Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Reference material 2: "Localism" by Bart Verschaffel

Note: when planning for the Fifth Seminar, the topic of 'cultural policy' by the Flemish government as well as what recommendations ought to be made to the Greek side when preparing for 1996 when Thessaloniki will become European Capital of Culture for one year, these were main points of  discussion. Bart Verschaffel sent in this context a copy of his speech held two years ago in Greece.


"I am Flemish. If nobody had told me, I would never have known"

(cartoon, Kamagurka)

Let us describe 'culture' as the entirety of signs or externalized significations (gestures, utensils, expressions, landscapes, feelings, habits...) preserved and borne by a society. Individuals and groups belonging to this society, derive their identity from the significations they are familiar with, and to which they associate themselves through identification and opposition. A culture is "borne" and, therefore, always belongs to "someone". The set of signs constituting a culture is not coherent, in the sense that it sprung from one source or origin, or that it would be transparent and homogeneous. Externalized significations are as things: they are "somewhere", they travel and they are transported, but they automatically bend to immobilism, they are "tied to a particular place". And all that remains present during a certain period of time at one particular place, just because of that reason, belongs together. A culture, as a set of signification's, adopted and borne as a form of life, is therefore, always in a more or less exclusive way, someone's culture: it belongs to the individuals and groups, typical of one particular place, as things, and living or staying there for some time.

The identity of groups and individuals, however, is not only formed by the significations with which one identifies oneself and which one bears as a form of life. Identity is also linked with birth and origin. What one is, is anchored in the place "of one's origin" and in the name. One is Flemish or Greek, not only because one chooses clothing, words, habits, political convictions and fears from a set of available forms of life, called Flemish or Greek culture, but also because one is born Flemish or Greek.

Adding up these places by which the identity of groups and individuals are determined - form of life and origin - yields the idea that the fundament of identity or the "own character" of groups and individuals is a history, the significations which one appropriates, and always, in a certain sense, remain "strange" ("I am Flemish. If nobody had told me...."), are at the same time significations one has always had a right to, like a heritage. My culture is not what I have as a "tenant" or as a use-fructuary - a property for which I am responsible. My culture is a history which I inherited, and it is my property, my origin. Breughel is "Our Breughel", Rubens is "Our Rubens", Plato is - for the Greek - "Our Plato", etc..

As is well-known, the way in which groups lie to their "own" past and form and protect their identity, is being harmed. In the first place because many social scientific disciplines, and more specifically historiography, show that most European cultures are not transparent, homogeneous and "own"; they are, in fact, the result of a concurrence of circumstances, forming a cocktail of the most diverse ingredients. Close historic research proves furthermore that the idea of continuity hardly has any foundation: it is not true that there is one We, carefully saving a culture and passing it on from generation to generation. People calling Rubens "Our Rubens", have nothing to do with Rubens. In what relevant sense could one call Flemish history our history? Such expressions, however, did reach universities and the better library; yet, they can hardly be used, for example, if one - for example - wishes to set up somewhat prestigious historical exhibitions or write handbooks for education, with money of the community and with the agreement of politicians. The idea of "our culture is our culture" is harmed, furthermore, by the visible heterogeneity and "strangeness" of today, taking the form of a proper culture, no longer anchored and traditional, but modern and international" (in the way that modernistic architecture is "international", i.e. omitting the local). It also takes the form of a torrent of things (television series, music, rages, objects....) which, even if they are made here, show off elsewhere with an imaginary origin, and however ordinary they become, they will never become "own" (coca cola, vespa, moussaka...). In the non-intellectually mediated modernity (of consumption), the whole of modern life, for that matter, has another origin, and becoming modern here is "Americanizing".

The idea that our culture is our culture and that the (collective) identity can be founded on our own history, becomes more and more intellectually untenable. Yet the idea remains operative, at least as that which politics longs for. It is the traditional base of Western nationalism, and especially "Volks"-nationalism. And it appears to be operative in the "revival" of nationalism in Middle and Eastern Europe.

Fear exists that as Europe will be unified, and especially when the borders will be opened in 1992, cultures will mix as colours merging into each other, giving an outcome of uniform grey, with no trace left of the endless diversity and the wealth of differences of today. Small culture groups in particular think of strategies to protect themselves against the imperialism of the large territories and against the loss of name and anonymity. In this respect, apparently, or at least in the officially devised and released plans, almost always an appeal is made to the past. The past is as a capital of the "own character" saved up by our fathers, and now useful to protect or intensify our identity. Protection of identity boils down to emphasizing and intensifying the "differences" or the specificity produced by "our" history. Such is the official attempt to cultivate the regional architecture traditions, to protect the own movable patrimonies from being sold-off, to regulate and obligate the usage of language, etc..

But how should one understand this political, official attention for the "peculiarity" of nations, people, regions? Exactly what concern is expressed here? What could be the future of this strategy? How can an appeal to the (own) past secure the identity of groups (and individuals) in "open Europe"?

Against the idea that new strategies must be devised urgently to counteract the "greyness" and intensify the "own character" by activating the "historic consciousness", must be put forward that very strong new forms of particularization are already operative at this very moment. The fear of homogenisation and the idea that the attention for the own past is being protected against this, is passed over and somewhat ridiculed by a real increasing and intensified particularization.

A first form is produced and stimulated by commerce and tourism. It is clear that a more or less "historically justified" way of handling the own past is passed over to a vague tourist practice that treats the own past and what is left of it - primarily the old cities - as the remainders of a children's paradise. The past is not origin, hard, demanding, but of the old days one can remember, the care-free time of the house and of the mother. What is left of the past is treated like a box filled with toys from bygone days. The way in which in this spirit the city and the past are being belittled by restoration and especially by reconstruction and imitation - the Europe Crossing in Brussels is a well-known for Belgium - is hilarious and frightening. The past and the city would hardly be up to our knees in that way.

This belittlement of the own past goes together with a belittlement and enfeebling of every past. The past becomes childlike and foolish: it turns into a collection of stereotypes providing an "origin" to everything that must be "real" or "authentic" and thus must be provided with an "origin" (the product created by the artisan; "natural" and country-made food). Scotch Whisky, Italian Design, Belgian chocolates, Caribbean beaches, London pubs, Paris. Thinking....The "open market" goes hand in hand with and endless cultivation of the "typical" and the "own". The way in which, for example, the eating culture internationalized itself in Europe, shows that the opening of the borders does not in the least hold a danger for the increasing uniformization and "greying".

A second mechanism producing a new form of particularity should be indicated. It also makes an appeal to the "own past" as a necessary strategy for the protection or intensification of the own character, and it only makes casual, understandable but unnecessary coalitions with stereotypic folklore.

The new media-networks (esp. radio and television, but also magazines and most newspapers which, in a certain sense, are all connected to radio and television), all carry one area of attention. The first and most important evidence that applies here is that the screen is a window out on the world, and that the world is shown. In the era of the new media the world is one large village, everyone is connected with everything and everything is visible for everyone. This evidence has been fully and thoroughly criticized in many different ways, however, without disturbing the evidence itself: the scenery of television news remains, in a figurative as well as in a literary sense, the map of the world. It is interesting to see, however, that within this - in principle - open area of attention, which would connect the individual directly with the World and thus with All the others, an important development was effected, which can be described as the creation of new kinds of localism.

I will use the developments in the Flemish media-landscape by way of illustration; the first Flemish television transmitter, BRT, is the official broadcasting organization. Together with BRT-radio, it used to have a very unifying influence on Flemish culture, the closeness of the regions and dialects, as well as the closeness of the ideological socio-political groups (magazines, newspapers), was thoroughly upset, and Flemings were simultaneously faced with the world and the "dissentients". As such, a development was effected in Flanders for some time (openness and world involvement, broadening the perspective, abandoning provincialism...), which is considered by media-ideology as the necessary effect of setting up media-networks. For a very long time and even until recently, this public channel had radio as well as television monopoly.

A few years ago, quite late within the scope of the European context, a multitude of (commercial) free radio stations, and one commercial television channel, VTM, with a monopoly for commercial television have risen. The effect on the Flemish cultural landscape is very interesting. The "Mirror on the world"-effect, with the accompanying enlightenment thinking, internationalism, etc., is completely omitted in the commercial channel and makes way for a new kind of localism and provincialism. On the screen, and even in the news, one does not see "The World", yet the local news which, as it is shown on the screen, obtains the status of world and "local" naturally means, in the first place: in Flanders, and furthermore: news of Flanders that relates to Flanders only (hardly any foreign news or political interpretation). But most of all it means: "local" is what happens on the channel itself. A "Flemish reality" is created here, not disturbed by the official duty to talk about other things as well ("information", "culture"), a Flemish reality, very homogeneous and familiar, rather typical and "of your own". But this "Flemish culture" exists without any reference (except maybe in a parasitic way) to the traditional Flemish identity, which was founded on or at least legitimised by a history and a continuity with history. This new form of "localism" and particularism is not based on a being and living together, but on an imaginary being united and belonging to the "Flemish public" - i.e.: of a fictive social reality which is referred to in the media as an "alien", and which creates effects in the media that seem to come from "outside".

What is happening in Flanders and in Europe without Borders is not the development of a (European) unity culture in which the own character of the different nations and regions is absorbed. Each separate old cultural area, as Rudi Laermans put it, is being split up. On the one hand, there is the development of a relatively restricted, partly mediated international circuit of European High Culture. This new culture area, visible from certain places in all of Europe, is that of the cultural-artistically stardom: it is the area of Names wanted by everyone and translated everywhere, thus indicating the quality of congresses, festivals and expositions. That area has started to function as a reference area for the largest part of artistically-intellectual work - or at least for the social and political judgement of it, but this area, organized as a game between metropolis, is successible only to an unequal extent, and is almost useless as a working area. It is almost impossible - even for whom is included in the circuit - to identify oneself with that European culture while at the same time continuing to produce sensible work. There is a platform, but there is no centre; the actual culture production still takes place on a marginal and local level.

On the other hand, a multitude of small, social and communication areas, very much living a life of their own, have come into existence. These new cultures grown within the area of an extreme homogeneity and closeness, different from the old particular "Volks"-, linguistic or state nationalisms. This particular very "own" culture areas have almost completely broken off contact with the official values of Europe without Borders and of the new media. They are also virtually detached from the international; European culture circuit and - more important - from the culture production of the "own" artists and intellectuals ever and inevitably working in the margin of the "European culture scenery".

The idea that a renewed, positive attention for the "own character" of the different nations as the result of a history, would intensify the "identity", seems naive. The question is not how to counteract the loss of particularity and locality and thus protect the "own character" of the traditional cultures. The question is how to handle new forms of particularity which seems to render the appeal to history and to intellectual culture, related with the idea of history, tradition and criticism, socially invalid and redundant.



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