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In defense of cross-fertilization: Europe and its identity contradictions


By Ales Debeljak

In defense of cross-fertilization: Europe and its identity contradictions. 51709.jpeg

Where does Europe end? The question of boundary has been discussed for quite some time. It is an old one indeed, going back to the destruction of the Jewish temple, the disintegration of the Greek city-states, and the collapse of the Roman Empire. This is what provides historical material for the narrative of what it means to be a European today. The idea of uniting various European lands is also an old one and has seen many different incarnations. One of them was captured well by Charlemagne's motto: Renovatio Imperii Romani or Reconstruction of the Roman Empire. After his kingdom disintegrated, numerous fiefdoms sprung up in its wake. Then, Napoleon conquered large parts of the European continent and made some serious overtures toward what the European Union of today is: the common European Arts and Sciences Academy, the common measures, the common currency, the common Court of Appeals, etc. 

Nevertheless, all attempts to build a United Europe were predicated on a perceived difference: us versus them. "Us" stood for the civilized conqueror, whereas "them" referred to the conquered barbarians. It is not just the Roman limes that can be used as a symbolic demarcation between civilization and barbarianism. The European Union continues to emphasize the difference between "us" and "them". It would be nice to be able to talk about a tower of Babel in which everybody is freely mixing with people from different lands, speaking different languages, and practicing different cultures. As we know, that is not the case. However, in a particular sense we are all in the same boat. We are members of the same community if not the same polity. We are all human. Alas, this claim that has often been repeated but very seldom heeded we tend to either dismiss as banal, or attribute it an absolute mandate to change our perspective so as to line it up with the philosophy of German critical theologian Hans Jonas who said: "Live your life so that it will be compatible with sustained human life on Earth".  

It is the Earth that represents the ultimate border, the final limes. There is no "them" from this particular perspective, except for the extraterrestrials, of course. This is the entity that falls outside of the terms of contemporary monotheistic pseudo-religion that have been imposed on the globe since the 16th century. I am talking about the capitalist system and its terms under which everything is for sale. We are all buyers and sellers, and we subscribe to the philosophy "I shop, therefore I am". The Earth, though, is emphatically not for sale.


This insight is part and parcel of advanced Western mind. But what exactly is Western mind or, more precisely, Western civilization? Haven't we heard enough of the "West" and the "rest"? Shouldn't we reach for our anti-colonial guns when we hear that? Allow me a quick explanation: I distinguish between the modern Western civilization on the one hand and the Westernistic civilization on the other. I do so by drawing a parallel between the ancient Greek civilization and the Hellenistic civilization. The latter came to the fore after the 4th century BC when the ancient Greek city states collapsed. This led to the emergence of an empire that covered a territory on three continents and spread over the whole known world. Hellenistic civilization was spread over this vast territory by the soldiers of Alexander the Great and was the first example of a global civilization.   

In what sense did Hellenistic civilization differ from its original source? The ancient Greek civilization was ultimately territorial. It was anchored in the system of city states in southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean islands and stayed within the limits of this narrowly defined realm. It was the Hellenistic civilization, which emerged after its collapse, that took the ancient Greek legacy and heritage, or, better: its package of ideas and technologies, and turned them into the backbone of its external expansion. 

To put it in a simpler way, Hellenistic civilization is a continuation of Greek civilization but is not synonymous with it.  It absorbed new ideas and technologies from various localities that had become parts of the Hellenistic empire.  Alexander the Great actively encouraged mixed marriages between Greek colonists and the local populace. But he also encouraged laboratory experiments in which ancient Greek ideas and technologies entered into a fruitful collaboration with local ideas and technologies, innovatively producing something new. These new products were neither local nor ancient Greek. Instead, they were amalgamations. 

I am now going to continue with an analysis of the current conditions. It is very tempting to fall for the siren song of the frequently repeated statement that the contemporary world is divided into two opposed entities: the "West" and the "rest". This Manichean black and white division of the world appeals to radical left-wingers because it gives ample opportunity for moralizing and wagging a pedagogical finger at the despicable appetites of the West. On the other hand, it turns everybody else into an amorphous and powerless mess.   

But the West-versus-the-rest dichotomy also appeals to radical conservatives, like the late professor Samuel Huntington, who saw an impending clash of civilizations. These people pose as defenders of the West as a region with special values that needs to be protected from those who are on the wrong side of Hadrian's Wall - the barbarians, the Third World people or whatever you prefer to call the "Other". 

It would be better to consider an alternative interpretation of the current human condition. We could use the analogy between the Hellenistic and the Westernistic civilization. The latter must not be mistaken for modern Western civilization. Western civilization was decoupled from its base after Columbus's voyage in 1492 and spread after the collapse of the Aztec empire. That was the beginning of globalization. There was a new impetus in the 19th century - a period of colonialism - after which globalization was reshaped into a corporate phenomenon in the 20th and 21st centuries. 

The ideas of the ancient Greeks migrated to other places and provided fertile soil for the cross-pollination that produced many new inventions. Likewise, contemporary Westernistic civilization rests on the accomplishments of the modern West but incorporates many elements from various other places that enhance power, prestige, and wealth. But what exactly defines today's global civilization as Westernistic? For a start, the understanding of time and space. Today, an international transaction is inconceivable without it as it rests on mechanical division of time into discrete units (a clock) and larger historical periods (antiquity, Middle Ages, modernity) as well as the arbitrary, yet mandatory, division of time continuum with a zero point that separated the flow of time into "common era" and "before common era". Despite the fact that the Anno Domini was as a designation recently replaced by a more secular and neutral-sounding "Common Era", the Latin Christian division of time is unerringly present in the modern Western chronology. Regardless of the specific collective ways of counting time (the Muslims start in early 7th century, the Jews locate the zero point at the time of creation, etc.), everybody today has to accept and apply this chronology.  

Further: think of Gerhard Mercator who produced the modern geographic map of the world. It is biased in favor of the region his creator was from; nevertheless it is today universally adopted. Even the Ottoman Empire, the greatest Muslim rival of the West, ultimately accepted its world maps even though it meant to overrun ther specific Islamic counting of time. Likewise, the delineation of territories into states with clearly marked borders was a European invention. One must of course not forget the ideologies and collective narratives that were invented by the modern West yet are today globally spread such as the rule of law and parliamentary democracy, communism and nationalism, Nazism and fascism, liberalism and human rights, etc. We are talking about modern Western ideologies or narratives that various peoples in various corners of the planet are using to advance their particular interests. 

Japan is a very good example of what it means to live under the aegis of Westernistic civilization yet not be Western. Back in the 19th century, Japan's elites decided to accept the main elements of the modern Western paradigm, particularly in the area of governance, science, and military matters. It successfully avoided the role of a colony and even became a regional colonial power itself. Although Japan's elites and the population at large have accepted some aspects of Western aspects of economic and business management, they have not given up their local culture. Consider karaoke and sushi, anima and manga. Not only are they still popular in Japan, but they have also been packaged and sold around the globe.  

What we see is a cross-fertilization between modern Western ideas and technologies on the one hand and local cultural artifacts on the other. As you see, I keep emphasizing the role of ideas and technologies. This I do the better to emphasize the tunnel-vision of clash of civilizations that has been given much public currency. The underlying theme in Huntington's notorious thesis is that civilizations act as singular actors and that they are very much akin to states. But that is not the case. Civilizations are not bound by a common territory. It is a mistake to see a civilization as something that is territorially bound. The best way to conceive of civilizations, instead, is to see them as a package of ideas and technologies. These packages or elements thereof do travel and spread as they have the capacity to appeal to peoples across various time and across the globe.  

Suffice is to stress that, for example, the Byzantine civilization did not collapse entirely after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 when its seat at the Bosporus was occupied by the Muslim army. Its modes of thinking and doing things lived on in an altered form in the emerging structure of Ottoman public governance. The institutions that had been devised by the Byzantine Empire survived even though the polity that had given birth to them had ceased to exist. The ideas and the technologies of the Byzantines were given a second life under the banner of the Ottoman Empire.

To sum it up: it seems impossible to think outside the binary dichotomy of "us" against "them" as we perceive ourselves as members of a particular community. Only if we see the planet as the ultimate border will we be capable (though not necessarily willing to do so) of seeing ourselves as members of the very abstract concept, the community of human beings. I understand very well that collective identities in the past 200 years have been based on nations. This is what grabbed the attention and commanded the total loyalty of their citizens. The idea of the European Union is to transcend this parochialism. It is nice but does not go far enough. If the European Union is defined on a cultural basis, we will have the problem of boundaries and will ask questions such as where the European Union ends. Do the countries that carry the legacy of Eastern Orthodox Christianity fit within the framework of secular Europe? Do Islamic civilizations belong in Europe? If we conceive of Europe as of a cultural union, questions of this kind become vexing and divisive. But if we perceive the European Union as a political union, there should be no borders except those that have a political and economic foundation, such as the Maastricht criteria. 

This should lead to a disregard for cultural parochialism and an attempt to integrate the entire world in the European Union. That would enable us to keep monotheistic capitalism at bay. I call it monotheistic because it behaves very much like Christianity and Islam and Judaism. It recognizes only one God - Mammon. It is a proselytizing philosophy in the sense that it seeks to convert everybody. It also engages in existential cleansing. Whatever cannot be transferred onto a datasheet and cannot be calculated in terms of the bottom line must perish. But if we treat the planet as something that is not for sale, we might stand some hope of learning from the historical divisions that have wrecked communities, split them and kept them asunder and subjugated them to the global order of modern corporate capitalism. On the other hand, sustainable development should take into consideration the ultimate limits of the planet where nobody is a barbarian and everybody is a member of one, all-encompassing civilization that is striving to achieve a common goal. This is a utopian pursuit that is however worth pursuing. It is, after all, a longing for the unattainable that, regardless of place of residence, animates the human soul.    

Ales Debeljak

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