THE FLYING ISLAND
Dinner speech on 7 December 2010, Brussels
Invited by IFA, Stuttgart, at the eve of a meeting of heds of EUNIC
Dinner speakers are supposed to address the “big issues” in a light manner: Not exactly easy for someone who was trained with Viennese Schnitzel, and Dutch Stampot.
What are today’s culinary questions?
Personally, I believe: New spirit of inter-cultural cooperation, the essentially needed aqua vitae for global affairs, can be created in a trans-national European distillery! Though not without herbs and spices. Therefore a few light provocations as ingredients for a good debate.
1. First I consulted Maitre Voltaire. However, his “Candide, ou l'Optimisme” (1759) doesn’t help in our case. Candide was living a sheltered life in paradise before his slow, painful disillusionment.
We all have, probably, witnessed and experienced great hardships, in our diverse Europe and its institutions – let alone cultural bureaucracies of member states.
Yet, it is too early to conclude, as Voltaire did in his “Candide”, with rejecting optimism: "il faut cultiver son gardin” – the gardens of national cultural diplomacy, only, in lieu of the Leibnizian mantra, "all is for the best - in the best of all possible worlds, the European Union".
We still have a couple of opportunities to prove that we can avoid Candide’s fate.
2. You know cultural diplomacy around the world, and European cultural policy. No reason yet to share Jonathan Swifts pessimism, either, you will agree. Or were we ever, like Gulliver, washed ashore after a shipwreck of our esteemed national institutes? Did we ever awake to find ourselves prisoners of a bureaucratic rank of people less than 15 cm high, administrators of the republic of Liliput?
We have never, like Gulliver, assisted the crude Lilliputian cultural competition strategists, or populist to subdue our neighbours, the Blefuscudians.
Rather, we are sailing peacefully on the oceans of cultural exchange, more and more in a listening mode, emphasising reciprocity and mutuality, intercultural dialogue and respect for diversity and local empowerment.
Unfortunately, though, our ship, Adventure, is sometimes steered off course by storms of financial crisis, and ideologies of sheer competitiveness, and by lack of trans-national stewardship, and right now we are forced to go in to the lands of Ashtonia and Barrosistan for want of fresh resources, and find ourselves confronted, like Gulliver, by the mighty, who, in his case, were 22 m tall. The mighty - in our times and terms - are not only markets, but states’ so-called core agendas, including the so-called ‘real’ life diplomacy, and hard power, sometimes.
Surviving at the margins, we try to fight the notion of purely representative culture; we combat instrumentalisation; but, we – and the arts - cannot always avoid Gullivers fate, being treated as a curiosity, and being exhibited for money, or rather: exhibiting ourselves, and simply ‘branding’ our nations --- for money, glory and pride.
Today, we even hope that the message gets out: of European cultural diplomacy, in its modern version, and that the Queen of Brobdingnag wants to see our show. We hope she loves us (like Gulliver), but not too much, because he was bought by her and kept as a favourite at her court.
Today we will probably be, like Gulliver, too small to use the huge chairs, beds, knives and forks of the External Action Service; we hope the Queen commissions a small house to be built for us - as it was built for Gulliver – in which we can be carried around, from DG to DG and EU delegation to delegation: not individually, as the national version of the box, as cultural institutes, only, but as a flexible European platform, a “unique” (EUNIC) box of the boxes.
Let us refer to this “unique” box as to a ‘Swiftian’ rotating network box; it is a paradoxical thing, meant to cope with the magnitude of the challenge, though still rather innocent and small in its central structures. That explains the swift appearance of adventures such as fighting giant wasps, probably from the Council, as faced by Gulliver.
He also discussed the state of Europe with the King. And the King was not impressed with Gulliver's accounts of Europe, and the discussion about hard and soft power, especially learning of the usage of guns and cannons. (But that all happened in the 18th century, only….)
Bad luck: Gulliver’s “travelling box" was seized by a giant eagle; his ship was attacked by pirates; he was marooned. Good luck: In the end, he was - fortunately - rescued by the ‘flying island’ of Laputa, a kingdom devoted to the arts - of music (and mathematics, accountability, one has to admit).
This reference to the rescuing qualities of the arts, and their home on a flying island, could indeed be the key to success for European cultural diplomacy, against all pessimism of Jonathan Swift. (But mind you: Gulliver was unable to use these powers for practical ends.)
The island of the arts, able to take off: what a wonderful metaphor: Our business is not about national cultural export and representation (only); it is about a trans-national routes rather than roots (only).
3. Islands can be prisons. Robinson Crusoe was one of the famous European prisoners, yet giving a rather optimistic account. But do we want to build Europe’s new intercultural optimism on Daniel Defoe's successful novel? Not the Irish, I guess.
For James Joyce - for example - Robinson Crusoe was the true symbol of the British conquest: "He is the true prototype of the British colonist. … The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity."
However, beyond any national prejudice: Who among European elites did not grow up with Robinson, with the belief in the individual, and its use of European technology, agriculture and political hierarchy? Crusoe refers to himself as the 'king' of the island, the 'colony'. The idealized master-servant relationship between Crusoe and Friday branded cultural imperialism, still present, in many ways: Crusoe represents the 'enlightened' European whilst Friday is the 'savage' who can only be redeemed from his barbarous way of life through assimilation/integration into Crusoe's culture.
And let us not forget, dear French colleagues: In Jean-Jacques Rousseau's treatise on Education, the one book Emile, the protagonist, is allowed to read before the age of twelve is Robinson Crusoe. And, dear friends from Goethe, it was Karl Marx who made an analysis of Crusoe, in his Capital. In his terms, Crusoe's experiences on the island represent the economic value of labour over capital.
However: Robinson doesn’t work for the 21st century of European cultural diplomacy. Right?
4. These novels, and many more, and their heroes, who occupied all childrens’ imagination - and creative industry - have a lot to do with the so-called European narratives, which, in the end, we proudly left behind.
Yet, they formed the stock of narratives that we lost, without much that could replace them, or much of comparable simplicity.
Everyone present here knows: By today, China has opened over 300 Confucius institutes and will open another 700 by 2020. Confucius as the new hero of Chinese or even global narratives? Have you read Confucius? It is a similarly ambivalent reading experience, to be honest. Of course: why should this very old text be less in need of critique and interpretation? Poor man, he shares the fate of Mohammed and the Qur'an and their instrumentalisation. Frozen texts, in a way, getting defrosted for political purposes. We have a lot of that experience in recent European history, too. But we have also become and still are very good in critique. That’s what we can be proud of.
Speaking about contemporary ambivalence vis-a-vis widely shared narratives: It has become global business. Hollywood serves it, and Bollywood; Mickey Mouse, Alain Delon and James Bond; and hundreds of today’s stars. Face value has turned into Zuckerberg’s facebook; the Biblical ‘apple’ has been used by Steve Jobs who turned it into Macs and apps on the I-Pad. Fascinating stories can be googled wherever we are, thanks to Larry Page, the Robinson of today.
What does that mean for European countries’ cultural and digital industry, and diplomacy, small or bigger, and for European cultural diplomacy, and for “the unique Eunic”? Don’t we need new powerful European strategies, and new European narratives - fairly condensed (not simple), and sophisticated at the same time? Strong messages for what the Union stands?
The Peace Nobel Prize 2010 for Liu Xiaobo and the empty chair - day after tomorrow in Oslo - are probably contributing more to contemporary global cultural and political discourse than many official and often purely representative cultural events. I would love to see what the Eunic Cluster in Bejing has planned for this occasion; or for a rather complex debate (because it is all not that simple!) in the months after that climax. Swift and Voltaire and Heinrich Heine would have loved to work with Ai Wei Wei in a European-Chinese project on Liu Xiaobo.
A propos European narratives:
I am getting too serious towards the last part of this speech. Forgive me. Does it help to quote Johann Nepumuk Nestroy, one of the greatest Austrian writers and cynics of the Metternich era, and the era of beginning competitive nationalism in Europe? ‘The noblest among the nations’, he said, ‘is - resig-nation’. Ooops. I shouldn’t say that when advocating for trans-national European cultural diplomacy. (Just tried to crack a joke.)
5. Back to the tasks given to me by the organizers: The menu for a trans-national European cultural diplomacy, and the role of one of its ‘unique’ caterers, Eunic.
My guess is, tacitly we would all agree on a few assumptions, off the records, and proposals. And we would differ on many other items. Let me stick to potential consensus. Please feel free to disagree, also when and if if you are not in the position to agree in public.
I start, nastily, with the less solemn practicalities.
I started down to earth, and conclude with a few fundamental questions, to which many might subscribe:
I hope you agree. It will - by the way - probably be the miracle of the coming year, to seize the opportunity publicly - and to jump across the symbolic fences of the past. Laputa, the flying island has landed right here, let us use its powers for practical ends.
A lot is at stake, and – no secret, who one of the most important the addressees is. To quote Swift’s Gulliver for the last time tonight: "This made me reflect upon the fair skins of our English ladies, who appear so beautiful to us, only because they are of our own size.“
6. That was it. Apologies for the bad jokes. And the missing answers. My comfort again is Voltaire: ‘Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.’ Wish you a good conference. And some really good answers.
Acknowledgment to Wikipedia...