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N 13 / 1998 (Ukr.)


Ales Debeljak

National Cultural Tradition And The Challenge Of Globalisation

Our troublesome fin-de-millennium seems to be a time-period marked by many "ends". They are loudly declared in a variety of different ways: Francis Fukuyama promotes "the end of history", Jean Baudrillard advances the thesis of "the end of the social", Daniel Bell talks about "the end of ideology", Michel Foucalt analyses "the end of the subject" while many left-wing writers pontificate on "the end of the nation”. If anything, however, the end of the 20th century is experiencing the end of the idea of a nation-state, which is gradually falling prey to the global circuit of anonymous trans-national capital. While the nation-state, the modern form of which grew out of the 19th European emancipatory movements,. had been in a position to successfully supervise economic tendencies throughout its territory up until the Second World War, such control is today next to impossible. In light of the mega-corporations's efforts to establish a global market beyond any specific borders – linguistic, political, ethnic or religious – with their tacit spelling out of the rules for the operations of individual national governments, the "national" source of capital is not only unidentifiable but also utterly irrelevant. It seems that culture is the last remaining sphere that may be able to preserve some of the features of a specific national experience.

A nation with a fully developed cultural identity of course has no problem in facing the challenges and influences from the outside. Indeed, facing up to different mentalities and forms of behaviour is the only mechanism Slovenians might use in order to avoid succumbing to the alluring sirens of self-sufficiency, provincial xenophobia and consequent national withering. The "other" becomes an enemy only when we are unsure of our own identity. As Slovenians, however, we should have little doubt about the existence of such specific national identity. The accomplishments of our leading writers, artists, and other creative minds provide us with a strong sense of identity regardless of a relatively small number of people that make up the total Slovenian population. I hasten to add that a small number of people, two million, does not necessarily make us small. Moreover: it would not be impossible to argue that the metaphysical smallness of a nation may be measured first and foremost in regard to how much the people believe into their nation's creative potential and the richness of their cultural tradition.

The argument of the small numerical size as an evidence in support of the claim about the inevitable, if gradual absorption of Slovenian nation in the "wider context" is much used today in Ljubljana as well as in Brussels. It is, alas, far from being new. A quick glance at the Slovenian history reveals a long tradition of this erroneous, albeit politically potent "argument of numbers". Such was, for example, the 19th century Ilyrian tradition of writers like Stanko Vraz and Ljudevit Gaj, who demanded the unification of the Slovenian and Croatian languages on the basis of alleged "linguistic pragmatism". After the First World War, this argument manifested itself in the ideological crassness of the "integral Yugoslavism". Today, the argument is often adopted by a number of members of the political elite who do not understand politics as discussion and regulation of "public affairs". Instead, they view it as nothing else but an exclusives technology of power. As such, they mistakenly believe that we can somehow be European in a direct, unmediated sense, without first being who we really are: the citizens of the Slovenian nation-state. In other words, the fact that Slovenians are Europeans only insofar as they are citizens of the Slovenian nation-state, is in the folds of the "argument of numbers" almost entirely lost.

I am convinced, though, that the issue should be reversed. It was precisely the numerical limitation of Slovenians as a people that forced the key players in the Slovenian national culture to interact with foreign strategies of creativity and thinking, processing and critically recuperating them according to their own will and principles. After all, the small population, coupled with a fruitful, if troublesome, geographic location of Slovenian nation at the crossroads of the Roman, Panonic, Germanic and Balkan cultural traditions has always presented our ancestors with the impossibility of an ideal bucolic "sameness". The notion of self-absorbed and uncontaminated Slovenian culture where national ego in Arcadia would be groomed is of course but an illusion.

Slovenian creative minds have been traditionally in a dialogue with the gospel of the Western civilisation, drawing on the inspiration of the linguistic self-confidence of Protestantism, the Italian Renaissance, the Central European baroque, French rationalism, German Romanticism and Expressionism, historicist Viennese architecture, English rock'n'roll, American pop-art and French "new-wave" films, not to mention the Hollywood genres and the intricacies of Balkan blues.

The idea that art and culture, if understood only as a formal ornament to the national life, can provide neither national freedom nor ufettered flight of imagination, appeared very early in the Slovenian history. The sheer decorative, non-substantial character of works of art and cultural tradition at large would of course end in nothing else but in a gradual decay, as is the case with the culture nurtured within the emigrant Slovenian communities overseas, sadly reduced to polka tunes, Slovenian sausages and the delights of nut-cake, "potica". The leading literary critic in Slovenia in the period between the world wars, Josip Vidmar, acutely captured the importance of local interaction with the tendencies of the wider world in his seminal essay "The Cultural Problems of Slovenian Identity" (1932). He vividly explained that a small nation is "like a very uneven peninsula — the ocean keeps splashing against its many shores and the fresh wind infinitely blows over its entiresurface".

This commitment to the "winds" of the Central European sentiment and the "ocean" of the Western civilizational experience has personally helped me in two ways. Both as a writer who is using universal codes of expression to present a thoroughly individual vision and as a Slovenian with a particular collective experience in my background, I gradually came to see that it would be impossible to divorce myself from the treasure of the national cultural references and accomplishments. A truly cosmopolitan personality can only be the one, I surmise, who comfortably traverses various cultural meridians of the planet, while not giving up the reflection of his/her national roots. Such genuine cosmopolitanism was, for example, exercised in opuses and biographies of James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Rainer Maria Rilke, Samuel Beckett and Paul Celan, to name but a few.

In post-independence Slovenia, there are two types of provincialism that combat this kind of cosmopolitan attitude. The first one was given birth by the conservative nationalist formula of an autarkic and often violent "navel gazing", i.e. the mentality that cannot, would not, and is unable to learn anything from the others. The second kind of provincialism is represented by the bona fide, though nonetheless narrow-minded liberal "internationalists" whose main characteristic might be seen in the fact that they despise each and every aspect of the national identity because of fear of being lumped together with the nationalist zealots. As a result, this position drives "internationalist" liberals toward an uncritical approval of every concept and idea that comes from "the West". Such minds in a servile manner offer their ingratiating "bless you!" when this or that fashionable cultural guru sneezes in Paris, London or New York.

Both kinds of opponents to the dialectics of local and global are active in contemporary Slovenia. This human and social condition, alas, is not all that radically different from other post-communist countries. Velvet revolutions in 1989 indeed produced a semblance of the renaissance of the national ideas in Eastern and Central Europe, encouraging the debates on validity of the national cultural experience at the end of the millennium. Almost a decade after the annus mirabilis, however, it has become rather clear that only a very few original approaches to the relation between the national and global aspect of collective identity emerged on the ruins of communist ancien reqime. Intellectuals from Central and Eastern Europe have, with largely thoughtless transplantation of assorted Western stereotypes and conceptual forms, almost unanimously accepted the role of "poor relatives" that only compete with each other in efforts to impress their rich cousins in Europe, that is, Western Europe.

However, what kind of Europe are we really talking about? As for me, I am convinced that the discussion must primarily concentrate on the very important difference. One needs to distinguish between two aspects of "the European idea". One the one hand, one must seriously entertain the project of integration of diverse European societies, an enterprise based exclusively on the economic criterion. As such, this is a goal that is as interesting as it is crucial for the Slovenians. On the other hand, one must take measure of Europe as a common, if elusive spiritual and mental realm. What is the price of the first aspect taking over the second, as I see it? Modern European epiphany does not reveal itself solely in the noble tradition of the Roman law, Greek philosophy, Renaissance art and Romantic poetry, of universal human and civil rights. Contemporary idea of Europe is advanced in the increasingly popular right-wing politics of "fascism with a smile", too. This highly conservative gate-keeping is cast not only as a tool to strengthen "natural" communities but is no less forcefully presented as a legitimation of the global market economy. The latter is promulgated by the latter-day progeny of nefarious Lord Chamberlain whose job is to ram down our throats the idea that the "economics of the bottom line" is the ultimate, if not the only purpose of human existence.

After the disintegration of the Berlin Wall and the unification of both Germanies, Western Europe cannot, despite the ever-growing homogenisation of the market, obscure its metaphysical failure and political sterility. Internal rotting of its political and moral backbone was particularly well unmasked in the war in the Balkans, where the shameful European diplomacy for the most part struggled to deny the basic right to self-defence to Bosnian and Croatian victims. This situation is painfully reminiscent of the 1930s, a period in which Europe was myopically proud of its arrogant authority of "the sick...secret diplomacy that trades with territories of small nations, calming down the rebellious looks with the League of Nations, run by the traders and oppressors themselves", as the Slovenian avant-garde poet Srecko Kosovel wrote in his lucid public lecture "Disintegration Of Society And Decay Of Art" (1925). Kosovel was of course describing the situation in his time. His prophetic insight, however, poetically intimates of the situation today. Ignorance of Kosovel's premonition would imply that one is likely to remain unprepared for the possibility that the seven seals of the Book of the Apocalypse will burst open.

More to the point: thrilled by the political proximity to Western Europe and full of resentment for the present Serbian political madness, those who shape Slovenian public discourse often grow oblivious to the fact that in the contemporary world the philosophy of the post-modern domination no longer requires machine guns to express itself. The primary strategy today appears to be the use of the forms of the seemingly harmless "ethnically neutral" economy, trans-national capital, uniform cultural patterns and a gradual mass-media unification of each and every particular mentality and idiosyncratic experience.

If Slovenians are to survive as a full-fledged nation in the times of unavoidable economic integration and often hollow rhetoric of the "united Europe", then we must keep in mind not only the capacities of economic productivity, but also those of our operas and theatres. Successful businessmen should thrive equally well as the variety of national TV and radio stations; political know-how should be thought about in the same breath as the accomplishments of the diverse national creative and intellectual impulses. While it is certainly not an easy job for such impulses to extend their reach beyond the national borders, the importance of cultural creativity nonetheless lies in that it serves as a constant reminder that, after the declaration of independence, our dilemma should no longer be spontaneously expressed in light of the defeatist (or, for some, Real- political) traditional formula, advanced by the 19th century writer, Fran Levstik: "We can either be Russian or Prussian". Today, we can finally be ourselves.

Having said all that, I make no bones about it. I do realise that there is no point in pretending to ignore relevant historical and social-political processes that have led to our contemporary condition. The feeling of cultural, economic and social superiority over the other nations in former Yugoslavia holds little, if any importance in the direct political context that is not Yugoslav anymore. In other words: from the village champions (Yugoslavia) we have become the Olympic losers (Western Europe). Instead of colonisation with the accompanying politics of Italianisation, Germanisation and Serbisation, all of which were fought against in a successful way not in the least because the enemy was possible to define, we are now facing the situation of the anonymous multinational capital. Its formidable forces are discussed in Slavoj Zizek's essay "Multiculturalism Or The Cultural Logic Of The Multinational Capitalism" (1997). Here, this famous philosopher bitterly argues that the multinational capital does no longer call for the use of unmediated violence, since particular cultures are much more effectively destroyed by the global market itself.

How to respond to this challenge? I have no original answer. As a poet, though, I simply think that the inspiration can still be drawn from the rich heritage of Slovenian cultural innovation and experiment, if not directly from the literary works of art. Not very comforting, I know. It is, alas, most likely the only comfort we can possibly get. A political program that would ignore the spiritual an cultural component of the national identity in Slovenian efforts to join European Union, would soon find itself in a position where it will be reduced to managing perhaps better paid, yet sorrowfully hollowed out labour force whose main attraction for foreign investments will be its low hourly wage.

A responsible attitude towards our national tradition is essential to the extent that culture is not a gift from our ancestors. Instead, we have borrowed it from our grandchildren. Today's situation is less than promising. A decade after the radical change, it is easy to observe that the "countries in transition" have hardly come up with a genuine strategy of managing their national identity or their cultural policy under changed circumstances. In Central and Eastern Europe, we are, on one hand, dealing with ethnic fundamentalism which prioritises the "Blut-und-Boden" ideology. On the other hand, however, we are witnessing the upsurge of a-national liberalism, triggered by the social-Darwinist logic of the market.

Benjamin Barber, American theorist of communitarism, described in his meticulously researched "Jihad vs. MCWWorld" (1995) these intertwined processes as a mixture of hatred, the exclusiveness of the tribal form, and the all-embracing maximising of the profit. Specific movements founded on the grounds of ethnic, religious or cultural obsessions with a prescribed way of communication which Barber calls Jihad, as well as movements of McWorld (aspirations for uniformity and homogenisation advanced by global corporations), share, despite mutual hostility, many similarities. The underlying idea of both is a dismissal of democracy. Jihad uses the bloody policy of the particular exclusives while McWorld prefers the bloodless economy of profit. The result of the former is voluntary blindness within which the traitors of the tribal Cause are diligently sought, while the latter offers the consumerist rigor mortis where we all do nothing else but "entertain ourselves to death."

Neither under the Jihad's canopy nor under the McWorld's umbrella, however, is there a place for a citizen. Jihad replaced this concept by a paranoid warrior and McWorld nurtured an ignorant consumer. If the ancient truth about si non est civis, non est homo is still valid as it should be, then the consequences of accepting either Jihad or McWorld will be those of a premeditated catastrophe. Without the comprehensive experience of citizenship there is no democracy. The emphasis on democracy within this context is essential if we are to realise that the democratic order lays out the grounds for the emergence of public sphere with its capability to produce free development of various personal practices and cultural styles.

Such public sphere depends on the civil society which, in turn, articulates itself through the tension vis-a-vis to the institutions of the nation-state. This tension is a corner stone of a democratic society. From this vantage point, the importance of the nation-state is indismissible since it provides minimum of regulation of conditions for the functioning of the social life. Zygmund Bauman, arguably the most lucid theorist of postmodernity in English-speaking world, in his brilliant book "Life in Fragments" (1995) thus argues: "The bigger the share of sovereignty that nation-states relegate to the supra-national all-European institutions, the lesser the possibility for a successful defence of their own identities, based on the nation- state." Should we choose to dismiss the idea of the nation-state, we thus, in the final analysis, allow the proliferation of movements of local and ethnic communities, and concomitantly tolerate the destructive crusade of "fast music, fast food and fast computers" of the global capitalist machine.

Allowing both processes to grow unhindered would prove, in my opinion, disastrous. The worlds of Jihad and McWorld are by definition incapable of respecting that unity of the symbolic, cultural and social experience which builds multilayered history of national existence and collective mentality. Both are primarily reflected in the national language. Better yet: both are reflected in a mother's tongue. It has to be emphasised that the mother tongue is not only a mechanical tool of communication. Instead, it must be first and foremost understood as a metaphysical worldview. For this writer, a poet by vocation, this aspect is of fundamental relevance in discussing affairs of culture, its pitfalls and advantages.

The fateful intimacy of language and national identity was in the Slovenian history best perceived by poets, starting with a founding father of modern letters, Romantic poet France Preseren. His purposeful rejection of German, the language he could bring to the highest aesthetic levels, did not imply a simple pragmatic exchange of the means of expression (a financially more powerful area, larger public, more sizeable market, etc.). Preseren's commitment to his mother tongue was an embodiment of an existential and political decision, his article of faith, that seems to be today gaining a renewed importance. If the mother tongue presents a particular worldview, it is possible to argue that it also represents a language of a specific perspective that cannot be sufficiently expressed in any other language.

Consider a following anecdote. One of my college students has, after a lecture, come up to me and sadly stated that he really is not sure what makes him a Slovenian. He is surfing on the Internet, watching MTV and Hollywood "slash and burn" movies, dressing in Benneton shops, and listening to the Viennese international radio station The Blue Danube, while all the rural idyllic of the Slovenian "hayracks" and the rituals of peasant festivities are, understandably, lost to him. I am sure that he is not alone in facing this central dilemma. I often wonder about it myself. But when I, in the course of our discussion, switched to English only to prove a point, my student suddenly realised how English, despite being the linqua franca of the modern world and the language of international mass culture to which we are all constantly exposed, radically narrowed his verbal register and flattened out his imaginative horizon.

It is thus the specific perspective of the mother tongue that integrates all the cultural, geographic, symbolic and social constants of the historical experience of the nation. The refuge of our mother tongue is thus the place where every thing has a name. Small wonder. The language, after all, transcends our individuality since it is older and greater than time which is, in turn, older and greater than space, as Joseph Brodsky illumintaingly says in his excellent essay "To Please a Shadow". Make no mistake: I, too, find the nationalistic logic which ignores all that is foreign and different, most repulsive. But that does not mean that I have to automatically subscribe to another extreme which would make me reject the national experience tout court. A personal example might be in order here. I happened to have spent many years in America. I have my second alma mater there, my publisher, my friends, my editorial affiliations, and professional network. I could even go so far as to say that I figuratively live on the bridge between Slovenia and America. In my Ljubljana apartment, my wife and I speak American English to each other for she, an American herself, does not yet fully feel at home in her adopted language.

Yet despite varieties of such "Americanisation" of my self, I cannot and would not follow many Slovenian politicians of the economic reductionism and their business counterparts, who shamelessly declare that a disrespect of the mother-tongue, five hundred words in Basic English and the fluency in cable TV programs spontaneously put them on the best path to a promised land of (Western) Europe. I have no desire whatsoever to adopt this attitude. This is not because I would refuse to believe that a translation of each and every document and contract into English is "a costly waste of time". After all, a small country is nothing but "a costly waste of time" in economic and financial terms. I cannot agree with them simply because I know that a human being cannot live on bread alone. This that does not necessarily mean that I support the privileges of starvation, either.

If it is true that life without a spiritual sphere in which existential experience of an individual and of a nation can be fully expressed, is but a dull life of plants, then the Slovenian economic success story in the age of the newly gained independence must be accompanied by a cultural narrative about the symbolic and the material value of the language, ethical values, the fateful burden of history and the mythic tradition. This story makes us see our lives against the broader background of national destiny, making us a link in the great chain of being that is not going to end with us; it makes us preserve our national culture and language, just as much or even more than in the years before Slovenian independence, in the era of the current European integration that considers the culture of smaller nations an unnecessary inconvenience. The national culture and language present "the only thing that invests us with individuality and identity", argued Peter Kovacic-Persin in his book "The Commitment to Slovenian Identity" (1993). He is, I believe, correct in claiming that "the stronger the need for the socialisation to universal civilisational patterns is, the bigger the man's need for his own individuality, identity and rottenness in his spiritual homeland".

Many sceptics would of course question the need to preserve the national culture and our language even more intensively under then new conditions that finally gave us all the state institutions whose job is to take care of culture. These sceptical voices are by and large convinced that the "Slovenian cultural problem" has been automatically solved by the establishment of the nation-state, where concern with the respublica is exclusively a matter of professional politicians. I, for one, think otherwise. I am convinced that the preservation of the cultural conscience in a broader environment of the civil society is essential in an independent democratic state not only because it is too important to be left to the political elite alone. Now that we have come to the end of our Yugoslav via dolorosa, the importance of national culture lies in that it may prevent us from turning into Viennese lakeys, as Serbian popular press is wont on calling Slovenians. The crass metaphor, of course, is farfetched but it does nonetheless dramatise our present uncritical longing towards the "European Paradise Lost."

If we try to resist the modern temptation of perverted Descartesian slogan "I shop therefore I am!", then we may still find an inspiration – with doubts though not without hope, in a serious, though not glorifying way – in the transcendental meaning of the cultural tradition. Thus we may perhaps figure out where we stand while attempting to decode the signals of the modern pre-catastrophic world. In the latter not only individuals but entire nations are being destroyed. Under the pressure of the ideology of "cold peace" entire nations are condemned to disappearance, as we have been all too painfully reminded by the Bosnian tragedy.

To assume a firm stand against both the provincial mind of ethnic exclusives as well as that of corporate homogenisation, we must look back to the history of Slovenian literature. There, at least to me, the grace of that special light is revealed, the glow of which our lives are enriched by that narrative which is "just to the complexity and multiple meanings of the history and is able to open up a broad realm of human creativity that with elegance of its form reaches to a kind of transcendence and appeals to the better aspects of our selves", as the American critic Neil Postman said in his opening speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1993.

Inspiration that Slovenes use to measure the distance and proximity of the collective mentality is probably best seen in our "national mythology", complete with characters such us Lepa Vida, Crtomir, Peter Klepec, Kralj Matjaz, Martin Krpan and also Jerman and Martin Cedermac. Literary heroes, all of them. We had no other heroes for we have been for a long time nothing else but "a sneezing object of history", as the leading Slovenian contemporary poet, Tomaz Salamun, once ironically declared. Destinies and fights of the Slovenian literary heroes are still, in my opinion, a great source of inspiration even today. They reveal how the existentialist dilemma of Slovenians has always been connected with the metaphysical dilemma of cultural identity. The latter has not been automatically accepted as a given, as it was not accepted either by Germans or by Serbs. We had been living under the same (unpleasant) roof in a less than equal relationship with the former for long eleven centuries, and with the latter for seventy years.

The heroes of our national mythology had to fight first for their identity and second, to ensure its wider public recognition. The essential archetype of these rites of passage suggests their contemporary usage. This is particularly the case today when we have lived in an independent nation-state for half a decade even though, it appears, we hardly have a long-term political vision that might spell out what to do with independence itself. We have myopically forgotten that the Slovenian nation-state was established as to protect the national interests in a better and more decisive manner than it was possible in Yugoslavia. We have not, in other words, created a nation-state only to freely enjoy the thrills of ex Occidente luzus. The nation-state should be here to help us be, and not to simply have, to paraphrase Erich Fromm's perhaps forgotten, though still very powerful distinction.

Metaphorically speaking, we have designed a nation-state so that the Slovenian language and the culture embedded in it will no longer be used for scornful imperial communication with horses, as Edward Kocbek prophetically sings in his poem The Lippizaners. Slovenian language is clearly more than a language we just happen to speak. When we neglect, belittle or violate its public usage, we are losing a complex symbolic world, a special truth of the collective mentality. What is poorly said is poorly reasoned, claimed Theodor Adorno. We can therefore only think well in a language that offers us the intimate capability to love, play and sing.

From this vantage point it is easy to understand that the basic component of the cultural identity is the mother tongue. If we do not use it for all sophisticated forms of expression ( marketing, science, economy, administration, medicine, etc.) in which a sophisticated view of reality is given birth, our mother tongue will have remained the language of an undeveloped nation who – let me exaggerate a bit – may have its own state but no specific cultural identity.

Isaiah Berlin, a well-known social philosopher, expressed his opinion about those who will not or cannot understand this condition in a rather terse formulation: “ It seems to me that those who ( regardless of their lucidity) ignore the explosive power generated by the contact between the unhealed mental wounds, no matter what caused them, and the image of the nation as a society of the living, the dead and those yet unborn ( as sinister as it may be when pushed to the point of pathological desperation), lack understanding of social reality.”

The emphasis that I chose to place upon language and comprehensive national cultural experience has, in a limited context of this presentation, a single ambition: to dramatise the inherent dangers of the entirely economist approach to Slovenian identity, striving to put absolutely all affairs of culture, art and their social existence to the mercy of the invisible hand of the market. If we are not aware of the history of our national culture which cannot and should not be measured according to its “saleability”, we may very well turn into the tribe of children with no memory and no concerns. Such kind of tribe was totally unprotected when it faced the underground cannibalistic children of the dark, as H.G.Wells with overpowering brutality of artistic vision described the consequences of losing the sense of history in his work “The Time Machine”.

A small number of citizens, limited economic and military power dictate to Slovenians to focus on the development of specialised, innovative and sophisticated spheres of activity ( computer software, hi-tech electronics, art, individual sports, etc.), where we can develop what we have: human, cultural and scientific capital. We are presented both with a challenge and a responsibility. Not only to remain independent as a nation-state but also to show that we are more than we were when we were a part of Yugoslavia. To show that we are up to bring the very notion of freedom to bear.