between rich and poor, there prevail indeed two different worlds and this is not good for democracy being based supposedly on 'equality', so that there must be a close proximity of the two worlds and dialogues between them must be supported by 'i n t e r m e n t a l i t i e s'; that means, people must learn to trust each other, in order to be able to co-operate. It is a terrible problem in Eastern Europe that no one trusts the other;
- must have some consensus as to what is right, what is wrong, and which constitutes beyond all conflicts some union; if this guaranteed, then it can prevent upheavals, especially violent ones;
- as to the constitution, this is a matter whether it becomes symbolised by a political-administrative class only interested in their own privileges or else truly serving the interests of the people in general.

At all times, this class must perform in such a way that they are respected;

Taken altogether, there are many problems which have not been resolved nor seem to be resolvable. Often this is linked with a kind of 'public opinion' presented by the media in which the population does not recognise itself in. There is the added problem of loss of confidence in any kind of political leader. Thus he would conclude that in order for democracy to be constituted, there is an art to governing and a need for trust.

The second speaker, Prof. Kerhofs started in a charming, equally vigorous manner his paper by remarking that it might be apt that this workshop takes place deep down in the cellar of what used to be a hospital. It reminds him of his Jesuit training which means that the audience should not trust him too much. He wants, however, to depart from a simple, but provocative thesis: there is a European sickness which can be called as having too many prejudices. He wants to speak about 'values' in Europe on a truly comparative basis. In order to have no illusions about a possible 'European identity', four premises ought to be considered and later on, if time allows, discussed:

  1. Region and Culture: what have they in common, but what are also differences between them?
  2. It is impossible to lump Western versus Eastern Europe together and come up with a meaningful schism, for everything depends upon means of comparing.
  3. Freedom as such belongs to the idea of European identity, not so much the value of 'equality'.
  4. There can be noted altogether a disappearance of a 'sacred canopy' (i.e. some religious belief) and a move towards a 'canopy of values'. This has to do with the growing 'situation ethics orientation'.

Off-setting this is national pride versus local identity while it is unsure what both together bring about in terms of cultural perspectives.

He would like to warn, that one should not forget the relationship between synchronic and diachronic forms influencing, or not, the possibility of multicultural co-existence. Much depends upon education and the different cultural layers influenced experiences made. There is something like 'Ungleichzeitigkeit' (not of the same time) prevailing in Europe, making the creation of a European identity difficult.

He gave then many examples of comparative results of his empirical studies as to value constellations in different European countries. Values were connected to friendship, marriage, work and pleasures, etc.. In the end he had convinced everybody that the sharp division between here Western values, there values of the Eastern European countries, that this no longer holds.

In the subsequent discussion, a series of questions, critical reflections and dialogues were heard. They are as a brief summary, the following:

1. Has the study about values been extended to Greece? (Conlin Wagner)
Answer: no, it has not been, but will be shortly.

2. There are the relative values of statistics, i.e. in surveys about media listeners; it is always a question on how priorities are set.
Answer: as long the methodology has a truly international view and the methods of evaluation go beyond mere impressions, there is a good chance of coming up with valuable data and some conclusive statements.

3. In using terms like 'family' in such a value study, how can they be applied to reality on a comparative basis when knowing quite well the term means one thing in France and something else in Germany (Picht).
Answer: To answer this question, 'how does reality look like', in this study this meant all empirical surveys were completed by in-depth interviews.

At this point reference was made to one of the speakers who could not attend, namely Prof. Dyersinck and his work in the fields of 'Comparative Literature', for the troubling question exists, but what happens if countries do not advance economically? How to face the deeply disturbing developments, while changing the 'image' of Europe as being more than an ever-growing money pot. Prof. Kerhofs replied to that with the remark: "We don't know".

4. What kind of identity can be secured within the modern media culture?

This question was posed by Eugene van Itterbeek, General Secretary of the Poetry House, 'Seven Sleepers'. He made also a reference to the recent XVth European Poetry Festival which he had just organised under the title: 'Do Poets still make sense?" The discussion touched upon issues connected with approaches to life, if sociological methods are no longer reliable and poets not any more mirrors of society? Then there is the issue on how poetry associations relate to the 'cultural policy' of the European Union, for it seems unclear whether really much is, and can be done for the cultures of Europe. Eugene van Itterbeek mentioned the practical experience of ‘Operation village'. This is a French theory to bring democracy into the villages. It could be a beautiful model for Eastern Europe, but also a valuable contribution for more democracy and culture in Western Europe. The poets and Poetry Associations like the 'Seven Sleepers' Association in Leuven are so poor. He declared that poets and associations need help from the European Union, in order to create networks at various levels, in order to build up a democratic policy for mediation purposes between different cultural fields. For everyone faces the same problem: how to realise projects and make more experiences in different cultural fields? There is also another problem for culture: the receptivity of what artists are creating.

5. There was mentioned the preference for diachronic comparisons rather than using cultural synchronic methods. The entire discussion circles around ways and means to gauge changes, that is, by what logical indicators. Rezsohazy mentioned that one indicator could be religion.

6. Democracies are like associations with some binding power; the Belgium experience stipulates that this power rests largely on "unwritten rules" which define the frontier that must not be crossed; by contrast, in Eastern Europe, there is still this effort to try and reach conclusions; this is called the 'arts of politics'. However, it should be stated that there prevails one overall premise which keeps people from trying, namely that there is no solution in politics and hence they must find it themselves.
Such a premise becomes a cultural form of expressing the desire to live according to one's own ideals and norms; they are differently expressed in Cuba, Nicaragua or in Chile; the contrast between Latin America and Europe must be examined more fully.

7. A major paradigm in the discussion has been 'large scale thinking' versus 'small scale', or how to connect the local with the global, if not universal? It was stated that all solutions must have a place for the personal, for the possibility of becoming personal in a concrete way. Things tend to go together then. How, that is again not only a question of methodology, but of security. For how secure are public goods, if they are no longer sacred for everyone, and what is the purpose of securing for oneself cultural goods, if it means excluding others? Culture rests on shared experiences with values going beyond the private sphere. Conlin Wagner cited here Virgina Wolf who said: 'don't think of the small, but consider the big'.

8. What are the cultural conditions for democracy? Again, this question implies no answer can leave out education, but at the same time it underlines an important premise, for 'equal values are not the same as equality'. There is, furthermore, a need in people for more self-confidence, but how to obtain that without overplaying the weakness by being arrogant or the stronger according to certain images? Again someone mentioned that this is connected to the problem of educational systems and how difficult they are to change.

9. Thus, in terms of content of a curriculum, focus should be placed upon enriching European Studies and making these studies available in all European countries. For instance, there is now in Prague a 'Cultural Foundation'. Altogether this entails the following question: how to improve the consciousness for democratic values through, for example, improvement in teaching training programmes? Much of this is called 'Kulturarbeit' (cultural work). For instance, Germany has initiated many re-education programmes since 1945; people have another chance by means of a second educational path to gain qualifications for studies at university level. Added to that and of great importance are teacher exchange programmes: the confrontation with different values and conditions of teaching and learning in another country being a valuable insight into the value system of one's own culture.

10. the most difficult is the question of time. Everyone seemed to agree that the time for interaction with other people is decreasing and hence the exchange between, let us say, students and teachers, or parents and their children has become less and less meaningful. Time is limited, but also enhanced by being lived as well as experienced time. Time is lost, if there is no orientation. That is a failure of culture to give such an orientation, even though everyone must work for his or her own personal solution. It would be a misunderstanding to call that simply an 'individuation' of time; there is the subjective, objective and historical time, to mention but three possibilities of shaping the concept of time itself.

Prof. Kerkhofs admitted that there is a very big danger, but equally, he added, 'we should not get too pessimistic; he even sees more children reading more than ever before'. But there is in the organisation of work and society a 'division of time' which makes both parents and children be more and more exposed to 'empty time', i.e. a single child returning from school and while her mother is still at work, she turns, in order to escape loneliness, the television on.

The main conclusion of the workshop was about the difference of living 'rich', that is full of experiences, times, or else 'empty' times leading to boredom and other estrangements. It seems to be the plight of modern times that no other answer can be found by desperate people, but to seek distractions which are hostile to life itself, i.e. taking drugs. The permanent undercuts of modern ideologies and 'rationalisations' have their toll amongst individuals trying to keep up with the competitiveness of the market. Whether a messenger boy on a bicycle in a big city like New York, Frankfurt or London, or else a barman at one of the many tourist places, the picture is always the same: competitive friendliness, whether one likes the job or not, in order to secure if not authenticity, then some social recognition. Yet the insecurity of the world stems from this simple fact that there is hardly anyone left to bring about a cultural movement at European level. Rather things are said through strange displacements, like a German jewellery expert setting up his artistic studio in a remote village in Crete. Yet that is no longer an individual escape or a single expression of exception, but rather follows a general trend reminding of the eternal longing for life when it is not really lived nor appears to be liveable under preferred conditions. Alone this discontent, but also disillusionment keeps Germans moving to Cretan villages while boys from the village seek the big cities as an alternative to the life they have experienced up to now. Finally, it is the unknown that keeps people moving and while faced with changing conditions, decisions have to be made as to how to escape those 'empty times'. Proust called it the search for the lost time; that is still nowadays a true dilemma for Europe populated by people and societies without having any true knowledge about 'cultural identity'.

1 Léonce Bekemans and Ruben Lombaert, 'Culture and Identities: an Introductory Note' in Léonce Bekemans (ed.), Culture: Building Stone for Europe 2002, Brussels 1994, p. 264.

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