Circulating ideas

17 May 2013
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On 28 September 2012, the Institut français d'Estonie opened a series of debates entitled "New ideas in Europe". In the first event, Marc-Olivier Padis of Esprit and Märt Väljataga of Vikerkaar exchanged ideas on "Cultural journals and new ideas". The following is a reworked version of Märt Väljataga's contribution to the debate.

For the sake of the present discussion, perhaps it is sufficient to define ideas as stopping places in the stream of consciousness, definite forms in the flux of human experience. The flux can be frozen into ideas that take on different shapes, which can then be exchanged, processed, consumed, played with, applied, imported and exported. We can create formulas and constructions and form these into arguments, which can be channeled back into the current of life. We can never really experience another’s experience but we can think another’s thoughts. But what does the circulation of ideas signify? And what role do journals play in the process?

The circulation of ideas

The relationship between ideas and practice, and ideas and interests is always under- or overdetermined, there is no one-to-one correspondence. The quality and kind of results an idea might engender can never be predicted. Opinion is divided: on the one hand there is a position that ideas are “just ideas”, mere toys for thought, abstractions, fictions which are good for playing with and for combining with each other, but the real causes of important events exist in the material and willed world, in the sphere of economic and power relations. This implies an aesthetic attitude that deems the excitement and imaginative appeal of ideas to be more important than their veracity or practical application. On the other hand there is the view once shared, among others, by Marxists: ideas are merely vested interests or after-the-fact rationalizations in disguise – and, as such, used for justifying actions. Then there is an outlook that recognizes the originative priority of ideas. It is summarized in John Maynard Keynes’ famous passage: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”

So we have three positions: ideas as toys for thought, ideas as disguises for special interests, and ideas as the chief determinants of practice. Unfortunately there is no certain method to tell which one is right. But at least one can say that the more abstract or metaphysical the idea, the less determinable and predictable its practical application. Nevertheless, even the most metaphysical ideas can merge with practical consequences. Vincent Descombes has satirized the climate of thought in France in the 1970s: “In France the development of a political position remains the decisive test, disclosing as it does the definitive meaning of a mode of thought. It is as if the heart of the matter has not been reached until, from suppositions about the One and the Many, or about the nature of knowledge, the subject shifted to the issue of the next elections or the attitudes of the Communist Party.”1

Looking back into the history of ideas we can see how the most general concepts (pragmatism, idealism, positivism, essentialism, relativism and so on) can, in different times and different environments, inspire entirely opposing political attitudes and movements.

Ideas do not alter in time alone – so that the thoughts of long defunct thinkers blossom later in the activities of men of action – but also in space. And in both cases, interesting metamorphoses may occur. Usually,ideas start out as particular responses to particular challenges, but they may later take on a life of their own, travelling across borders and mutating into something else. An idea in one culture may be “just an idea”, a toy for thought, but, elsewhere, becomes the most literal guide to action. It happened in nineteenth century Russia: ideas about transforming society, which in the West were often considered theoretical, playful or frivolous thought experiments, were transformed in a new environment into practical programmes and, on new soil, yielded a fruit quite contrary to initial expectations. A recent example: a couple of years ago, British journalist Peter Pomerantsev quoted a Russian blogger who had noted that “the number of references to Derrida in political discourse is growing beyond all reasonable bounds. At a recent conference the Duma deputy Ivanov quoted Derrida three times and Lacan twice.” Pomerantsev remarked: “In an echo of socialism’s fate in the early twentieth century, Russia has adopted a fashionable, supposedly liberational Western intellectual movement and transformed it into an instrument of oppression.”2

But there are reverse examples of how the most pressing political events and concerns may attract interest abroad, but merely as interesting and abstract ideas. German intellectuals of Kant’s era looked at the French Revolution with a kind of aesthetic detachment, taking far less notice of the spilt blood than the sublimity of the ideas expressed in slogans. And today, there is an extreme divergence in the reception of the eurocrisis. A painful reality for many countries, for the Germans it is still just a distant noise from beyond the borders, just an idea. Finally there are constant and justified complaints about how the connection between ideas and intentions on the one hand and the results on the other has broken down in today’s complex world, where unintended consequences threaten to become the norm.

Just as the strength and the character of the impact of ideas remains unclear and unpredictable, the way in which they are circulated – both transnationally and within national borders – remains mysterious. The exchange of ideas still takes place to a significant extent within national cultural spaces. And just as the world economy is a system of inequalities, the same is true of the market for ideas, in which exporting and importing nations have a role to play too. The current account of peripheral nations is in permanent deficit: we import more ideas than we export. Often the conditions of this exchange are also unjust. An example from the area in which I have been involved as an academic: the most important ideas of the twentieth century in literary theory, including formalism, structuralism, dialogism and the phenomenology of reading, were developed in eastern and central Europe (including the German-speaking countries); upon migrating to the English speaking world, they were often transformed into travesties, which are now re-imported into the East as if they were luxury goods. The relationship between supply and demand is complex. Ideas are imported to meet the local demand but the demand may also be created by the supply. The latter is especially the case in the academic sphere, where abstract imported ideas desperately seek local applications.

The communication of ideas

International currents of communication have only just begun to be studied. These studies were referred to by the late Bernhard Peters at the European Meeting of Cultural Journals in 2004 in Tallinn. He stated: “Cultural exchange, flows of ideas and arguments, flows of books, magazine articles, newspaper pieces as well as newspaper reports, references in articles and so on are markedly more dense between many European countries and North America, or more specifically with the United States, than are flows between many European countries.”3 And these currents are asymmetrical too, as Perry Anderson has noted: “Despite much European investment in the United States, there is scarcely any evidence of reciprocal influence at all.”4 This may also explain the famous quip by Timothy Garton Ash: “If I want to reach the widest European intellectual audience, the best way is to write an essay in The New York Review of Books.”5 The observations of Ash, Anderson, and Peters belong to the past decade, but it is hard to believe that the transatlantic currents of communication have changed much. True, there seems to be a certain European isolationism in dealing with the financial crisis, and the Unites States is globally not as powerful as it was a decade ago. This relates to one of the points that Marc-Olivier mentioned with reference to Europe: the shift in cultural foci.

Globalization means, among other things, the decline of the relative importance of the West (Europe and USA) and the rise of other regions. How is this trend felt in Estonia? Just one personal memory: in the early 1980s university students attracted to China and India mostly had philological interests confined to the ancient societies of China and India – to Buddhist texts, Taoism and ancient poetry. Today both places have immediate material and economic relevance on a global scale. But still, as immigration from these parts of the world to Estonia and Estonian economic relations with countries beyond EU borders are both rather limited, the rise of Asia is manifested first and foremost in certain lifestyle phenomena (from cuisine to New Age trends).

How do the other topics discussed by Marc-Olivier – liquid modernity, the change of spatial orientations, the dilemmas of open society – manifest themselves in Estonia? Perhaps also in a rather indirect manner: probably as a general sense of insecurity and vulnerability, as a worry about emigration, demographic trends and national inheritance – concerns that politicians have few scruples about manipulating. So some of these topics surface as ideas (the rise of new regions, the emergence of megacities) and some remain emotional undercurrents that we have yet to articulate (liquid modernity, new identities).

But is there any role for cultural journals in the international and national exchange of ideas? It is a painful question. In his important essay “Kidnapped West” (1983), Milan Kundera described how he tried to communicate the loss felt in Prague after the Soviet invasion: “I arrived in France and tried to explain to French friends the massacre of culture that had taken place after the invasion: ‘Try to imagine! All of the literary and cultural reviews were liquidated! Every one without exception!’ Then my friends would look at me indulgently with an embarrassment that I understood only later. […] If all the reviews in France or England disappeared, no one would notice it, not even their editors.”6 It is a poetic exaggeration, of course. At least the editors would notice.

I can recall several issues of Vikerkaar devoted to the problems mentioned by Padis (emerging nations: 4-5 /2010; urban studies: 4-5 /2004; secularization: 1-2 /2008; intellectual property and new techologies: inter alia, 10-11 /2011). Vikerkaar‘s membership in the Eurozine network has delivered some of the thoughts expressed in our pages to an international readership: Tonis Saarts on the causes of 2007 riots in Tallinn; 7 Tiit Hennoste on the transformations of the Estonian media landscape, 8 and Rein Müllerson on the spread of democracy. 9 But still, the impact of cultural reviews with limited circulation on public opinion and political agenda remains doubtful to say the least, although they may have a long-term influence on the development of culture in the widest sense. But as Bernhard Peters emphasized in his Tallinn speech, this “trickle-down” effect is hard to measure empirically. In the last quarter of a century, attitudes to gender and family issues, to our bodies and descendants, to nature and to minorities have changed considerably in both the East and the West. It can’t be ruled out that the roots of some of these developments reach back to debates that took place in the distant past and reported upon in obscure cultural reviews. We know from history how post-communist Polish foreign policy was successfully devised during the 1970s in the pages of the émigré journal Kultura in Paris. We know also about the role that the Estonian literary magazine Looming played in the late 1980s in formulating the current official doctrine of legal continuity and citizenship.

I would like to point out at least three ideas or notions that originated in the Estonian public sphere and, specifically, in the pages of Vikerkaar. These concern respectively the past, the present and the future of Estonian society. In 2003, my colleague Marek Tamm (re-)introduced the Nietzschean idea of monumental history into Estonian historiographical debates, which enabled the recognition of the extent to which choices made in history-writing were determined by current concerns. Second, in 2008, Tonis Saarts diagnosed the mainstream of Estonian politics of the previous decades as “ethnic defense democracy”. This formula summarizes the way in which Estonian political choices were constrained by petty ethnic concerns and fear-mongering, resulting in the “securitization” of political discourse, lack of bold visions and magnaminity – the consequences of which could be self-defeating. The remedy here could be the Habermasian idea of “constitutional patriotism” proposed in the Estonian context by the legal scholar Lauri Mälksoo, which would switch the focus of national identification from ethnic culture to political institutions and the rule of law. A heightened historical self-reflexivity (Tamm), an accurate diagnosis of present ills (Saarts), and a proposal for the future made in good faith (Mälksoo) – all of which is not so insignificant. At least nobody can say that the cultural reviews have not tried.

  1. Vincent Descombes, Modern French Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1980, 7.
  2. Peter Pomerantsev, "Putin's Rasputin", London Review of Books 33, no. 20 (20 October 2011): 3-6,
  3. Bernhard Peters, "Ach Europa", Eurozine, 21 June 2004,
  4. Perry Anderson, "Force and consent", New Left Review 17 (September-October 2002),
  5. Timothy Garton Ash, "The European Orchestra", The New York Review of Books, 17 May 2001,
  6. The article first appeared in English as "The Tragedy of Central Europe", The New York Review of Books, 26 April 1984.
  7. Tonis Saarts, "The Bronze Nights", Eurozine, 10 October 2008,
  8. Tiit Hennoste, "From spring to autumn", Eurozine, 13 November 2009,
  9. Rein Müllerson, "From democratic peace theory to forcible regime change", Eurozine, 22 August 2012,; ibid., "Liberté, égalité and fraternité in a post-communist and globalised world", Eurozine, 29 September 2010,, and ibid., "Crouching tiger hidden dragon: Which will it be?", Eurozine, 29 April 2010,

Published 17 May 2013

Original in Estonian
First published in Vikerkaar 3/2013 (Estonian version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Vikerkaar
© Märt Väljataga / Vikerkaar Eurozine


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