Ref. :  000006143
Date :  2003-03-17
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For a reassessment of the concept of cultural diversity

The General Assembly urges all those who work on the international stage to construct an international order based on inclusion, justice, equality and equity, human dignity, mutual comprehension as well as the defence and the respect of cultural diversity and the universality of human rights, and to reject all doctrines of exclusion based on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and the intolerance which is associated with it. It urges all states to see to it that their political and legal system reflects the plurality of cultures at the heart of society and, if necessary, to reform their democratic institutions in order that they be more participative and avoid marginalisation, exclusion and discrimination of particular sectors of society.
Project of UN resolution, 29th November 2001

Cultural diversity is constantly referred to on every occasion without critical evaluation with ever growing verbal inflation. So, this is clearly doing a disservice to the essential issue that such an expression, today all too often reduced to the dimensions of a slogan, should rightfully represent. Faced with a commercial publicisation which dissolves its very interest and validity, it seems indispensable to remake of cultural diversity a concept, and to give this concept back its rightful and exceptional worth, resolutely anchored in its contemporary horizon.

Secure in this conviction, I wish here to go beyond the limits that I proposed in the Critical dictionary of ‘Globalisation’ (1) to suggest a even less normative and instrumental definition, which would allow certain aporia of the times to be answered since it is an issue of culture(s). A definition that seeks neither neutrality nor ecumenicalism, and that does not aim for a mere description, but an interpretation, assumed and claimed as such.

So, I will define cultural diversity with 5 words and explain what I mean by them. These five words are: ‘diverse’, ‘cultural’, ‘dynamic’, ‘response’ and ‘project’. It seems to me that using these five points of reference, a useful and relevant redefinition might be arrived at within the beam that their combination creates.


One, cultural diversity is diverse, this constitutes the first subject of omission and collective slippage. As if the diverse of diversity were self-evident, and as if everyone understood it in a homogenous, identical… and, precisely: non-diverse way!

So, let us not go over the old ground, and let us try to remember the content, the essentiality, the quidditas of the diverse of diversity. For it will not be possible to confuse this diverse with its usual equivalents: the different, the plural, the multiple, the varied, etc…The diverse demands a logical and proper ontological dignity, failing that it will not be possible to found any hope on it, on its ‘sustainability’ (obsession of the times!) and on the possibility of mobilising a durable political and widely socially shared will in its favour. This is why it is necessary to recognise right away that the diverse of diversity, with its contemporary meaning in Romance and Germanic languages… is only a quite weak and approximate notion – which is certainly not yet a concept. Thus, for Le Robert dictionary, the diverse is only that which ‘simultaneously or successively presents several aspects or several different characters’ – the characteristic definition of the ordinary conceptual vacuity of the word. The diverse is friendly, likeable, but it does not say very much, and it is doubtless within indistinctness that we must locate the origins of the consensual appetite which it aroused in these last years, after jousts having opposed the present parties on the hard, trusty and ancient legal concept of ‘exception’. It thus seems urgent to extract the not-yet-in-existence-concept of diversity from the friendly fur that made it such a success. In this respect, the return to the Latin meaning of diversus seems indispensable. When you look at its usage in Caesar (2), Sallustus (3) and Tacitus (4), who make wide use of it, you notice this, that the apparent signified is mainly that of the opposed, the divergent, the contradictory, the different in the active sense, and not that, dominant today, of the ‘varied’, or even the ‘multiple’. Divertere means to turn oneself in a different direction, to detach oneself, to separate oneself, to distance oneself. There is always the dimension of movement and of a struggle, but also, simply: of life, which has nothing to do with the simple accounting, if not administrative observation, of variety or multiplicity. In view of a reassessment of the concept of cultural diversity on firmer grounds, it is important to update this etymology of a diversus, which is not an observation, but a movement that comes about through struggle, rather than by a sort of friendly consensus.


Two, and not the least important, to be understood with all its consequences: cultural diversity is cultural! Neither a tautology, nor a truism, in this respect I demand this point to be taken very seriously. All the more so as the World Summit on sustainable development (WSSD) at Johannesburg in August 2002 has precisely persisted in confusing the fate of biodiversity with that of cultural diversity, and putting its emphasis on the rapprochement of the battles in favour of the preservation of these two types of diversity (5) – a hobby-horse that politics was quick to embrace without any precautions or checks governing its usage.

So! It is a serious matter! For, if we want this concept to acquire some philosophical worth and some legal value, we cannot concede that cultural diversity be ‘natural’…To imagine it ‘reinforced’ by being naturalised – by repatriating it into the natural order…— would not only be naïve, but also criminal, from a philosophical and anthropological point of view. That would have as its corollary and consequence simply to deny the specificity of culture and to erase the tradition of modern thought concerning it.
On the contrary, the diversus of cultural diversity requires its etymology to recall that there is not — that there cannot be – cultural diversity other than in the struggle between cultural forms, on the one hand, against ‘nature’ — and its ‘biodiversity’—, on the other, against other cultural forms. The cultural diverse only becomes what it is through the trial of this continual struggle on two fronts against the biodiverse and itself (against the other and the multiple of cultures). Moreover, it is such an observation which would let the recurrent polemic on ‘multicultural’ and ‘intercultural’ be avoided. Indeed, the multicultural clearly situates itself on the side of biodiversity and of its there is: there is multicultural and equally there is biodiverse, that is good and must be preserved… with all the morals of the multiple that flow out of it. Quite otherwise, ‘intercultural’ recalls in its concept that cultures only arise through and in their struggle with natural forms and conditions, but also through and in their meetings with other cultures. The inter of intercultural can denote a pacific or warlike meeting, but certainly a meeting which produces veritable diversus.


Three, which is intimately linked to the preceding two points: cultural diversity could not be static, fixed and accountable. It must be dynamic, and relentlessly so, failing this it would be reduced to a dead form of patrimonial heritage. Let us imagine for a moment a ‘musical field’ at the heart of which there would no longer be anything but catalogues of musical editions that we would endeavour to ‘conserve’ and to ‘promote’ without associating with it an activity of development and production of new music…This preserved place could not be named ‘cultural diversity land’, but rather ‘cultural cemetery’ or ‘garden’, since it is clear that a diversus could only be born from an activity of lively, willing, continual, finally ‘diversified’ production… This too may seem ‘evident’, and yet, dominant discourses – starting with that of the Prince – on cultural diversity are hugely impoverished as regards such a dynamic demand. The very idea of ‘preserving and promoting cultural diversity’, which rightfully acquired a certain notoriety since November 2001 and the approbation of UNESCO’s universal declaration, and even if it clearly denotes a process, a movement, it still remains far too static. It restricts the diversity in question to the status of a being, which does not carry within it the movement of diversus. Everything continues as if this idea was scared to take on the conflictuality intrinsic to the cultural diversity movement – the acknowledgement that this diversity only develops through struggle, even if it is not necessarily through bloodshed. Everything continues as if it were firstly a matter of normalising in order to be able subsequently to ‘better manage’ a cultural diversity which we endeavour to forget is not only a producer of art and beauty, but is also at the root of a lot of human conflicts. Contrary to this (politically conventional) attitude of systematic avoidance of that which could get angry in diversus, I suggest utilising ambiguities and contradictions inherent to the intercultural dynamic. Equally that which could be destructive on a socio-political level as that which might be constructed at the heart of the City – all these links that it sometimes can make, and sometimes unmake, without it being envisageable to select, to program only the ‘positive’ side of the process, and to dispose of its shadier side. Claiming that cultural diversity be dynamic and not only accountable presupposes stripping diversity of its ‘saintly’ halo and being ready to understand the complexity of its contribution to the world’s development.

A response

Four: cultural diversity must step away from its ordinary function of ‘question’ to be understood rather as a ‘response’. This remark also enables one to specify the nature of the dynamic that has just been expressed. Indeed, according to the current estimation of cultural diversity, the flow of interrogations it generates amounts to very little, which does not as yet form a dynamic: we wonder about the meaning and limits of cultural diversity; we strive to list the forms; we discuss the disappearance of heritages, et cetera. But we do not put at the heart of thought and action that it gives rise to the idea that it owes it to itself to be a response: a political, social, educational or even economic response. We have got into the habit of passively seeing cultural diversity as something that presents a challenge to humanity, something that asks a question while being in itself a question. But we do not understand it enough as something which, from the very fact of its movement, and because of the modalities of this movement, offers responses to humanity, some positive – desired and approved — others perfectly undesirable. Some: intercultural discovery, fraternisation, conviviality, fertilisation of creations, sharing of works and knowledge… Others: intolerance, disdain, proscription, intellectual and legal appropriation, global domination, wars… Namely, problematic responses that escape the normative modesty of cultural diversity as a question. This is why I propose to view cultural diversity simultaneously as a question and a response: a question unceasingly formulated and shooting at what it could be, and a response which never stops discovering, inventing, and finding itself. The response that cultural diversity holds is in the very image of Latin diversus: it is the opposition between forces, which lead the world in opposite directions; it is the contradiction between ambiguous results (for example, quantitative and qualitative growth of ‘cultural goods and services’). In a word, it is Aufhebung in the Hegelian sense: that which ‘suppresses’ everything whilst ‘maintaining’ and ‘recreating’ it – this ‘relève’ (as Derrida translated) which remembers its history whilst destroying it, which is capable of surpassing such a history by assuming its crimes and grandeurs, a relève which carries forward the movement of culture.

A project:

And lastly five: cultural diversity must become that which it is – or should not have stopped being –, namely a project. To enlightened minds, that can again seem like a truism, and yet! How far away are we from this meaning and this very way of living and speaking about – pleading for, if necessary – cultural diversity. For this diversity we talk so much about, we also confine too often to an extremely passive role: that of beauty which needs its protectors; that of Good (always this!) which would need its defenders; that of patrimony (banker’s reflex) which would need saving (‘masterpieces under threat’ we said), if not evaluating… This is how cultural diversity finds itself increasingly integrated, into the heart of political, administrative, management, marketing and multilateral projects which make it a privileged element of their strategy, the key everywhere to a correct and acceptable discourse… but, given this, it is not perceived in itself, per se, as an autonomous project, which could go without making others prosper in order to exist. But, to deserve the hopes that many put in this concept, which has not yet succeeded in making its principial fragility forgotten, cultural diversity does not have a choice, at a time when i) the WTO is prepared to liberalise almost everything which resort to educational and cultural dimensions; ii) the privatisation of knowledge, rituals and the oldest and most public heritages – in the sense of general and public interest – is led by ‘major multinational companies’ at a frenetic pace; finally, where iii) culture in all its aspects has become a commodity amongst others, but also amongst the most lucrative (as can clearly be seen with the United States/European Union rivalry on ‘goods and cultural services’), with its torrent of derived products and industries determined to destroy all independent leanings. Indeed, faced with what is quite precisely and plainly a project for global, if not total domination, ‘cultural diversity partisans’ have no room for error in their quest for a third way between the ‘tenants of exception’ and those of an unconditional liberalisation of educational and cultural markets. When such a resolved, massive and structured project presents itself so clearly, it is obvious that there are only two viable solutions: either to give in, or to oppose it (which is fitting to the Roman diversus) a project of comparable clarity, strength and will. ‘A project’, that means a coherent and systematic collection of analyses, theses, ends and means which, shared by a community of interests (public interest and general interest!), is set to work by it in order to attain the ends that it has fixed for itself. It is on the characteristics of such a project that I wish to conclude.

A project, yes – but which?

Firstly, a theoretical project. The primary urgency is, indeed, a work of critical reassessment which does not satisfy itself in noting international consent which the leitmotif of cultural diversity benefits from to validate it, and which demands to see this concept founded in reason, a priori without restriction, in all its modalities and approved by all cultures – in particular non-Western cultures. In this respect, it must equally be noted that the work in question is already complete, for the most part, and that it needs to be gathered together and tackled contradictorily and trans-disciplinarily, rather than ‘redone’. The considerable amount of studies and research carried out over the last decades on the issues of multiculturalism, interculturalism, pluralism, in particular, cannot be erased nor hastefully dismissed: it must be inventoried, synthesised and examined within a framework of questions formulated today in different national, regional and multilateral frameworks. So, cultural diversity might abandon its positive a priori status of self-evidence to take on a form that it should never have ceased to have, namely that of complexity and conflictuality.

Secondly, a legal project. Suddenly, we wanted to make cultural diversity into a legal concept – which it has never been up till now in legal history – as if the law could transmit itself through suggestion or interference… We talked very quickly, since the theme of cultural diversity prospered —around the year 2000—, of a ‘legal instrument’ which could translate objectives into commercial and international legal negotiations. But, for want of having only accepted to think for a moment together about the theoretical difficulties that prior to its concept, we discredited, at first, this idea of a legal instrument intended to protect from all the threats and to ward off all evils. It is thus a matter of taking up things that have been neglected, and irrevocably linking the approach of cultural diversity through, on the one hand, philosophy, human and social sciences, and on the other, public, private and international law. It is a matter of remaking and consolidating the link between these disciplinary approaches which are ignored or scattered, to make them converge in the development of a general corpus of cultural diversity capable of responding to the current demands of the diplomatic and multilateral commercial stage.
Finally, a political project. Like the legal approach, the political claim of cultural diversity came very early, before even the initial stages of a quasi viable and sustainable concept amongst private and public administrators of cultural goods and services. A ‘policy of cultural diversity’ was made up before considering its philosophy or its law. A line of argument was thus developed in favour of cultural diversity tainted with moralism, good sentiments, tautologies… and counter-truths, when this was not necessary and proved counter-productive. It is thus necessary, here too, to retackle things in an order which is nothing less than logical, and which demands rather that all possible policy on cultural diversity be founded on ground edified (frequently long ago) by philosophy, human, social and legal sciences. So, cultural diversity can become this real political project that it could not avoid being, in order to affirm and reiterate the irreducibility of the great educational, linguistic and cultural domain to the commercial sphere, in order to impose its lasting exemption from the norms of commercial law – in order to reply blow for blow to the unlimited strategy for domination of ‘major’ private companies with a strategy for unreserved domination in the general and public interest.

Transl. : Sophie Wall


(1) Cf. article Cultural diversity in GERM’s Critical dictionary of ‘globalisation’
(2) Julius Caesar: ‘ Diversi pugnabant’ (They were each fighting on their one side), De Bello civili 1, 58, 4.
(3) Sallustus: ‘Diversissimas res pariter exspectare’ (expecting the most varied happenings), Bello Jugurthino, 20.
(4) Tacitus: ‘Diverso terrarum distineri’ (to be distanced by the other end of the world) Annals 59.
(5) Cf. The round table ‘Cultural diversity, biological diversity and sustainable development’ which was held in Johannesburg 3rd September 2002.


de Bernard, Francois, ‘ Privitisation or sharing of identities and cultural diversity?’ contribution to a Conference at the French Institut of Scotland, 29/02/2002, taken up in, Studies rubric

‘Economie de la matrice, cosmopolitique de la diversité’, 24/05/2001. Contribution to the UNESCO/MERCOSUR conference at Asuncion, taken up in, ‘Papers’ rubric.

‘La diversité culturelle : du consensus mou au projet politique’, contribution to the Etats Généraux de la Culture, 30.11.01, taken up in, ‘Cultural diversity’ rubric.

‘Que peut être l’exception culturelle ?’ in Le Télémaque, no.10-11, Bourgogne CRDP, May 1997.

GERM, Critical dictionary of ‘globalisation’, directed by François de Bernard, GERM/ Editions Le Pré aux Clercs, Paris, 2002.

Ministry of Culture and Communication (France): ‘La diversité culturelle, une ambition française’. 29/08/02.

Prime Minister (France) : ‘Soutenir la diversité culturelle en France et dans le monde’.
29/08/02. taken up in, ‘Cultural diversity’ rubric

UNESCO, directed by Edgar Montiel, Hacia una mudializacion humanista, Paris, Publicaciones UNESCO, 2002.

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