Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Cultural Identity in Danger? by Melitta Gourtsoyanni

Two ghosts roam over Europe today. One is unemployment. The other is cultural identity. I am not sure which of the two is felt by society as more important. We witness everywhere among individuals, groups, nations, a continuous concern about the fate of national identity. There is a widespread tendency to explore it, to define it, to defend it. But one defends something that is menaced. Is this menace real? And if so, which is its nature?

I will attempt to reach this problem, by first approaching the identity of culture itself.

1. Commonly speaking, by c u l t u r e we understand the expression of human spirit in the fields of fine arts, literature, philosophy, as well as their reflection in everyday individual and social codes and values. In this context, culture of a nation or of a historical period is meant by the culture determining these values and codes and the correspondent behaviour. I think it is essential to investigate the social impact carried today by artistic, literary etc. creation. In previous ages, culture was shared by a considerable part of the social body: The Athenian citizen was living in an architectural work of art, his "polis"; in the middle ages everybody, masters and subjects alike, could come in contact with superb stained glass and frescoes in the cathedrals. Even the most impoverished peasants on the face of the planet created and enjoyed their music, their songs, their stories, their decorated objects, their anonymous architecture. In the present day, literature, music, the fine arts and even cinema are limited to a public that grows smaller and smaller. On the other hand the culture that has a real impact on society manifests itself through,

These are now the codes and values emanating from this culture and which is the object of extensive studies that I believe we are all more or less familiar with. I would only point out, that only recently the power of its impact has proven itself in the political developments in Italy.

2. After having established this framework, I will now try to approach the nature of the menace to cultural identity. Cultural identity is usually identical with national and/or regional cultural identity. And it is supposed to be menaced by the culture of a stronger country or region. Thus Greek cultural identity is supposed to be in danger by "Western European" culture, and European culture is in turn endangered by American culture. (Let's not forget though that Americans fear the Japanese). The controversy about GATT's application in cultural matters, the war between European and American cinema, makes these fears quite explicit.

But there exist more cultural identities, than the localised ones. There are group cultural identities, as well as personal ones. My cultural identity as a person cannot be limited to my national cultural identity. For example, in the field of music, I owe my identity to Theodorakis and the Beatles and Beethoven and the Rebetika and Nino Rota. During the colonels' dictatorship I felt my cultural identity violated by the abusive use of Greek folk music that was on the radio continuously...

The inauguration of a local cultural identity as the only one worth rescuing goes hand in hand with nationalism, provincialism, xenophobia. The preservation of c u l t u r a l d i v e r s i t y is valuable; however, it does not mean respect only for the culture of each country, but also respect, appreciation and mutual exchange among different cultures within a country, inside the vast mosaic of ethnic groups, social groups, age groups, or our modern society. This diversity is an enriching, not a menacing factor to culture and life in general.

Afterall, ambiguity and identity crisis is not a bad thing if it is creatively oriented. Or course, there are always risks in a crisis. But aren't all valuable things in life risky? Persons never doubting their identity - cultural or otherwise - are the dullest people.

(This is particularly true for Greece, where, throughout history, its culture was always open to influences, a meeting-point of east and west, a cosmopolitan culture of navigators and Diaspora people. Kavafis is a brilliant example: luxuriously universal and deeply national; lover of the east but such a tormented westerner, traveller of history and yet so modern.)

A field where diversity is strongly defended is l a n g u a g e - and rightly so. The less spoken languages, especially, feel menaced by more widespread ones, particularly English. It is true that powerful countries impose their language on others. But this is rarely the result of deliberate political force - it shows rather the fact, that this dominant language fulfils a certain function, important in that specific moment of social evolution. It happened many times in history and it did not necessarily mean the destruction of other languages: the Greek "koinι" of post-Alexandrian and Roman antiquity, the Aramaic in ancient middle east, the mixture composed of the various Germanic dialects used by the Hanseatic league, the "lingua franca" of the Mediterranean, the Latin of clergy and scholars, all served as handy tools for communication, but did not prevent other languages to grow. A language that produces literature, ideas, has nothing to fear; a language that has nothing to say is the one on its way to extinction.

On the other hand, u n i f o r m i t y that is not being imposed, but matures through social and artistic evolution is not to be feared. Rock music is a good example of this: It is the music that two generations now identify themselves with, because it really corresponds to their social imaginary equipment - independently of nation, colour or social class.

3. Still, the general climate of anxiety - reaching to hysteria in some cases - is not unfounded. There is a menace to cultural identities, sometimes it is already more than a menace. But it does not lie in the opposition of one culture to another. It is founded on the c o m m e r c i a l i s a t i o n that is gaining ground all the time. Of course this is not new. The process of attributing to everything an exchange value has its origins in the eve of our present economic system. But only the last years, the reign of the market has become incontestable. Now it dominates, not only at the economic, but also at the ideological level as well. The work of art is reduced to the status of a "product" and it is judged as such. That is why the power of television, etc. mentioned at the beginning, is so crucial: the images of television have a value only to the extent that they have a big enough public. This notion is contaminating all fields of social activity. Value is measurable in numbers. Quality becomes just the product of addition of qualitative elements. No room for the European Pasolini, but neither for the American Kassavetes. Quantification is also a basic element of computerisation. The concept of time is also changing dramatically: if every second of display of the electronic image has an enormous cost, therefore value, then every moment of our real life is evaluated in comparison to that. Everything has to be quick, easy to perceive and to consume. Visual works must be easy to grasp. Easy listening music. Ideas reduced to slogans. Easy to get - easy to forget. Anything demanding a high degree of reflection, a rather complex procedure, is condemned. These are the symptoms of advancing c u l t u r al p r o l e t a r i z a t i o n of a great part of society - ruling classes not excluded.

4. The fatal results are already here. This complete Taylorization, this quantification of everything, is nothing but the dream of modern man to control everything, to reach the ultimate rationality. But it is only an illusion. The reaction to lack of spiritual values has already taken on distorted, atrocious forms: Local ayatollahs - in every religion - gain power. Intolerance, xenophobia, cultural isolationism, regression to exhausted social practices and beliefs, blind faith in the most outrageous lies, gain more and more ground.

And this is not the sad privilege of "backward" societies. The very heart of the "civilised" world is struck.

C o m p l e t e r a t i o n a l i s m l e a d s to s a v a g e i r r a t i o n a l i s m.

5. Has Europe a different Word to articulate in answer to all this chaos? The battle fought by the European Union about cultural matters at the Gatt agreements had great publicity. However, the main concern of the European Union is economic competition and its option is clearly the unquestionable domination of the free market. If all products of human activity, even the cells and genes of our own bodies, will soon become, or already are parts of the merchandise machinery, how long can the famous "cultural exception" resist?

And, most important, to defend w h a t c u l t u r e? It is again a matter of quantity? Is European culture a mere addition of its local cultures? Or are there universal values born and grown in Europe "par excellence" that are worth while preserving and further developing?

Again "the times are a-changing". A New Age is coming fast. Dramatic changes in employment are bound to transform the face of our cities. As the urbanist Virilio points out, partial employment will create waves of 'social' refugees, whose working instability forces them to continuous mobility and which will result in forms of housing quite different to what we know as being the "nuclear family home". Superfast means of transport will change further our concept of time and space. Total computerisation will give us the illusion of being omnipresent and omniscient, and affect our ability of discrimination between virtual representation and real life. Genetic intervention will lead - I dare not think where to.

It is not my intention to describe a future hell. I am excited about human adventure. We are about to travel to a new unknown country. It is going to be a Dark Age or a new Renaissance? It depends a lot on what we use as compass. Could Europe offer any tools, any valuable elements of her very own cultural identity? Good, old Humanism comes, of course, first to our minds. This quest goes beyond the ambitions of this paper.

I wish only to remind the concept of "measure" elaborated once in this city, Athens, and used, I think, as a useful social compass. In Ancient Greece the spirit of Apollo was valued together with the spirit of Dionyssos. In the very cradle of rationalism, the darker side of our being was respected and cherished. Apollo is the clear light of civilisation and Dionyssos the consuming flame of real creativity. Should we try to exclude Dionyssos, we shall have the fate of king Pentheus in the "Bacchae": We shall be devoured by the savage forces of the Irrational.

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