Productivity of Culture

Bart Verschaffel

Bart Verschaffel is Philosopher and Head of Faculty of Architecture and Planning, University of Gent, Belgium


presentation:Visions for Cities: Public Truth and Public Spaces
categories: Cultural Planning + Conclusions


What do we want?
What is cultural planning about? As always, metaphors secretely direct and limit what we are able to think and formulate. One can, roughly, distinguish between metaphors taken from the mechanical and taken from the organical. Is cultural politics and management about good ways to ‘produce’ culture or is it about ‘cultivating’ culture? Or – the same opposition now transferred to the organical – is cultural politics about how to squeeze oranges in the best possible way or about growing oranges? Is cultural politics about realizing ‘projects’ or ‘creating possibilities’? The current domination of mechanical metaphors is assessing ‘productivity’ is not without danger.


Bart Verschaffel (1956*) is a philosopher and holds a full professor-ship of Theory of Architecture and Architectural criticism at Ghent University (Belgium). He has numerous publications in the fields of Architectural Theory, Theory of History, Aesthetics, and Philosophy of Culture. Major publications (monographical): De glans der dingen. Studies en kritieken over kunst en cultuur (1989); Rome/Over theatraliteit (1990); Figuren/Essays (1995); Architecture is (as) a gesture (2001), À propos de Balthus (2004); Van Hermes en Hestia. Teksten over architectuur (2006); Nature morte, portrait, paysage. Essais sur les genres en peinture (2007).

Text for Conclusion:

On the importance of the Idea of Europe and the disadvantages of its reality

Cultural politics currently takes a series of principles for granted, such as the idea that all cultures are unique and have to be respected and valued, because of their uniqueness, as equals. There is also the presumption that all cultural differences are interesting and important, and that the basic form of social exchange is the 'encounter'; or such as the conviction that the ethical consciousness itself presupposes, or even coincides with the acceptation and recognition of the 'radical otherness' of other people's culture. Tolerance and the acceptance of cultural diversity is understood as respecting the freedom of speech and of opinion: cultural practices are considered as opinions. Respecting 'otherness' quickly shifts - as the recent developments in social theory and cultural critique have made clear - to identity politics: cultural identity, constituted by 'differences', is 'good'. Subsequently respecting otherness is easily reformulated to one's own profit, or the profit of the cause one identifies with, into: when all cultures are unique, valuable, and equal, than we must (also) have the right to be proud of our own culture and our own (cultural) identity? Each and every identity is 'different' and 'good'. As long as one doesn't consider oneself more or better than the others, and as long as one is not yet officially guilty of some historical crime. So the principle, more accurately formulated, is: each endangered identity, each differences that is threatened with extinction, each minority (or even better: oppressed majority) is considered as good.

Is there such a thing as a European culture? A European (cultural) identity that binds a Community or a European Nation, including some and excluding others? Is there a "We" here? What is it that characterizes Europe: the variety and richness of customs and languages, the intense 'encounter' of so many small differences on such a tiny continent? The problem here is that there is nothing special about 'culture' and about 'identity'. Everybody has one. Certainly, they're all different, but they all do the same work. A culture is the cluster of related meanings and signs, the product of a long history, linked most often to one particular language, that defines what 'power' is, what 'body' and 'woman' and 'home' are, what 'food' is and 'wealth' and 'death', etc. Individuals and communities identify through the clusters of meanings with what they make their lives with, and constitute their identity from it. So 'culture' and making culture is not luxury: we live from bread and from meanings. But is is true for everybody. All cultures may be unique and 'different', and mine can be very special and valuable to me, but they're all always 'special' for the people that live and survive by it, and necessary and vital to each person in the same way. Are all cultures, therefore, equal? Are they all equally 'true'? Is it possible to compare and to evaluate cultures? During the war, in 1915, Georg Simmel, he wrote, is "uebersichhinausleben". (1) to live beyond oneself. He argues that the capacity to do so is part of the German soul and character, and thereby believes that being truly European and patriotism are compatible. But his articles got Simmel in big trouble, and his argument has been proved, I believe, as naive - not only in war circumstances. "Uebersichhinausdenken" - to think beyond oneself - is already difficult enough...

The specificity and the importance of the European (intellectual) culture does not lie in the meanings we share or in a common heritage - architecture, art, religion, knowledge - we identify with. It lies in the awareness and the insight, itself the fruit of a long and particular history, that all cultures are untrue and that none deserves a special respect - not mine and also not those of other people. Each and every 'uniqueness' and identity, each and every claim on my language, my religion, my kinship, my origins, my house, my tradition, my land, my flag, and my culture is principally equal to all others. That means: equally arbitrary, equally contingent and (un)true, and in many ways interchangeable and uninteresting. Of course my culture and my identity are important and unque to me - because everybody wants to live and has only one life and cannot but invest and care for his or her own culture and identity beyond reason. That culture is, I suppose, also of importance for those whoc are for a person or are curious to know about him or her. But one cannot expect to be loved by everybody or to get everybody's attention.

The insight that cultures do not deserve special respect is not an existential truth, and is difficult to live by. The insight is inapplicable: it is a principle. Nobody can really take in and and integrate the insight that there is neve a sufficient ground or reason to chose for the culture one finds oneself to be born into. The presence and the impact of this insight is never secured. One can only make it part of life by thinking the thought, by asking difficult questions, or by accepting or imposing it as a principle. The European intellectual culture is really exceptional in developing this insight, in imposing it in intellectual discussions, and in accepting it as a social and political principle. It is indeed exceptional for a society that somebody like Paul Valery could write in Mauvaises pensees et autres, almost casually, this amazing sentence: "Devenir soi-meme!...Mais soi-meme, en vaut-il la peine?" ("Becoming onself?...But is that 'self' worth the effort?") Don't we have better things to do? Every member of a traditional society, from the past or living today, who dares to ask such a question, risks a poisoned cup.

The insight that my/our culture can be extraordinary and exceptionally important for me and at the same time principally uninteresting and equal to all other cultures, such that I cannot derive any rights from it, is the product of a long history of which I will recall here two important moments. These two moments illustrate how an insight that one can never appropriate or make one's own, can nevertheless be effective, and have a real impact in society. These moments are, (a) the invention of the 'game' or discussion and (b) a modern, enlightened understanding of the ethical consciousness.

First of all the discussion, the primordial instrument of democracy, as invented in Greece from the 5th Centry BC on. The discussion is a very peculiar game with amazing presuppositions. A discussions differs completely from a dialogue: it is not 'listening to what the other has to say', it is not an 'exchange' and not an 'encounter'. The discussion is a war game fought with questions and arguments to find out if somebody is right or not, this is: to find out if what somebody says is true. And because there is no criterion to recognize 'truth' with absolute certainty - we are not sofoi but filosofei, we are not wise but we strive for wisdom - the discussion is the game of question and argument and reply used for testing if a statement or an idea 'holds'. If it does, it is convincing because it brings evidence or clarification and argument. Many divergent and even contradictory ideas can be argued for, so that a discussion never leads to the once conclusive truth. Knowing for sure that somebody is wrong is a possible outcome of the discussion, but the first and most important lesson is that nobody is ever for once and always 'right'. Nobody owns the truth. But the discussion happens in the name of Truth. The game of the discussion is about finding out and demonstrating that somebody is wrong, because he contradicts himself or cannot bring evidence or arguments. The discussion, therefore, is a very dangerous game. First of all because one can start a discussion about anything. Not only about practical matters and business interests, but also about 'culture' or the meanings a society lives by: about values and beauty, about the existence of god, about what is just and how to legitimate power. Or about what makes European culture 'white'? Or the minor languages so special that we have tos ave them from the English? We all know that, starting from the ancient Greeks themselves, most societies don't like questions like these, and in general don't like the game of the discussion. They want to control what is being talked about. And probably not without a reason: playing with the meanings a society lives by is indeed unsettling and dangerous, because it suspends the 'rightness' of a culture and undermines its self-confidence. But the discussion is even more dangerous and destabilizing for a second reason: the discussion introduces in society the reality of the game situation that confers to each participant an equal position and suspends authority. In the discussion all participants have the right to speak and only the arguments count. It doesn't matter if they are spoken by man or woman, student or professor, rich or poor, and it doesn't matter what family or party they belong to. It doesn't count who speaks. What counts is the truth and the power of the argument. The game situation of the discussion implies that very real and very effective social differences - 'authority' - is put between brackets (as long as the game lasts). This can indeed be threatening and destabilizing, and tempt to forbid or control the 'discussion'. Becuase in reality it does matter who speaks: the speakers are not equal, and they have many other interests than just finding the truth. For many societies the discussion inherently implies an aggressive lack of respect for 'real' dignity and the power at place. They would maybe promote 'dialogue' and 'mutual respect', 'exchange' and 'hospitality', and even the 'freedom of opinion', but they wouldn't want discussion - they cannot afford to agree with the game where the others can start from radically and openly questioning your truths.

It took several hundred and even thousand years for the West to adopt principally rational discussion as a means to settle conflicts, to accept the conditions of the 'game' of discussion, and to introduce discussion as a means to prepare decision-making - in politics, in science, in education...Time and again 'real' power interests, authority, institutional positions, or some kind of truth is introduced to limit free discussion. There is always some kind of belief, be it scientific or political correctness, that tries to win control. But the specificity and the importance of the intellectual culture of the West resides in this culture of discussion, that - as implied by the game itself - can never be appropriated by those who have invented it or who play the game. The importance of the intellectual tradition of the West doesn't come from that line of thinking that believes in the power and effectiveness of rationality and scientific triumphs, but resides in the line of thinking that promotes discussion and doubt, from Socrates and Diogenes to Montaigne and Bayle, Voltaire and Nietzsche, and Valery.

The second moment of unsettling cultural identity is the Kantian insight in the opposition between the empirical and the realm of principles: between the particular and singular content of each life and the 'general'. A person has the capacity to distinguish one's own position and own perspective from general principles. It belongs to the human being to be made of needs and wants, with one body and one individual perspective, one father and one mother, a country and a language, primarily interested in the happiness and wellbeing of friends and relatives and the beloved; and at the same time to be capable to judge and act from the perspective from which one's own interests and sympathies are not 'valid' and cannot be invoked anymore. Everything that is particular and proper is real and present as always, but principally doesn't count. For Kant the respect due to the human person and the fundamental equality of all human beings are unrelated to the 'empirical' qualities that make persons unique or 'different', interesting or sympathetic. It is unrelated to their history, roots, identity, color, wealth, fame, or the fact that are vicitims of injustice. Showing respect, therefore, is not the same as respecting somebody's identity or culture. On the contrary. If every human being deserves to be respected, it is not because of his culture, but because he or she is principally capable of not falling together with his own particularity, to become aware of his contingency, to relativize his 'identity', and to judge and act from an 'enlightened' perspective. Kants presupposition is that the empirical realm - all these 'cultures' that give ground and stability to individual lives and make these lives 'meaningful' - are contingent and arbitrary. And Kant things - I couldn't agree more - that politics has to start precisely from rationality and thus from principles, and not from the importance or value of identities and cultures. Politics is, certainly, always also about managing the empirical, harmonizing divergent existing opinions and interests, so as to create possibilities for people to live their own lives and pursue what theyc are for most: the happiness and future of their children and friends, safety etc. But for Kants 'enlightened' perspective politics is always about more and even about something completely different than this. Politics is different from management exactly because it is not the expression of self-interests. It is a context where these particular interests, even the 'common' interests of a collectivity, have no right to speak, but where one speaks about these interests from a different perspective that realitivizes the particular. From Kants enlightened perspective a state is not owned or 'filled' by a particular society or a community; the state is not a part of or the expression of a culture or an identity. A state can never be 'owned', just as the participants in a discussion do never own the game of discussion.

The participants in a discussion are principally equal. For Kant all human beings are principally equal. In the Real World things are, as we all know well, very different. All real social relations are power relations that imply and produce different kinds of inequality, and these very real positions and differences play a role, even when on the table one plays the fine game of rationality. All political regimes, also those firmly grounded in the democratic tradition and devoted to the principles of freedom, equality and citizenship, are bound to a particular culture and society, a nation or a 'people' (Volk). Some even think that each 'Volk' or people needs its own state, and that each people has the 'right' to live 'independent' and therefore to have a state of its own where it can cultivate its identity and be completely 'itself'. Each plant has his pot and each pot one plant. In this perspective, a state not filled or designed by a 'people's cultural identity' - as is the case, for example, in Belgium is 'artificial' and has no reason of existence.

The historical relations between states, political regimes, communities that share a 'culture', are of course very complex. But when one has to decide on cultural politics, one has to stick to priorities. Let's be sure that in the end the empirical and the particular will win without our help anyway. That is why 'differences' and 'otherness' and 'cultural identities' (our own included) don't need special respect. That is why we should invest in the fiction of a Europe that does not try to synthesize or add cultures and nationalities, but principally negates their perspectives. In the Republique des Lettres the Idea of Europe has been used for centuries exactly to make clear that everybody has roots and belongings, but that these don't count and are of no importance for thinking. All intellectuals and scientists and artists, no matter where they come from, are just 'Europeans' - as long as they think. The Idea that confronts reality, the principle imposed on the given facts, create free play and a space for thinking and making culture. This is why the Idea of Europe matters: not as a name indicating a collective identity which we have to 'fill' to make real, but as the principle that declares cultural identity principally invalid.



Prof. Dr. Bart Verschaffel

Ghent University - Dept. of Architecture

Plateaustraat 22, B - 9000 Gent (Belgium)



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