Lecture given during the round-table "Globalisation and cultural identities" Friday 1st March 2002 in Edinburgh at the French Institute of Scotland’s Encounters in Scotland 2002.
First of all, I will play the game proposed by Ashok Adicéam by directly addressing his question about our own definition of “culture”, “cultural identities” and “dialogue of cultures” — and, last but not least : what “globalisation” may have to do with this field of interest. This, of course, assumes that such definitions do exist.
1. “Culture” :
As far as “culture” is concerned I renounce any kind of “compromise” by listing what, in my view, culture (stressed in the singular and with the universality this implies) cannot be. I am not sure I know what culture is, but I am sure that, in order that it remains what it may be, this very complex and ambiguous “entity” called “culture” cannot be privatised in any way. And if it is to be acceptable across ideological barriers, then culture is something that by essence is, and should remain, absolutely public — in order that this very status of “culture” be preserved. An obvious consequence of this is that every financial and industrial process developed in the cultural field (in the book, film or music publishing industries, for instance) destroys “culture”. What I refer to here is every industrial process driven mainly by financial objectives, and leading to the privatisation of works of art, music, images, languages, fiction, knowledge, rituals, patrimonies, and so on. Therefore:
1. Culture does not and cannot “originate ” in industry and/or finance, and
2. Culture cannot be industrialised, because industrialisation always means privatisation, and privatisation is in adjecto opposed to culture.
As far as there are “cultural industries”, and in my professional life I have had a wide experience of what this concept means, one must understand that this is only true on a metaphorical and marketing basis. And, to go further, one must add that “privatisation of culture” may also be implemented by special interest groups whose objectives are other than financial: e.g. political, ideological, ethnical, religious…
2. “Cultural identities”:
As far as “cultural identities” are concerned, my point connects back to the previous one by suggesting that if they are tangible, it is only because they are publicly accessible and available, because they belong to the public patrimony and because they are fully recognised in their history, specificity and contribution to the common culture. And in no way can such “cultural identities” remain within the common field of culture should they be privatised. Take this example as an illustration of where the border lies: you all know that the novel Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo (whose 200th anniversary we are celebrating this week) has been “in the public domain” for a long time, generating countless related stories, interpretations, intellectual debates, plastic or audio-visual works of arts — an entire, rich mythology which fits precisely with the idea of “cultural identities”, starting with the writer’s initial vision and with no predictable end in sight. I am telling you this because when, some years ago, the Disney Group took the strange decision and enormous responsibility of simply deleting the name of Victor Hugo from its “global product” (you know what I’m referring to: the film, the soundtrack, the games, the by-products…) in an attempt to privatise his story, characters and so on for their personal marketing purposes, they simultaneously not only dropped the mask but above all cut any kind of ties with a century-and-a-half-long tradition of strong cultural identities elaborated on the common basis of a deep respect for, and tribute to, the original author… In fact Hugo described himself as “a public thing” (une chose publique), which is very instructive (leaving aside his huge pride)... This is, then, another way of defining culture as the place where identities are preserved for, and promoted by, the public interest. When private interests monopolise identities for their own objectives, the contrary occurs and culture disintegrates.
3. The “dialogue of cultures”:
Now, what does “dialogue of cultures” mean? First and foremost, it means that “culture” in the singular cannot be conceived as an autonomous, self-sufficient and — once again — monopolistic entity. To be recognised as a “culture”, each culture needs to satisfy specific conditions such as those previously mentioned: that is, to use economic terminology, the “internal constraint”. But for culture to be felt, thought of and shared as such, there is also at least one other constraint, an “external constraint”. This is the requirement that each individual culture recognises other cultures as “equals”, enters into, and sustains a real, long-term dialogue – or better : a “multilogue” — with other such cultures. The “dialogue of cultures” thus defined appears to be nothing less than a condition of “culture” itself : something which feeds from inside and diffuses outside the very idea and singularity of culture.
4. “Globalisation” and “mondialisations”:
As a first step, it is ineffective to caricature the Globalisation / Culture relationship by describing it as adversarial: Good and Evil, to use categories en vogue... It seems to me more effective to consider that the cultural field is crossed by different globalisation processes — what I call “globalisations” — which need to be assessed in all their conflicting and paradoxical dimensions. These different globalisations do not correspond to the same project, do not use the same means and do not provoke the same consequences –at all! On the one hand, you have what is usually understood as “globalisation”, and which is, in fact, only the current industrial, financial and informational wave of globalisation that has been leading the global scene for about two decades. This I will describe as “the economic globalisation” — a (huge) tree that “hides” and is usually confused with a more exciting and contradictory forest : the forest of globalisations in progress in virtually every field of human activity. This economic globalisation is driven almost exclusively by financial goals, its preferred method of implementation is industrial concentration, and its main consequence aside from “human casualties” is the largest ever privatisation of the world. On the other hand, there are countless mondialisations, as we say in French, but also in Spanish (mundializacion), Portuguese (mundializaçao) and German (Mondialisierung). So, will I be bold enough to suggest here the concept of mondialisations? It is not easy, but I will… And it is important to call these mondialisations because they occur in “un monde” (a complex world inhabited by citizens living politically and not a mere globe populated by consumers). A large number of these processes are not driven by financial obsessions but by the common objective of those involved in such processes: to exchange, share, confront, and experiment with ideas, languages, technologies, arts and sciences in a more successful way. It is therefore essential to clarify the distinction between these two types of processes whose only common “global” dimensions are the scope and area of their realisation. And if we now want to join those processes and our cultural issue, we should take into consideration that:
1. economic globalisation is intrinsically destructive of “cultures” even if it is very profitable for “cultural industries”; whereas
2. there are many non-industry and non-profit driven “mondialisations” which, on the contrary, are evolving in favour of a “dialogue of cultures” in all its different dimensions, and which are therefore very positive and even “constructive” for the extension of world cultures.
5. “Cultural diversity”, “globalisation” and “mondialisations”:
"Cultural exception" was a legally-inspired concept (1), which has recently been hastily replaced by the concept of "cultural diversity" and is supposed to be positive where cultural exception was essentially defensive. Yet if we don’t want cultural diversity to experience a rapid demise, as cultural exception did: an idea which seemed like a good one in theory but proved in fact to be a bad one, we need to give real content to this concept, which aims at being "likeable" and universal, but would gain from moving beyond its good intentions. For while no one will declare themselves "against cultural diversity" and everybody, on the contrary, is willing to endorse this new credo, this is still not enough to guarantee a firm intellectual foundation and a political prestige that would ensure that it lasts. In this respect, the interest shown by bodies as UNESCO and other international organisations is welcome: it may help cultural diversity to move beyond mere moralising. But, in short, what is at stake?
Let us remember that economic globalisation is, first and foremost, the law of economics imposing itself (or trying to impose itself) above everything else, ignoring national borders and the other usual barriers. It is an absolute, undivided primate, which –from an economic point of view– implies total domination, whether this domination appears "friendly" or brutal. It is therefore useless to delude oneself about globalisation's ability to encourage and develop diversity (whether social, educational or cultural) without external pressure. In fact, economic globalisation offers a single model to culture and education: that of industrialisation, with principles and modes of operation that are similar or identical in every field: higher education, vocational training, cinema, museums, printing, live shows, music, and so on. All it can offer culture and education is so-called "good management", which means good management of its own interests. This is "optimised" management (from a financial point of view) of its own investment, like a wise family man, the head (oikos in Greek) of the “global” family on whom everything depends, to whom everything must return to, and whose law is oikonomia (the Greek concept of “household management”).
Economic globalisation has only one thing to offer culture: a “matrix”, in both senses of the word. The first meaning is technical: it is the matrix where a million records can be made, instead of a thousand. For what economic advantage is there in making and distributing a thousand copies of a thousand different records (as independent labels do), instead of a million copies of a single record (the expertise of the so-called "Majors")?
The second meaning of matrix is the original one: the maternal womb where conception takes place. For globalisation aims at being the mother of all "good projects" that give birth to "high performance products": it wants to conceive and raise them in order to reap their rewards. But it is an immoral mother: it only wants to breed successful and hugely profitable products — it picks and chooses among its offspring… Globalisation is a possessive, self-interested mother: it doesn’t share, and expects to be kept in luxury by its children.
The truth is that all economic globalisation has to offer is management, "third-party management" as private bankers say, where the third party is neither the citizen, nor the state, nor the common interest. One should go one step further and question the very nature of this contribution: can a "product" industrialised on a global level (such as a film, a record or a book…) still be described as "cultural"? Shouldn't these cultural "products" (and their "by-products", which can even include food and drink) be renamed to reflect the fact that they are no longer related to "culture", except in a purely commercial and/or ritual way? That they are, to misquote Clausewitz one more time, only the continuation of economic relations with other selling arguments and through other media. This can be illustrated by the Générale des Eaux group’s morphing into Vivendi Universal and acquiring Canal+ and Universal Studios to become a film and TV distributor and Internet provider instead of a water distributor or a waste disposal company.
This is what I call the "economics of the matrix", an economics from which it is useless to expect anything other than its raison d'être, i.e. the financial "optimisation" of any activity it gets hold of. Trying to change this state of affairs while remaining on economics' own ground is only a dream. Trying to change the course of the globalising economy while accepting its principles and rules would be plain naivety. This is why I suggest to change standpoints and return to the political ground.
For there to be a world, and for this world to be "common", politics is necessary. Otherwise all we have is autarkic households and villages, indifferent or even hostile to "aliens", in whatever form or shape. To have something that can be named "culture", there first needs to be a world, where an ensemble of local cultures (arts, customs, traditions) find their meaning, and which politics then reveals as cultures to the common world. But for that "world culture" itself to find a meaning, to let it acquire such dignity, other worlds must exist too, a variety of worlds to be discovered, to be known, to serve as inspiration. They must be preserved, not destroyed – unlike what happened, for instance, when the Americas were colonised. For "culture" to really exist, for it to be able to grow and last, "cultural diversity" needs to be experienced in all its dimensions: historical, geographical, sociological, and artistic.
In parallel with the ongoing industrial and financial globalisation, this mondialisation of cultures is also in progress, with hugely varied forms and results: for they produce the opposite of uniformity. The mondialisation of cultures means European audiences discovering Colombian, Taiwanese or Iranian films, and turning them into box-office hits. It means being able to read daily papers such as Clarin of Buenos Aires, O Estado de Sao Paulo, Le Devoir of Montreal or Le Soleil of Dakar on the Internet, on the same day they are published, whether one is in Lagos, Bombay, Helsinki or Quito.
The mondialisation of cultures – which is not “globalisation”— also means being able to freely exchange MP3 music tracks from all over the world, whether they have already been published or not, despite the provisional outcome of the Napster court case and the political and legal attacks from "the Majors". It includes, at Parc de la Villette in Paris, events dedicated to the young generation of Chinese artists previously unknown in Europe, to South Indian arts or to the arts and “art de vivre” of Mali — which tell us a lot about our own arts and art de vivre: putting things into perspective is just one of mondialisation's many functions.
The mondialisation of cultures is an infinite variety of ongoing processes that share a common desire for discovery, exchange and sharing, and which do not submit to the chrematistics of globalisation or to the privatisation of the world created by economic globalisation.
The flagship of cultural mondialisation is diversity, without which it would be meaningless, and which is the only thing capable of advancing it in a way that is acceptable by all. Like economic globalisation, which should be read as such, cultural diversity must therefore become a project — and a resolutely cosmopolitical project.
(On the same problem or on connected issues we recommend the following article by the same author in the Critical Dictionary : Single matrix, or cultural diversity?)