Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Concepts and Crucial Questions in Relation to Culture and Values by Panos Peonides and Hatto Fischer


The working title for this workshop stems in part from a discussion I had back then in November, 1993 with Panos Peonides, who being involved in theatre and culture in Cyprus, had just experienced a similar seminar as the planned Fifth one, namely one centred around 'Literature and Cultural Identity'. He cited an article in the Greek newspaper VIMA (appearing weekly on Sundays) which drew attention to the fact, that Greek studies were everywhere on the decline, as if the 'common root' or 'cultural heritage' for Europeans, their 'self understanding' was no longer deemed to be necessary. This subject matter could be broadened into a social-historical observation as to what has brought European cultures together in the past, but what made them also drift apart and even enter into conflicts with one another. Panos Peonides could not make it finally to the Fifth Seminar due to other commitments, but his wife, E. Peonides came and contributed as writer for children and theatre to workshop 8; also the French poet Jean Baptiste Marray attended upon his recommendation both the Poetry Festival in Athens and Aegina as part of the cultural actions accompanying the Fifth Seminar and workshop 10. What follows is an imaginary account of that discussion with him on how to approach this broad theme.

HF. Cultural conflicts, that has to be kept in mind, usually stem from attempts to claim superiority; equally there is this paradox that prior to First World War, artists and intellectuals could work together on common projects like journals, exhibitions, art movements, but then came the war and former friends started shooting at one another, if only for the sake of not being called a traitor in their respective countries. Yet betrayal of friendship is equally there. In other words, can European integration be really trusted to hold together, when such nationalistic tendencies ascertain themselves again and again to make cultural fields into 'battle grounds'? If anything, the Fifth Seminar has an opportunity to develop along the lines Prof. Bekemans has suggested, and that is to clarify concepts in their comparative adaptabilities with regards to a common reference points. This seems to be still Greece, or rather Ancient Greece as 'the' departure point of European history linked with the development, changes and innovations of Western Civilisation. The decline of Greek studies is but one thing; the other is what a friend of mine Spyros Bokos would describe as the agony and pain of contemporary Greece, namely that "this country is forced to import its own past". The lack of understanding for modern Greece is apparent throughout Europe, as if a 'disappointed love'. That has to be considered prior to undertaking a possible linkage between Greek and European Studies.

PP. In many forms of European cultures, traces of the past can be found, but the cultural self-understanding tries, it seems, to distance itself from its roots. Is there a real problem here and how do you view in particular the ancient Greek Culture, its philosophies, arts and mythologies, the three main pillars of that early and yet very spirited beginning of Western Civilisation?

Do you feel as a scholar of classical studies the need of reformulating the ancient Greek studies as to their significance in the modern world?

HF. In the philosophy of Hegel and Kant, but also by Heidegger as much as by present writers like Peter Handke, orientation is sought in studies of that Ancient Past. That has always been the case and will be so in future, yet the question of what kind of orientation depends upon setting the intellectual co-ordinates anew.

The most enthusiastic followers of Hellenism in Western Europe were if not romantics like Lord Byron, either searchers for truths in mythology or else dangerous illusionists as to the linkage between high cultures and advancements in terms of civilisational progress. Like Heidegger, they ended up embracing disastrous political developments based on a mass concept as a kind of continuity of the old Greek schism, here us, there the barbarians, only now replaced by the 'masses' or 'folk'.

PP. I would like to suggest three main concerns in relation to the so-called 'European Identity':

  1. Steps, measures, in the cultural field of course, to be taken in the direction towards an identity (once, of course, we believe in it).
  2. The contradiction between the national and European cultural identity. How can they be solved? Is there any possibility for their co-existence?
  3. Are the small cultures threatened in any way in the frame of a European cultural identity?

Having in mind that the role of the mass media (TV, Cinema, etc.) is so decisive. And how can the equal opportunity for all, small and big be achieved?

HF. As to your first suggestion, what 'steps, measures, in the cultural field of course (can or need) to be undertaken to strengthen developments in the direction of European identity? I find it important that you added the important prerequisite for an identity to exist at all:

'that we believe in it'

This is not always a prerequisite which is acknowledged, for belief touches upon non-secularized aspects of religion, or an extension thereof into culture, while a belief system has to be upheld somehow by not only convincing arguments, but a kind of institutional set-up, in order to adhere to common principles of that belief. Yet such an orientation brings us in confrontation with a kind of duality which we have witnessed every since the Christians were split into Aestheists, true believers of God without needing any place of worship, that is church, and followers of Peters and the other apostles taking the teachings of Christ directly into an institutional context, that is the Catholic Church as we have known it over 2000 years with the seat of the Pope being in Rome. Reflections along that religious axiom defining culture and hence identity is one strand of thought marking Western Civilisation and its value systems. Max Weber has brought it to a theoretical concept: the Reformist movement, the further split, led to the 'Protestant Ethics' as the moving spirit of Capitalism and Bureaucracy. Identities had to be secured within that 'holy' context and affirmed. Repeatedly rebels of the church had to feel that power of the church, even Martin Luther. But I am interested here in a further split between Luther and Erasmus, in order to seek the humanistic dimension which tries to work without the support of such a belief system and hence not engaged in the blessing of wars. For there are other duality complexes which define and limit various European identities as they emerged over time, and not only Erasmus had to suffer the fate of finally not really belonging to one belief, nor national identity system.

After all, the Catholic Church with its universality had transnational possibilities, while the nations kept together with the church turned locally, downward, the people adhering to a certain identity possibilities. It was possible to speak of common elements of religion, yet the dispersal overrode the 'common cultural heritage' and thus severed any conscious linkage to Ancient Greece, with one exception: the Italian Renaissance(s) starting with Giotto and perhaps ending with Leonardo da Vinci's escape to France after his patron lost all money and influence, forcing this artist to turn away from art and towards the construction of war machinery to make a living. Sometimes the question of identity can be reduced as dramatically as that to the simple question, but who provides the material base for survival, if 'the' provider has failed in a spiritual sense. Forgiveness, an element of seeking understanding beyond the present, was what the Church asked for, until Dostoevsky revealed in the figure of the Inquisitor the real integrating figure for all believers, namely the non-believer, the cynic. That was the turning point. It led to the Communistic Movement challenging this 'opium of the people', that is religion, by wishing to have paradise on earth, here and now, rather than in some imaginary future, not even after life once death had come. In other words, belief linked to identity had no longer the secure 'transcendal' ideas to keep up any illusion.

Merely the confusion remained as to what might be a better path to maintain identity, within or outside of the institutional framework.

If we look at the duality complex of various European identities, elements thereof, then we have on the one hand the economic-political plurality trying to emerge out of various stages of tutelages, the religious and the feudal one primarily in Middle and Northern Europe. This effort is made to become through the industrial revolution a modern, that is rational system based on mass production and division of labour (Adam Smith). On the other hand, the Southern and Eastern European countries did not experience the impact of industrialisation to the same extent - not really until well after Second World War. Rather, as in many Mediterranean cultures, the "Asiatic mode of production" continued to prevail, i.e. poor people on the land, a strong civil service and a rich ruling class which had similar features as the aristocratic class in Europe, but in terms of wealth way beyond any body's dreams, making it difficult for the outsider to assess poverty in terms of backwardness at once confronted with the glamour of palaces. The linkage between both types of systems was provided by political methods of control and rulership played down to an innocent level of the shepherd safeguarding his flock of sheep. This theme was repeated again and again as the best guarantee to keep 'identity'. Such identities kept inside the safe compound or under the surveillance of the shepherd was but an extended version of the 'seeing eye' of the state keeping things under control. In other words, such identities rested upon beliefs of quite a politically embedded religious order (as indicated nowadays by the Islam in Iran and elsewhere) eager to seize upon 'fear' of modernization, in order to transform this force into fanaticism. It made the masses of people into something like an apolitical flock defined by the one who ruled. Fanaticism was and is their binding element directed against everything that the ruler hates. It is a self victimisation of injustice transformed into religious justice implemented here and now, i.e. executions in Saudi Arabia. Against that kind of background lasting well into the final decade of the twentieth century, the Western world has experienced quite different forms of victimization of non-believers of the system; the subservience has to be paid to the bureaucracy, the political party in power without ever having to stand for elections, while the make believe of democracy instigates a kind of change which makes everyone wish for perseverance of some kind of identity, that is a traditional or unchanging entity untouched by the forces of changes, i.e. Bavarian identity.

To what extent that means a truly unbridgeable duality has been demonstrated by Thomas Mann in his Dr. Faustus, in which the music composer finally becomes incomprehensible due to his pact with the devil, that is, the force making him trespass the lines drawn by religion and the faithful in their belief of the goodness. In its most secularised version, the Faustian tradition was expressed by Heidegger when he endorsed Hitler in 'Sein und Zeit' by claiming societies need progress, in order to survive, but the masses will not dare to shoulder that responsibility, hence there will have to be 'leaders' that risk this and therefore they should be given the right to make mistakes. The Marxian blend of that was to claim workers cannot make mistakes, hence they would be innocent of such self blending mechanisms of using power without signs of regret when responsibility was misused to obtain gains at the expense of the other(s). In other words, the values of the Western system have yet to be examined in such a manner that the automatic assumption here the masses, there the leaders does not lead to yet another make belief identity system by which the crisis of identity is overcome but in yet another negative manner.

The existence of that duality - or is it contradiction - has made us re-appraise, for instance, the humanistic core of the Renaissance, for how to explain all the brutality that accompanied the expansion of the new economic system into the Third World when side by side fought the church to christianize those who opposed the economic forces. One suggestion is that the abstract concept of 'God' led to a more powerful illusion that everything could be united under one principle, and rather than respecting cultural differences, re-invoke in the colonisation process the old belief of superiority over the other(s). It seems that this duality touches upon the crucial question on how it became possible to 'pervert' the true spirit of the Enlightenment, so that in the end it had no other alternative but to destroy itself (see Adorno and Horkheimer, The Dialectic of the Enlightenment, trans. by Cumming, New York 1993).

The problem of securing an European identity without recourse to the old mistakes of Europe is a rather risky, equally touchy affair. Political logics deployed up to now to secure identity in conjunction with the nation state have always excluded true perception of individual differences and differentiation by means of recognizing 'otherness'. This means an European identity can come only to the foreground under certain conditions which would allow the questioning of such political logics working towards an exclusive grip upon identity in terms of the nation (i.e. this includes treatises on the 'Wealth of the Nation').

Hence the question has to be added to your first one, namely what acceptance and respect for political differences could be built into the European identity, so as to allow for another kind of approach, not only a merely formalistic logical one. Given all the affluence and wealth, Europe can afford a more complicated and problem oriented approach to the identity question. It would have to include definitely Greek and European studies to be made available in every European member state. If that minimum is not guaranteed, then the roots of Western Civilisation will not be understood as that what James Joyce calls the 'humanistic perspective' in Homer's Odysseus, namely his refusal to plough over his own son who soldiers have put in his furrow, in order to solicit him for the war against Troy. That means at the beginning of the agricultural society, there is an ethical principle followed already even before such a society could take on form. Perhaps in that round-about way it is possible to say the simple fact that not belief, but the ethical form of existence and conditions of survival matters for identity in Western Civilisation should make us question why the need for belief to uphold identity? Once seen in such a light, then identity becomes equally a part of myth and anti-myth, or a truly dialectic of Enlightenment bridging moments of belonging with not knowing other places where one could exist just as well - but the true human spirit is the turning point, that turning around which Orpheus did not realize, in order to go another way, not again the same path leading on to destruction and self-destruction, defeat and self-defeat. In that sense, the solution to the identity question lies in the location of the self in the concrete sense of memory - the memory of civilisation. How that memory is treated and passed on, that is culture. If we measure that European cup being passed on with that of the Chinese civilisation using the written form for centuries now, then we can sense the still awesome fact of civilisation being also truth of people told in different stories to which our imagination clings like children to the clothes of their mothers, when strangers walk into the room and begin to talk in a different, even loud voice about new rules and sets of principles to be followed herewith. The imaginary compound of European identity has to be that dialogue emancipating the self from fear: the ancient tutelage before Enlightenment had a chance to let the words speak for themselves.

Your second point touches upon that what I have called above the 'political logic' transformed into a system and supported by certain institutions, in order to secure a specific identity. What is meant to exist, will be supported financially. Now, this is by no means the guarantee that the so desired identity will prevail, see examples of recent break-ups in former East Germany or more explicitly in the former Soviet Union with its many unresolved nationalistic disputes and sovereign claims thereof. This is where the cultural factor comes in. Cultural identity cannot be simply 'ordered' or installed, institutionally speaking. It has to be convincing, that is, have as its expression access to a liveable and lived language. In that sense, it is interesting on how James Joyce viewed attempts in Ireland to regain their historical identity by re-creating Gaelic as opposed to speaking in the English language, the language of their oppressors. Thus, European identity and Euro-languages have to be looked at more carefully. Certainly, the increased communication and translation work going on alone in Brussels, Strasbourg or Den Hague brings European languages closer into contact with one another. Whether that is fruitful, or creates negative tensions, that is, of course, a matter on how the small and big cultures, as you formulated it in the form of a question, can live together. It seems to me that this problem has two tendencies: the one moving away from language as means of securing identity, and the other making language, the local or regional one spoken with the specific colouring of the surrounding environment, into a tool to secure identity. Thus, one and the same phenomena, namely European expansion and integration can mean equally a chance or a threat to secure identity. There are those who want to break out of narrow confines and others who feel insecure if things develop in the direction that everything becomes bigger, more complicated and no longer possible to see as a whole. Already there are signs in the European Commission, i.e. DG XII that they are thinking of 'holistic concepts' when it comes to regain some policy means for shaping the future course of European cities, in order to make them better liveable again. That is of interest for us here, for what does it precisely take for identity to be shaped concretely, and yet in relation to the whole? In Workshop 9 dealing with art therapy and disturbed identities, I make reference to Gaughin's reason for turning his back on Europe, in favour of Tahiti where he felt to be able to express himself spontaneously while still linked with the whole, that is, other people. The importance of that for people is the ability to judge what is going on around them. If they no longer know truly what is going on, then they stop, for example, teasing each other, something only possible when one knows how far one can go with that challenge before hurting, or even worse insulting the other. Culture is exactly this constant challenge of identity within a tension to knowing the limits.

In other words, we must examine the European cultures, and to what extent they can still or do communicate to each other this knowledge of limits, i.e. how far can the newspaper Times go in a comment about the Parthenon marbles issue, without insulting the Greeks, or to what extent is it still a challenge, rather than an insult, when the Times carries an editorial with the headline 'let us not loose our marbles over the Greeks' (in reference to the late Melina Mercouri's campaign to have the Parthenon marbles be returned to the Acropolis in Athens). I say this because the Rushdie case shows how artistic challenges can be nowadays easily translated into insults to one's identity, including the religious one. Of course, there is this crucial question as to why the Fundamentalists take it so serious, that they have to reply with the death penalty.

It has always been the understanding of Western identity to be able to take criticism, rather than to participate in the destruction of the freedom of expression. Still, it is a complicated matter and many more issues are attached to this seeking of and keeping an identity which expresses itself through not one, but many cultures making up Europe altogether. In other words, measures to secure that European identity must include mutual respect for the culture of the other and an acknowledgement of cultural differences. But this acknowledgement does not mean automatically to leave the other completely alone, that is, without any criticism, for it is decisive that tensions created by all sorts of factors, that they find their way into cultural forms of expression and, in turn, bring about inter cultural contacts as the basis of Europeans working together.

In other words, the logic behind any build-up of identity, as applied especially at schools and made active through an education process which continues to prescribe the 'national identity' (the point Prof. R. Picht made as to why identities change so little, or do not open up to the European dimension), favours linking language and local environment. This is reinforced by cultural activities of a patriotic nature and by the media with a special orientation, all contributing towards a loss of artistic freedom, culture and man's self-understanding beyond national boundaries. Decadence, lack of interest (in cultural terms), nostalgia, mystifications of the national world, etc. all lead to a forgetting that life is an ongoing living present made possible by access to the 'memory of civilisation' on the basis of creativity, universal truths and human perspectives. I think we have to understand, for example, why in the Polish cultural identity there is a strong resistance against a nationalistic interpretation thereof - see the discussion between Adam Michnik and Habermas - and why there is active this desire for universal truth (writers are more respected if understood and equally loved by those living outside the Polish culture), a feature I would, for example, never think to find in Goethe's Faust and its unique brand of Germanism that is expressed always when German intellectuals try to explain their political ideas linked to their specific cultural works once outside of Germany. No one in the audience understands to what they are referring to. That was the case at a concert when aside from Dylan and Joan Baez, Wolf Biermann tried to explain his songs. They lacked musical rhythm and hence the vocal level which convinces, even if you do not understand the words because the sounds, the voice, is like music, it goes beyond all borders and unites.

Therefore, I would like to suggest for your second question, that within this Fifth Seminar and after it has taken place in Athens, we continue working on a different understanding of the arts and cultures as conveyed by various institutions throughout European history.

Your third question is very decisive: "Are the small cultures threatened in any way in the frame of a European cultural identity? Having in mind that the role of the mass media (TV, Cinema etc.) is so decisive. And how can the equal opportunity for all, small and big be achieved?" At the Brugge seminar, Dr. M. Mourik (Former Dutch Ambassador to the Council of Europe and publisher) wanted to give a talk on the topic 'The Importance of cultural diversity for small cultural linguistic regions in Europe'. Then, the recent Gatt agreement reflects concerns of European filmmakers about the impact of American films in Europe; this involves not only distribution system, quality of films, but also English as the main language starting with Walt Disney's cartoons for children and not ending with Hollywood film productions. It seems that Adorno's and Horkheimer's critical approach in 'Dialectic of Enlightenment' to the 'culture of manipulation' by the cultural industry has led to a fight over images being flashed across the screen. This reduces the demand to be still within the context of a specific culture knowing limits. Rather the fiction of modern media is to argue against any kind of limits, illustrated to the extreme by going into excess when it comes to showing 'violence'. It seems as if the media is functioning without any feedback, although quotas of viewers per specific programmes are somehow measured and translated into advertisement and revenue strategies with the claim of different degrees of influence. That has led already to the absurdity of basketball players trying to ignore electronic bill boards flipping or changing advertisements every five seconds.

The illusion there is to demonstrate that the play can ignore what is being advertised, while everything is concentrated on the advertisement as the names which exist in the world. In other words, threats to smaller cultures, but also to larger ones for every European culture is really a minority culture (Prof. R. Picht), comes more from such developments, as from a framework meant to enable the European identity to bring about changes in European cultures.

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