Tuesday, 27 March 2012

A borderless or an extreme Europe?

A possible platform for the debate concerning “Minor” languages and Major Literatures in Europe. (Written on June 2003, still valid in 2012).

Part I
A short reminder of diversity

«Language is of all social institutions, the least amenable to initiative. It blends with the life of a society, and the latter, inert by nature, is a prime conservative force.»

Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, 1916.

«An emancipated society, would not be a unitary state, but the realization of universality in the reconciliation of differences. Politics that are still seriously concerned with such a society ought not, therefore, propound the abstract equality of men even as an idea. Instead, they should point to the bad equality today, the identity of those with interests in films and in weapons, and conceive the better state as one in which people could be different without fear.»

Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, No 66: «Mélange», 1945. 

«The majority of novels produced today consist of novels that are outside the history of the novel: confessions in the guise of a novel, journalism in the guise of a novel, settling of scores in the guise of a novel, autobiography in the guise of a novel, indiscretion in the guise of a novel, accusations in the guise of a novel, political lessons in the guise of a novel, the dying gasps of a husband in the guise of a novel, the dying gasps of a father in the guise of a novel, the dying gasps of a mother in the guise of a novel, defloration in the guise of a novel, childbirth in the guise of a novel, novels ad infinitum, world without end, which say nothing new, have no aesthetic ambitions, bring about no change either in the way we understand human beings or in the form of the novel; they all resemble each other, we consume them wonderfully well in the morning and throw them away wonderfully well in the evening

Milan Kundera: The Betrayed Testaments, 1993.

«[Britain is a] global power with worldwide interests thanks to the Commonwealth, the Atlantic relationship and the growing use of the English language.»

Malcolm Rifkind, British Foreign Secretary, reported in the «Observer», 24.09.1995.

«In the coming decade professionals will need to master the language and understand the culture of at least another country in a global society. [...] Innovative applications in this field will offer a much larger number of students or professionals the opportunity to gain awareness of different cultures. They will therefore be prepared to work effectively in the global market place. [...] Primary education may benefit a bit later from network based language learning preparing children for globalisation.»

Document quoted from a G7 meeting; Tel Lingua Conference, 7-8 Oct. 1996:
«Proposal for a feasibility study: operational plan for a global communication platform for network based transcultural and language learning and the language industry “GETALL”».
Proposed by France, Germany and Italy on behalf of the European members and observers.
Support by DGXIII of the European Commission.

«It is particularly important, even for English language writers, that the translation and dissemination of books to other countries should not be left to unfettered market forces with the resulting globalization of best-sellers at the expense of the immense variety of European literary creation.»

The International Conference and Workshop on Legislation for the Book World,
Council of Europe Publishing, 1997, p. 55.

«All persons have the right to express themselves and to create and disseminate their work in the language of their choice, and particularly in their mother tongue; all persons are entitled to quality education and training that fully respect their cultural identity.»

The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, Article 5, Paris, November 2001.

«To counter the concept of a Central Europe, I came up with the expression “Extreme Europe” that served as our manifesto during the years in Strasbourg. It was a question of changing the point of view about Europe. In contrast to the Mitteleuropean ideology, culture in its modernity has always come from the peripheries of Europe, from its border zones, zones where languages and cultures touch. Andric, Pessoa, Joyce, Kafka, and Borges too –these are authentic European citizens, whose language, identity, and narratives are in transition. If there is one question that is common to all the great artists of Europe, it is this concern with, this being haunted by boundaries, frontiers, borders weighed down with history and signs where the identity of paradoxical frontiers is forged; this is precisely where the whole problem of defining European identity lies.
What we call Extreme Europe was therefore neither geography nor a concept, but a metaphor of movement by which we escaped from the enclosure of identity. Ceasing to think Europe across the Central European metaphor, abandoning the fantasy of an unattainable identity and reconnecting with a plural Europe, a Europe whose intensity zones would no longer be places where power is wielded or institutions are weighed down by memory, but rather gravitation centers for experience. Turning our back on the idea of a culture of identity and patrimony in order to be open to the experience of otherness, overture, and incompleteness.»

Becoming a Minority: For a new politics of literature
Christian Salmon interviewed by Joseph Hanimann, éd. Denoël, Paris 2003
(Translated from the french by Marjolijn de Jager for the
«Autodafé/The Censored Library» (www.autodafe.org).

Part II
The facts of our life

We live in a world in which everything with great rapidity takes on the garb of economic size, of quantifiable product, of exchange value. The trend is to create «global customers that want global services by global suppliers», an aggressive round-the-clock marketing that dominates all aspects of everyday life.
In this world of ours global and regional alliances and organizations governmental, non-governmental and private are superseding the imagined community of the nation-state. Actually the world is being re-imagined and re-shaped, by media magnates, transnational companies, drafters of human rights documents, and organizers of “international” conferences. All these agents implement various language policies, regional, national, supranational, governing some languages uses or domains, from education to entertainment and from the media to consumer goods. But most of these policies conform to a hegemonic linguistic ordering in which some languages are evidently more equal than others.
Many writers and intellectuals whose mother tongue is summarized in the euphemism of the «less diffused» languages, experience the consequences of this global fact as the main actors of a play staged by unknown powers; and thus they react as the workers of the manufactures at the time the first steam machines turned them into factories: instictively, regressively, in despair.
Things have been shaped nowdays in such a way that writers and intellectuals are obliged to choose and accordingly defend one of two distinct global language policy options: A. The “diffusion of the English” paradigm B. the “ecology of language” paradigm[i].
The first paradigm is grounded on the following social economic and cultural standards:

a. Capitalism
b. Science and Technology
c. Modernization
d. Monolingualism
e. Ideological globalization and Internationalization
f. Transnationalization
g. Americanization and Homogenization of world culture
h. Linguistic, cultural and media imperialism

This particular paradigm is at the heart of all contemporary debates about globalization and book policies –where statistics prove a marked imbalance in the proportions of domestic and imported literary production: the translations of Anglo-American literary works are steadily over-represented on the markets of smaller countries, particularly those in Eastern and Central Europe, where, during the last decade, the share of imported cultural products has risen dramatically. Evidently, the importance of this paradigm extends beyond books and literatures; it implies some essential factors which constitute the major foundations of our contemporary existence:
1. The market dominates all aspects of life: from civil rights to emotional and sexual life, from social security to entertainment, from culture to ethics etc.
2. Profit is the ultimate and only measure for estimating concepts, values, attitudes, and even sentiments or cultural events.
3. Cultural goods are treated as mere commodities or consumer goods.
4. Powerful cultural industries possess the means to promote a single cultural model dominating other possible cultural models; they assert themselves in a totalitarian manner at the local and global level and so they marginalize all kinds of national, ethnic, minor, etc. cultures.
5. The culture industries possess a large share in the symbolic area with works designed to suit all the consumers of the planet; works that blur memory and historical perspective; works that are linked to no specific national region and in which instant impressions are favored over analysis and critical distance; in this way they clearly undermine the dialogue between different cultures, languages, literary and artistic trends etc.
Living up with these facts means consequences that are equally familiar to everyone: Humanist values, civil rights, quality of life and historical memory no more guide the choices of people. We live a virtual reality where the medium is more than ever the message; and the medium is not the spoken and written word, but the electronically diffused image. Digital images are widely diffused as a substitute of language while global images are widely diffused as a substitute of a substitute, which means as a global language. In this virtual world, thought, criticism, intervention, participation, truth and falsehood are limited to their virtual versions: fair is exclusively that which television or any media image presents as fair.
Even the form of intellectual commitment itself has become a manner of expression that aims at producing audience ratings –that is to say support rather than criticism–. It therefore no longer seeks to analyze, enlighten, and understand but, on the contrary, to simplify and to produce the greatest value on emotional response in a world where show time and emotional manipulation have replaced the interchange of experiences.
Seemingly the 90% of the images that dominate the planet (made in the USA) govern the planet without any resistance whatsoever. The language most widely spoken on the planet (re-shaped in –and diffused mainly by– the USA) governs the planet without any resistance whatsoever.
Further consequences to this:
Ever larger social groups throughout the world earn their living in ways which in the past would have been considered criminal, immoral or inhuman. Never before have such large sections of the population been ready to sell anything and everything: the environment, their country, their cultural heritage, their ethics, their aesthetics, their values, their daughter, their knowledge, their language and, above all, their hopes for a more human world. Never before has political corruption been perpetuated so easily by the relaxed attitude to it of a large section of the population. Never before has the American Dream achieved such widespread dominance as a universal human value. Never before was profit a more persuasive accomplice of tolerance and acquiescence on the part of the citizen. Never before was the citizen’s conscience so lonely when set against the fierce competition of profit.
Undoubtedly these are the basic facts of contemporary life.

Against this authoritarian experience another paradigm seems to find more and more new supporters in the international debates; it is the already mentioned “ecology of language” paradigm. It is an alternative option that ensures what in culture debates is called «sustainable development for “minor” languages» and their respective literatures.

Ecology of language paradigm

a. A human rights perspective
b. Equality in communication
c. Multilingualism
d. Maintenance of languages and cultures
e. Protection of national sovereignities
f. Promotion of foreign language education

The model is quite explicit. As explicit as the authoritarian model I have analysed in some detail. It merely needs explanation. It supports the right to a national, racial, religious, gender-defined, multilingual culture. But it has the “disadvantage” of being supported mainly by UNESCO and few NGO’s like notably the INCD (International Network for Cultural Diversity) or the International Parliament of Writers. It constitutes a real challenge for the intellectual and the writer who uses a “minor” language.

Early in April of this year (e.g.: 2003, during the Greek Presidency of the EU) an E.U. conference on book policies was held in Athens under the emblematic title “Is There Such a Thing as a European Book? Books and the Book Market in the European Union after Enlargement”. In the Conference Resolution we read among other things that: «The dual nature of the book, on the one hand as a cultural and on the other hand as an economic good, must be taken into account when commercial and economic regulations are being negotiated. [...] The crucial element that should receive protection is a book’s content rather than its form. Hence a prerequisite for effective protection is the elaboration of a contemporary definition of what a book is, which will include digital forms and will be valid across a range of policy implementations, such as reduced VAT rates, fixed book price systems and the protection of the author-creator’s moral rights.» This passage, despite its good intentions, sounds well nigh absurd in the globalised reality of the book sector today. Phrased in the characteristic market jargon, cannot but certify the fact that between the real use value of the book and its nominal, purely economic value, the balance today is tilting decisively towards the latter.
There is no need to repeat things already mentioned on the occasion of the first language paradigm. It is indisputable that the book of literature as a cultural good of lasting use is undergoing competition from market consumer products. Its use value tends to give way to its more or less profitable exchange value. For this reason, contemporary publishing production is investing less and less on a book’s cultural use value, and more and more on winning over the consumer-reader, in the same terms as those that apply for consumer goods (advertisement, market research, the star system, etc). We are deluged with disposable books of literature to provide us with fast, ready-made, easy food, which is not in the least nourishing to the spirit, just as the food served at fast-food outlets is minimally nourishing to the body.
Readers throughout the world are slowly but steadily being transformed into TV zappers, books are partaking more and more of the virtual spectacle: People flick through books and say that they’re reading. They buy books and consider that they’re reading; they read books of literature that are without a trace of literary quality, that are in fact more shallow than the jokes friends tell one another; and what is more, reviewers in newspapers offer a “critique” of them as if they were the work of a minor Chekov or Kafka…

Under these circumstances what is the possible stand for the intellectual who creates in a “minor” language? He is neither a politician nor a cultural activist or a businessman. His only weapon is the language he uses in his literature, but it requires a valid passport to cross borders. What is he expected to do if he desires to endorse the second paradigm? There is no recipe for that. But, in my humble opinion, one of the first steps to be taken is to map the symbolic territory whose borders the writer desires to cross.
We have to redraw the map of cultural Europe; not without borders, because that concerns only the consumer goods; but without boundaries of any sort, linguistic or ideological, so that we may be able one day to connect places and writing, stories, languages, and cities, to draw a new cartography of Europe, a mapping that extends beyond the old notion of MittelEuropa. We need a geo-poetics of «extreme» Europe.
There are great Greek authors in the past century who very few people, most of them academics, happen to know outside the borders of Greece. Apparently the same rule applies to all “minor” language countries. But the present-day economic and technological change opens up vast prospects for the exchange of creative works. The challenge for all of us, writers and members of the enlarged European Union, is to divert the available infrastructure to the benefit of cultural pluralism and linguistic diversity. To do this we must first understand that translation, dissemination and promotion of less diffused literatures is not simply a question of money. It will only be assessed if we get to know more and more about each other’s cultural and social life. That is our specific territory and our only hope to survive in this peculiar village where a single image, a single language and a single culture is attempting to establish itself as the global censor of artistic and literary creation. That should be our Europe.

We certainly can’t change dramatically the flow of things. But we can’t leave it all in the hands of the borderless market. We can still have faith in what is undervalued in the borderless market and turn our back to what is overvalued there. We can still have faith in the boundless, diverse, interlingual reading community of extreme Europe: From Ireland to Serbia, or even better, from Joyce to Ivo Andric, from Poland to Greece, or even better, from Gombrowicz to Kavafis, the uncertain values of the common European heritage, remain our only hope. Will they be able to save old Gutenberg’s multilingual and pluralist culture? Well, no one can answer this question with any certainty. Writers will continue to lay claim to their humanist dreams in whatever language they speak and write; on the other hand, the majority of publishers, all over the world, will be always anxious to sell, to one of the few “major” languages, rubbish dressed in glossy covers –leaving aside for the domestic market local masterpieces which they will never know. Between the first and the second language paradigm lies indeed a vast ocean of uncertainty and hope. At the end, one of these two tendencies will prevail.

[i] See Robert Phillipson: «The promise and threat of English as a “European” language», in “Strong” and “Weak” languages in the European Union, Aspects of linguistic hegemonism, Centre for the Greek language, ed. by A.-F. Christidis, Proceedings of an International Conference, Thessaloniki, 26-28 March 1997, published June 1999, p. 302.