Relocating the European debate

17 May 2013
Read in:
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 Marc-Olivier Padis' contribution to the debate.

Within the European Union there are, in principle, no obstacles to the discussion of ideas: they can be exchanged freely, there are institutions devoted to their development and many observers seek ever closer exchanges. But, unlike commercial goods, ideas do not obey any kind of logic of the market and anyone can see that, in an area of free exchange, meetings of minds are never as intense as one would hope. Nevertheless, a stronger platform for European public debate would be useful as an accompaniment and counterbalance to those economic and institutional exchanges that nowadays rekindle misunderstandings and caricatures among European peoples. Why has such a platform not evolved?

First of all, if it were to exist, what would it be like? There is no existing model for this kind of public debate. It could not really be a transposition onto the national scale of an internal debate, if only because of the constraint imposed by having to mediate it through a language of communication (English) or resort to translation. Neither would it resemble the kind of scientific debate which, as a matter of principle, knows no frontiers and takes place independently of its context: a scientific truth remains a scientific truth no matter where it originates or is received. We cannot fail to be aware, when we take part in a truly pan-European debate, that transmission from one context to another is not neutral. More important still is the point that we must not merely recognize misunderstandings but also take advantage of the beneficial effects of the movements and changes that go along with any crossing of frontiers. Today, by default, the only truly trans-European debate is the one monopolized by economists, who can claim that the technical nature of their discipline irons out any local peculiarities: the so-called “laws” of economics must be obeyed everywhere, even if this ends up being detrimental to political decision making.

But it was not always thus. For many years cultural exchanges flowed through European channels and journals played a central role in this process. What has changed? It is impossible to answer this question without putting it into an historical perspective. The truth is that cultural exchanges do not happen at the same rate as commercial exchanges: they have ups and downs; they relate to historical sequences of events and focus on major questions. Ever since journals have been playing an important role in the circulation of ideas, that is, since the late nineteenth century, the debate in Europe has, by and large, taken place in two major phases. The first major topic was that of democracy and nationalism, particularly relating to conflicts concerning secularization, religion’s hold on politics and what in France was known as the war of the two cultures (Catholic and republican). Independence, the defence of the national language and culture and the call for democracy were often expressed through the medium of journals. In the second phase, following the First World War, it was Marxism and the question of communism that divided Europe. But the question of communism, the source of so many divisions, spread confrontation far beyond the field of politics and, in a sense, imposed a common framework for debates on intellectual confrontations. It was the trans-European debate par excellence in the post-war years, the subject that gave structure to intellectual rapprochements and divisions right up to the 1980s: the importance of dissidence, of writers and of the demand for freedom of thought in relation to ruling powers.

In the 1990s, after the fall of communism, debate turned out, paradoxically, to be more difficult. Europe was reunited but contacts were not easy to maintain; eyes soon began to turn towards the United States, where debate is organized in a very different way, with media whose influence is global, thanks to the diffusion of the English language, which acts as a lingua franca, and a powerful and dynamic university sector. If the force of attraction of American academic debate defined the 1990s, it turned out to be of little use to Europe in the years following the millennium. The United States stood apart, preoccupied with internal security measures arising from 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tore itself apart politically in pursuing an economic model that led straight to the crisis of 2008. The intense ideological confrontations that divided Americans shed little light on debate in Europe where the system of solidarity, whilst it differs from country to country, is still strong and accepted. Relations with the United States have always been central in European intellectual debate. However, since the economic crisis, internal European debate has become more important and American interest in Europe has diminished: consider, for example, the greater interest that Obama now takes in Asian affairs.

This is a climate in which journals have once again begun to play their part as a means of communication between the various countries of Europe. No longer is the structure of debate that they mediate based on ideology, politics or geopolitics. Moreover there is no trend or fashion linked to academic study to impose subjects of discussion as used to be the case with existentialism, structuralism, the Annals school, deconstruction, and so on. Neither is the production of ideas typified any more by major figures who left their mark on French thought and were influential on an international level, such as Raymond Aron, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Paul Ricur, et al. Once we have accepted the idea that a single academic discipline or a single work of reference is not sufficient to cover all the issues of the day, we can see that the disappearance of such big names has given back to cultural journals their role as a forum for collective efforts aimed at increasing understanding of our present situation.

Those questions that are common to the countries of Europe have differing resonances in different European contexts. But such resonances must be examined specifically, in particular, editorially; hence the importance of a structure such as Eurozine which deals with exchanges of ideas between journals. But such exchanges are not just a matter of course: they need translating, in both senses of that word; that is, not only from one language to another but also from one cultural context to another. European intellectual debate cannot be reduced to economic controversies, to institutional debates about the EU or to major appeals on matters of principle supported by important signatories (such as petitions supported by a few symbolic big names in the main European newspapers). Ideas need to be channelled through institutions, they do not generate themselves. The inspiration that producers of ideas provide is not enough on its own: there have to be contexts in which they can emerge, in which efforts can be consolidated — and journals provide a means of making this happen.

What are the questions that could be said to be common to all the countries of Europe and that generate articles in journals? Without attempting to be exhaustive, one might suggest the following topics that go beyond European institutional questions:

Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of “liquid modernity”

This term refers to the change in spatial references in an interconnected world. This is wider than the debate about “globalization” which, in a French context, is often reduced to an economic problem, that is, international competition and relocation. Globalization is a general phenomenon that reorganizes space in function of the ebb and flow of exchanges and places where connections are made. This was the theme of Eurozine’s last meeting in Hamburg in September, devoted to ports as places where global connections are made. We invited the American sociologist Saskia Sassen, whose works on “global cities” make it possible for us to understand this new world geography that illustrates the reorganization of the world space.1 Thus, in the age of globalization, geographical and urban analysis is returning to centre stage in our exploration of the links between major cities and also the relationships between these megalopolises and their territories — and the related political entities that these are, to some extent, beginning to evade. For a country such as France with its tradition of centralization, this is not easy to grasp, because the power centre has always been wary of the kind of strength that territories or large cities might acquire. Which political space is appropriate as a standpoint from which to conduct such geographical and urban analysis? For a long time now, supporters of Europe have been critical of the national level. But has Europe actually managed to establish itself as the new scale of reference? In terms of democracy, it is clear that this is not easy to do since the people of Europe do not readily identify themselves as citizens of Europe. Emergence of a European political space therefore continues to be hypothetical.

Cultural decentralization

What is referred to as “globalization” also implies a redefinition of Europe’s place in the world. Geopolitical influence is being redistributed, world powers are changing dramatically, wealth creation is shifting towards Asia and a new period in the world economy is opening up. From a European point of view, one might consider that this is but a limited kind of rebalancing: wealth still remains disproportionately with the industrialized countries. We regard the “emerging” countries with either fear or sympathy, as competitors or new partners, zones of relocation or export markets. But Asian countries place a different interpretation on our times: they do not see themselves as “emerging” but as taking back the place that was theirs throughout a millennium of economic history, the earliest such history. The “Atlantic crisis” is no more than an episode that is accelerating the return of China to its rightful place among the main economic powers.

From the point of view of reflection, this transformation is being expressed through a change in projected historiographical research, with the development of “interconnected history”. This is a more accurate term than “global history” because the latter raises the problem of making us think of history written from an overall perspective that no one can truly claim to be able to achieve. But it is possible to write the kind of history that privileges no particular point of view, neither western, anti-western nor anti-imperialist. This is what Romain Bertrand, for example, calls “fair shares history” (histoire à parts égales) which, in writing Indonesian history, gives as much weight to colonial as to indigenous sources. The same approach can be found in the work of Serge Gruzinski or Patrick Boucheron. In this sense, this movement is close to the kind of post-colonial studies that take note of the end of European domination without rehearsing yet again the historical polemic about the legacy of colonialism (cf. Achille Mbembe).

The dilemmas of an open society

When we become aware of the transformation of powers on a worldwide level we must also ask ourselves about the status of European culture in a world made up of networks, a world that is no longer arranged in terms of a centre and its periphery. Does that mean we must therefore put European culture into a different perspective? And if European culture loses its status as a benchmark, how are we to imagine integration into a common culture in societies characterized by immigration and cultural pluralism? This problem raises the question of types of belonging in a liberal society. In the industrial world, solidarity first became institutionalized on the basis of belonging to the world of work and having a salary. These features gave the worker a protected status and provided social mobility. But the world of work has been transformed in our post-industrial times and work is now a much less powerful force for integration; hence the considerable problems created by unemployment and by highly individualized types of employment that make the forms of solidarity that were constructed in the “provider-state” more fragile. This exit from the industrial world has become evident in the growth of the world of networks and cyberspace that elbows aside geographical boundaries and associated landmarks.

This is probably the explanation for the return to prominence in political discourse of questions concerning identity, questions that are all the more difficult to express politically because they are often fragile identities, identities that are invented, that express dreams or affiliations built on merely partial knowledge and following family break-up (such as are caused by emigration, for example). Thus, references to cultures and to religions are henceforth far more a matter of invention arising from a search for identity, from imaginary affiliation (to the ummah, for example in the case of Islam; see the works of Olivier Roy and Patrick Haenni) than from family tradition (cf. the growth on every continent of Pentecostal religions in which proselytizing and the theme of conversion are central). This “liquid” modernity also implies fluidity in adherence, identification, self-construction; the experience of mobility is omnipresent.

How can an open society offer forms of identity that are stronger than the formal guarantees provided by the established state? These questions are common both to the member-countries of the EU and to the European project itself.

These three cross-disciplinary topics, which are in no way exhaustive, cannot be entirely contained in or presented through the work of the press, whose role is to reflect current events. The press, moreover still has difficulty in forming a view on such broad questions. On the other hand, these questions are dealt with by scientific disciplines. One might mention work in the field of labour law (Alain Supiot), religious sociology (Sébastien Fath), political history (Pap Ndiaye), urban geography (Michel Lussault), and so on. But all such subjects do not belong solely to areas of academic study: they have resonances that cut across the political situations of all the countries of Europe and call for choices to be made, confrontations to occur and stances to be adopted within national frontiers. This is why they need cross-border studies, why they also require viewpoints to be compared and contrasted in the world of the arts, why they need social and militant action that can be featured easily by journals, whose tradition is to handle just such encounters.

  1. Saskia Sassen, "Urbanizing non-urban economies", Eurozine, 15 March 2013,

Published 17 May 2013

Original in French
Translation by Michael J. Routledge
First published in Vikerkaar 3/2013 (Estonian version); Eurozine (English and French versions)

Contributed by Vikerkaar
© Marc-Olivier Padis / Vikerkaar Eurozine

recommended articles