Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Street car conversation about identity

A conversation overheard in the streetcar between a professor of Humanities and an inquisitive woman – the professor started the dialogue, the woman probed:

Prof.: “Cultural identities have become the slaves of images cast on advertisement billboards.”

Woman: “Do you mean they are projections, not conjectures?”

Prof.: “Yes, as such they vanish before they can be refuted. To give you an example: Benneton has used photography to position its company as being sensitive to the AIDS issue. Others would say, they have gone too far with such images, but that is not the issue here. Rather what is the real relationship between a company using home and therefore very cheap labor like in the old slave days and yet acts like an impressive global company? No one speaks about that because they are trapped by the image itself, the image of social concern for the welfare of people regardless of skin color, sex, age. As such the company can position itself as non discriminatory, open to all people – a very good marketing position.”

Woman: “I imagine you have talked a lot about this with your students?”

Prof.: “Yes, I have.”

Woman: “Then what can you say about the topic ‘culture and identities in Europe’, if the search of values nowadays ends up being a matter of successful advertisement in order to market your product?”

Prof.: “Well, that is just it. Remember what Sigmund Freud said, any production logic requires that people give their brand of cultural identity to the products, so that they become known in the world under the famous rubric ‘Made in Germany’. Today the focus has shifted to ‘Made in China’ because of global business deals allowing production anywhere while marketing is linked still to brand names. It means rather than one single cultural pole stands behind any business, nowadays it is a multi polarity that defines the linkage between product and the world in which people live and more so shop in.”

Woman: “Are you saying this because this is a vague hope for people to still remember in their fragmented lives a bit of their own unique identities?”

Prof.: “Of course, the search for values continues, but as Margaret Atwood shows in her book ‘Surfacing’, the supposing Americans who come up North into Canada to outfish everyone else can easily turn out to be in reality guys from Toronto. In other words, the loss of cultural identity as Canada sees it, has to be understood as a cultural failure. For its government responds to this loss with a kind of cultural heritage protection policy that disallows American cameramen to bring over the American-Canadian border their own cameras and crew, but must hire Canadian products and Canadian crews. Yet the policy does not reflect of being just a part of that counter logic to how multi-pluralism at production level works: circumventing all kinds of regulations, it is most subversive, but very decisive in dealing only under strict business terms. It means where possible cultural differentiations are excluded, so as to allow for the maximum uniformity and conformity to one and the same product. The same happens within Europe where local cheese making crafts are declared as something illegal on hygienic grounds while huge concerns with world wide distribution systems gain ground in market shares despite long transport of cows is not healthy. However, all these new irrationalities are not seen precisely because the product is no longer based on one single cultural definition. Marketing success comes with a multicultural background and open co-operation across all kinds of borders, including cultural ones.”

Woman: “It seems I have lost you somewhere in this train of thought. Perhaps you would have to explain to me again first of all what you mean by your reference to Margaret Atwood’s portraits of Americans?”

Prof.: “That is exactly the point: cultural identities are no longer portraits, nor can anyone claim a single definition of his or her own cultural identity. Rather if that is assumed, then merely as a completely prejudiced world view. Atwood describes how this Canadian woman filled with hatred against Americans thinks of two guys coming past her in a canoe as being one those typical Americans who over-fish and destroy willfully or rather out of boredom Canadian nature. She takes a flag they have at the bow of the canoe as being the American one and concludes even more firmly they must be Americans; later it turns out these two come from Toronto and they are not Yankee, but Mets baseball fans. The flag at the front of the canoe is one of the Mets baseball symbols. True, close enough to America. Sadly this character in her novel has to admit she was wrong but then she rationalizes her world view by saying all of us have become affected by the American virus.”

Woman: “Do you mean the moment you turn search for cultural identity into, if not a systematic prejudice, then into retraction into loneliness, then it is something bordering on mental sickness, because you are forced to cross over the border separating sanity from insanity?”

Prof.: “Yes, you hit the nail on the head! In Atwood’s novel, the woman transgresses into insanity. She speaks only in a rational way from inside of herself, but in that Canadian loneliness there is no one else she can speak to. That ends up admitting sanity is a matter of definition with whom you speak with. That is cultural identity and reason in language pure.”

Woman: “Wittgenstein could not have put it that way; he was too eager to be understood only in what he means when he says something particular. He did not bother to reflect upon with whom he would be speaking to. The other was but a projection of his demands to be understood in certain, self referential way. I begin to understand what you are getting at, so tell me more about your thoughts with regards to ‘cultural identities’.”

Prof.: “Do you know James Clifford and his essay about the American poet William Carlos Williams?”

Woman: “No, why?”

Prof.: “Excuse the digression, but it is a valid point Clifford makes when he describes Williams reactions as the poet steps one day into his kitchen and sits his cleaning lady washing dishes. All of a sudden he becomes aware that his own Anglo Saxon Protestant American identity is so weak, poor and unstable compared to hers being a mixed bag of Hispanic and Black parents. Her identity is a multi cultural one. The moment society moves in that direction her identity has a greater chance of surviving than his.”

Woman: “That would link up with how products are organized or rather assembled nowadays across many continents before they reach any market as a single product, but with a multicultural background. The same would go for individuals and their chances of survival in such a world.”

Prof.: “Yes, you understand now that our survival need is no longer a single cultural design. Even the Ancient Greeks learned from others to improve upon their own products, including ships and temples, but they still brought it into one cast or mode of perception. That is why they did not survive beyond the Classical Age and rather than admitting this defeat, they defeated themselves by going to war against Sparta. Indeed, cultural identities are all about how you wish to face the world and survive in it not merely as a passive respondent to ongoing changes, but as one who shapes his or her own destiny in accordance with the needs of other people.”

Woman: “Now you touch upon an ethical dimension!”

Prof.: “Yes, I do not want to be misunderstood. I am not saying after all any multicultural identity will do. When Vincent Van Gogh left Holland to join the Impressionists in France and where he later learned a lot from the Japanese text and time inscription in Asiatic paintings, he was opening up himself and the most authentic movement in the arts to the international texture. Unfortunately not all too many artists perceive that as an advantage. They still focus on national identities even when living abroad. Perhaps this is because there prevail mainly national promotional schemes and a successful artist must still work in a context defined by those people he or she feels closest too and upon whose understanding and recognition the art works depend. Naturally there are many exceptions of in-between existences, but still the majority become more national once abroad or else if isolated at home. The international component that Vincent Van Gogh found is still missing. It has nothing to do with loneliness but tranquility – the certainty of living with a passion for life not to be denied by anyone!”

Woman: “How do you explain that?”

Prof.: “Very simple: art has become like anything else a business based on marketing strategies.”

Woman: “If so, what is the shortcoming of that?”

Prof.: “Rather than being a search for values with an ethical dimension, it has become a short cut to some kind of fake success. It ends up no longer speaking with others about our failures to understand the other, but it has turned into a self referential matter. Art without rooted in cultural identities of our time reflects that what we said already about insanity being the only possible world to live in. Everything outside is irrational, no longer possible to relate to in ways of language, reason, memories, perceptions; the only rational voice is the one inside, hidden, that is not to be seen from the outside.”

Woman: “What would avert despair and bring back to light these hidden selfs? A new universal language linking all rational self’s?”

Prof.: “You might call that the utopia of the rationale in contrast to all the kinds of rationalizations going on in this world. Whether or not such a language can be found, that depends on whether or not we can live with our true failures while not becoming victims of our searches for success in a fake world.”


@ hatto fischer Athens 2003



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