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01/03/2005

Let's Talk European

Manifesto

Un ange passe, say the French when everybody in the room suddenly stops talking. The angel is Europe. Recently it passed over the grave of Pierre Bourdieu.

It's not much of a story - slightly sad, slightly ridiculous, not really of great relevance. But it does say something about the state of public debate in Europe. Shortly before he died, the great French sociologist turned one last time to a subject at once suspect and dear to him: himself. A farmer's son from the Bearn, Bourdieu had scaled the cultural cliffs of the Ecole Normale Superieure to emerge a god of sociology. His own success stood in brazen contradiction to his life's work, which aimed to explain everything in terms of background and habitus. Bourdieu died having just finished his "Esquisse pour une auto-analyse".

Shortly after Bourdieu's death, the Nouvel Observateur caused a huge sensation by publishing an excerpt from the work. Bourdieu was the last of the great intellectuals capable of stirring up such fervour in the French media, which he hated for precisely this reason. Of course, the Nouvel Observateur had not asked Bourdieu's heirs for permission to publish the excerpt. Bourdieu had tricked the French press by stipulating that his text only be published in France after it had been published in Germany. Bourdieu's intention was to avoid a frenzied media hype around his controversial, self-reflexive book, and to provoke a composed and serious debate. But did he want what actually happened?

What happened was nothing. Several months after Bourdieu's death, Suhrkamp published "Esquisse pour une auto-analyse" as a slim volume. Utter silence. The German media failed to understand this as a scoop, a text that was awaited elsewhere, a gift from Bourdieu to what he considered a qualified German public. Months later the press published a few obligatory reviews. The French didn't bat an eyelid. While a small excerpt had provoked a scandal only a few months before, the full text went unnoticed. No one in the French media reads the German papers thoroughly, and no scouts are keeping track of cultural trends in Germany. Only when the volume was published in France did the usual brouhaha begin.

Is there a Europe beyond the milk quotas?

If so, then only in the form of an angel passing, creating a pause in the conversation, a gap in communication. The Bourdieu effect is not uncommon. When Jürgen Habermas launched his "Core Europe" initiative, no one joined the debate. Who outside the Netherlands had heard of Theo van Gogh before he was murdered? And when everybody in Paris was celebrating the 60th anniversary of the city's liberation in August last year, no one was aware of what was happening in Warsaw at the same time. While a few streets in Paris were being named after members of the communist resistance, whose valour is indisputable, Warsaw was fixated on the enduring memory of Stalin's icy smile as he watched Hitler bomb the Polish resistance into the ground. The end of liberation.

The ignorance is greatest in large Western European countries where public debate is little more than self-contented thumb twiddling. Talk is of national issues - political leaders, late night comedy stars and football scandals. The intellectuals might as well be sitting in the cinema, all staring spellbound in the same direction, ignoring their neighbours and gasping in outrage at the latest evil deed of bad boy Bush. The phantom pain inflicted by the fall of the Berlin Wall - the loss of Utopia - is cured with a good dose of globalisation critique. But it is precisely these opponents of globalisation who spawned the morbid fixation with America. They relegate evil to a distant place to avoid having to look around, at Chechnya for example. Or at their neighbours. Is it really the fault of Bill Gates or Steven Spielberg that the French are learning less German, and the Germans less French?

The French edition of Le Monde diplomatique, the central organ of the anti-globalisation movement, recently published Bernard Cassen's proposal for a new foreign language policy. Cassen wants to quell the influence of English which he considers a vehicle of neo-liberalism. "The imperial power of the USA is not only based on material factors (military clout, scientific expertise, the production of goods and services and control over financial and energy channels etc.): above all, it represents domination of the mind, of cultural signs, frames of reference - and in particular of language."

English is the dollar of discourse! So Cassen proposes a policy of language groups. Schools in Romance countries should learn the language of other "Romanophones" so that a Frenchman can understand a Spaniard or a Brazilian and vice versa. Similarly, the Germans should enjoy chatting with the Danes and the Dutch, leaving the Poles to converse with the Russians.

Cassen sees Europe as a Brussels-based institution under threat of destruction by the English language. Pan-European debate does not figure in his thinking. He hopes that the Romance languages - which he refers to as "a single united language" - will form a mighty counterweight to the loathed language of capitalism. The enemies of America fall prey to their own fixation.

There is no doubt that the Internet has contributed significantly to the expanded influence of English. On the one hand, the Net has created highly specialised public fora, where even a cannibal can find a consenting meal. But the full potential of the Net can only be reached if certain standards of communication are maintained. These include programming languages such as html and linux, compression processes like MP3 and - stupidly perhaps - the English language. Strangely, while standards like MP3 and the World Wide Web are European inventions, Amazon, Google, Ebay and Yahoo are not. These services have altered the lives of every computer-literate individual. They also give new shape to public debate. It remains a mystery why none of these wonderful if problematic ideas originated in Europe.

The English media has also spread its sphere of influence through the Internet. The New York Times boasts one of the strongest Internet presences of all quality international newspapers. It probably accesses a wider audience through its newsletters than with the International Herald Tribune. Those seeking information about Afghanistan or Islamic terrorism after 9/11 were far better off if they could speak English. There was very little information in German or French, not to mention Arabic. The American media was certainly not the sole source of information; highly-specialised academic institutes, think-tanks and Afghani exile associations were also contributing. But Cassen is wrong to maintain that the English language conveys only one ideology or the exclusive interests of a single country. The English-language newspaper Outlook India, which is extremely critical of the U.S., rates just as highly as the neo-con Weekly Standard on Google. Even Al Jazeera is about to launch an English service to reach a more global audience.

Nevertheless, the threat of provincialism looms on two fronts. On the one hand, in the larger non-English-speaking arenas of debate - France and Germany - there is a tendency towards self-satisfaction. Add this to the fact that newspapers such as the Süddeutsche Zeitung or the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung withhold their content from the general Internet public by insisting on subscriptions. While European journalists might use all available sources in English on the Internet, the papers they write for do not return the compliment. Moreover, European newspapers have never showed interest in creating a European network; they also haven't had the means. The only newspaper that could establish a European readership if its owners wanted to, is the International Herald Tribune. And its owner is in New York!

Recall the American cinema's love of Paris which continued well into the 1950s. In those days, eyes were looking in the opposite direction. Europe had something to say and America seemed interested in listening. Even debate in the English-speaking world is in danger of becoming provincial if Europe doesn't do its part.

It is time to avert this fixed gaze, to give our necks a massage and to focus on our own strengths. Germany for example has the best feuilletons in the world! On the one hand, they reflect a unique cultural landscape in a country where most mid-sized cities have their own first-class opera houses and museums. On the other, they offer a unique forum for both cultural and political debate. Demographers write about shrinking cities, medics about biological ethics, Jeremy Rifkin on Europe, and Gilles Kepel and Bernard Lewis on Islam.

Even though feuilleton editors occasionally nurse the illusion that their own, oh so brilliant articles are more important than everything else and that research and story-telling do not belong in their pages, the feuilletons constitute Germany's only forum for public, cosmopolitan discussion. It was here that historians sparked the debate that led Germans to redefine their relationship with their own history. Here Günter Grass writes about copyright and Andrzej Stasiuk about the Ukraine. The proximity of Eastern Europe represents a huge asset, making Germany far less provincial than the rest of Western Europe or other English-speaking countries. Would Imre Kertesz have won the Nobel Prize had he not enjoyed major success in Germany? Germans love foreign literature. They know that Peter Esterhazy and Juri Andruchowytsch are outstanding authors.

There are historical reasons for the lively culture of debate in the German feuilletons. After World War II, the allies issued newspaper licences to Germans with more or less clean records. "Teach the Germans democracy," they said, "but for God's sake, don't let them express themselves: the breeding ground is still fertile." To this day, political editors have been only too happy to oblige. They have kept a close eye on their commentary pages, allowing only authorised in-house editors to have a say. This has turned the political pages into a sterile preceptory where the same people voice off time and again, leaving the chaos of the world and the miseries and joys of discourse to the feuilletons.

Little is known of all this outside of Germany, because the German language has the status of a modern-day ancient Greek, and few people speak it abroad. Isn't it time to translate some of this into English? For the benefit of Europe, and of course for China, Russia, India, Burkina Faso and the USA?

The sphere of public debate is becoming increasingly international. Le Monde diplomatique is certainly at the vanguard with its many spin-offs. Another upmarket example is the Lettre International, which appears in numerous European cities, and promotes international cultural awareness with its Lettre Ulysses Award for literary reporting. Eurozine uses the Internet to publish English, German, and French translations of cultural magazines from every country. signandsight.com will present English translations of the German-language feuilletons. Regional difference can only be articulated in the idiom of globalisation.

An angel is passing through Europe: Let's talk European!

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Thierry Chervel, born in 1957, studied musicology at the Technische Universität Berlin. He has worked as film, music and current events editor at the Tageszeitung, and was cultural correspondent in Paris for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. He is co-founder of the online cultural magazine Perlentaucher and of signandsight.com.
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