Culture as Praxis


Zygmunt Bauman

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  • Theory, Culture & Society

    Theory, Culture & Society caters for the resurgence of interest in culture within contemporary social science and the humanities. Building on the heritage of classical social theory, the book series examines ways in which this tradition has been reshaped by a new generation of theorists. It also publishes theoretically informed analyses of everyday life, popular culture, and new intellectual movements.

    editor: Mike Featherstone, Nottingham Trent University

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    Recent volumes include:

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    Undoing Aesthetics


    Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings

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    Nation Formation

    Toward a Theory of Abstract Community

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    Myths and Structures

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    Georges Bataille – Essential Writings

    edited by Michael Richardson

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    Facing Modernity

    Ambivalence, Reflexivity and Morality

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    Reprinting a book born almost three decades earlier calls for an explanation. If the author happens to be still alive, the job of explaining falls upon him.

    The first part of the job is to find out what in the book is still, after all these years, topical and fresh enough to justify offering it once more to readers – to different readers, a generation or two younger than those who might have read the book when it was first published. The second task is opposite, but also complementary to the first: it is to ponder what the author would have changed in the text were he writing it anew or for the first time.

    The first is not an easy task by any standard, given the mind-boggling speed with which all ideas vanish and fall into oblivion before given the chance of maturing and ageing properly in our era of thoughts and things calculated, as George Steiner put it, ‘for maximal impact and instant obsolescence’; an era in which, as another writer reputedly observed, the shelf-life of a bestselling book is somewhere between milk and yoghourt. At first sight, a daunting, perhaps altogether impossible task …

    Some consolation may be drawn, though, from the not at all fanciful suspicion that given the speed with which fashionable ‘talks of the town’ are replaced and forgotten, one cannot be really sure that the bygone ideas have truly aged, outlived their use and been abandoned by reason of their obsolescence. Do topics stop being talked about because they have lost their topicality, or do they cease to be topical because people have become tired of talking about them? About us, social scientists, Gordon Allport once said that we never solve any problems, we only get bored by them. But since then it has become a trade-mark of our society as a whole that we no longer move, nor believe to be moving, ‘forward’, but sideways and often from back to front and back again. On the other hand, we live in an era of re-cycling; nothing seems to die once for all, and nothing – even eternal life – seems to be destined to last forever.

    And so ideas may be buried alive – well before they are ‘quite dead’ – their apparent death being just the artefact of their disappearance from view; it is the act of burial, rather than any clinical test, that warrants the death certificate. If dug up from the collective amnesia to which they have been consigned to hibernate, they may – who knows? – earn (again not for long, to be sure) another lease of life. And not just because they have not been squeezed really dry at the time of their first visit, but because, as the dynamics of discourses go, ideas prod the debate and set it moving ‘by impact’, hardly ever following that initial effect with full assimilation. There is in principle no limit to the number of repeated entries; each time the impact has a novel effect – as if the entry had happened for the first time. If it is true that one cannot enter ‘the same’ river twice, it is also true that the river of thoughts cannot be entered twice by ‘the same’ idea. We proceed nowadays not so much by continuous and cumulative learning, as through a mixture of forgetting and recalling.

    This seems to be in itself a good enough reason to republish a book; all the more so for the fact that it would not return alone. It was written in active dialogue with other books, then in the forefront of the intellectual debate, but now also gathering dust on library shelves; recalling the problems they jointly struggled with and tried to resolve will not be amiss for all immersed and engrossed in present-day concerns.

    The second of the two tasks is, on the face of it at least, simpler; it is also, for the author, more gratifying. It calls for something which authors have seldom time to do in their day-to-day thinking and writing: looking back at the road they passed – or rather arranging the scattered footprints into a simile of a road. While answering that call, authors have a rare chance to imagine (discover? invent?) a logical progression in what they lived through as a succession of ‘one at a time’ problems and one-off themes: the task normally left to the students charged with dissertations about their work. And confronting once more their own early thoughts, authors may bring in sharper relief their present ideas. All identities, after all – including the identities of ideas – are made of differences and continuities.

    The aim of this introduction is an attempt to fulfil both tasks.

    To anticipate the direction this attempt is about to take: when read thirty years after it was written, the book seems to pass well the test of ‘truth’. It fares somewhat less well in the test of ‘nothing but the truth’. And it fails rather abominably the test of ‘the whole truth’. I believe that most of what is wrong with it is what is missing – but should be present, as I see it now, in any account of culture that aims to be comprehensive and sustained. Were I to write this book again, I would perhaps delete little of the old text, but would in all probability add quite a few topics and most certainly would reshuffle the emphases. The rest of the introduction, therefore, will contain some revisions, but will focus mainly on filling the blank spots which the original text unwittingly entailed.

    One more observation is in order, particularly in view of the notoriously short span of our collective memory. A book on culture written thirty years ago was bound to confront readers very different from those likely to be present at its second incarnation. Few allowances on the readers’ entrenched ideas could be made at that time, while today the same book may count on readers well seasoned in the ‘problematics of culture’, with basic cognitive frames and essential concepts firmly in place. Certain ideas which had to be laboriously explained thirty years ago would seem now self-evident to the point of triviality.

    The most conspicuous case in point is the very notion of culture: in Britain that notion was almost completely absent from the public, and particularly the social-scientific, discourse of the 1960s – and that notwithstanding early Matthew Arnold's pioneering effort to insert it into the vocabulary of the British learned classes and the later valiant struggle for its legitimacy waged by Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. I readily admit that – fortunately for British learned opinion – it is difficult to believe today that such was the state of affairs a mere thirty years ago; but quite a few years after the first edition of this book had appeared I went through the agony of explaining to the illustrious scholars sitting on the university planning committee what the word ‘culture’ stands for; the occasion was the proposal to institute an interdepartmental Centre for Cultural Studies – then an exceedingly rare species in the British Isles. Neither was the idea of structure as a diachronic rather than synchronic phenomenon easy to convey and be grasped and digested by prospective readers before Anthony Giddens’ ‘structuration’ made it into the canon of first-year sociology courses.

    It seems to be a general rule that what was once a daring intellectual adventure turns into the thoughtless repetitiveness of routine; it is in the nature of ideas that they are born as off-putting heresies and die as boring orthodoxies. It takes a lot of imaginative power to resurrect, let alone to relive, their once potent emancipatory, thought-provoking impact: for instance the excitement caused by Claude Lévi-Strauss’ view of culture as an endless series of permutations. After all, the function of all routine is to make reflection, scrutiny, testing, vigilance and other costly and time-consuming efforts into luxuries one can do without.

    And so, in addition to the two tasks previously mentioned, it is incumbent on the author to resharpen some of the by now ‘routine’ ideas with the hope to restore, if at all possible, their cutting power; or, if you wish, to resurrect in a lullaby its past of the clarion call…

    Culture as Self-Consciousness of Modern Society

    In tune with the prevalent sociological vision of three decades ago, I viewed culture as a feature of social reality; one of the many ‘social facts’ to be adequately grasped, described and represented. The main concern of the now republished book was how to do this properly. I assumed that there was an objective phenomenon called ‘culture’ which – because of the notorious ‘knowledge lag’ – might have been discovered belatedly, but since discovered could be deployed as an objective reference point against which the propriety of any cognitive model could be measured and assessed. There might have been three different discourses in which the same term was turned around, causing a degree of semantic confusion; one therefore needed to separate them carefully, so that the meaning in which the term ‘culture’ is used in each case would be clear and uncontaminated by other uses, but the presence, cohabitation and mutual interference of the three discourses seemed to me then, by itself, unproblematic. Another ‘social fact’, not a puzzle calling for the effort of an archaeological dig or needing to be ‘deconstructed’. There was as yet no Foucault nor Derrida around to help …

    It is a paradox of sorts that the deconstruction of the concept of culture came eventually in the wake of ‘culturalization’ of social sciences. Originally, in the second half of the eighteenth century, the idea of culture was coined to separate human accomplishments from the ‘hard and fast’ facts of nature. ‘Culture’ stood for what humans can do; ‘nature’ for what humans must obey. The overall trend of social thought through the nineteenth century, culminating in Émile Durkheim's concept of ‘social facts’, was, however, to ‘naturalize’ culture: cultural facts might be human products, but once produced they confront their erstwhile authors with all the unyielding and indomitable obstinacy of nature – and the efforts of social thinkers focused on the task of showing that this is so and explaining the whys and hows of it being so. It is only in the second part of the twentieth century that the trend began gradually yet resolutely to reverse: the time of ‘culturalization’ of nature has arrived.

    What possibly could be the reason for such a turnabout? One can only surmise that after an era dominated by the frantic search for solid and unshakable foundations of human order conscious of its fragility and lacking in confidence came a time when the thick layer of human artifices made nature all but invisible – and its boundaries, particularly the yet impassable ones among them, ever more distant and exotic. Man-made foundations of human existence reached deep enough to make all care of other, better foundations redundant. The era of counter-attack could start: the weapons, the will and the self-confidence were all in place by now. No longer did ‘culture’ have to mask its own human fragility and apologize for the contingency of its choices. Naturalization of culture was part and parcel of the modern disenchantment of the world. Its deconstruction, which followed the culturalization of nature, was made possible – perhaps inevitable – by the world's postmodern re-enchantment.

    Reinhart Koselleck baptized the eighteenth century ‘the age of mountain-passes’ (‘Sattelzeit’).1 It deserves that name since before that century ended a steep philosophical watershed of sorts was negotiated and left behind, simultaneously in several points; for the story of human thinking the consequences of that event were not a bit less seminal than those of Caesar's crossing the Rubicon were for political history. In 1765, the concept of ‘philosophy of history’ appeared in Voltaire's Essai sur les moeurs, spawning a spate of geschichtsphilosophische tracts. In 1719, Gottfried Müller began to teach a course in philosophical anthropology, in which the Carthesian cognitive subject was expanded to the life-size model of the ‘whole man’. And in 1750 Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten published his Aesthetica, which expanded the idea of the ‘humanity’ of human beings yet further, adding to rational faculties those of sensibility and the creative urge. All in all, a vision of ‘man’ emerged which for the next two hundred years or so was to serve as the hub around which the imagery of the world rotated.

    That was a new vision, a collective product of a new philosophy; one that viewed the world as an essentially human creation and a testing ground for human faculties. From now on, the world was to be understood primarily as the setting for human pursuits, choices, triumphs and blunders. In an attempt to explain the abrupt appearance of a new Weltanschauung, Odo Marquard quotes Joachim Ritter: suddenly, the future was ‘uncoupled’ from the past – the realization had dawned that a future which has its starting point in human society is not continuous with the past. Koselleck himself points to the new experience of a gap between reality and expectation; one could no more remain a creature of habit, one could no more deduce the future state of affairs from their present and past stages. With the pace of change accelerating by the year, the world appeared ever less God-like – that is, ever less eternal, impervious and intractable. It assumed instead an ever more human form, becoming more in ‘man's image’ – protean, fickle and flickering, whimsical and full of surprise.

    There was more to it though: the fast pace of change revealed the temporality of all wordly arrangements, and temporality is a feature of human, not divine, existence. What seemed a few generations ago a divine creation, a verdict against which appeals could not be lodged with any of the earthly courts, looked now suspiciously to be the stubborn trace of human – right or wrong, but mortal and revocable – undertakings. And if the impression was not misleading, then the world and the way people lived in it was a task, rather than something given and unalterable. Depending on how people went about it, this task could be fulfilled in a more or less satisfactory fashion. It could be botched, but it could be also performed well, to the benefit of human happiness, the safety and meaningfulness of human life. To secure success and avoid failure, it was necessary to start with a careful inventory of human resources: what people can do, if they stretch their cognitive faculties, logical capacity and determination to the utmost.

    This was, in a nutshell, the premise of the new Weltanschauung: of modern humanism, of which John Carroll wrote that2

    it attempted to replace God by man, to put man in the centre of the universe…. Its ambition was to found a human order on earth, in which freedom and happiness prevailed, without any transcendental or supernatural supports – an entirely human order…. But if the human individual were to become the still-point of the universe he had to have somewhere to stand that would not move from under his feet. Humanism had to build a rock. It had to create out of nothing something as strong as the faith of the New Testament that could move mountains.

    In Legislators and Interpreters (Polity Press 1987) I traced the common roots and the mutual resonance, the ‘elective affinity’ between the new challenge confronting the managers of social life – the task to replace the crumbling divine or natural order of things with a man-made, artificial, legislatively-grounded one – and the philosophers’ concern with replacing revelation with rationally-grounded truth. The two essentially modern and closely intertwined concerns converged on the third – the pragmatics of order-making, entailing the technology of behavioural control and education: the technique of mind- and will-shaping. All three newly-aroused, yet acute and overwhelming interests were to come together and blend in the idea of ‘culture’ –, that fourth alongside Geschichtsphilosophie, anthropology and aesthetics, and perhaps the most salient among them, markers of the eighteenth-century ‘mountain pass’.

    What brought seventeenth-century thought to the mountain pass was the gnawing doubt in the reliability of the Divine guarantees of human conditions. Non-negotiable verdicts of the Supreme Power looked suddenly to be sediments of sometimes human wisdom, sometimes human ignorance or stupidity; indomitable fate, pre-determined at the moment of Creation, began to appear more like a moment in history – a human accomplishment and a challenge to human wits and will; not an open-and-shut case, but an unfinished chapter waiting to be completed by the characters of the plot. In other

    words, beneath the meanders of fate human self-determination had been adumbrated.

    Freedom of self-determination is a blessing – and a curse. Exhilarating for the bold and resourceful, frightening for the weak-in-spirit, weak-in-arms or weak-in-resolve. But there is more. Freedom is a social relation: for some to be free to achieve their purpose, others must be unfree to resist. One's own freedom may be off-putting, given that it is pregnant with the risk of error; but the freedom of others looks at first sight to be a noxious obstacle to one's own liberty of action. Even if one's own freedom may be contemplated as unpolluted bliss, the prospect of the unbound freedom of all the others is seldom relished. For even the most ardent enthusiasts of human self-determination the thought of ‘necessary constraints’ was hardly ever totally alien. In its most radical manifestation, embodied in the idea of emancipation and transcendence, the apotheosis of human freedom was as a rule complemented by worry about the limits which need to be imposed upon the actions of protagonists. What was proudly named an exercise of free will in one's own case tended to be dubbed freakishness, irresponsibility, prejudice or just an ill-intended whim when contemplated as a universally available possibility. The heralds of double standards did not always dare to go as far as did the allegedly proto-fascist Nietzsche (‘the great majority of men have no right to existence, but are a misfortune to higher men’3) or the socialist H. G. Wells (‘swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people’, who do not meet the high criteria set for human self-assertiveness, ‘have to go’4), but none would entertain any doubt as to the need to tie the hands that could not be trusted.

    The idea of culture which came into common use towards the end of the eighteenth century faithfully reflected that attitudinal ambivalence. The double-edged – simultaneously ‘enabling’ and ‘constraining’ – character of culture, much written about in recent years, was in fact present in the vision of culture since its inception. In one ‘universally human’ model of culture two sharply different human predicaments were to be merged into the joint condition, and so there was a paradox endemic to that concept of culture from the start.

    The concept was coined to set apart and bring into focus a growing area of human condition deemed to be ‘under-determined’, or such as could not be fully determined without the mediation of human choices: an area which for that reason opened up a space for freedom and self-assertion. But the concept was meant to stand simultaneously for the mechanism which allowed the use of that very freedom to limit its scope, to enclose potentially infinite choices in a finite, comprehensible and manageable pattern. The idea of ‘culture’ served the reconciliation of a whole series of oppositions unnerving due to their ostensible incompatibility: those of freedom and necessity, of the voluntary and the constrained, of teleological and causal, chosen and determined, random and patterned, contingent and law-abiding, creative and routine, novel and repetitive; in short, of self-assertion and normative regulation. The concept of culture was designed to respond to the concerns and anxieties of the ‘mountain-passes era’ – and the response was bound to be as ambiguous as the longings born of those anxieties were ambivalent.

    Writers on culture tried in earnest to efface the ambiguity; they could not succeed, though, since the idea of culture as ‘self-determined determination’ owes its intellectual attraction precisely to the resonance of its inner ambivalence with the endemic ambivalences of the modern condition; it makes little sense unless it attempts to ‘ground’ simultaneously freedom and unfreedom. In this respect it is bound to share the quality of ‘undecidability’ with the Derridean pharmacon (drug), simultaneously poison and cure, or hymen, simultaneously virginity and its lossߪ

    The discourse of culture has been notorious for blending themes and perspectives which scarcely fit together in one cohesive, non-contradictory narrative. The volume of ‘anomalies’ and logical incongruities would have long exploded the most enduring of Kuhnian ‘paradigms’. It is difficult to conceive of a discourse which would better illustrate Foucault's point about the capacity of discursive formations for generating mutually contradictory propositions without falling apart.

    Thirty years ago I tried to disentangle the incoherences evident in the usages of ‘culture’ through separating three distinct discursive contexts in which the concept was entangled, while drawing different meanings from each of the contexts. In that attempt, I assumed that the incoherences in question were in principle rectifiable; I was guided by the belief that they have arisen from mainly analytical faults, and by the hope that with due care the confusion of distinct categories hiding behind one term might be avoided and prevented. I still think that keeping apart the three discourses which offer three related, yet different, meanings to the idea of culture remains a preliminary condition of any attempt to clarify the subject of disagreement, but I no longer believe that this operation will eventually remove the ambivalence which the discourse of culture necessarily contains. More importantly, I do not think that the elimination of such ambivalence, were it at all conceivable, would be a good thing, enhancing as it were the cognitive usefulness of the term. Above all, I no longer accept that the ambivalence which truly matters – one which prompted me to dissect the complex meaning of culture in the first place but stayed unaffected by the operation and remained an elusive target – was an accidental effect of methodological neglect or error. I believe, on the contrary, that the inherent ambivalence of the idea of culture which faithfully reflected the ambiguity of the historical condition it was meant to capture and narrate was exactly what made that idea such a fruitful and enduring tool of perception and thought.

    The ambiguity which truly matters, the sense-giving ambivalence, the genuine foundation on which the cognitive usefulness of conceiving human

    habitat as the ‘world of culture’ rests, is the ambivalence between ‘creativity’ and ‘normative regulation’. The two ideas could not be further apart, yet both are – and must remain – present in the composite idea of culture. ‘Culture’ is as much about inventing as it is about preserving; about discontinuity as much as about continuation; about novelty as much as about tradition; about routine as much as about pattern-breaking; about norm-following as much as about the transcendence of norm; about the unique as much as about the regular; about change as much as about monotony of reproduction; about the unexpected as much as about the predictable.

    The core ambivalence of the concept of culture’ reflects the ambivalence of the idea of order-making, that hub of all modern existence. Man-made order is unthinkable without human freedom to choose, human capacity to rise imaginatively above reality, to withstand and push back its pressures. But inseparable from the idea of man-made order is the postulate that freedom is to result in the end in establishing a reality which cannot be so resisted; that freedom is to be deployed in the service of its own cancellation.

    That logical contradiction in the idea of order-making is in its turn a reflection of the genuine social contradiction constituted through the order-making practice.

    ‘Order’ is the opposite of randomness. It stands for the trimming down of the range of possibilities. A temporal sequence is ‘ordered’ and not random in as far as not everything may happen or at least not everything is equally likely to happen. To ‘make order’ means, in other words, to manipulate the probabilities of events. If it is a set of human beings that is to be ordered, the task consists in increasing the probability of certain patterns of behaviour while diminishing, or eliminating altogether, the likelihood of other kinds of conduct. That task entails two requisites: first, an optimal distribution of probabilities has to be designed; second, obedience to the designed preferences has to be secured. The first requisite calls for freedom of choice; the second spells out the limitation or total elimination of choice.

    Both requisites had been projected upon the image of culture. The genuine opposition between the conditions of legislating and being legislated about, managing and being managed, setting the rules and rule-following (the opposition sedimented in equally genuine social divisions of roles and potentials for actions), had to be subsumed, reconciled, overcome and obliterated in one concept: a project unlikely ever to be successfully completed.

    The idea of culture was a historical invention, prompted by the urge to assimilate intellectually an undoubtedly historical experience. And yet the idea itself could not grasp that experience otherwise than in supra-historical terms, in terms of the human condition as such. Complexities revealed in the course of grappling with a historically determined task of order-making (no determination imposes itself, Gadamer pointed out, unless it is recognized as such) were, through the idea of culture as the universal property of all human forms of life, elevated to the rank of the existential paradox of humanity.

    As Paul Ricoeur reminds us, ‘paradox’ shares with ‘antinomy’ the traits of unresolvability: in both cases ‘two adversary propositions equally strongly resist refutation and so can be only accepted jointly or jointly rejected’; but paradox differs from antinomy in that in its case the two theses in question are grounded in the same ‘discursive universe’. In this sense, one may speak of the incurable paradoxicality of the idea of culture as formed at the threshold of modern era, yet projected upon the human condition of all times, since irreconcilable ideas assimilated in that concept arose from the same historical experience.

    The paradox arising within the universe of cultural discourse is that of autonomy and vulnerability – or, as Ricoeur prefers, fragility. The autonomous human being cannot but be fragile; there can be no autonomy without fragility (i.e. without the absence of a solid foundation, without under-determination and contingency); ‘autonomy is a feature of the fragile, vulnerable being’. Let us observe that the intimate link between autonomy and fragility becomes a ‘paradox’ only when conceived as a problem for philosophy, which is bound, by its nature, to seek Eindeutigkeit, logic, coherence and clarity in the world which possesses none of these traits, and treat all ambivalence as a challenge to reason. When seen as a problem of philosophy, the kinship of autonomy and vulnerability presents indeed a vexing problem: figures of vulnerability and fragility5

    carry particular marks, proper for our modernity, which makes philosophical discourse difficult, condemning it to mix considerations of modern and even extremely contemporary condition with features which can be treated as if not universal then at least as of long or even very long duration.

    We may add that what makes the philosophical treatment accorded to the issue of autonomy/fragility particularly prospectless is its refusal to take history seriously (as the cause of the ‘human condition’, rather than its exemplifying case); the refusal which brings in its wake the tendency to gloss over sociological contradictions which are mirrored in logical paradoxes. Sociologically speaking, the pair autonomy/fragility reflects the polarization of capacity and incapacity, resourcefulness and the lack of resources, power and powerlessness of self-assertion. Essentially modern is the condition under which the place between the two poles which mark the continuum along which all human individuals are plotted is never fully ‘grounded’, being forever subject to continuous negotiation and struggle. It is the fate of modern – unbound and thus under-determined – individuals, under-constituted and thus doomed to self-constitution, to veer between the extremes of might and powerlessness and so to perceive of their freedom as a ‘mixed blessing’, a modality saturated with ambivalence.

    When translated as a philosophical problem, the real ambivalence of life becomes a logical paradox. No more is there a problem of coping with ambivalence which structures the flow of real life; instead there is a problem of refuting a paradox which offends logic. As Ricoeur puts it:6

    numerous contemporary thinkers, and particularly the politologists, view the era of democracy as starting from the loss of transcendental guarantees, which left to contractual and procedural arrangements the task of filling the ‘foundational void’ …. [However, they] cannot avoid situating themselves in a certain sense after the foundations, after a moral Big Bang, and assuming the phenomenon of authority with its three limbs of antecedence, superiority and externality.

    The philosophers’ urge to ablate in thought the contradictoriness of life is overwhelming and unlikely ever to lose much of its power. Contradictions rebound as paradoxes: painful thorns in the flesh of philosophy – that Herculean project of remaking the messy world of human experience after the pattern of elegance and harmony to be found solely in the serene orderliness of thought.

    The concept of culture bears all the marks of that philosophical urge. It incorporates the vision of the modern human condition already recycled as a logical paradox. It is aimed at overcoming the opposition between autonomy and vulnerability conceived as propositions – while glossing over the ‘real life’ contradiction between the autonomous and the vulnerable: between the task of self-constitution and the fact of being constituted.

    With the effort to resolve the paradox bringing no convincing results, no wonder that another tendency is born to set the two awkwardly embraced propositions apart; to forget or play down the common origin and commonality of fate, to shift the unresolvable paradox of two incompatible qualities blossoming from the same root to the status of antinomy between two mutually alien and unrelated forces – of a war waged between separate armies, and thus a war capable in principle of being won or lost, of ending in the ultimate defeat or attrition of one of the antagonists. Ideas which cannot be easily blended within one concept tend to exert a centrifugal pressure and sooner or later explode the fragile totality.

    No wonder two different and not easily reconcilable discourses ramified from the common stem, shifting ever further apart. To put it in a nutshell: one discourse generated the idea of culture as the activity of the free roaming spirit, the site of creativity, invention, self-critique and self-transcendence; another discourse posited culture as a tool of routinization and continuity – a handmaiden of social order.

    The product of the first discourse was the notion of culture as the capacity to resist the norm and rise above the ordinary – poïesis, arts, God-like creation ab nihilo. It stood for what the most daring, the least compliant and conformist spirits were assumed to be distinguished by: irreverence to tradition, the courage to break well-drawn horizons, to step beyond closely-guarded boundaries and blaze new trails. Culture so understood could be possessed or not; it was the property of a minority and bound to remain so. To the rest of humanity it came at best in the form of a gift: it sedimented ‘works of art’, tangible objects which could be appropriated or at least learned to be appreciated by others – non-creative beings. Their efforts to learn how to appreciate the products of high culture would not make them creative; they would remain, as before, more or less passive recipients (viewers, listeners, readers). But gaining obliquely an insight into the arcane world of high spirit, the non-creative majority will nevertheless become ‘better beings’ – undergo a process of spiritual uplifting, enhancement and ennoblement.

    The product of the second discourse was the notion of culture formed and applied in orthodox anthropology. There, ‘culture’ stood for regularity and pattern – with freedom cast under the rubric of ‘norm-breaking’ and ‘deviation’. Culture was an aggregate, or better still a coherent system of sanction-supported pressures, interiorized values and norms, and habits which assured repetitiveness (and thus also predictability) of conduct at the individual level and the monotony of reproduction, continuity over time, ‘preservation of tradition’, Ricoeur's mêmeté, at the level of collectivity. ‘Culture’ in this sense stood, in other words, for ‘filling the gap’ left by the disappearance of the pre-ordained order (either in factual experience or as an explanatory device). It conveyed an image of volatile, indeterminate choices solidifying into foundations. It implied the ‘naturalization’ of artificial, man-made order; it told the story of the fashion in which a species doomed to freedom used that freedom to conjure up necessities no less overwhelming and resilient than those of blind, purposeless ‘nature’. The orthodox anthropological narrative of ‘culture’ emerged in the early-modern times of ‘order panic’ as simultaneously a theory of social coherence and a moral tale.

    The two notions of culture stood in stark opposition to each other. One denied what the other proclaimed; one focused on the aspects of human reality which the other presented as impossible or, at best, as abnormality. ‘Artistic culture’ explained why human ways and means do not last; the culture of orthodox anthropology, on the contrary, explained why they are durable, obstinate and tremendously difficult to change. The first was the story of human freedom, of the randomness and contingency of all man-made forms of life; the second assigned to freedom and contingency a role akin to aetiological myths, concentrating instead on the ways in which their order-disrupting potency is defused and devoid of consequence.

    It is the second story that prevailed in social sciences for a century or so. It reached its fullest rendition (expectedly, just when it was about to collapse and lose authority) in the monumental theoretical system of Talcott Parsons, in which culture was allotted the role of a ‘de-randomizing’ factor.

    Parsons rewrote the story of social science as a succession of failed attempts to answer the Hobbesian query: how is it that human voluntary agents, endowed with free will and pursuing their ostensibly individual and freely chosen objectives, behave nevertheless in a remarkably uniform and regular fashion so that their conduct ‘follows a pattern’? In the sought-after proper answer to that vexing question, Parsons asserted, culture is called to play a decisive role of the medium assuring the ‘fit’ between ‘social’ and ‘personality’ systems; ‘Without culture neither human personalities nor human social systems would be possible’; both are possible only in their mutual coordination, and culture is precisely the system of ideas or beliefs, of expressive symbols and value-orientations, which secures that coordination in perpetuity.7

    Selections [of value-orientations] are of course always actions of individuals, but these selections cannot be inter-individually random in a social system. Indeed, one of the most important functional imperatives of the maintenance of social systems is that the value-orientations of different actors in the same social system must be integrated in some measure in a common system…. The sharing of value-orientations is especially crucial. … The regulation of all these allocative processes and the performance of the functions which keep the system or the subsystem going in a sufficiently integrated manner is impossible without a system of definitions of roles and sanctions for conformity or deviation.

    ‘Cannot be’, ‘must be’, ‘is impossible’ … If not for the coordinative function performed by the shared and consensually accepted values, precepts and role-ascribed norms (i.e. by culture) no orderly life (i.e. no self-equilibrating and self-perpetuating, durable, identity-retaining system) is thinkable. Culture is the social system's service station; through penetrating the ‘personality systems’ in the course of pattern-maintenance efforts (i.e. through being ‘internalized’ in the process of ‘socialization’), it secures the system's ‘identity with itself’ over time – it ‘keeps society going’ in its distinctly recognizable form.

    Parsons’ culture, in other words, is what makes the departure from an established pattern impossible, or at least highly improbable. Culture is an immobilizing, ‘stabilizing’ factor; indeed, it stabilizes so well that unless culture ‘malfunctions’ all change of pattern is incredible and the actual occurrence of change is a puzzle which cannot be solved within the frame of the same theory which accounts for the system's inertia. In the ideal-typical description of culture in terms of the ‘must's and ‘cannot but's, there was no room for the alteration of entrenched patterns. Explaining change was the notorious Achilles’ heel of the Parsonian (and the most authoritative) version of the orthodox view of culture, but one that only brought into sharper relief what had been the essential weakness of the extant cultural-anthropology approach.

    It was that weakness which eventually dashed all hope of escaping the paradox of culture by cutting the coin in half and handling each of its two faces separately. The current state of cultural theorizing reflects the new determination (or resigned consent) to face the paradox in all its complexity, in all the ambivalence of enabling/disabling, of freedom/constraint.

    As in the case of so many ‘new’ ideas in social theory, it was Georg Simmel who – long before Parsons’ abortive and self-defeating attempt to by-pass the paradox by reducing the image of culture to just one of its two inseparable faces – anticipated the ultimate futility of all such trials, and the need of a theorization of culture such as would embrace the endemic ambivalence of the cultural existential mode and would try neither to theorize it away nor to play it down as a mere error of method.

    Simmel preferred to speak of the tragedy, rather than the paradox, of culture. In his view, the simile most fitting to cope with the mysteries of culture was to be drawn from the universe of Greek drama rather than from that of logical embarrassment. Indeed, in the human existential mode two formidable forces stood against each other in radical contrast: ‘subjective life, which is restless but finite in time, and its contents, which, once they are created, are fixed but timelessly valid…. Culture comes into being by a meeting of the two elements, neither of which contain culture by itself.’8 What makes the drama into real tragedy is the fact that the two adversaries are close relatives. The ‘fixed and timelessly valid’ is the offspring of the ‘restless and finite’ – nothing but the solidified, ‘reified’ trace of the latter's past self-expressive labours; but it confronts its parent, Electra-style, as an alien, hostile force. The emancipatory drive gave birth to constraint, restlessness rebounds in fixity: the unruly and intractable spirit creates its own shackles.

    We speak of culture whenever life produces certain forms in which it expresses and realises itself – works of art, religions, sciences, technologies, laws and innumerable others. These forms encompass the flow of life and provide it with content and form, freedom and order. But although these forms arise out of the life process, because of their unique constellation they do not share the restless rhythm of life. ⌦ They acquire fixed identities, a logic and lawfulness of their own; this new rigidity inevitably places them at a distance from the spiritual dynamic which created them and which makes them independent. …

    Herein lies the ultimate reason why culture has a history‥‥ Each cultural form, once it is created, is gnawed at varying rates by the force of life. …

    The battle never stops; it is all cultures’ proper mode of life. Sedimentation of forms and their erosion go hand in hand, though they proceed ‘at varying rates’, and so the balance between the two aspects of the cultural process changes from one time to another. Our own – modern – times are, according to Simmel, marked by a particular restlessness of life forces: ‘The basic impulse behind contemporary culture is a negative one, and this is why, unlike men in all these earlier epochs, we have been for some time now living without any shared ideal, even perhaps without any ideals at all.’9

    One wonders why this might be the case. It may be that the modern quest for order – the bold, self-conscious leap from temporality to timelessness, from restiveness to fixity – is self-defeating. If no ‘fixed form’ can claim foundation other than that of that human creative force which gave it birth, then no form is likely ever to achieve the status of an ‘ideal’ – in the sense of a ‘final state’, or ‘ultimate objective’ which, once reached, would make criticism of forms grind to a halt and induce the ‘subjective life’ and ‘its contents’ to live in peace. The more self-conscious, determined and resourceful is the order-making urge, the more visible is the birth-mark of fragility carried by its products; the weaker appears the products’ authority, the less ‘timeless’ proves their fixity.

    Simmel's tragedy of culture, like all tragedies, lacks a happy ending. Like all tragedies, it tells the story of actors buffeted by forces ever more wild the more they try to tame them, driven by a fate they do not control. In more mundane, though no less dramatic terms, the seminal ideas of Simmel are now rehearsed throughout the realm of social sciences – most notably in Ulrich Beck's model of risk society and Anthony Giddens’ idea of manufactured uncertainty. Or, for that matter, in Cornelius Castoriadis’ vision of modern democracy as a ‘regime of reflexivity and autolimitation’, as a society which knows, ought to know, that it has no guaranteed signification, that it lives upon chaos, that it itself is the chaos which needs to give itself a form, never fixed once for all.10

    To sum it all up: culture, as it tends to be seen now, is as much an agent of disorder as it is the tool of order; a factor of ageing and obsolence as much as of timelessness. The work of culture does not consist so much in its self-perpetuation as in securing the conditions for further experimentation and change. Or, rather, culture ‘self-perpetuates’ in as far as not the pattern, but the urge to modify it, to alter and to replace it with another pattern, stays viable and potent over time. The paradox of culture may be thus reformulated: whatever serves the preservation of a pattern undermines its grip.

    The quest of order renders all order pliable and less-than-timeless; culture may produce nothing but constant change, though it cannot produce change otherwise than through the ordering effort. It was the passion for order born of the fear of chaos, and the discovery of culture, the realization that the fate of order is in human hands – which ushered the modern world into the era of unstoppable and accelerated dynamism of forms and patterns. In the quest for order and Eindeutigkeit, the ambivalence of freedom has found the patented method of its own self-preservation…

    System or Matrix?

    The image of culture as a workshop in which the steady pattern of society is repaired and kept in shape chimed together with the perception of all things cultural – values, behavioural norms, artefacts – forming a system.

    Speaking of an aggregate of items as a ‘system’, what we have in mind is that all items are ‘interconnected’; that is, the state of each item depends on the states assumed by all other items. The range of possible variations in the state of any item is thereby kept within certain limits imposed by the network of dependencies in which it is entangled. As long as such limits are observed, the system is ‘in equilibrium’: it retains the capacity for returning to its proper shape, for preserving its identity despite local and temporal disturbances; it stops all and every unit from reaching the point of no return. As long as they remain within the system, all items (units, ingredients, variables) are bound together in the web of reciprocal determination and kept in line lest they should transgress the allowed limit and throw the whole out of balance. Or, to rephrase the same requirement in a negative way, no item which is not kept in line, or cannot be brought in line when need be, is or may remain a part of the system. In its essence, systemness is the way to subordinate the freedom of the elements to the ‘pattern maintenance’ of the totality.

    It follows from what has been said before that in order to meet the criteria of systemness the set of items needs to be circumscribed – must have boundaries. One cannot speak of system unless it is always possible to decide which item belongs to the system and which is outside. Systems resent grey areas and no-man's lands. Borders need to be guarded, movement across the borders to be limited and above all controlled; uncontrolled border passages are equal to the collapse of the system. Outside elements may be let into the system on certain conditions: they must undergo the process of adaptation or accommodation – a modification which would make them ‘fit’ the system and so allow the system to assimilate them. Assimilation is a one-way street: it is the system which sets the rules of admission, designs the procedure of assimilation and evaluates the results of adaptation – and it continues to be a system as long as it is capable of doing so. For the newcomers, assimilation means transformation, while for the system it means reassertion of self-identity.

    Presumably, there was a mixture of heterogeneous experiences which combined into such an image of culture as a self-enclosed, system-style totality. One may suppose that an uneasy marriage of the insider's and outsider's view was needed to conjure up the systemic vision.

    The latter view was the product of the cultural-anthropologists’ practice, originated by Bronis?aw Malinowski, of visiting ‘native populations’ with a way of life evidently distinct from their own, immersing oneself in their daily pursuits, recording the native ways and means and then attempting to ‘make sense’ of them by dovetailing each of the observed, or reported by ‘informers’, habits or rites into a comprehensive totality of routines assumed to make the investigated way of life viable and capable of self-perpetuation.

    The first view rested on the experience of one's own society's selectiveness, its inclusive/exclusive practices, its assimilatory pressures exerted upon ‘foreign elements’ inside the nation-state boundaries and its struggle for its own distinctive identity.

    Both views were naturally available at the time the orthodox model of culture took hold. There were yet numerous areas of the globe with little or no communication with neighbours; populations which without too much fact-twisting could be talked about as self-contained wholes. And there were nation-states explicitly and forcefully promoting unified national languages, calendars, standards of education, versions of history and legally supported ethical codes; states concerned with homogenizing the loose ensemble of local dialects, customs and collective memories into one, common, national set of beliefs and style of life.

    Just as it came naturally to the cultural explorers of the day to assume matter-of-factly that all populations must have been concerned with the problems known from the explorers’ own home-ground practices, so it comes naturally to us now to doubt the credibility of the system-like ‘totalities’ conjured up by orthodox cultural anthropology. It is difficult to be sure whether the casting of explored cultures as systems was an optical illusion prompted by a historically framed and transient point of view, or an adequate perception of now bygone reality. Whatever might have been the case, that image jars stridently with our current experience of free-floating cultural tokens, of the porosity of boundaries which some people wish, but no one is able, to tighten up, and of the state governments which actively promote ‘multiculturalism’, are no more interested in privileging any particular model of national culture, but careful not to infringe any of the numberless ‘cultural choices’ made individually or severally. Of present-day France – the land particularly famous in the past for its governments equating statehood and citizenship with national culture – Marc Fumaroli has commented acidly that11

    one speaks still of a French society, of a French cultural policy, but this adjective is but a term of convenience serving to denote the immediate present, and aggregate flow of fashions and opinions recorded by the polls…. It is neither a place nor an environment – just a zone. Instead of France one speaks of culture – even if that term is but a milder substitute for the more vulgar ‘Babel’ ….

    The word ‘culture’ has become an enormous conglomerate composed of ‘cultures’, each one on equal footing with all the others. … The ‘cultural state’, while wishing to be a national one, wants as well to be everything for everybody, a puppet- and even chameleon-like, following of the flows and reflows of fashions and generations.

    In the light of by now common experience, it seems plausible that whether or not there was ever a truly ‘system-like’ culture, the possibility (and the likelihood) of perceiving cultural phenomena as forming a cohesive and self-enclosed totality (a ‘system’ in a sense spelled out before) was a historical contingency. We have now the opportunity to understand better than before the true meaning of an otherwise banal observation, that spatial phenomena are socially produced, and that therefore their role in setting apart and bringing together social entities is likely to change together with the change in productive techniques and procedures.

    Looking backward in history, one can ask to what extent geo-physical factors, natural as well as artificial borders of territorial units, separate identities of populations and cultures, as well as the distinction between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of any socio-cultural entity, were in their essence but the conceptual derivatives of the material sediments/artifices of ‘speed limits’ – or, more generally, of the time-and-cost constraints imposed on freedom of movement in space.

    Paul Virilio suggested recently that while Francis Fukuyama's declaration of the ‘end of history’ sounds grossly premature, one can with growing confidence speak presently of the ‘end of geography.’12 Distances do not matter as much as they used to, while the idea of a geo-physical border is increasingly difficult to sustain in the ‘real world’. It seems suddenly clear that the divisions of continents and of the globe as a whole into more or less self-enclosed, or even self-sustained, enclaves were the function of distances – made imposingly real thanks mainly to the primitivity of transport and the hardships and exorbitant costs of travel.

    Indeed, far from being an objective, impersonal, physical ‘given’, ‘distance’ is a social product; its length varies depending on the speed with which it may be traversed and thus for all practical intents and purposes overcome (though in a monetary economy also on the cost involved in the attainment of that speed). All other socially produced factors of constitution, separation and maintenance of collective identities – like state borders or cultural barriers – seem in retrospect but secondary effects of that speed.

    The ‘here’ versus ‘out there’, ‘near’ versus ‘far away’ oppositions, and so also the opposition between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, recorded the degree of taming, domestication and familiarity of various (human as much as nonhuman) fragments of the surrounding world.

    ‘Inside’ is an extrapolation of ‘being at home’, treading familiar ground, known to the point of self-evidence or even invisibility. ‘Inside’ entails humans and things seen, met, dealt or interacted with daily, intertwined with habitual routine and day-to-day activities. ‘Inside’ is a space where one seldom, if at all, finds oneself at a loss, feels lost for words or uncertain how to act. ‘Outside’ – ‘out there’ – is, on the other hand, a space which one enters only occasionally or not at all, in which things tend to happen which one cannot anticipate or comprehend, and would not know how to react to once they occurred; a space that contains things one knows little about, one from which one does not expect much and for which one does not feel obliged to care. Compared with the cosy security of home, finding oneself in such space is an unnerving experience; venturing ‘out there’ means being beyond one's ken, out of place and out of one's element, inviting trouble and fearing harm.

    To put it in a nutshell, the crucial dimension of the ‘inside – outside’ opposition is that between certainty and uncertainty, self-confidence and hesitation. Being ‘outside’ means inviting and fearing trouble – and so it demands cleverness, cunning, slyness or courage, learning foreign rules one can do without elsewhere, and mastering them through risky trials and often costly errors. The idea of the ‘inside’, on the other hand, stands for the unproblematic; painlessly acquired and half-consciously possessed habits, skills needing little reflection, will suffice – and since they are such they feel weightless and call for no choice, certainly not agonizing choices, giving no occasion to anxiety-prone hesitation. Whatever has come to be retrospectively dubbed as ‘community’ used to be brought into being by this opposition between ‘right here’ and ‘out there’, ‘inside’ and ‘outside’.

    Modern history has been marked by the constant progress of the means of transportation, and so the volume of mobility. Transport and travel was the field of particularly radical and rapid change; progress here, as Schumpeter pointed out a long time ago, was the result not of multiplying the number of stagecoaches, but of the invention and mass production of totally new means of travel – trains, motor cars, and aeroplanes. It was primarily the availability of fast means of travel that triggered the typically modern process of eroding and undermining all locally entrenched social and cultural ‘totalities’; the process first captured (and romanticized) by Tönnies’ famous formula of modernity as the passage from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft.

    Among all technical factors of mobility, a particularly great role was played by the transport of information – the kind of communication which does not involve movement of physical bodies or involves it only secondarily and marginally. Technical means were developed which allowed information to travel independently from its bodily carriers, but also from the objects about which the information informed: such means set ‘signifiers’ free from the hold of ‘signifieds’. The separation of the movement of information from the shifting in space of its carriers and its objects in its turn allowed the differentiation of the speed of two mobilities; the movement of information gathered speed on a pace far exceeding that which the travel of bodies, or the change of the situations about which information informed, was able to reach. In the end, the appearance of the computer-served World-Wide Web put paid – as far as information is concerned – to the very notion of ‘travel’ (and of ‘distance’ to be travelled) and has rendered information instantaneously available throughout the globe. The overall results of this latest development are enormous. Its impact on the interplay of social association/dissociation has been widely noted and described in great detail.

    One consequence, though, is particularly important for our argument. Martin Heidegger pointed out that the ‘essence of hammer’ comes to our attention, and so becomes an object of cognition, only when the hammer has been broken. For reasons similar to those suggested by Heidegger, we now see clearer than ever before the role played by time, space and the means of saddling them in formation, instability or flexibility, and in the eventual demise of socio/cultural and political totalities. The so-called ‘closely-knit communities’ of yore were, as we can see it now, brought into being and kept alive by the gap between the nearly instantaneous communication inside the small-scale community (the size of which was determined by the innate qualities of ‘wetware’, and thus confined to the natural limits of human sight, hearing and memorizing capacity) and the enormity of time and expense needed to pass information between localities. On the other hand, the present-day fragility and short life-span of communities and the unclarity and permeability of their boundaries appear to be primarily the result of that gap shrinking or altogether disappearing: the inner-community communication loses its advantage over the inter-communal exchange if both are instantaneous. ‘Inside’ and ‘outside’ have lost much of their once so clear meaning.

    Michael Benedikt thus summarizes our retrospective discovery and the new understanding of the intimate connection between the speed of travel and social cohesion:13

    The kind of unity made possible in small communities by the near-simultaneity and near-zero cost of natural voice communications, posters and leaflets, collapses at the larger scale. Social cohesion at any scale is a function of consensus, of shared knowledge, and without constant updating and interaction, such cohesion depends crucially on early, and strict, education in – and memory of – culture. Social flexibility, conversely, depends on forgetting and cheap communication.

    Let us add that the ‘and’ in the last quoted sentence is superfluous. The facility to forget and cheapness (as well as high velocity) of communication are but two aspects of the same condition and can hardly be conceived of in separation. Cheap communication means quick overflooding, stifling or elbowing away of the information acquired as much as it means speedy arrival of news. With the capacities of ‘wetware’ remaining largely unchanged since at least the paleolithic times, cheap communication floods and smothers memory instead of feeding it and stabilizing. Capacity of retention is no match for the volume of information vying for attention. New information has hardly the time to sink, to be memorized, to harden into a solid floor on which successive layers of knowledge can be laid. To a large extent, instead of being added to the ‘memory bank’, perceptions start from a ‘clean slate’. Fast communication services the activity of site-clearing and forgetting rather than learning and accumulation of knowledge.

    Arguably the most seminal of recent developments is the dwindling difference between the costs of transmitting information on a local and supra-local or global scale (however ‘geographically far’ you send your message through the Internet, you pay by the tariff of the ‘local call’; the circumstance as important culturally as it is economically); this, in turn, means that the information eventually arriving and clamouring for attention, for entry to and (however short-lived) stay in one's memory, tends to originate in the most diverse and mutually independent sites. It is therefore unlikely to possess any paraphernalia of ‘systemness’ – coherence and sequentiality above all. It is instead likely to convey mutually incompatible or mutually cancelling messages – in sharp contradiction to the messages which used to float inside communities devoid of hardware and software and relying on ‘wetware’ only; that is, to the messages which tended to reiterate and reinforce each other and so assisted the process of (selective) memorizing. There are now no advantages attached to the spatial closeness of the source of information. In this crucial respect, the distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ has lost its sense.

    As Timothy W. Luke14 puts it – ‘the spatiality of traditional societies is organized around the mostly unmediated capacities of ordinary human bodies’:

    Traditional visions of action often resort to organic metaphors for their allusions: conflict was chin-to-chin. Combat was hand-to-hand. Justice was an-eye-for-an-eye, a-tooth-for-a-tooth. Debate was heart-to-heart. Solidarity was shoulder-to-shoulder. Community was face-to-face. Friendship was arm-in-arm. And, change was step-by-step.

    This situation had changed beyond recognition with the advent of means which allowed to stretch conflicts, solidarities, combats, debates or administration of justice far beyond the reach of human eyes and arms. Space had become then, in Luke's words, ‘processed/centered/organized/normalized’ – and above all emancipated from the natural constraints of the human body. It was therefore the capacity of technics, the speed of its action and the cost of its use, which from then on ‘organized space’.

    The space projected by such technics is radically different: engineered, not God-given; artificial, not natural; mediated by hardware, not immediate to wetware; rationalized, not communalized; national, not local.

    To put it bluntly: that space – the modern space – was the object of administration, of management. Space was the playground of authority charged with the task of ‘principal coordination’, of legislating the rules which made the ‘inside’ uniform while at the same time setting it apart from the ‘outside’, of smoothing up the rough edges and frictions between extant norms and behavioural patterns, of homogenizing the heterogeneous and unifying the differentiated: in short, of re-shaping an incoherent aggregate into the coherent system. Global space was sliced into sovereign realms – separate territories with separate, sovereign agencies – to perform those tasks of modern authority. Things which this arrangement had no room for were a ‘no-man's land’, ‘master-less people’, unpatterned conduct and ambivalent messages. The image of culture as ‘system’ after the pattern of a managerial chart was the projection of that space-management task/ambition.

    Engineered, modern space was to be tough, solid, permanent and non-negotiable. Concrete and steel were to be its flesh, the web of rail-tracks and highways its blood vessels. Writers of modern utopias did not distinguish between social and architectural order or between social and territorial units and divisions; for them – like for their contemporaries in charge of social order – the key to an orderly society was to be found in the organization of space. Social totality was to be a hierarchy of ever larger and inclusive localities, with the supra-local authority of the state perched on the top and surveilling the whole, while itself protected by the shroud of official secrecy from day-to-day interference.

    This picture, however, is itself receding in the past. Over the territorial/urbanistic/architectural, engineered space, a third – cybernetic – spacing of human world has been imposed with the advent of the global web of information. Elements of this space, according to Paul Virilio,15 are

    devoid of spatial dimensions, but inscribed in the singular temporality of an instantaneous diffusion. From here on, people can't be separated by physical obstacles or by temporal distances. With the interfacing of computer terminals and video-monitors, distinctions of here and there no longer mean anything.

    Cyberspace is territorially un-anchored; it stays in a different dimension, unreachable, let alone controllable, from the dimensions in which earthly ‘sovereign powers’ operate. The flow of information and the chart of control are, one may say, ‘principally uncoordinated’. If the idea of culture as a system was organically tied to the practice of the ‘managed’ or ‘administered’ space in general, and to its nation-state rendition in particular, it has no more hold on the realities of life. The global web of information does not have, nor may have, ‘pattern-maintenance’ agencies, neither does it have authorities capable of setting apart the norm from abnormality, the regular from the deviant. Any ‘order’ that may conceivably appear in cyberspace is emergent, not contrived; and even so it could be but a momentary order, an ‘until further notice’ order, and an order which in no way binds the shape of future orders nor determines their occurrence.

    The first insight into the futility of the ‘systemic’ conception of culture was the formidable achievement of Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose work inspired most of this book's arguments. Rather than as an inventory of a finite number of values overseeing the whole field of interaction or a stable code of closely related and complementary behavioural precepts, Lévi-Strauss portrayed culture as a structure of choices – a matrix of possible, finite in number yet practically uncountable permutations. Let us note in passing that though he denied his kinship with his strategy, Michel Foucault's idea of discursive formation, able to generate mutually contradictory propositions while retaining its own identity, was hardly conceivable without the decisive shift of cultural discourse accomplished with great persuasive power by Lévi-Strauss.

    The ordering passion of social scientists extends to their own playground, and so Lévi-Strauss was promptly dubbed a structuralist (just like the revolutionary edge of Georg Simmel's sociology was blunted, tamed and defused for years by classifying him as a ‘formalist’); but this strange ‘structuralist’ did more than any other thinker to explode the orthodox idea of structure as a vehicle of monotonous reproduction, repetitiveness and sameness. In Lévi-Strauss's vision, structure has turned from a cage into a catapult; from a trimming/truncating/cramping/fettering device into the determinant of freedom; from a weapon of uniformity into the tool of variety; from a protective shield of stability into the engine of never-ending and forever incomplete change. Moreover, Lévi-Strauss hotly denied the existence of anything like the structure of a ‘society’ or ‘culture’: while it is true that all human activities – from myth-telling through the selection of marriage partners to pet-naming and cooking – are structured, the idea of ‘structure as such’ is but an abstraction from this non-randomness of the infinitely varied kinds of human interactions.

    This proved, in retrospect, to have been a decisive step – and at the time it felt like a liberating event. It put paid to many a barren issue which preoccupied the minds and practices of the students of culture and closed many a blind alley. Personally, I found the end to the one-sided assignment of culture to the ‘continuity side’ of the continuity-discontinuity dilemma the most attractive feature of the Lévi-Strauss revolution. No more was culture to be seen as a constraint upon human invention, as a tool of monotonous self-reproduction of life-forms, resistant to change unless pushed or pulled by extraneous forces; Lévi-Strauss's culture was itself a dynamic force (only one small step remained from there to Jacques Derrida's iteration – the novelty ingrained in every act of repetition), and the very opposition between continuity and discontinuity seemed to lose much of its nuisance power. The former adversaries appeared now more like loyal allies in one unending process of cultural creativity – continuity being thinkable now in no other form but the endless chain of permutations and innovations.

    I suppose now that Lévi-Strauss's message was somewhat weakened by the attention he paid, to the detriment of other aspects, to another misleading dilemma – that of synchrony versus diachrony. It was perhaps Lévi-Strauss's bad luck to be maneouvred by Jean-Paul Sartre into the famous debate on history and historicity, during which the issue was diverted to what from the point of view of cultural theory could be only seen as a sidetrack, and kept there much too long by sensation-greedy yet half-informed academic opinion. This unhappy coincidence does not, however, absolve Lévi-Strauss from at least partial responsibility for the wrong uses to which the commentators could, and did, put his unduly stubborn insistence on the opposition between synchronic and diachronic views of culture. The synchronic approach, gleaned from Ferdinand de Saussure's ‘war of liberation’ waged against etymology then dominating the study of linguistics, was a welcome remedy against the more gruesome inanities of evolutionist or diffusionist visions beclouding the realm of cultural studies. A good starting point to the much needed site-clearing operation, the synchronic strategy could, however, easily be converted into another false recipe if only applied to the construction of the new and improved version of cultural theory; particularly if the polemically justified sharpening of the opposition between synchrony and diachrony was carried over from the field of methodology to that of the ‘ontology’ of culture.

    I believe that the synchrony-diachrony dilemma is but a methodological reflection of the opposition between continuity and discontinuity in the life of culture. The great merit of Lévi-Strauss's renewal of cultural theory was to show the way to unmasking the futility of that latter opposition. The ensuing revolution in the understanding of how culture works, how continuity and discontinuity intertwine and condition each other in the life of culture, was not, however, matched by a closer look at the dialectics of synchronic and diachronic approaches and little had been done to alert the students of culture to the truth that the two methodological principles are not just alternatives – certainly not in the strong, disjunctive sense.

    I am inclined today to read Lévi-Strauss's message together with Cornelius Castoriadis’ rejoinder – a right and proper critique of the ‘synchronic radicalism’ and timely reminder of the subtle, yet vital, interaction of diachronic and synchronic networks of connections in the cultural production of meaning as well as in understanding. What one can learn from Castoriadis’ critique, is that however pragmatically fruitful the emphasis on the diachronic/synchronic opposition and on the heretofore neglected merits of the synchronic perspective could be, the understanding of culture can gain little from a theoretical model constructed at a flat, horizontal level of the ‘now’. What Castoriadis wrote on language in the passage which follows, can be easily extended to culture as a whole:16

    the ‘synchronic state’ of the French language, that is this language itself, changes, for example, between 1905 and 1922, every time that Proust completes a sentence. Since at the same time Saint-John Perse, Apollinaire, Gide, Bergson, Valéry and so many others are also writing – each of whom would not be a writer if he did not imprint on a good number of the ‘signifieds’ entering into his text an alteration that is his own but that henceforth belongs to the significations of the words in the language – what is then the ‘synchronic state’ of French as a language, as it refers to significations, during this period? …

    It is obviously an essential property of language as well, as history … to be able to alter itself while continuing to function efficiently, constantly to transform the uncommon into the common, the original into the established, to be continual acquisition or elimination, and, in this, to perpetuate its capacity to be itself. Language, in its relation to significations, shows us how instituting society is constantly at work and also … how this work, which exists only as instituted, does not hamper the continued instituting activity of society.

    Society and culture, like language, retain their distinctiveness – their ‘identity’ – but this distinctiveness is never ‘the same’ for long. It lasts through change. Moreover, there is no ‘now’ in culture, not in the sense postulated by the precept of synchrony, in the sense of a point in time cut from its own past and self-sustained when its openings into the future are ignored. To resort once more to Paul Ricoeur's distinction between l'ipséité and la mëmeté, the two ingredients of identity, one may say, following Castoriadis, that the second – durability of identity – consists in the preservation of the first – distinctiveness; but that the first is inconceivable outside or independently of its duration, which brings together successive – different – forms of distinctiveness as belonging to the same identity, and thus conjures up identity out of mere difference.

    To quote Castoriadis again:

    There would be no language, no society, no history, nothing if an ordinary Frenchman of today were not able to understand Le Rouge et le Noir, or even Saint-Simon's Mémoires, as well as an innovative text of an original writer.

    To put it in a nutshell: to ‘master a culture’ means to master a matrix of possible permutations, a set never fully implemented and always far from completion – not a finite collection of significations and the art to recognize their carriers. What collects cultural phenomena into a ‘culture’ is the presence of such a matrix, a constant invitation to change, not their ‘systemness’ – that is, not the mixture of petrification of some (‘normal’) choices and elimination of some other (‘deviant’) ones.

    Which leads us to another theme insufficiently attended to in the now reprinted book, yet currently very much in the centre of cultural debate: that of culture as – simultaneously – the factory of identity and its shelter.

    Culture and Identity

    The notoriously intense attention paid nowadays to the issue of identity is itself a cultural fact of great importance and, potentially at least, of great enlightening power.

    Aspects of experience come into focus and begin to be debated in earnest when they can no longer be taken for granted; when they cease to be self-evident, or likely to survive if left alone, unpropped by vigilant reflection. The more feeble they seem, the stronger is the urge to discover or invent, but above all to demonstrate the solidity of, their foundations.

    ‘Identity’ is no exception; it has become a matter of acute reflection once the likelihood of its survival without reflection began to dwindle – when instead of something obvious and given it began to look like something problematic and a task. That happened with the advent of modern times, with the passage from ‘ascription’ to ‘achievement’: letting human individuals loose so that they may – need, must – determine their own place in society.

    No thoughts are given to identity when ‘belonging’ comes naturally, when it does not need to be fought for, earned, claimed and defended; when one ‘belongs’ just by going through the motions which seem obvious thanks simply to the absence of competitors. Such belonging which renders all concern with identity redundant is possible, as we have seen before, only in a world locally confined: only if the ‘totalities’ to which one belongs before thinking of it and before really trying are for all practical purposes clearly defined by the capacity of the ‘wetware’. In such ‘mini-worlds’, being ‘in here’ feels evidently different from being ‘out there’, and the passage from here to there seldom, if ever, occurs. Such belonging, however, is not feasible if the totality in question transcends the capacity of the ‘wetware’ – when it becomes, for that reason, an abstract, ‘imagined’ community. To the assembly of people not larger than the network of face-to-face, personal interactions entailed in the daily routine or the annual cycle of encounters, one belongs; with the ‘imagined’ totality one must identify. The latter is a task which takes some special effort, set aside from daily business and so conceived of as a separated activity of learning. It involves passing certain tests and requires a certain form of confirmation that the test has been indeed successfully passed.

    The mark of modernity is increased volume and range of mobility and so, inevitably, the weakening of the hold of locality and the local networks of interaction. For much the same reason, modernity is also an era of supra-local totalities, of power-assisted or aspiring ‘imagined communities’, of nation-building – and of ‘made-up’, postulated and constructed, cultural identities.

    With his usual insightfulness, Friedrich Nietzsche saw through the rising tide of modern nationalism: ‘That which is at present called a “nation” in Europe is rather a res facta than nata (indeed, sometimes confusingly similar to a res ficta et picta).’17 And Ernest Gellner explained why this had to be the case: ‘Nations as a natural, God-given way of classifying men, as an inherent though long-delayed political destiny, are a myth; nationalism, which sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-existing cultures; that is a reality, for better or worse, and in general an inescapable one.’18

    As Frederick Barth pointed out emphatically, ‘ethnic categories provide an organizational vessel that may be given varying contents and forms in different socio-cultural systems. They may be of great relevance to behaviour, but they need not be; they may pervade all social life, or they may be relevant only in limited sectors of activity.’ Whichever option becomes reality is an open question. It was the task of the modern state to see that the option to ‘pervade all social life’ be given preference over the marginality or partiality of ethnic membership. After all, the continuous existence of an ‘ethnic category’ depends solely on the maintenance of a boundary, however changeable are the cultural factors selected as the border posts. Thanks to its monopoly of the means of coercion the modern state had the might needed to claim and to defend boundries.

    It is in the end ‘the ethnic boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff that it encloses’, Barth insists.19 All having been said and done, the very identity of that cultural stuff (its ‘unity’, ‘totality’ and ‘distinctiveness’) is an artefact of a firmly drawn and well-guarded boundary, though the designers and the guardians of borders would as a rule insist on the opposite order of causality. The orthodox cultural theorists sided, as a rule, with those in charge of the borders – allegedly natural and genuine borders, but in fact artificial and all too often merely postulated.

    ‘Having an identity’ seems to be one of the most universal human needs (though, let me repeat, its recognition as a need is far from universal – indeed, a historically coincidental evidence of its fragility). We all seem to share in the pursuit of what Michel Morineau aptly dubbed la douceur d'être inclu:20

    By itself, in some sense this expression says it all; it corresponds to a primary desire – that of belonging, of belonging to a group, of being received by another, by others, of being accepted, of being retained, of being sure of support, of having allies…. More important still than all those specific satisfactions received one by one, separately, is that underlying and all-embracing feeling, on top of having one's personal identity endorsed, confirmed, accepted by the many – the feeling that one has obtained a second identity, this time a social one.

    Personal identity gives meaning to the ‘I’. Social identity guarantees that meaning, and in addition allows one to speak of the ‘we’, in which the otherwise precarious and insecure ‘I’ may be lodged, rest safely and even wash out its own anxieties.

    The ‘we’ made of inclusion, acceptance and confirmation is the realm of gratifying safety cut out (though seldom as securely as one would desire) from the frightening wilderness of an outside populated by ‘them’. The safety would not be obtained unless the ‘we’ were trusted to have the power of acceptance, and the strength to protect those who have already been accepted. Identity is felt to be secure if the powers that have certified it seem to prevail over ‘them’ – the strangers, the adversaries, the hostile others – construed simultaneously with the ‘we’ in the process of self-assertion. ‘We’ must be powerful, or social identity won't be gratifying. There is little pleasure in being included if – as Heinrich Heine once remarked on one of the less effective protective walls, those of the ethnic ghetto – ‘cowardice guards the gates from inside, and stupidity stands on guard outside’.

    The strength required will not come by itself. It must be created. It also needs its creators and authorities. It needs culture – educating, training and teaching. Reflecting on the intellectual and moral reform that nineteenth-century France needed, Ernest Renan bewailed the ‘state of the masses’, but most of all the incapacity of the ‘masses’ to extricate themselves from that state by their own will and force: ‘the masses are onerous, crude, dominated by a most superficial view of their interest’. ‘Imbeciles or ignorants may well unite, but nothing good would follow from their union.’ ‘The spectacle of the physical suffering of the poor is no doubt lamentable. I admit, however, that it causes me infinitely less pain than the sight of the great majority doomed to intellectual parochialism.’21 The obvious moral and practical lesson to draw was that ‘the masses’ had to become, and for a foreseeable future to remain, an object of tender care aimed at their spiritual elevation: prevented from becoming subjects of autonomous action, since unlikely to become makers of the choices one would be ready to accept. It is the presence of the masses that founded the necessity of spiritual leadership, and thus offered the wardenship of the spiritual elite its raison d'être. At the time Renan wrote these words, this was the generally accepted opinion, shortly to be further elaborated by LeBon, Tarde or Sorel among many others. That opinion summed up a century or more of estrangement and reconquest.

    ‘The masses’ belong to the populous family of categories born together with modernity – all reflecting the modern ambition to dissolve many and different local identities in a new, supra-local and homogeneous assignment – to unify the heterogeneous aggregate of people through instruction and control, drilling and teaching, and if need be coercion. The intellectual corollary of that political process – heaping together the variety of regional, legal and occupational identities of le petit peuple into an indiscriminate ‘mass’, or a mobile vulgus (‘mob’) – started in earnest in the seventeenth century, and reached its conceptual maturity only in the thought of the Enlightenment. According to Robert Muchembled,22

    All social groups of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries moved at the same level in that universe, enormously distant from ours. Real cleavages caused by birth or wealth did not result in profound differences in sensibility and common conduct between the dominant and the dominated….

    Beginning with the eighteenth century, the break between two separate mental planets intensifies. The civilized people can no longer feel the people, in the proper sense of the word. They reject everything which appears to them savage, dirty, lecherous – in order to better conquer similar temptations in themselves. … Odour became a criterion of social distinction.

    There were many divisions and sub-divisions, big or minute, in that divine chain of being that the pre-modern mind of Christian Europe forged to piece together its life-world; too many in fact for a single, all-embracing, all-defining ‘division of divisions’, like that modern division between the ‘cultivated’ and the ‘uncultivated’ – raw, coarse, vulgar, unrefined, in need of uplifting – to emerge.

    In a truly revolutionary way, the ‘civilizing process’ which took off in the seventeenth century was first and foremost a drive to the self-separation of the elites from ‘the rest’ – now forcefully blended, despite all internal variety, into a homogenic mass: a process of a sharp cultural de-synchronization. On one, active end (that of the elites) it produced a growing preoccupation with the task of self-formation, self-drill and self-improvement. On the other, receiving end it sedimented a tendency to biologize, medicalize, criminalize and increasingly to police ‘the masses’ – ‘judged brutal, filthy and totally incapable of constraining their passions in order to accommodate to the civilized mould’.

    To sum up: at the threshold of modernity one finds the process of the selfformation of the learned or enlightened elite (now set apart by its ‘civilized mode’, with its two faces of spiritual refinement and bodily drill) which at the same time was a process of the power-assisted formation of the masses as the potential field of the elite's supervising function, action and responsibility. Responsibility was for leading the masses into humanity; the action might take the form of persuasion or enforcement. It was that responsibility and the associated propulsion to act that defined ‘the masses’ – in their two co-existing and mutually complementary, even if ostensibly opposed, incarnations: ‘the mob’ (coming to the fore whenever force was the order of the day) and ‘the people’ (invoked when education was hoped to make the enforcement redundant).

    What applied to the grand separation applied as well to the grand reassembly which was bound to follow. The reintegration of divided society was to be led by the new civilized elite of the educated, now firmly in the saddle. To quote Gellner again,23

    at the base of the modern social order stands not the executioner but the professor. Not the guillotine, but the (aptly named) doctorat d'état is the main tool and symbol of state power. The monopoly of legitimate education is now more important, more central than is the monopoly of legitimate violence.

    The task of integration and reproduction of society could no longer be left to the spontaneous, unreflexively operating forces of sociability set in motion by the multitude of compact localities, in each one separately and drawing on local resources. More correctly, modern elites had consciously and resolutely broken with what they now viewed, in retrospect and with horror, as such a de-centred, diffuse, chaotic, and thus dangerous and always pregnant with catastrophe, irrational state of affairs.

    Processes of integration and reproduction of social order had become the domain of specialization, expertise – and of a legally defined authority. They reaffirmed and reinforced what the processes of separation which preceded them had accomplished. The ‘project of enlightenment’ simultaneously constituted the learned, ‘cultivated’ elite at the helm and the rest of society as a natural object of the elite's teaching, ‘cultivating’ action, and thereby reproduced the structure of domination in its new, modern form: one that stretched beyond the pre-modern tasks of re-distributing the surplus product and entailed now, as its major concern, the intention to shape the spirits and the bodies of the subjects, to penetrate deeply into their daily conduct and the construction of their life-worlds. The call for the education of the masses was simultaneously a declaration of the masses’ own social incompetence and a bid for the dictatorship of the professoriat (or, to use the educated elite's own vocabulary, for the ‘enlightened despotism’ of the guardians of reason, humane manners and good taste).

    Nation-building was, essentially, such a bid. It was, therefore, as modern as the structure of domination around which and through which the new integration of society was perpetrated, or as the social strata elevated to managerial positions in the process. In the course of modern history, nationalism played the role of the hinge fastening together state and society (the latter conceptualized as – identified with – the nation). State and nation emerged as natural allies at the horizon of the nationalist vision, at the finishing line of the re-integrating spurt. The state supplied the resources of nation-building, while the postulated unity of the nation and shared national destiny offered legitimacy to the ambition of the state authority to command obedience.

    There was a close, though elective, affinity between the modern effort to secure supra-local integration through state-managed legal order and the entrenchment of supra-local, national culture. One may say that, consciously or instinctively, the rising state sought legitimizing support through siding with an already existing nationalism or fomenting a new one; while nationalist projects sought the instruments and assurances of their effectiveness in the powers of the extant or yet-to-be-built states. Indeed the elite-promoted alliance between nationhood and statehood had become so close that by the end of the nineteenth century Maurice Barrès could look back on the link between the state and the nation as on a result of an utterly natural and unprompted process, a product of the law of nature of sorts: ‘Peoples emancipated from historical constraints by natural rights, by the Revolution, organized themselves into nationalities…. They decided spontaneously to form groups resting on shared legends and on life in togetherness.’24 To become national, culture had to deny first its being a project: culture had to masquerade as nature.

    ‘What is la patrie?’ asked Barrès, and answered: ‘La Terre et les Morts.’ The two named constituents of la patrie have one thing in common: they are not a matter of choice. They cannot be chosen freely. Before any choice can be as much as contemplated, one has been already born and grown on this soil here and now and into this succession of ancestors and their posterity. One can move places, but one cannot take one's soil with one, and one cannot make another soil one's own. One may change company, but not one's dead – the dead ancestors who are one's own and not the others’; nor may one transform other people's dead into one's own ancestors. Commenting on the conflict between Creon and Antigone, Barrès made it clear just what the limits of the choice are:25

    Creon is a master who arrived from abroad. He said: ‘I know the laws of the country and I'll apply them.’ This was the judgement of his intelligence. Intelligence – what a trifling thing at the very surface of our selves! Antigone, on the contrary…. engages her profound heredity, she is inspired by those subconscious parts where respect, love, fear no more differentiated form the magnificent might of veneration.

    Antigone had what Creon, armed solely with his wit and an appropriated – learned – knowledge, would never acquire: l'épine dorsale, the backbone on which and around which everything else in the human creature rests and is shaped (the backbone, Barrès insists, is not a metaphor, ‘but a most powerful analogy’). By comparison with the solidity of the backbone, intelligence is no more than ‘a trifling thing on the surface’. The backbone is a fixed point which defines everything else's place. It determines which motions of the whole body and any single part of the body are feasible or permitted and which are not (i.e. threaten to break the backbone). Truth is also a fixed point, like the backbone: not a point of arrival (not the end point of the learning process), but the starting point of all knowledge, a point that cannot be created but only found, recovered if missed – or lost; ‘a unique point, this one here, none other, the point from which everything appears to us in its right proportions’.

    I ought to situate myself exactly at the point which my eyes demand, such eyes as have been formed by centuries: the point from which all things offer themselves in the measure of a Frenchman. The totality of right and true relations between given objects and the determined man, the Frenchman, this is the French truth and the French justice. Pure nationalism is nothing else than the knowledge that such a point exists, the search to find it, and – once it has been reached – cleaving to it in order to derive from it our arts, our politics, all our activities.

    In other words: the point was fixed before I was born, I myself was ‘fixed’ by it before I began to think of points or of anything else – yet finding this point is still my task, something I must do through exercising my reason. I must seek that point actively, and then choose what is not a matter of choice: to embrace voluntarily the inevitable, to submit by choice, in full consciousness, to that which has been present all along in my subconscious. The outcome of free choice is given in advance: while exercising my will, I am not really free to will, as there is but one thing that in my case may be willed effectively: for me to be determined by la terre et les morts, to relish my stern and demanding masters – to say to myself, ‘I wish to live with these masters, and – through making them the objects of my cult – to fully partake of their force.’

    But there are other things as well that I may happen to will, or think (mistakenly) that I am free to will them: for instance, disowning my own masters or appropriating masters that are not mine. In both cases I may really come to believe that I am free and that my reason-dictated choice, like reason itself, knows no bounds. In both cases the result is the same: déracinement, root-lessness – limp flesh without a backbone, wandering and blundering thought with no fixed point on which to rest.

    What unites certain human creatures (and sets them apart from others) is not solidarity – something they can forge or disavow at will, negotiate, agree or reject – but kinship: liens they have not chosen and are not at liberty to trade off. ‘The fact of being of the same race, of the same family, forms a psychological determinism; it is in this sense that I take the word kinship.’ The status of kinship is precarious: strong enough to inspire faith in the final victory of the unity drive but not strong enough to breed complacency and legitimize quietism. True nationalism (certainly a nationalist Barrès-style) would shun the exceptionless, impersonal, overpowering determinism of race: ‘it is incorrect to say that there is a French race in the exact meaning of the word. We are not a race, but a nation: a nation which goes on creating itself daily, and to avoid being diminished, annihilated, we – the individuals who make it – must protect it’.26

    If group membership depends on race, everything was said and done before anything had time to be thought or spoken, and everything of importance would remain unaltered whatever might be yet thought or spoken. If, on the other hand, togetherness of the group hangs on the willing acceptance of fate (if the nation is Renan's ‘daily plebiscite’), it also (and most importantly) hangs on what is being spoken, how often and with what force of conviction, and on those who speak it. Unlike the race, the nation is incomplete without its ‘conscience-arousing’ spokespersons; unlike the race, the nation includes consciousness among its defining attributes; it must yet turn from en soi into pour soi by its own effort – but first and foremost through the strenuous effort of cultivation made daily by the guardians of national culture.

    A most pronounced feature of the nationalist project was always the overwhelming urge to make sure that Barrès ‘I must’ means what it says, that the ‘discovery of backbone’ is made by everybody, and that everyone ‘clings’ to what has been discovered in ‘all activities’. And there was but one way of making sure: using the state prerogative of legislated coercion to render ‘missing the point’ as unlikely as possible, and ‘finding the point’ virtually inescapable. The nation unpropped by the power of state would be just one ‘reference group’ among many – like them uncertain of its survival, buffeted by cross-waves of changing fashions, obliged to appeal daily to flickering loyalties, to lean over backwards to deliver proof of the advantage of its benefits over competitors’ offers. The nation-state (the idea of a nation made into the state's flesh) could, on the other hand, legislate loyalty and determine in advance the results of free choice. The postulated roots could be legislated into existence and taken care of by the state agencies of law and order, the state-defined canon of cultural heritage and the state-authorized curriculum of history teaching.

    Let us recall that the purpose of all that was to loosen or break the grip in which ‘communities’ (local traditions, customs, dialects, calendars, loyalties) held the would-be patriots of the one and indivisible nation. The idea guiding all the efforts of the modern nation-state was to superimpose one kind of allegiance over the mosaic of communitarian, local ‘particularisms’. In terms of practical politics, this meant the dismantling, or legal disempowering, of all pouvoirs intermèdiaires; the end to the autonomy of any unit less than the nation-state but claiming to be more than the executor of the nation-state's will and assuming more than the delegated power.

    As Charles Taylor points out, after two centuries or so of all these (in the end inconclusive) efforts of national unification, ‘minority communities’ are ‘struggling to maintain themselves’. They struggle to maintain themselves, that is, as communities. And this means in turn that ‘these people’ (Taylor does not specify who ‘these people’ are, tacitly accepting the postulate of unity of interests and destiny voiced by the shepherds and the flock) ‘are striving for more than their rights as individuals’. If there is indeed something more than the ‘rights as individuals’ (i.e. there is something so important that it justifies the suspension of the rights of individuals qua individuals), then, of course, struggle is inevitable and any benevolent person, owes the fighters sympathy and assistance. But what is that ‘something more’?

    ‘Something more’ (that “something” which makes the restrictions of the individual right to choose palatable and even welcome) is the ‘goal of survivance’; and this means in turn ‘the continuance of the community through future generations’. Put in simpler, and above all practical, terms, the pursuit of the ‘goal of survivance’ calls for the right of the community to limit or preempt the choices of younger and not-yet-born generations, to decide for them what their choices should be like. In other words, what is demanded here is the power of enforcement; to make sure that people would act in these rather than other ways, to taper the range of their options, to manipulate the probabilities; to make the individuals do what they otherwise would not do, to make them less free than they otherwise would be. Why is it important to do so? Taylor points out that this is to be done (not a new argument, as the history of intellectuals goes) in people's own well-understood interest, since ‘human beings can only make meaningful choices of their way of life against a background of alternatives which can only come to them through the language and cultural tradition of their society’.27

    A similar idea was expressed over and over again by the generations of prophets and court poets of the nation-state, and it is not immediately obvious why under Taylor's pen it should be an argument in favour of the ‘struggling minorities’ cause. For the change of address to become understandable, one needs first to spy out the hidden corollary: namely, the realization that the nation-state has not delivered on its promise, that for one reason or another it is now bankrupt as a fount of ‘meaningful choice of the way of life’, that nationalism devoid of its state foundation has lost the authority without which the overriding of individual choosing rights is neither feasible nor felt acceptable, and that in the resulting void it is the ‘struggling minorities’ which are now believed to be the second line of trenches, where ‘meaningful choice’ can be protected from extinction; it is now hoped that they will succeed in the task which the nation-state has definitely failed to perform.

    The striking similarity (indeed, identity – bar the change of address) between the nationalist and the communitarian hopes and paradoxes is not at all accidental. Both ‘future perfect’ visions are, after all, philosophers’ reactions to the widespread experience of acute and abrupt ‘disembedment’ of identities, caused by the present-day accelerated collapse of the frames in which identities were habitually inscribed. Nationalism was the response to the wholesale destruction of the ‘cottage industry’ of identities, and the ensuing devaluation of the locally (and matter-of-factly, unreflexively) produced and endorsed patterns of life.

    The nationalist vision arose from the desperate hope that the clarity and security of existence which ostensibly marked pre-modern life can be rebuilt at a higher, supra-local level of social organization, around national membership and state citizenship blended into one. For reasons too vast and numerous to be listed here, that hope failed to come true. The nation-state proved to be the incubator of a modern society ruled not so much by the unity of feelings as by the diversity of unemotional market interests. Its thorough job of uprooting local loyalties looks in retrospect to be not so much a production of higher-level identities as a site-clearing operation for the market-led confidence-game of quickly-assembled and fast-dismantled modes of self-description.

    And so once more ‘meaningful identities’ (‘meaningful’ in the sense once postulated by nationalists, now by the communitarians) are hard to come by. Keeping them in place and intact, for however brief a moment, taxes the taught/learned juggling skills of individuals far beyond their capacity. Since the idea that the society institutionalized in the state will lend a helping hand does not now hold much water, no wonder that our eyes are shifting in a different direction; by an irony of history, however, they are drifting towards entities whose radical destruction used to be seen, since the beginning of modernity, as the condition sine qua non of ‘meaningful choice’: it is now the much-maligned natural communities of origin, ‘local’ and necessarily lesser than the nation-state, once described by modernizing propaganda as parochial, backwater, prejudice-ridden, oppressive and stultifying and made the targets of cultural crusades waged in the name of ‘meaningful choices’, which are looked to hopefully as the trusty executors of that streamlining, de-randomizing, meaning-saturating of human choices which the nation-state, and national culture, abominably failed to bring forth.

    Admittedly, old-fashioned state-oriented nationalism is far from having run its course – particularly in the post-colonial world, in Africa or in Eastern Europe, among the debris left by the collapsing capitalist or communist empires alike. There, the idea of a nation providing a home for the lost and the confused is still fresh and above all untried. It is lodged securely in the future (even if nationalism, just as communitarianism, deployed with gusto the language of heritage, roots and a shared past), and the future is the natural place in which to invest one's hopes and cravings. For Europe (with the exception of its Eastern-most, post-colonial part), on the other hand, nationalism together with its crowning achievement, the nation-state, has lost much of its former lustre. It failed to resolve in the past what once more is to be resolved now, and it would be foolish to expect that the second time round it will perform much better. Europe knows as well that the post-colonial world does not know or does not care much about: that the closer the nation-state's works come to the ideal of solid foundations and a secure home, the less there is freedom to move around the house, and the more rank and foul becomes the air inside. For these as well as for other reasons, nothing which present-day nation-states are used, able or willing to do seems adequate to meet the anguish of uncertainty which devours the psychic resources of the late-modern or postmodern individual.

    Under the circumstances, what makes the vision or ‘natural community’ conjured up in communitarian writings so attractive is above all the fact that they have been imagined independently from, and even in opposition to, the state and the homogeneous ‘national culture’ the state once actively promoted. It looks as if the state, in resonance with popular feelings, has been abandoned by the communitarian philosophers to the ‘risk-producing’ side of human existence: it takes care of individual freedom, but by the same token it abandons individuals to their patently inadequate resources in their pursuit of ‘meaningful choice’. Like the nation once did, so now the ‘natural community’ stands for the dream of meaning – and so of identity. Paradoxically, however eager are the communitarians to ‘root’ new shelters of meaningful choices in the genuine or invented, but always pre-modern past, it is the modern spirit of adventure, of exploring the unexplored, of trying the untried, which makes them attractive to philosophers and to their readers alike.

    Politically, the communitarian vision of culture (in the primal sense of ‘culture’ as the activity – of cultivating, enlightening, proselytizing, converting, waging cultural crusades) stands in opposition to the homoegenizing ambition of ‘national culture’ as embodied in the practices of its self-proclaimed guardian and manager, the nation-state. Sociologically speaking, though, the opposition does not seem all that evident.

    The state promotion of the ‘national culture’ was, as we have seen above, a bid for culture as a ‘system’ – a self-enclosed totality. It proceeded by the elimination of all residues of custom and habit which did not fit the unified model, meant to become obligatory in the area under the state's sovereignty, now identified as national territory. That model was organically opposed to ‘multi-culturalism’ – a condition which from the perspective of national culture could be conceived of only negatively, as the failure of the state-administered project: as the persistence of many separate and autonomous sets of values and behavioural norms and so the absence of one dominant and uncontested cultural authority. Communitarianism does not, in principle, break with that perception. The communitarian postulate of multi-culturalism tacitly assumes, just like the project of national culture did, the systemic, ‘totalistic’ character of culture. It only reverses the evaluation of the co-presence of many such ‘totalities’ in one political realm and postulates its forceful continuation where the project of national culture postulated their power-assisted dissolution in one, national, cultural system.

    Suspicion towards nation-state cultural ambitions and the loss of faith in the state's promises of meaningful, well-founded identity have not been without reason. State-promoted national culture proved to be a weak protection against the commercialization of cultural goods and the erosion of all values except those of seductive power, profitability and competitiveness. And so there are holes in the ground where road-signs and milestones seemed once to be firmly dug in. And there is widespread fear and resentment of the experience of ‘disembedded’, ‘unencumbered’, free-floating, unanchored, fragile and vulnerable identity – the experience gestated on a massive scale in a situation where the task of construction and preservation of identity is left to the individual, ‘deregulated’ and ‘privatized’, initiative and to mostly inadequate individual resources. The self-assertion which such a modern condition made into the individual's fate and duty requires considerable resources, yet the prospect of supplying them to all members of society alike never materialized and looks increasingly nebulous. With the gap between the range of publicly brandished choices and the limited individual capacity to choose widening, nostalgia for the ‘sweetness of belonging’ could only grow. State promoted national culture was meant to provide a counter-weight for the despair of helplessness, to cut down the psychological damage and to draw limits to the atomization, mutual estrangement and loneliness fed by the unleashed forces of market competition; but it failed to do so – or rather the hopes that it would ever deliver on its promise faded, as the market-prodded atomization proceeded unabated and the feeling of uncertainty gathered force.

    Communitarianism takes over the banner falling (dropped?) from the nation-state's hands. It promises to deliver what the state promised but failed to deliver: the sweetness of belonging. In the war declared against ‘disembedding’, ‘dis-encumbering’, de-personalizing forces of free-for-all competition, communitarianism follows the same strategy as the state did at the times of cultural crusades: to heal the psychological wounds by spiritual unity, while resigning itself to the invincibility of divisive pressures which caused the wounds in the first place. Shared culture is posited in both cases as the compensation for the market-caused uprooting. The promise of compensation is addressed particularly to those many who for lack of strength tend to sink and drown rather than swim in the turbulent waters of competition. Notably, the project of national culture and the communitarian projects are unanimous as to the non-feasibility of the alternative solution: that of rendering freedom of self-assertion truly universal, by providing to every individual the resources needed and the self-confidence which goes with them, and thus rendering compensation redundant.

    In a recent study under the apt title ‘False and Real Problems’,28 Alain Touraine demanded that we distinguish two phenomena (or two programmes) which are all too often confused, to the detriment of public debate: ‘multi-culturalism’ and ‘multi-communitarianism’:

    cultural pluralism cannot be achieved otherwise than by breaking down the communities defined by their relationship to a society, an authority and a culture. It is necessary to reject the idea of a multi-communitarian society in order to defend the idea of a multi-cultural one.

    Far from being two faces of the same coin, multi-culturalism and the communitarian idea stand in stark opposition to each other: ‘Creation of societies and political authorities on the basis of cultural identity and common tradition is contrary to the idea of multiculturalism.’ Its genuine result would be, rather,

    fragmentation of the cultural space into a plurality of communitarian fortresses, that is, politically organized groups whose leaders derive their legitimacy, their influence and the power of their appeal from cultural tradition.

    Appeals to the rights of communities to preserve their cultural distinctiveness more often than not ‘hide brutality of dictatorial power under a thin crust of culturalism’. There is a lot of political capital in the despair of the dispossessed and insecurity of many more who fear dispossession as a possible prospect – and there are many would-be community leaders eager to draw on it with the help of culturalist nets.

    We have traced so far the similarity between state nationalism and the communitarian project; that similarity boiled down in the last account to the vested interests of both programmes in the ‘systemness’ of culture, in smothering of difference and effacing ambivalence of cultural choices in order to create an imagined totality capable of resolving the thorny issue of social identity. But let us note that there are differences between the two projects as well – and seminal ones, to be sure.

    First, the national-culture project was conceived as a necessary supplement to another modern departure: the universality of citizenship. National community was to be another face of the republic of equal rights and duties – indifferent, for the sake of citizens’ equality, to the cultural choices citizens might have made. The republic of citizens is also a republic of risk-taking individuals; as Iosif Brodski once remarked, the free person is a person who does not complain in case of defeat, and being a free citizen entails the constant possibility of defeat and willingness to assume responsibility for its consequences. The national-culture supplement was indeed necessary to integrate what the impersonality of citizenship set apart; in principle, though not always in practice, it enabled the republic of equal citizens to function smoothly, as it collectively insured citizens against the most unwholesome consequences of their individually-made choices, promising to stretch the safety-net of communal solidarity under individual tightrope-walking. The safety-net service was, as a matter of fact, mutual: the republic offered security of citizen rights, and protected against the extremities of cultural crusades. The relationship between the national culture and the republican projects was not free from friction; but it was precisely thanks to the tension between the two projects that the modern condition could emerge and develop.

    In this sense the communitarian project betrays quite a pronounced antimodern streak. It is not bound and kept within limits by the nation-state's commitment to the republic and to citizen freedom. Cultural community is but what is says – a cultural community, existing solely courtesy of the shared tradition (or its assumption). It is all about foreclosure of free choice, about the promotion of preference for one cultural choice and staving off all other choices – about strict surveillance and censorship. Its pressure to conform is not mitigated by the need to promote legal universalism which would stop the penalty for unapproved cultural choices short of extradiction. There is therefore every reason to expect communities to push their cultural intolerance to the limits which even the least tolerant nation-states seldom reached. Indeed, the cultural community of communitarians is cast in a ‘conform or perish’ situation.

    The second difference follows from the first. The cultural community of the communitarian project – necessarily a self-conscious, self-proclaimed community, a postulated community – has nothing but the unswerving loyalty of its members to hold it together. In this respect it is sharply different from the pre-modern community which it allegedly resuscitates or imitates – a genuine ‘totality’, in which the aspects of life now analytically prised apart from the rest of life and synthesized as ‘culture’ were intertwined or blended with other aspects, and never codified as a set of rules to be learned and followed, let alone posited as a task. It differs sharply also from the modern project of ‘national community’, which – realistically or not – aimed at the re-creation of such totality at the supra-local level. For that reason, ‘culture’ is in the idea of postulated cultural community burdened with integrative functions it has no strength to carry on its own. Such community must be vulnerable from the start, and conscious of its fragility – which makes all tolerance and compromise regarding the beliefs to be believed and ways of life to be followed a luxury it cannot afford. Cultural norms turn into the hottest of political issues; little in the conduct of the community's members is indifferent to the ‘survivance’ of the whole and can be left to the members’ own discretion and responsibility. In accordance with Frederick Barth's rule, all genuine distinctive marks must be blown up in importance and new distinctions vehemently sought or invented to set the community apart from its neighbours – particularly physically (economically, politically) close neighbours, the partners of dialogue and exchange. A ‘no-alternative’ condition must be enforced upon a world in which all other aspects of life promote and offer a variety of alternatives; cultural homogeneity must be forced, by conscious effort, upon inherently pluralist reality.

    Cultural community must therefore be a site of cultural coercion – all the more painful for being experienced, lived through, as coercion. It may survive solely at the expense of its members’ freedom of choice. It cannot perpetuate itself without close surveillance, disciplining drill and severe penalties for all deviation from its norms. It is, therefore, not so much ‘postmodern’, as ‘antimodern’: it proposes to reproduce all the more sinister and odious excesses of modern ambivalence-busting nation-building cultural crusades in a yet more stringent and merciless form, while militating against self-assertion and individual responsibility, also the products of modern revolution, which used to counterbalance and mollify the impact of homogenizing pressures. In a postmodern or late-modern world of free-flowing information and a global communicative network, the ‘cultural community’, so to speak, swims against the stream.

    The third distinctive mark of the communitarians’ ‘cultural community’ follows from this contradiction: preachers and defenders of cultural communities almost inevitably develop the mentality of a ‘besieged fortress’. Indeed, virtually every characteristic of the surrounding world seems to conspire against the project. The feeling of fragility does not feed confidence, while lack of confidence feeds suspicion verging on paranoia. For its own spiritual security, cultural communities need many enemies – the more evil and scheming the better. Preachers and would-be leaders of cultural communities feel best in the role of border patrols. Cross-border movement and dialogue is to them an anathema; the physical closeness of people of different forms of life an abomination; free exchange of ideas with such people the most terminal of dangers.

    This is perhaps what Touraine had in mind when speaking of cultural communities advocated by the communitarians as thinly-veiled dictatorships. If ‘multi-culturalism’, at least in some of its versions, may be a unifying and integrating, ‘inclusive’ force, no such chance is given to ‘multi-communitarianism’. The latter is a divisive factor, ‘exclusivist’ by nature, with vested interest in the breakdown of communication. It cannot but generate intolerance and social and cultural separation.

    If multi-culturalism, while lifting cultural diversification to the rank of supreme value, credits all cultural variation with potentially universal validity, multi-communitarianism thrives on peculiarity and non-translatability of cultural forms. For the first, cultural diversity is universally enriching; for the second, universal values are identity-impoverishing. The two programmes are not in dialogue; they talk past each other.

    One wonders to what extent the debate is a cul-de-sac to which the ‘totalistic’, systemic view of culture must have sooner or later led the protagonist in a pluralist, diversified society of the late-modern or postmodern type. One wonders as well how much progress can be made in resolving the differences while clinging to that view, on which both programmes, explicitly or tacitly, agree.

    The multi-cultural and multi-communitarian programmes are two different strategies meant to deal with a similarly diagnosed situation: the co-presence of many cultures within the same society. It seems, however, that the diagnosis is false to start with. The most prominent feature of contemporary life is cultural variety of societies, rather than variety of cultures in society: acceptance or rejection of a cultural form is no more (if it ever was) a package deal; it does not require the acceptance or rejection of the whole inventory nor does it mean a ‘cultural conversion’. Even if cultures were once complete systems in which all units were crucial and indispensable for the survival of all the others, they most certainly have ceased to be such. Fragmentation has affected all fields of life, and culture is not an exception.

    In the essay under the symptomatic title ‘Who Needs Identity’, Stuart Hall29 proposes to distinguish between ‘naturalistic’ and ‘discursive’ understandings of identificatory processes. According to the first, ‘identification is constructed on the back of a recognition of some common origin or shared characteristics with another person or group, or with an ideal, and with the natural closure of solidarity and allegiance established on this foundation’. According to the second ‘identification is a construction, a process never completed – always “in process“. It is not determined in the sense that it can always be “won” or “lost,” sustained or abandoned.’ It is the second understanding which grasps the true character of contemporary identificatory processes.

    [The concept] of identity does not signal that stable core of the self, unfolding from the beginning to end through all the vicissitudes of history without change. … Nor … is it that collective or true self hiding inside the many other, more superficial or artificially imposed ‘selves’ which a people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common.

    Identities are never unified and, in late modern times, increasingly fragmented and fractured; never singular but multiple, constructed across different, often intersecting and antagonistic, discourses, practices and positions.

    Stuart Hall's observations are crucial and deserve close attention. If taken seriously, they require a thorough rethinking and revision of the concepts deployed and generated in the ongoing ‘cultural identity’ debate.

    Take, for instance, the concept of cross-cultural exchange, or better still cultural diffusion. Diffusion, once a disturbing event in the daily life of cultures, has now become the culture's mode of day-to-day existence. One may go a step further, though, and conclude that the term itself has lost its usefulness. The concept of diffusion makes sense only when it is seen as a traffic between wholesome, well-defined entities; when, in other words, the treating of cultures as separate wholes itself makes sense. It is doubtful, however, whether it (still) does. If there are no rules, there are no exceptions; if there are no comprehensive and self-enclosed totalities, there is no diffusion. The idea of diffusion or cross-cultural exchange does not help understanding of contemporary culture. Neither do other traditional concepts of cultural analysis, like, for instance, assimilation or accommodation – in a similar way closely associated with the ‘systemic’ reality or systemic view of culture.

    The idea of ‘multi-culturalism’ does not venture as far as ‘multi-communitarianism’ in suggesting self-enclosure of cultures and their overlap with similarly (though for spiritual reasons alone) self-enclosed populations. And yet it goes too far in this direction to be able to account for the dynamics of contemporary culture. After all, it is also amenable to the charge of implying that distinctiveness of cultures remains the primary reality, and that all movements and mixing of values, symbols, meanings, artefacts, patterns of behaviour and other things cultural are in consequence secondary – more or less a disturbing factor, an abnormality, even if not a reprehensible nor objectionable one. The same is implied by the currently fashionable terms like cultural hybridity, metisization or grafting: they all imply a cultural space divided more or less neatly into separate plots, each marked by more or less clearly defined difference between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, with limited and controlled across-the-border traffic. Mixed marriages are allowed in this scheme, with ‘hybrid’ offspring, however, immediately claiming its own sovereign territory. Whether deliberately or against the will of their users, terms like ‘multi-culturalism’, ‘hybridization’ etc. do arouse such an image (they, after all, rely on it for their sense); an image convenient perhaps as a front for political ambitions, but fast losing touch with cultural reality. It had better be abandoned – together with the terminology of cultural debate which it evokes and resuscitates.

    The most prominent feature of today's cultural stage is that the production and the distribution of cultural products has by now acquired, or is in the process of acquiring, a great deal of independence from institutionalized communities, and particularly the territorial politically institutionalized communities. Most cultural patterns reach the realm of daily life from outside the community, and most of them carry persuasive power much in excess of anything the locally-born patterns may dream of mustering and sustaining. They also travel with speed inaccessible to bodily movement, which sets them at a safe distance from agora-type face-to-face negotiation; their arrival, as a rule, takes the addressees unprepared, and the time-span of the visit is too short to allow for dialogical test. Cultural products travel free, negligent of state and provincial frontiers. Short of the Khmer Rouge or Taliban style of censorship, or prohibition of electronics, their ubiquitous presence cannot be averted. If linguistic barriers are still capable of diverting or slowing down their movement, their capacity to do so shrinks with every successive step in the development of the electronic technology.

    This does not mean the ultimate demise of cultural identities. But it does mean that cultural identities and the diffusion of cultural patterns and products has changed place – at least if compared with their rendition in the orthodox imagery of culture. Motility, non-rootedness and global availability/accessibility of cultural patterns and products is now the ‘primary reality’ of culture, while distinct cultural identities can only emerge as outcomes of a long chain of ‘secondary processes’ of choice, selective retention and recombination (which, most importantly, do not grind to a halt once the identity in question does emerge).

    I suggest that the image more likely to grasp the nature of cultural identities is one of the eddy rather than the island. Identities retain their distinct shape only in as far as they go on ingesting and divesting cultural matter seldom of their own making. Identities do not rest on the uniqueness of their traits, but consist increasingly in distinct ways of selecting/recycling/rearranging the cultural matter which is common to all, or at least potentially available to all. It is the movement and capacity for change, not the ability to cling to once-established form and contents, that secures their continuity.

    Relativity of Culture and Universality of Humanity

    As long as cultural plurality is theorized as plurality of cultures, students of culture cannot but see cross-cultural communication and cross-cultural comparison as one of their central problems. Indeed, since each culture divides the cultural universe into an ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, then there are at least two, and in all probability infinitely more, ways of interpreting the meaning of cultural products. There may be many ‘outsider’ interpretations; yet they all distort in one way or another the ‘insider's’ understanding. If a tacit assumption is added that the insider's interpretation is privileged over all the others, parallel to the privilege enjoyed by truth over errors, then the ideal target set for ‘outside’ readings is to approach as close as possible the meaning which a given cultural product has for its native producers/users. The snag is how to come close enough to that insider's understanding while not losing touch with one's own universe of meaning. This seems to be the main difficulty haunting ‘cross-cultural translation’.

    Historians, who explore lands not visited by ordinary folks due to their distance in time, and ethnologists, who examine lands equally unseen for reason of their distance in space, supply paradigmatical cases for the plight of experts-in-translation. Their predicament has been succintly summarized by Cornelius Castoriadis:30

    The historian or the ethnologist is obliged to try to understand the universe of the Babylonians or Bororos … as they lived it and … to refrain from introducing into it determinations that did not exist for this culture. … But one cannot stop here. The ethnologist who has so thoroughly assimilated the Bororos’ view of the world that he or she can no longer see the world any other way, is no longer an ethnologist but a Bororo, and the Bororos are not ethnologists. The ethnologist's raison d'etre is not to be assimilated to the Bororos but to explain to the Parisians, the Londoners and the New Yorkers in 1965 the other humanity represented by the Bororos. And thus he can do so only through language….

    Castoriadis points out immediately that the language translated and the language through which the translation is made available to the Parisians or the New Yorkers are not ‘equivalent codes’ – they are structured by different ‘imaginary significations’. To do her job properly the translator must come as close as possible to those significations, but when that end seems about to be reached, when she comes quite close, she might, literally, fall inside and her locutions would be as illegible to the readers back home as the experiences she set out to translate.

    Aspiring anthropologists used to be forewarned by the sad story of Frank Cushing, once the top expert in Zuni culture. The better Cushing understood Zunis, the stronger he felt that his reports, gratefully received and praised by fellow anthropologists, distorted rather than conveyed Zuni reality. He came to suspect that all translation was a deformation. He wouldn't be satisfied with any depth of his own understanding; he sensed another bottom beneath each bottom he reached. In the search of perfect translation Cushing resolved to experience the Zuni's universe ‘from inside’. He succeeded; the Zuni accepted him as one of their own and bestowed on him the highest accolade a Zuni may earn: the office of the Archpriest of the Rainbow. Since then, though, Cushing has not written a single sentence of anthropology.

    There is a paradigmatical description of the ethnologist's situation in the marvellous story ‘Averroes’ Search’ by the great Latin American writer Jorge Luis Borges31 – the thinker equally at home in all the traditions converging on the world of modern learned classes. Puzzled by the words ‘tragedia’ and ‘comedia’ found in Aristotle's text, the Averroes of Jorge Luis Borges’ story struggled for days on end to find its adequate rendition in Arabic. His trouble was not, however, merely of the dictionary, linguistic kind. It went deeper: Averroes never in his life went to the theatre, an invention unknown and alien to the world of Islam in which he was born and lived. He had no experience to which the unfamiliar words could be referred. In the end, Averroes wrote the following lines: ‘Aristu gives the name of tragedy to panegyrics and that of comedy to satires and anathemas. Admirable tragedies and comedies abound in the pages of the Koran and in the mohalacas of the sanctuary’ With an unsurpassed clarity Borges reveals the sense of what has happened here:

    In the foregoing story, I tried to narrate the process of a defeat, I first thought of the archbishop of Canterbury, who took it upon himself to prove there is a God; then, of the alchemists who sought the philosopher's stone; then, of the vain trisectors of the angle and squarers of the circle. Later I reflected that it would be more poetic to tell the case of a man who sets himself a goal which is not forbidden to others, but is to him. I remembered Averroes who, closed within the orb of Islam, could never know the meaning of the terms tragedy and comedy.

    Then comes the main point, a report of remarkable self-discovery, anticipating by quite a few years the tormented soul-searching and dazzling revelations of cultural anthropologists:

    I related his case; as I went along, I felt what that god mentioned by Burton must have felt when he tried to create a bull and created a buffalo instead. I felt that the work was mocking me. I felt that Averroes, wanting to imagine what a drama is without ever having suspected what a theatre is, was no more absurd than I, wanting to imagine Averroes with no other sources than a few fragments from Renan, Lane and Asín Palacios. I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity. (The moment I cease to believe in him, Averroes’ disappears.)

    The difficult wisdom obtained by Western readers of foreign cultures after a couple of centuries of unwarranted, yet no less for that reason arrogant, self-confidence is all here already – in the musings of the great mind thinking his thoughts inside the world cast by the centre as peripheral – yet for that very reason kept forcefully on the top of the ‘translation barricade’. Translation is a process of self-creation and of mutual creation; far from exercising the translator's authority to put the translated in his right place, the translator must first rise herself to the level of the translated; but if translation creates the translated text, it also creates the translator. Without the story of Averroes’ search, the searching Averroes disappears; both the translator and the translated come into being and vanish in the process of translation – each being an imaginary screen on which the same ongoing labour of communication is projected. We are often worried by what is ‘lost in translation’. Perhaps we worry unduly, or we worry about the wrong thing: what is truly lost we will never know, anyway, and if we come to know, we won't be able to share our knowledge with those for whom we wished to translate. Let us count the gains instead. There are things which can be gained only in translation.

    For a longer part of its history the theory of hermeneutics – of the understanding of what is not immediately understandable or carries the danger of misunderstanding – was a narration of the truth-seeker's exploits in the land of prejudice, ignorance and self-ignorance; the story of bringing light to darkness, fighting superstition, correcting the error – and otherwise cleaning up the stains left by accidents of history, always local and most often far-away, on the pure face of the objective meaning and the universally valid. In that narrative, the interpreter was a mask of the legislator; the interpreter construed through that narrative was expected to reveal the truth of what the experiencers of the interpreted experience, due to their own pristine and unenlightened naivety, were unable to penetrate. Like Joseph Conrad's Marlow and Kurtz, the explorer of other cultures was pushed by the urge to bring light into what has been therefore ‘the heart of darkness’. In the last account, translation was not an exchange between two different languages, let alone an equal exchange between two equal languages; it was an act of lifting the contingent to the level of the objective through the act of meaning-legislation, to which only the translator, not the translated, was entitled.

    In the famous 1983 lecture which introduced into the present-day social-scientific discourse the concept of ‘anti-anti-relativism’32 and in numerous studies subsequently published, Clifford Geertz popularized the idea that in the work of the explorer of ‘another culture’, ‘natives’, immersed in their similarly contingent worlds, meet on both sides of the encounter. There is no supra-cultural and supra-historical (and so free from all contingency) observation point from which the true and universal meaning can be sighted and subsequently portrayed; none of the partners in the encounter occupies such a point. Translation is an ongoing, unfinished and inconclusive dialogue which is bound to remain such. The meeting of two contingencies is itself a contingency, and no effort will ever stop it from being such. The act of translation is not a one-off event which will put paid to the need of further translating effort. The meeting ground, the frontierland, of cultures is the territory in which boundaries are constantly obsessively drawn only to be continually violated and re-drawn again and again – not the least for the fact that both partners emerge changed from every successive attempt at translation.

    Cross-cultural translation is a continuous process which serves as much as constitutes the cohabitation of people who can afford neither occupying the same space nor mapping that common space in their own, separate ways. No act of translation leaves either of the partners intact. Both emerge from their encounter changed, different at the end of act from what they were at its beginning – and so with the translation left behind the moment it has been completed, in need of ‘another go’ – and that reciprocal change is the work of translation.

    In a recent book33 Anthony Giddens comments profusely on Nigel Bailey's anthropological trip to Indonesia, which in his view set the pattern for the approach the students of ‘other cultures’ may and should follow. ‘Anthropology’, Giddens observes approvingly, ‘discovered what might be called the essential intelligence of other cultures and traditions.’ It has done it, however, belatedly. For a long time, following the canons of orthodox methodology meant to observe in anthropological reports the principle of the ‘absence of the author’. That pretended absence was, however, a disguise for the assumption of the author's superiority, of his omniscience: as if the author dissolved, and disappeared with all his socially contrived or private failings and follies – in the objective knowledge for which he acted as the spokesman (‘the anatomy of man’, Karl Marx explained, is the key to the anatomy of ape; by that view, ‘higher forms’ of human evolution reveal what the ‘lower forms’ were about: they were groping in the dark to reach the truth which only opens to their ‘more advanced’ successors). In Giddens’ view, the putative ‘absence of the author’ had the effect that the studies so produced were ‘not full dialogical engagements with “other cultures“’. On his trip to Indonesia Bailey behaved differently, and admirably: ‘He is the ingénu, rather than those whom he goes to investigate. He is like a Lucky Jim of the anthropological world.’

    Giddens grasps here the essence of the new anthropology, one made to the measure of the post-colonial world, where most frontiers are encounters between strangers of whom none come to the meeting with the permission to set the agenda in their pockets. All residents of the frontierland face now a similar task. To understand, not to censure; to interpret, not to legislate; to abandon soliloquy for the sake of the dialogue – this seems to be the precept for a new, humbler, yet for this reason more potent humanities, promising bewildered men and women inhabiting our times some insight and a modicum of orientation in the mass of increasingly uncoordinated and often contradictory experiences – and, for once, capable of delivering on its promise. But there is more to be said.

    The above seems also to be the precept for humanities made to the measure of our times of global exchange and communication, of time flattened and space shrunk or abolished altogether. In this kind of a world, inter-cultural boundaries can be drawn only tentatively and live but a tenuous, adventurous and precarious life. They are mostly imagined – and the imagination which sustains them faces overwhelming odds: virtually all the material and spiritual forces of our times must count amongst its adversaries. Borders, real or putative, are crossed so often that rather than to speak of boundary lines which maybe alternatively guarded or breached it is more to the point to describe our plight as life carried in the frontierland. Whatever the borders are meant to keep apart is in fact mixed and randomly dispersed, and dividing lines are never anything more than unfinished projects which are bound to and indeed tend to be abandoned before coming anywhere near completion. Lines are drawn in the moving sands only to be effaced and redrawn the day after.

    Wojciech Burszta, a distinguished member of the brilliant generation of young Polish anthropologists who did a lot to take stock of that new state of affairs, points out that ‘the traditional theory of culture, so well tested in case of stable, isolated, relatively small populations, economically simple and self-contained etc., is hopeless in the face of ‘cultures on the move’.34

    Cultures become inter-dependent, they penetrate each other, none is a ‘world in its own right’, each one has a hybrid and heterogeneous status, none is monolithic and all are intrinsically diversified; there is, simultaneously, a cultural melange and globality of culture. …

    The time of intellectual travels to the ‘silent peripheries’ is over; the latter speak in their own voices, or travelled themselves to the centre, often uninvited….

    One looks suspiciously, concludes Burszta, at the very notion of ‘culture’ as a self-enclosed entity, self-consistent and neatly circumscribed. One would rather abandon the supposition of separate cultures altogether, and instead speak of ‘otherness’ – a mode of existence and co-existence as universal as it is unsystemic and often random. The difference is the shape of the world around; diversity is the shape of the world inside each of us. We are all translators now, whenever we speak to each other – but also whenever we ponder what we justly, but to a large extent putatively, perceive as our own thoughts. I mentioned before Geertz's anti-anti-relativism stance. There is a parallel, yet somewhat different, idea in the work of Richard Rorty: the programme of anti-anti-ethnocentrism. Quite a few critics of orthodox cultural anthropology which considered otherness as symptom of parochialism and local particularism as well as of ignorance, immaturity or another manifestation of inferiority, while mistaking its own similarly local and contingent perspective for the objective and universal point of view, proclaimed for a change the equality of all cultural choices and thus denied the possibility of cross-cultural comparisons and evaluations. In their well-justified resentment of orthodox extremism these critics went straight to the opposite extreme, thus making themselves an easy target for criticism, coming this time from the quarters rightly worried by the dire ethical consequences of the radically relativist stance. Rorty's anti-anti-relativism purports to steer clear of both extreme stances; but it refers to the contemporary cultural stage to demonstrate that the extremist stand is unnecessary in the first place. What Rorty's anti-anti-relativism implies is, roughly, the following:

    It is not true that all cultural values and precepts are equal just because the fact that all of them have been chosen somewhere and at some stage of history. Some cultural solutions are indeed ‘more equal than others’ – though not in the once upheld sense of being endemically superior answers to the universal problems of the human condition, but solely in the sense that unlike other cultures they are ready to consider their own historicity and contingency, and so also the possibility of comparison on equal terms. A culture may claim superiority in as far as it is ready to look seriously at cultural alternatives, treat them as partners for dialogue rather than passive recipients of monological homilies, and as the source of enrichment rather than collections of curios waiting to be censured, buried or confined to a museum. The superiority of such cultural solutions consists precisely in not taking its own substantive superiority for granted and acknowledging itself as a contingent presence, which like all contingent beings needs yet to justify itself in substantive terms – also in terms of its ethical value.35

    Now all this is precisely the characteristic of our own – liberal, democratic, and above all tolerant – ‘cultural frontierland’. That is, in as far as this land remains liberal, democratic and tolerant; which, being a frontierland, it has some, even a considerable, chance to be. Being liberal and democratic means to be ‘in a dialogical mood’ – invitingly open and hospitable, thinking of the borders as places of encounter and friendly conversation rather than places of passport and visa control and custom checks. It means to be inclusive, not exclusive – treating others as speaking subjects, assuming their right and ability to speak at least until proven otherwise, and hoping for a new light to come from exercising that right.

    All this the living in a frontierland which we – by choice or by necessity – inhabit may be. But there is no guarantee – no ‘historical inevitability’ – for it to be such. Poly-vocality may be resented as much as it may be enjoyed. Confusion, ambivalence and uncertainty which accompany it show that the frontierland life is not all beer and skittles and may inspire indignation, vexation and anger. The frontierland is a territory of intense exchange; a breeding ground for tolerance and even for mutual understanding, but also a site of perpetual squabbles and skirmishes and a fertile soil for tribal sentiments and xenophobia. The frontierland-type cultural condition is notorious for being torn apart by opposite and mutually hostile tendencies, all the more difficult to be reconciled for the fact of arising from the same condition.

    Which tendency will eventually prevail is an open question; let us beware of theories which boast to preempt historical choices. Equally strong arguments may be gathered to support a bleak prospect of communal self-entrenchment and inter-communal silent or vociferous hostility as may be advanced for the likelihood of further effacement of cultural boundaries. Whatever turn the events may take, one would be well advised to heed Michel Foucault's warning:36

    What is good, is something that comes through innovation. The good does not exist, like that, in an atemporal sky, with people who would be like the Astrologers of the Good, whose job is to determine what is the favourable nature of the stars. The good is defined by us, it is practiced, it is invented. And this is a collective work.

    No astrologers, no people with a direct telephone line to the preordained order of creation – however numerous are the applicants for such jobs. ‘Better’ and ‘worse’ are not pre-selected in advance and no way of making the selection can be vouched to be foolproof. The good cannot be guaranteed – but it can be given the chance to appear: the collective work going on, the negotiation continuing and successfully resisting all premature closure (a pleonasm, to be sure: in the question of values, no closure can be well timed – all closure cannot but be premature).

    Our time, the time of cultural pluralism as distinct from plurality of cultures, is not the time of nihilism. It is not the absence of values nor the loss of their authority which makes the human situation confusing and choices difficult, but the multitude of values, poorly coordinated and linked (but weakly) to a variety of different, often discordant, authorities. No longer is the assertion of one set of values accompanied with the detraction of all the others; a constant trade-off situation is the result – an unnerving experience, which makes the promises of a ‘great simplification’ alluring. The safety of Foucault's ‘collective work’ is in no way guaranteed – the will to negotiation and dialogue is buffeted and frayed by the contrary dream of an ultimate choice which would make all further choices redundant and irrelevant. The real dilemma is one not of living with values, versus living without, but of readiness to recognize validity, the ‘good reasons’ of many values and the temptation to denigrate and condemn the values other than the ones currently chosen. As Jeffrey Weeks has put it recently.37

    The problem does not lie in the absence of values, but in our inability to recognize that there are many different ways of being human, and in articulating the common strands which often unite them.

    This problem, though, is itself a source of problems. Strands presented as ‘common’ may themselves be the instruments of value-erosion. It seems that the present-day astonishing popularity of ‘economic values’ – like effectiveness, efficiency, competitiveness – stems to a considerable extent precisely from their indifference to the quality of values which they propose to serve as a ‘common denominator’. The said economic values offer allegedly foolproof guidance to choice just by glossing over, playing down or effacing everything that made the choice necessary and ‘collective work’ indispensable in the first place: the genuine difference between various ways of being human, the good which each way promotes, the impossibility of value-choice without value-sacrifice. As Simmel pointed out a long time ago, what makes values valuable is the price we must pay for choosing them – in terms of forfeiting or surrendering something else, no less precious and worth defending. In this sense, the promotion of economic calculation to the rank of the supreme, indeed the sole, value is, alongside other varieties of contemporary fundamentalism, a most important source of the nihilist threat.

    Again, Jeffrey Weeks puts the present dilemma in the right perspective when he says in the case of ‘humanity’ understood as ‘the unity of the species’

    the challenge is to construct that unity in a way which achieves (‘invents’ or ‘imagines’) a sense of ‘universal human value’ while representing human variety and difference…

    Humanity is not an essence to be realised, but a pragmatic construction, a perspective, to be developed through the articulation of the variety of individual projects, of differences, which constitute our humanity in the broadest sense….

    And finally, a warning: ‘The danger lies not in the commitments to community and difference, but in their exclusive nature.’ There is no necessary link between value-preference and denial of other values. Neither inclusiveness nor exclusion, neither openness nor closure, neither readiness to learn nor the impulse to teach, neither readiness to listen nor the urge to command, neither sympathetic curiosity nor the posture of hostile negligence towards ways of being human different from one's own are works of historical inevitability or attitudes rooted in human nature. None of the alternatives is more likely to be fulfilled than another – and in each case the passage from possibility to reality is mediated by the polity, that is, by the forum of thinking and talking people.

    For more than a century, cultures were posited primarily as technologies of discrimination and separation, factories of differences and oppositions. Yet dialogue and negotiation are also cultural phenomena – and such as are given in our times of plurality an ever-rising, perhaps decisive, importance. The pragmatic construction called ‘humanity’ is also a cultural project, and a project not at all outside the reach of human cultural capacity. That this is so, one can find ample confirmation in our shared experience of daily life. After all, living together, talking to each other and successfully negotiating mutually satisfactory solutions to joint problems are in that experience the norm, not an exception. One can express about cultural plurality the same opinion Gadamer expressed about the plurality of cognitive horizons: if understanding is a miracle, it is a daily miracle and one accomplished by ordinary people, not professional miracle-makers.


    1 See Reinhart Koselleck, ‘Richtlinien für das Lexikon politisch-sozialer Begriffe der Neuzeit’, Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte, vol. 9. Also Odo Marquard, Abschied von Prinzipiellen: Philosophische Studien, Stuttgart, Philipp Reckam jun, 1991.

    2 John Carroll, Humanism: The Wreck of Western Culture, London, Fontana Press, 1983, p. 2.

    3 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1968, p. 476.

    4 H. G. Wells, Anticipations of the Reactions of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought, London, Chapman & Hall, 1901, p. 317. See John Carey's discussion of the above in The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia 1880–1939, London, Faber & Faber 1992, chapter ‘H. G. Wells getting rid of people’.

    5 See Paul Ricoeur, ‘Autonomie et vulnérabilite’, in La justice et le mal, ed. Antoine Garapon & Denis Salas, Paris, Odile Jacob 1997, pp. 166–7.

    6 Ibid, p. 178.

    7 See Towards a General Theory of Social Action: Theoretical Foundations for the Social Sciences, ed. Talcott Parsons and Edward A. Shils, New York, Harper & Row 1951, pp. 16, 24 (italics added).

    8 Georg Simmel, ‘On the concept and the tragedy of culture’, in Conflict in Modern Culture and other Essays, trans. by K. Peter Etzkorn, New York, Teachers college Press, 1968, pp. 29, 30.

    9 Georg Simmel, ‘The conflict in modern culture’, ibid., pp. 11, 15.

    10 Cornelius Castoriadis, ‘Le délabrement de l'Occident’, in La Montée d'insignifiance, Paris, Seuil, 1996, pp. 67, 65.

    11 Marc Fumaroli, L'état culturel: Essai sur la religion moderne, Paris, Fallois, 1991, pp. 42, 171–2.

    12 Cf. Paul Virilio, ‘Un monde surexposé: Fin de l'histoire, ou fin de la géographie?’, Le Monde Diplomatique, August 1997, p. 17. The idea of the ‘end of geography’ was first advanced, to my knowledge, by Richard O'Brien (cf. his Global Financial Integration: The End of Geography, London, Chatham House/Pinter, 1992).

    13 Michael Benedikt, ‘On cyberspace and virtual reality’, in Man and Information Technology (lectures from an international symposium arranged by the Committee on Man, Technology and Society at the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences [IVA] in 1994), Stockholm, 1995, p. 41.

    14 Timothy W. Luke, ‘Identity, meaning and globalization: Detraditionalization in postmodern space-time compression’, in Detraditionalization, ed. Paul Heelas, Scott Lash and Paul Morris, Oxford, Blackwell, 1996, pp. 123, 125.

    15 Paul Virilio, The Lost Dimension, New York, Semiotext(e), 1991, p. 13.

    16 Cornelius Castoriadis, L'institution imaginaire de la société, Paris, Seuil, 1975. Here quoted in English translation by Kathleen Blarney, Cambridge, Polity, 1987, pp. 218–19.

    17 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. by Helen Zimmern, Quoted after The Philosophy of Nietzsche, ed. Geoffrey Clive, New York, Mentor Books, 1965, p. 211.

    18 Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, Oxford, Blackwell, 1983, pp. 48–9.

    19 Frederick Barth, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference, ed. Frederick Barth, Bergen, Universitets Forlaget, 1969, pp. 14–15. This is what Elias Canetti had to say on the role, the folly, and the costs of borders: ‘The heroes who died for them, and their posterity, who pull the borders away from under the graves. Walls in wrong places, and where they actually ought to be put up if they didn't have to stand in other places long since. The uniforms of dead border officials, and the mischief in difficult passes, eternal transgressions, dislocations, and unreliable detritus. The arrogant ocean; uncontrollable worms; birds from country to country, a proposal for exterminating them.’ The Human Province, trans. Joachim Neugroschel, London, Deutsch, 1985, p. 20.

    20 ‘La douceur d'être inclu’, in Sociabilité, Pouvoirs et Société, Actes du colloque de Rouen, Novembre 1983, textes réunis par F. Thelamon, University of Rouen Press, 1987, p. 19. The

    alternative to the ‘doucer d'être inclu’ is ‘la cruauté d'être exclu’ (p. 31), One may guess that it is precisely the fear of the cruelty of exclusion which makes the prospect of belonging so sweet; the experience of exclusion (arising sometimes from eviction, other times from the disappearance or wilting of frames that made belonging secure and thus unreflexive) precedes the conscious embracement of inclusion as an end and a task; it creates the thirst for identity and triggers off the active search for the sweet nectar of belonging; that is, of the authoritative confirmation of identity, stamping the identity with an entry visa.

    21 Ernest Renan, from ‘L'avenir de la science’, in Pages Choisis, Paris, Calman Levy, 1896, pp. 27, 31.

    22 Robert Muchembled, L'invention de l'homme moderne: Sociabilité, moeurs et comportements collectives dans l'Ancien Régime, Paris, Fayard, 1988, pp. 12, 13, 150. The idea of the two-pronged, sharply differentiated effects of the ‘civilizing process’ (aimed polemically against the ‘trickling down’ model popularized by Norbert Elias) has been systematically pursued by Muchembled also in his other works (see particularly La violence en village: Sociabilité et comportements en Artois du XVe au XVIIe siècle, Paris, Bregnols, 1989). According to Muchembled, the most profound mutations in sensibility and behavioural standards of quotidianity were limited to a narrow elite; they functioned simultaneously as a vehicle of self-distancing and as a vantage point for a new perspective from which the rest of the population was scanned as uniformly vulgar and, for the initial period at least, uncivilizable. Self-polishing as the strategy of the elite was juxtaposed to confinement, policing and universal surveillance as the strategy to be deployed in dealing with ‘the masses’. The civilizing process is best understood as the ‘recomposition’ of the new structure of control and domination once the pre-modern institutions of social integration had proven inadequate and had gradually decomposed (I have argued this point more fully in my Legislators and Interpreters: On Modernity, Postmodernity and the Intellectuals, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1987).

    23 Gellner, op. cit., p. 34. Let us recall that Renan (though his views on the subject are remembered mostly for the constantly quoted description of the nation as ‘un plébiscite de tous les jours’) would never accept that le peuple (it was not for nothing that he saw them, and feared them, as ‘ la masse lourde et grossiére’ …) can vote in that plebiscite as of right. He considered freedom of education an absurdity; what the objects of educational action needed was authority, not freedom of choice, which they would not know how to exercise anyway. Until education achieves its purpose and the trainees are shaped and trimmed in the right way, ‘to preach freedom is to preach destruction; it is as if, of respect for the laws of bears and lions, one would open the cages of the zoo’ (cf. Renan, op. cit., pp. 28–34). Almost a century before Renan (in 1806), Fichte postulated that new education must consist in this, ‘that it completely destroys freedom of will in the soil which it undertakes to cultivate, and produces, on the contrary, strict necessity in the decision of the will. … If you want to influence him [the object of the educating effort] at all, you must do more than merely talk to him; you must fashion him, and fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than you wish him to will.’ Quoted after Elie Kedourie, Nationalism, London, Hutchinson, 1960, p. 83.

    24 Maurice Barrès Scènes et doctrines du nationalisme, Paris, Émile Paul, 1902, p. 443.

    25 Ibid., pp. 8–13.

    26 Ibid., pp. 16, 20.

    27 See Charles Taylor, ‘Can liberalism be communitarian?’, Critical Review, vol. 8 no. 2, 1994, pp. 257–62.

    28 Alain Touraine, ‘Faux et vrais problèmes’, in Une société fragmentée? – Le multiculturalisme en debat, sous la direction de Michel Wiewiorka, Paris, La Découverte, 1997, pp. 312, 306, 310.

    29 Stuart Hall, ‘Who needs identity?’, in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay, London, Sage 1996, pp. 3–4.

    30 Cornelius Castoriadis, Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. by Kathleen Blarney, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1987, p. 163.

    31 Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Averroes’ search’, in Labyrinths, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1970, pp. 187–8.

    32 Clifford Geertz, ‘Distinguished lecture: Anti-anti-relativism’, American Anthropologist, no. 2, 1984, p. 263. Summing up the long and still ongoing debate about the linguistic limits of all beliefs, Leszek Ko?akowski points out that ‘legitimacy is always relative to a certain game, culture, collective or individual purpose…. We have no tools which would enable us to force open the gate leading beyond language, beyond contingent cultural norms, beyond practical imperatives that form our thought’. Horror Metaphysicus, Warsaw, PWN 1990, p. 9.

    33 Anthony Giddens, ‘The future of anthropology’, in in Defence of Sociology: Essays, Interpretations, and Rejoinders, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1996, pp. 121–6.

    34 Wojciech J. Burszta, Czytanie Kultury, Lód?, 1996, pp. 73, 68, 70.

    35 Cf. Richard Rorty, ‘On ethnocentrism: A reply to Clifford Geertz’, in Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 202–4.

    36 See Michael Bess’ interview with Michel Foucault, in History of the Present, Spring 1988, p. 13.

    37 Jeffrey Weeks, ‘Rediscovering values’, in Principal Positions, ed. Judith Squares, London, Lawrence & Wishart, 1993, pp. 192–200.

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