Cultural Studies and Europe
Cultural Studies and Europe

Does Europe Exist?

History, Potentialities and Problems of European Identity

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In the case of the European Union the question has repeatedly been raised as to whether such a union as a "state" exists at all, since it possesses no distinguishing characteristics in the sense that a nation state does.However, the nation state - as defined by the information service of the European parliament - has proved to be a cause of oppression and war (1). This  thesis has received ample confirmation recently in the war in formerYugoslavia.

Nevertheless, the attempt is constantly made to impose a model on the future of Europe which was in the past viewed as providential for the nation state. In the age of mass communications, this is based on  the use of  culture as a conditioning force (homogenisation of "ethnicity", language, the fine arts, sciences....) Or, in another variation oriented to power politics -  the limitation of policy to the fields of finance, technology, and military affairs, whereby responsible political forces involved are more or less aware of the resultant tensions and polarisations.

In Europe, as in other countries, (eg. India, Australia, Cameroon), there exists, or existed, other forms of communal life. The richest cultures, (as in Ancient Greece or in Spain prior to 1492), came into being through the integration of many cultural processes. In contrast, the "military revolution" and its "victory" primarily brought destruction.

The forms in which nation states chose to express their identity arose very late, under certain specific constellations and were by no means inevitable. Thus it is necessary to examine some aspects more closely so that one may  probe, though not impose via deduction, various perspectives on the opportunties for productive communal coexistence in Europe.

Above all, one needs to keep in mind that questions of ethnicity arise first in relation to modernisation, and begin to play a role with the shaping of  the nation state (2). Consequently, it is no coincidence that conflict over language and  the cultural aspirations of particular nationalities were first  linked to one another  in Europe after 1848. Similarly, the legitimisation of the nation state is often derived from a (mythic) origin placed as far back as possible in the past - thereby increasing prestige.

In Germany - and as a counter reaction finding expression in a variety of ways soon across all Europe - cultures  in their narrowest sense are being used  to condition the representation of a tradition of ideas for national cultural objectives (3).

The situation under the Habsburg monarchy was exceptional. Unlike, for example, the prevailing situation in France and Russia, the "dominant ethnic group" was numerically weak and endeavoured to modify the balance of power through affiliation with the South German states. This option was eliminated by military defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1866. The result was a compromise which brought with it  unique consequences: multilingualism in university and administrative discourse and a multilingual cultural life which was however permanently overshadowed by conflicts between the various nationalities. A transnational civil socienty did not arise, but the Habsburg monarchy was also not a nation state. And while this indicates an Austrian literary history which should incorporate at least 12 languages, that history has yet to be written.

The identity of the Habsburg Monarchy - dependent on an external enemy (first "the" Turks and later "the" Russians) - collapsed with the defeat of the First World War. Transcultural and transdisciplinary impulses were crushed in favour of concepts based on nationality. Discrimination, oppression and violence were the result on all sides. During the annexation of Austria into Hitlerite Germany such methods were linked to attempts to exterminate particularly the Czech and Polish intelligentsia.

Again, during the communist dictatorships the nationalism of the past was never thoroughly dealt with, nor was nationalism abandoned. Invocation of the past played as great a role as previously, (though under a different interpretation than pre-1945).

Post-1945, societies in France, Portugal and England were also profoundly affected by the collapse of colonial empires, while the primary modifying force in Germany was a marked federalism. However, as previously, many questions remain unresolved and the political process in many countries in Europe (eg. Ireland) is only beginning to confront and deal with the issue of violence. Developments in Europe pointing to a new kind of future have begun only with recent processes in Europe.

In this connection, there is broad agreement that the Europe of the 21st century will see the idea of the nation state lose significance, while the concept of integration through  acknowledging diversity should gain significance. The fields of analysis in this context are "regionality", "nationality", "multiculturality", "interculturality" and "transculturality". These terms indicate processes - working together, side by side and counter to one another - which are  underway not only in Europe. The most important perception in this respect  is that culture is not bound to "ethnicity", or language or the nation state. There are of course highly specific regional and national cultures. And there are also far reaching transcultural processes underway worldwide. But they all share the characteristic of being hybrid cultures.

To mention a few examples here: the German language is - like all other "national" languages in Europe - a hybrid language. It is based on Latin and Greek grammar and contains (already in relevant 19th century dictionaries) more "foreign" than "German" words. Putting aside the nationalistic mystifications of the 19th century, this is clearly not a flaw. Far more, it's a feature indicating the ability to integrate for the enrichment of cultural processes useful and varied cultural change in lifestyle, forms of production, the arts, science, law and so on.

A further example: an essential building block of today's "western" culture is a numerical system which is derived from Indian mathematics and came to Europe via Persia and from there via the Arab lands. The introduction of the number "zero" was an essential innovation. Worldwide, today's computer programmes can only be written with its assistance.

Art forms also recognize no borders. In spite of the parameters of identity constructed by the Habsburg Monarchy in relation to the enemy country Russia, the Rococo style can be found in St Petersburg as well as in Vienna. The Commedia dell'arte had a rather similar repertoire of characters and dramatic forms in Persia, Italy, Austria, southern Germany and France, (although performances were given in the various languages.) Surrealism and Realism are art trends which were received and developed all over the world.

On these grounds, defining anew fields of political activity is clearly indispensable to arrive at integrative policies (and thus a new Europe.) Simply living side by side in cities and regions (key-word: multiculturality), or simple bilateral or multilateral "exchanges" (key-word: interculturality) do not in any sense tap the productive opportunities of cultural processes as hybrid processes.

The cultural forms mentioned continue current divisions, although they are a step toward improving mutual understanding and counter the use of culture as a means of exclusion. While there are still no sound political concepts in relation to cultural processes, there is discussion on the theme of "cultural policies for Europe" which points in that direction. The political vacuum to date has meant that "culture" has been appropriated primarily by nationalistic and populist groups (with the exception of modern art, which not by chance represents a bète noir as much to Le Pen as to the Taliban, Jörg Haider and Vajpayee.) However conditions have changed in comparison to a Europe of nation states, potentially weakening the political opportunities of nationalists. These new conditions are in essence the necessity of furthering peace (and with it those elements which link cultures), the common economic area , new work structures, opportunities for cross-border communications, the search for compromise between different interest groups in society, the need for a new dynamic between societies and nature, the opportunity for people to participate in developments at all levels, etc.

The constellation of tasks this represents cannot be fulfilled within the framework of a region or nation state, but only within the framework of European and international processes, which do however take regional interests into account. New structures can arise then essentially through  interaction and synergies between regional and transcultural processes. And only those political forces will prove to be productive and adequate to the future which take into account the multiplicity of cultural processes and prove capable of integrating the interests of a variety of groups, as experience worldwide currently amply demonstrates.


(1) To quote the European Parliament brochure: "The Second World War brought immeasurable suffering to Europe. After 1945, there was a great desire among people to abolish the political structure which bore partial responsibility for the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries: the division of Europe into more than two dozen uncontrolled sovereign nation states" [Translation from the German original] (1996). Europa 2000, Köln, p. 6.
(2) cf. also: TRANS, the Internet journal for Cultural Studies, No. 5 on the theme "Internationalisation, Conflict, Cultural Studies":
(3)"Nineteenth-century German thinkers drew a sharp distinction between civilization, which involved mechanics, technology, and material factors, and culture, which involved values, ideals, and the higher intellectual artistic, moral qualities of a society. This distinction has persisted in German thought but has not been accepted elsewhere. Some anthropologists have even reversed the relation and conceived of cultures as characteristic of primitive, unchanging, nonurban societies, while more complex, developed, urban, and dynamic societies are civilisations. These efforts to distinguish culture and civilisation, however, have not caught on, and, outside Germany, there is overwhelming agreement with Braudel that it is 'delusory to wish in the German way to seperate culture from its foundation civilization.'" Samuel P. Huntington: The Clash of Civilizations (1998). London: Touchstone Books, p.41.

Cultural concepts
Language, images, number systems
Reality and Virtuality

Does Europe exist?
Information Structures
Structures of Research
Cultural Studies on the WWW
Cultural Processes
European Policies, Civil Societies
Education and Scholarship
"Culture of Peace"
Cultural Exchange
Financing Research

© INST: Research Institute for Austrian and International Literature and Cultural Studies, 1998