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Working Paper

Copyright with the author. All rights reserved.

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Reinhard Duessel

Totally New

Remarks on Cultural Self-Determination

in the Post-Cold War Era

 

I would like to continue here with two threads that were briefly discussed already in my opening address to the present conference. The first one of those threads I tried to introduce via a discussion of Huntington's views as developed in The Clash of Civilizations? and afterwards. Huntington diagnoses a regrouping of regional and national powers into units of solidarity above the stratum of the nation-state. What seems to be taking place, however, is a process towards the opposite direction: the formation of solidarities based upon collective identities ever more microscopic. A second thread to be taken up again here I tried to indicate with my reference to the inflationary use of the term culture. People living and/or working together for a certain amount of time in a particular area or institution tend to form their particular ways of doing things, ways that are different from the ways people elsewhere or in other institutions are doing the same things or similar things. There is nothing new in this observation. What is new, however, is the tendency of considering those different ways of doing things as different culturesXthe culture of a particular institution, a particular area or even of a street, the culture of people sharing a particular profession, particular interests, or preferences.

It is my impression that the process I have been referring to in my discussion of Huntington, and the inflationary use of the term culture, both indicate the same phenomenon: a particular paradigm of cultural self-determination running wild. The question is, which function or need this paradigm is supposed to fulfillXand constantly is failing to fulfill at the same time?

The problematic of self-integration is a possible perspective for further reflection on this question. Self-integration requires meaning. Three aspects may characterize what is meant by meaning here. Self-integration requires a principle for integrating different projects into some form of identity or continuity; it requires a certain unity of world-views; it requires a final goal in the sense of a projection towards an elsewhere deemed to be better (see Laiki 1). Requiring all that, self-integration above all requires a source that provides meaning in the sense of those three dimensions. I suggest understanding the mentioned paradigm of cultural self-determination as a strategy for identifying or constructing such a source. The progress towards ever more microscopic units of collective identity, and the inflationary use of the term culture, could then be understood as indicating the failure of that strategy.

 

The main title of my reflectionsXTotally NewXI borrowed from the introductory section of the already quoted book by Zaki Laiki. In that section, Laiki discusses attempts of deciphering events in former Yugoslavia and elsewhere as a "return to nationalism" after a time of interruption and suppression during the bipolar age of the Cold War. Those attempts he considers inadequate. The post-Cold War era does not have the form of a return to a situation before. "We are dealing," Laiki writes, "with historical situations that are totally new." (3)

        The events Laiki is discussing here are part of the cluster of events I am trying to understand as the product of making use of a particular paradigm of cultural self-determination in search of finding or constructing a source of meaning. The point he is making can be extended to all events belonging to that cluster. Neither that progress towards ever more microscopic units of collective identity nor the inflationary use of the term culture do have the form of a return.

 

        The era of the Cold War, according to Zaki Laiki, was an exceptional period, which had managed, as he puts it, to reorder the main world issues around a battle for the appropriation of meaning. (15) Due to that battle, I would add, any issue was in some way turned into a world issue. As a battle for the appropriation of meaning, that battle was directed at appropriating the meaning of events, acts and projects. The main goal in that battle was occupying a functional position able to shape the formation and integration of possible projects. Success in controlling that position would have meant appropriating the meaning of events, acts and projects in advanceXappropriating the process of their formation and not just interpreting what happens to be the case. That was the goal. This does not mean, however, that control of projects during the process of their formation took place only in spaces and at times where and when one of the two sides had temporarily managed to reach that goal. In a world shaped by the mentioned battle, agents and projects were forced to constantly position themselves with respect to the two competing universes of meaning. Declaring neutrality was an option, but it was a form of positioning too. Projects, possible futures, in other words, were in their process of formation either directly shaped by one of those two competing universes, or they were shaped indirectly, because the effort of positioning absorbed a large amount of the creative potential to be invested in any respective project.

        Formally speaking, in their effort to occupy the position of a principle integrating possible projects, the two universes of meaning engaged in a Cold War were the same. With respect to the problematic of self-integration, however, they were radically different. The integrating principle propagated by communism was supposed to shape and to integrate projects of any field, dimension or level of activity, reaching from international politics and world economics right through to the everyday concerns of individual agents. The claim was to offer a principle that would link the daily routine of every single person with the major concerns of world history and, doing so, provide guidance to shape and to transform routine activities into direct contributions to the realization of historical progress as defined by that embracing perspective. The integrating principle was supposed to be all embracing and at the same time concrete enough to function as a source of meaning for the self-integration of individuals. Different from that, the West propagated an integrating principle that could not and did not intend to provide a source of meaning for self-integration. That was not understood to be a lack. It was part of the principle itself. If we take as a principle that a source of meaning for self-integration should not be provided by the state, and then try designing a form of governance based upon that principle, the result would be some form of liberal democracy; designing an economic order based upon the same principle would lead to market economy.

Liberal democracy and market economy are the two dimensions of an integrating principle that stresses abstention from reaching through to the everyday concerns of individuals.  All that, including the risks involved, has been widely discussed. What I am interested in here, is the relation between that explicit lack of directly providing a source of meaning, which characterizes the integrating principle propagated by the West during the Cold War, and the paradigm of cultural self-determination I am trying to understand in the present reflections.

 

        If a source of meaning is not provided by an integrating principle, such a source must be provided or made available otherwise. During the fifties and sixties, if my impression is correct, rudimentary traditionsXreligion, regional definitions of belonging, social strata etc.Xwere still able to fulfill that task. Towards the end of the sixties, at the latest, growing incomes and the further spread of higher education had produced a rapid increase of social mobility that reduced traditional definitions of belonging to a minimum. Accordingly, the seventies, and above all the eighties, were times when a market for sources of meaning appeared and prospered. That market has and had many seemingly unrelated dimension. It offered lifestyles with integrating principles more or less deep, more or less intellectual, and more or less spiritual. Individuals struggling for self-integration were invited to make their choice.

What has to be emphasized, however, is the fact that individuals were making their choice as agents and participants within market economy and liberal democracy. That has to be emphasized, although it is, of course, a tautology. Sources of meaning on offer to choose or not to choose do only exist in a market economy, and the space to intentionally shape ones life and self as a catholic, a Buddhist, an artist, a soccer fanatic, a philosopher or a connoisseur of fine wines, does only exist in a liberal democracy. For that very reason, it is not exactly correct to say the mentioned market provided sources of meaning.

Liberal democracy and market economy, it is true, do not directly provide a source of meaning for self-integration; whatever we may select on the mentioned market, however, does not by itself function as such a source either. The fact that we have made our choice will become a crucial aspect of whatever form of self-integration we may achieve. That aspect or dimension will not be formed by the set of ideas or symbols we have selected. It will be, however, exactly that dimension which transformed ideas and symbols selected into a source of meaning; it will be as well the very dimension of our integrated self that defines us as participants in a market economy and in a liberal democracy. That dimension marks the non-erasable difference between, on the one hand, someone born catholic, Buddhist or, for that matter, someone born into some national space of belonging, and remaining in that space throughout his or her life, and someone deciding to live as a catholic, a Buddhist or, closer to our concerns, a Serb, Croat, German or French nationalist. Liberal democracy and market economy, in that sense, do provide a source of meaning for self-integration. It is a source not directly available, however. In order to become available, a supplement, as we may say, a certain symbolism or set of ideas to articulate and concretize that source, has to be chosen from the market of ideas.  

Occasionally, during the seventies and eighties, certain customers on that market mixed the chosen supplement with the source of meaning the supplement was supposed to be making available. In most cases, that just produced some harmless comedy. It could lead to the ruin of biographies as well, however.

With the end of the Cold War, liberal democracy and market economy lost their adversary. Exactly that, interestingly enough, produced a need for legitimization that had not existed before. The principle of not offering an all-embracing principle of integration obviously requires an adversary. That principle seems to be experienced as evident and without any need for legitimization only as long as an all-embracing principle backed up by an existing power challenges its validity. With liberal democracy and market economy in need for legitimization and unable to function, if only indirectly, as a source of meaning, the mentioned "mistake" became one of the few options left to respond to the need for a source of meaning. Selecting, choosing a particular set of life-style characteristics, memories, or symbols, and establishing a form of life accordingly, became a practice not tied any more to the affirmation of liberal democracy and market economy. Before, any such act of selection was meant to articulate and to concretize a particular form of acting and participating within the frame of liberal democracy and market economy. Cultural self-determination, in every particular case, was a particular affirmation and concretization of the principle of not establishing an all-embracing principle of integration.   Since the end of the Cold War, cultural self-determination as an act of selection and designed to make available and to concretize the source of meaning indirectly provided by liberal democracy and market economy, came to be used as a strategy to provide a source of meaning itself. That task, by definition, it cannot achieve.  The consequence was and still is the acceleration of selecting, throwing away, and selecting againXa process towards ever more microscopic units of collective identity, towards ever more microscopic cultures.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Laiki, Zaki: A World Without Meaning. The Crisis of Meaning in International Politics. Translated by June Burnham and Jenny Coulon (London and New York: Routlege, 1998). French orig. 1994.