Colloquy on: “European Culture: Identity and Diversity”
8-9 September 2005
Culture, Identity and Citizenship
The agenda before us in this colloquium is both an extensive and a tough one. Although our immediate focus is European culture, as we are all aware, this can only be understood in the context of more general questions about the nature of modern, increasingly globalized cultures. Our deliberations therefore necessarily range across : the issue of the constitution of cultural identity, the question of cultural universalism and human rights, the way to address religious fundamentalism, how to account for new ways of social interaction, the impact of globalization, the new information culture and knowledge-based society. Frankly, I would strongly advise my postgraduate students against tackling anything more than fraction of this agenda in the three or four years of study for a PhD - and we have a little under two days. But the reason why we need to take on board this almost impossible agenda is because all of these issues interconnect in important ways. This connectivity is, indeed, one of the defining features of the sort of culture that we all now inhabit, not just as national or as European citizens, but, as it were, as citizens of a global modernity.
My discussion today, then, is directed at connections. In the time available I am going to attempt to clarify - if only a little - the connection between two general issues which I think bear directly upon the nature of modern European culture. I want to explore what connects the idea of particular, and diverse, cultural identities with the idea of universal - we might say, in an optimistic sense ‘cosmopolitan’ - cultural values.
Let us begin, then, with the issue of universalism. As we all know, there is a simplifying and potentially vicious form of universalism which is in essence ethnocentric and which consists in simply promoting and projecting one’s own culture as the ‘obvious’ model for the one, the true, enlightened, rational and good way of living. This tendency has deep historical-cultural roots and it is doctrinally and discursively structured into some – not all - religious worldviews, for example in some versions of both the Christian and the Islamic traditions of monotheism.
Because of the recent incidents and threats of terrorism in the West, some have come to associate this sort of universalistic thinking, and the intolerance it spawns, particularly with religious fundamentalism. But I think this is a mistake. Ethnocentric projection is certainly to be found in religious cultures, but it is also extremely widely distributed in modern secular cultures as an intuitive, common-sense way of understanding our place in the world. Relativising our particular cultural experience is not in fact an act of common sense. It requires rather difficult efforts of hermeneutic distancing and of intellectual and affective imagination. A non-ethnocentric imagination is in point of fact almost counter-intuitive. It is a cultural stance which demands something like Copernicus’ famous cosmological de-centering – the ability to conceive that our own experience is not necessarily at the centre of the cultural universe.
This is something which does not come naturally but that needs constantly to worked at , argued for and, indeed, educated for.
Moreover, it is important to realise that the claim to universality, far from being restricted to the level of the intuitive everyday lifeworld of individuals, can be seen at the very core of the European Enlightenment. The privileging of the European cultural experience - along with its particular version of rationality and its political values can be seen in ‘cosmopolitan’ thinkers from Kant onwards. It is Kant, indeed, who in his famous seminal text on cosmopolitanism not only looks back for his model to classical Greece and Rome, but forwards, speculatively, to a time when the continent of Europe, ‘will probably legislate … for all the others’1 True, such sentiments scarcely flourish in today’s liberal-pluralist intellectual-academic culture, sharply attuned as it is to the claims of cultural difference. But we can take a lesson from Kant’s example, and it is that the tendency towards universalising often co-exists with otherwise commendable humanistic visions. The ideal of a progressive, cosmopolitan cultural politics - of a ‘good’ universalism - deserves to be taken seriously.
Indeed, making cosmopolitanism work in a way that does not impose any one culturally inflected model is perhaps the most immediate challenge that globalization faces us with. This does not necessarily mean endorsing grand projects for ‘global governance’; rather it means trying to reconcile the attachments and the values of cultural difference with those of emergent wider human solidarities and extended ‘communities’. Strictly speaking of course, cosmopolitanism refers us to a potential world community. But precisely the same challenge applies to the more immediately imaginable community of the wider ‘Europe of the 48’.
However this faces us with a dilemma. On the one hand, there are the attractions of a ‘benign’ form of universalism, preserving key ideas of human mutuality and underlying the broad discourse of human rights and the hope of wider horizons of solidarity. But on the other, there are the equally attractive principles of respect for the integrity of local context and practices, cultural autonomy, cultural identity and ‘sovereignty’. At the heart of the cultural-political problems of our time lies what has been described as the ‘divided legacies of modernity’2: two sets of strong rational principles pulling in different directions. Universal human rights or the claims of cultural difference? Either are standards to which we might rally. But we often don’t know which flag to stand beside because in most cases there seem to be very good reasons to stand beside both3
Now I don’t suppose there is any easy solution to this dilemma, but I think we can get some way along the road by addressing the question of the formation of ‘cultural identity’.
Again let’s start with a simplifying approach. Although we may struggle against it, we often fall to thinking, or at least to talking, of cultural identity as something fixed. For example, we often speak of identity as something like a possession, an inheritance, a benefit of traditional long dwelling, of continuity with the past. This is the way we think when we worry about globalization threatening local cultural identities or when we say that cultural identities need to be protected – like some precious anthropological ‘treasure’. And this is why we often tend to think of identity as inherently fragile - as a treasure that can be lost . Yet, at the same time that we express these anxieties, we admit that cultures are robust, fluid, permeable and historically changing - and we know that identity is a social construction, not a static ‘thing’, but an experience in process.
One way to get away from these confusions is to look at identities quite differently: not so much as cultural- psychological categories, but as formal social categories which are generated in the very nature of modern life. Indeed one of the defining features of modernity is the tendency to generate these formal categories. Considered in this way, cultural identities are not matters of ancient heritage but are actually specifically modern inventions. They are institutional ways of organizing and regulating the cultural practices and imaginings by which we grasp our existential condition, our personal relations, and our attachment to a place or a community.
Identities, then, can be usefully thought of as self-definitions based around specific, almost always politically-inflected, differentiations: gender, sexuality, class, religion, race and ethnicity, nationality. Some of these differentiations of course existed long before the coming of modernity, some - like nationality – are more or less modern imaginings. But when I say that identities are in essence modern categories, I mean that they are modern in their institutional form: in the way in which they are publicly recognised, codified, regulated and legislated for. Modern societies orchestrate our experience according to tacit but none the less well-policed boundaries. We ‘live’ our gender, our sexuality, our nationality and so forth within well-defined institutional regimes of belonging. Before the coming of modernity there may have been more amorphous and contingent senses of existential belonging. In modern societies these taken-for-granted intuitions become structured into an array – into what we might think of as a ‘portfolio’ - of identities. And these codified identities all have important implications for our life-chances, our social regard, and our material and psychological well-being. It is out of this formal differentiation, rather than out of the raw data of experience, that identity politics is born.
And as the globalization process rapidly distributes the institutions of modernity across all cultures, it generates these institutionalised forms of cultural belonging – in some cases where they have not before played any role in traditional cultural life. One rather interesting interpretation of the impact of globalization to flow from this is that, far from destroying it - as many suppose - globalization has been perhaps the most significant force in creating and proliferating cultural identity4 One might even be driven towards the paradoxical conclusion that the real danger of globalization – as witnessed in various episodes of ethnic violence – is that it is producing too much identity!
But let me now try to connect these thoughts about the institutionalisation of identity back to the issue of cosmopolitanism. And here I want to inject some optimism into the discussion: to suggest that we may be able, as the British say, to have our cake and eat it. I take cosmopolitanism here to mean identification with wider human communities than the locality, the ethnie, or the nation. But instead of seeing this identification as inevitably in tension with the preservation of cultural difference, we can think of it as part of the same formalising tendency of modernity. In short, we can understand cosmopolitan humanism as another type of identity position.
The category of ‘Humanity’ is, in effect, a specific modern category of identity : it is an ‘imagined community’ to which people can claim attachment and, indeed, to which specific juridical rights and obligations belong. This is an identity which is universal by definition, but which remains compatible with a huge range of cultural variation, by dint of context. Human rights can be invoked to argue for universal standards of justice, or equality of provision in health care, education and so forth - but in precisely the same way they can be used to defend cultural difference.
So, to be both ‘human’ in its rich pluralist sense of preserving cultural difference, and ‘human’ in juridical-universalising terms, is a trick brought off precisely by the framing of repertoires of identity which is typical of cultural life in global- modern societies.
In the midst of the proliferation of localisms, sharpened cultural discriminations, in short, diversity, global modernity also generates for us a powerful, flexible category of cosmopolitan belonging.
But how does this understanding help with the dilemma we began with, of whether, in concrete cases, to endorse the politics of universal humanism or the politics of cultural difference? Well let’s not pretend that it suddenly magics away all of the conceptual tensions, nor the real political problems around putative regimes of global - or indeed regional - governance. What we agree to put inside the box labelled ‘human rights’ will still be a matter of contention. How, for example, do we reconcile, in hard cases, the contradictory claims of traditional religious observance (for instance, in relation to dress codes) and of gender or sexual equality?
The hard truth is that we can only try to work through these issues in patient dialogue. However, thinking about these issues in terms of identity positions does, perhaps, soften some of the starker intractabilities. What we know about modern identities is that, despite being so crucial to our social being, they are in many ways soft-shelled categories. It is possible - indeed it is common - without contradiction, to hold a repertoire of overlapping identities : to be , for example, at the same time female, Chinese, a Beijinger, a political dissident, a patriot, a Buddhist, and an admirer of western liberalism. And in the same way it is possible to hold human rights which are, as it were, transferable across different contexts. The appeal to the level of the human universal can be made in situations where more particular local communal attachments can be reasonably judged to be repressive. But this universality does not need to be understood doctrinally, nor does it need to be seen as always holding precedence, as the card which trumps all ‘lesser’ rights and duties.
So to conclude. Identities we know are constructs not possessions. Despite the historical tendency for cultures and nations to claim universality as their possession, the appeal to the universal can perhaps be made to work as a construct: as one way of understanding our human condition and of relating in constructive dialogue with others. What is clear, finally, is that, faced with a future world of what Clifford Geertz has called ‘pressed-together dissimilarities variously arranged, rather than all-of-a-piece nation-states grouped into blocs and superblocs’5, this dialogue needs to be resourced with nimble and flexible concepts and ways of thinking. That is part of our task in this colloquium, and I’m looking forward to learning from the diversity of discussions that will follow.