Firefighters or architects?

4 May 2011
Only in en
Mittelweg gets an earful from Jacques Delors about politicians’ lack of Eurovision; Blätter says no European demos without risk-taking; New Humanist reads a “Good Book” instead of the Bible; Host finds out why the Czechs, unlike the Poles, can get by without God; Polar pleads for a new culture of dying; Esprit compares conservative ethics of catastrophe with the new revolutionary optimism; Mute considers radical politics and the supreme fiction of art; Merkur insists on the complexity of democratic negotiation; and Beton takes part in an Albanian-Serbian dialogue.

In an interview with Mittelweg 36, Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission, gives Europe’s politicians of today un coup de pied au cul:

“I’ve met extraordinary people, prophetic and visionary politicians. I’m not saying that because I’m 85 years-old and don’t trust the people in power today. But I’m disappointed when I listen to them or watch them act. That vision is no longer there. When I was president of the Commission, we passed treaties. We had the sense that Europe absolutely had to make progress. And today? Of course, today someone can say to me, ‘But Mr Delors, we have made progress, we have prevented an even greater crisis.’ That may be. But we don’t only need firefighters, we also need architects. And there aren’t architects anymore and no visionaries either.”

“The question is simple,” Delors continues. “How can I, as leader or important politician of my country, proclaim that Europe is indispensible, that it’s a family, and then, after a meeting of the European Council, say that I’ve won against the others? No, what you need to say is: ‘We have made compromises because we’re in a position of strength and we’re in a movement of solidarity’. And not: ‘We’ve won.’ In a Europe of common interests you can’t win against the other.”

Assessing the management of the euro crisis, Delors says it could all have been different had the Germans listened to him back in 1997, when instead of balancing monetary and economic policy they “stubbornly” concentrated on the former. The term “Stability and Growth Pact” is hypocritical “because there is no coordinated economic policy underlying it”. This “construction fault” means that the euro “stands on only one leg. The euro might protect us, even if it limps, but it doesn’t stop us doing stupid things.”

Atomkraft Nein Danke! Wolfgang Kraushaar on the referendum rejecting nuclear energy in Austria in 1978. “Austria, which was one of the last industrialized nations to have managed until then without nuclear power stations, was propelled into the role of pioneer.”

Also: Nikola Tietze discusses concepts of experience, institution and critique in François Dubet’s sociology of post-industrial society.

The full table of contents of Mittelweg 36 2/2011

Adding to the growing debate on the crisis of the euro, European institutions and ultimately the Union, Blätter publishes a discussion between Jürgen Habermas, Joschka Fischer, economist Heinrich Enderlein and expert on European law Christian Callies. Is German politics, they ask, renationalizing at the expense of Europe?

Habermas and Fischer agree that it is “laughable” to maintain that Germany, France or the UK “alone are still able to play a significant global role”. Once the “motor of European integration”, German politics is now hesitant and counterproductive, Fischer states, perceiving a general avoidance of national public debate on European issues. “The European parliament is still seen as being far away in Brussels and not as representing the national sovereign at the European level.”

For that reason, what is needed in my opinion is an additional legitimating element, one that is not only formal but also substantial: an obligation for national governments to seek majorities in European issues – and not only formal majorities in parliament, […] but also actual majorities among their populations. That would mean having a genuine debate in society. And that would mean taking risks.

Jürgen Habermas re-affirms his call for a European public sphere: “Absolutely nothing needs to change in the infrastructure of national public spheres. […] The real problem is the reciprocal opening of these public spheres to one another. […] Only when there are reports in the individual national public spheres about the main positions on common subjects in the other national public spheres, can there be a Europe-wide formation of political will and opinion.”

Also: Seyla Benhabib reflects the character and consequences of the Arab Spring.

The full table of contents of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 5/2011

This year sees the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, which has been called “the most influential version of the most influential book in the world, in what is now its most influential language”. This has prompted A.C. Grayling to write his own version of a Good Book without God, with humanism taking the place of religion. In an interview in New Humanist he talks about his ambitions for this secular alternative to the Bible:

I want to show people the distilled wisdom of humanity reflecting on its own humanity, and to show that that is every bit as beautiful and powerful as the religious texts are, and in many ways much better.

Controversial is his version of the creation story. In Grayling’s Genesis, the Garden of Eden is replaced by Isaac Newton’s garden, and the apple is not the one that Eve was tempted with:

When Newton sat in his garden, and saw what no one had seen before: that an apple draws the world to itself, and the earth the apple. Through a mutual force of nature that holds all things, from the planets to the stars, in unifying embrace. (GENESIS, Chapter 1, Verse 7-8)

“I wanted to weave together a range of sources to say that the world is made of atoms, that biological life evolved”, says Grayling. “Genesis is something that science understands.”

Science as moral authority? Kenan Malik takes a critical look at American atheist Sam Harris’ new book The Moral Landscape. Harris is a prominent advocate of the thesis that science is not simply a means of making sense of facts about the world, but also a solid foundation for human ethics that can replace God and theology as ultimate moral authority.

Malik is sceptical. Having countered most of Harris’ arguments, he comes to the conclusion: “The desire to look either to God or to science to define moral values is a desire to set moral values in ethical concrete. It is a yearning for moral certainty, a fear that without external authority, humans will fall into the morass of moral relativism. But just as we do not need the false certainty of a divinely sanctified moral code, neither do we need the false certainty of a morality rooted in science.”

The full table of contents of New Humanist 3/2011

Czech literary journal Host focuses on freedom and what people are left with after banishing God from their universe. This is precisely what the Czechs have done, claims Polish writer and journalist Mariusz Szczygiel in Make Your Own Paradise, a book born of his fascination with the Czechs and their culture. In an extract from the Czech translation, featuring stories of famous and not-so-famous Czechs, he introduces his favourite window in Prague and its owner, the indomitable translator Helena Stachová, “a combination of a lady of the old school and spontaneous little girl”.

We also meet the woman who landed in prison in the 1980s for sending a samizdat edition of poet Jaroslav Seifert’s memoir to the Nobel Committee in Stockholm. The founder of the department of social sciences at Charles University, she had been demoted to cleaner as punishment for signing Charter 77. “Jaroslav Seifert is perhaps the only Nobel Prize laureate who owes his award to a cleaner.”

Szczygiel tells Host editor Marek Seckar that he hopes his book about the Czechs will make Poles ask why and how they differ from their neighbours, particularly in matters of religion. Abandoning faith “forces us to take greater responsibility for our own lives instead of shifting it to a strange being residing in heaven. We have to find the strength in ourselves. This is not an easy task. But I know many Czechs who have succeeded. It’s these people my book is really about.”

Few books tell us more about present-day Czech Republic than Make Your Own Paradise, says religious scholar Dusan Luzny. Exploring facts and myths surrounding the Czechs’ alleged atheism, agnosticism and secularism, Luzny argues that his fellow countrymen are actually interested neither in religion nor atheism. Unlike in Poland, Czech society is not held together “by nationalism and certainly not by faith in God. That is why our answer to Szczygiel’s central question ‘How are you getting by without God?’ should be a relaxed: ‘Quite well, my son, quite well. Although we could do better. And it’s pretty hard work.'”

Also: Kathrin Passig describes being liberated by e-books, while a series on New Orleans by Andrei Codrescu, Tom Piazza and Chris Roche explores jazz, corruption and natural disasters.

The full table of contents of Host 4/2011

The new issue of Polar sets out to break one the last taboos of society: death and dying. “After all,” write the editors, “it makes a big difference whether we die or live for eternity. One needn’t declare war on death like Elias Cannetti to see that one only has this life. We should talk about the implications of that – individually, privately, but also socially and politically.”

What really frightens us isn’t death but dying, writes theologian and Green Party politician Katrin Göring-Eckardt. When modern medicine causes dying to intrude ever more into living, “then it is in the interests of a good life that we learn to shape it. That we experience our last days not as something that merely happens to us, but as something that we can and want to consciously and creatively form.”

Göring-Eckardt pleads for a new “culture of dying” where we “understand dying more strongly as something that is located and rooted in a social environment”. Talking with the dying about death, she writes, “can be liberating for everyone. To prepare for death by talking about it means to understand death as a social process and people as social beings, also when they are dying.”

Social solidarity with the dying and their next-of-kin means creating time and space for the culture of dying. […] A humane society must meet this challenge, not least in view of the ‘ageing society’ and loosening social ties. The first step is to be aware of death instead of anxiously hushing it up or repressing it.

Dead soldiers: Controversy surrounding the recently-built memorial for German soldiers killed in “humanitarian interventions” since 1990 centred on the absence of public consultation and its “concealed” location, which critics found incommensurate with the idea of a “parliamentary army”. The rush with which the memorial was built, write Anna Geis and Sabine Mannitz, suggested that the intention was to avoid a critical public discourse on the way soldiers’ deaths are interpreted. “The causes for the lack of debate are complex,” they write, “but are above all the fault of government, which for years has failed to deal appropriately with the reality of the way in which the German army is now deployed – a reality that includes killing and dying.”

Also: An interview with Jean Baudrillard given in 2000, in which the late philosopher talked about his own death.

The full table of contents of Polar 10 (2011)

Disaster, revolution. The patterns are familiar and ancient; the application to Japan and North Africa all too easy. And yet the idea of revolution is slowly losing its once-firm grip on our political imagination and a narrative of collapse taking its place, argue Michaël Fssel and Frédéric Worms: “Disaster and progress are opposite and symmetrical, two normative ways to describe the future. They describe, respectively, what to avoid and what to hope for.”

No wonder, then, that Europe is increasingly concerned by the possibility of catastrophe: disaster politics suits a culture with few dreams and much to lose. “There is always a conservative ideal within the ethics of catastrophe, according to which what must be done (or not be done) is judged on the basis of what could be lost. […] The matter of changing what already exists, of a positive social transformation, becomes almost taboo.”

This is a culture of pessimism, above all pessimism about human agency. Media coverage of Japan shows that our fear of human activity can outweigh even the tragedy of natural disasters:

Attention moved almost immediately from the real catastrophes to a possible and imaginable catastrophe, that at the Fukushima nuclear plant. It seemed that the disaster that had taken place, and the tens of thousands of deaths it caused, had been eclipsed by what could be caused by human action.

Arab revolutions: The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia tell an opposite story. Here, decades of dejection and political immobilization have been replaced by belief in the possibility of change. Bruno Aubert and Hamit Bozarslan write that, since the 1980s, Arab societies have been characterized by ‘social fatigue’. For thirty years, the social energy of the anti-colonial struggle and later leftist political movements seemed to have dissipated, before unexpectedly rising to the surface.

The revolutions were unexpected not just because authoritarian governments repressed public expressions of discontent. It was also Europe’s concern with security above transformation that caused it to overlook the new social movements:

Now we are rediscovering that humans are capable of political initiative, and that this comes not only from ‘civil society’ in the usual sense as a collection of intellectuals, human rights activists and NGO officials […] The Arab conflicts created a new political balance of power, even within societies thought by many to be doomed to isolation, to the mental structures of authoritarianism, to individual and collective immobility.

The full table of contents of Esprit 5/2011

At the beginning of April Mute announced it was exploring new working models following a 100 per cent funding cut from the Arts Council of England. “The free-content economy of the web, which felt like a natural home for our discussions, eventually became Mute‘s nemesis, as sales and subscriptions decreased at the same speed our web readership grew, and a growing international community of readers slowly and unwittingly dealt our ‘business model’ a death-blow,” rued the editors.

It’s therefore with a mix of solidarity and sheepishness that Eurozine draws attention to the very interesting, ongoing discussion between artist Alfredo Jaar and philosopher Simon Critchley currently running – and freely accessible – on the Mute website.

Referring to “the dense spectacle of violence, destruction and hope” in the Arab world and Japan, Jarr begins by asking what artists can do with “this information that most of us would rather ignore. Can art make a difference?” Referring to the painter Francis Bacon’s comment about art “remaking” the “violence of reality”, Critchley comments that “we think we see what happens ‘there’ and make pronouncements about ‘them’. But we do not see as we are seen because we are wrapped in a screen. There are tyrants here too. Art might unwrap us a little through its violence.”

Jarr, the artist, is cautious: “To tear away one or two of these screens would certainly help, but it will not be enough. It is never enough as we cannot represent reality, we can only create new realities.” However Critchley perceives a third alternative to the Kantian Ding an sich and the Baudrillardian forest of simulacra: a “supreme fiction” or “fiction in which we can believe, or a fiction of the absolute. My mind remains open on that possibility.”

This affirmation of the question of the supreme fiction might also be linked back to forms of political association that have been figured in the last months in all their hopeful, resistant complexity. I see the question of radical politics as also animated by the question of the supreme fiction.

More on Mute

In Merkur, Uwe Volkmann analyses why we should cultivate rather than despise our democratic institutions. What democracy can achieve under the conditions of a modern mass society is “the daily negotiation and balance of interests, none of which are able to claim a natural priority under the governing principle of democratic equality. What it cannot do, however, is make the differences between these interests disappear.”

Parliamentarism always reminds us anew that we must come to terms with others in order to find solutions to problems that affect us all. At the same time, it stands for the fact that these solutions do not fall from heaven as if something hidden was waiting there to intervene, a pure political will, that experts can look up at and recognize, and that only needs to be put into practice. […] The solutions are complicated, they have to be developed through tough fighting, others will always claim to have a better solution, and with many problems it turns out that we don’t have any solution at all.

Freedom of expression on the web: When it comes to commentary forums on the web, freedom of expression is often seen to be a bad thing: “I know of nowhere in the German language Internet where a constructive commentary culture predominates”, writes Kathrin Passig. “It’s not because ‘the Net is the enemy’, since in the English language web there are places where the commentary is more interesting than the article commented upon.”

But Passig is not surprised that “central technical and social problems have yet to be solved”; after all “the technical requirements for the exchange of opinion with groups too large to fit around a pub table” have mostly only been around for 10 to 15 years.

Passig describes a variety of existing technical and communicative procedures used by the operators of these platforms to initiate and cultivate constructive behaviour in discussion forums and the like. But none of these procedures will last, she predicts: “Sometimes such entrenched problems can only be solved by setting up an alternative, and nowhere is it easier to redesign and set something up as on the web, where uninhabited continents go on and on for ever.”

The full table of contents of Merkur 5/2011

“I’ve been taking part in the citizens’ dialogue between Albanians and Serbs for more than twenty years,” writes the Albanian philosopher, art critic and political analyst Shkëlzen Maliqi in a special German language issue of Serbian journal Beton, published in connection with the Leipzig Book Fair 2011.

We were often denounced and disparaged by politicians, media and police. We also had our doubts. Did we really understand the political processes? Did we say the right things at the right time? Civilian initiative seemed marginal to us, without the necessary impact. Our advice was ignored by those opposed to the dialogue, but who had prepared and started the war.

The UN resolution of September 2010 – that among other things confirms the legal status of Kosovo and encourages dialogue – requires that the two states talk, something which must be supported, continues Maliqi. Albanians and Serbs have themselves taken the initiative here, he points out. Increasingly often, young citizens of Kosovo and Serbia meet up, with or without the presence of the media, motivated by the wish to get to know each other and exchange experiences.

One thing that has come out of these meetings is the poetry festival Polyp in Pristina. Here, young writers from Kosovo, Serbia and the surrounding region translate each others’ work and demonstrate a natural curiosity about what their neighbours write and publish.

Also: Serbian and Kosovar prose and poetry from the two German language anthologies From Belgrade, With Love and From Pristina, With Love, including Kujtim Pacaku, Xhevdet Bajraj, Mihajlo Spasojevic, Milos Zivanovic and Shpëtim Selmani.

The full table of contents of Beton special issue (2011)

Published 4 May 2011

Original in English
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