Productivity of Culture

Michael D. Higgins

Michael D. Higgins is a university professor, a member of the Irish Labour Party and an elected member (Teachta Dála) of the Irish Parliament (Dáil). He was Irish Minister for Arts and Culture in a previous coalition government.


presentation: Drifting Towards A Homogenised Future
categories: Cultural Policy + Poetry

download the paper (pdf)


The European Union has failed to implement a policy on cultural diversity. It has succumbed to the homogenising global forces of commerce and consumerism. If the EU cannot celebrate diversity of culture, Michael D. fears the rise of the Jihad or Holy War, already seen in ex-Yugoslavia, as the search for cultural expression is manipulated by right-wing Populism, ethnically defined nationalism, neo-Nazism and religious fundamentalism.

There probably never was a time then when we needed more the capacity to be reflective, to consciously articulate philosophical otions. Yet Europe has never been weaker in philosophy and public intellectual discourse.

As a former Minister for Culture and a former President of the Council of Culture Ministers I note with increasing sadness the failure to move culture in from the periphery of European concerns. We are living through a period where culture is seen as soft, where economics is hard and where it is most macho to be in the new technology end of the economic Europe.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the European Union, which for a number of reasons has no reference to Culture in its founding Treaties, is quickly assuming the character of a market with people attached. An unthinking approach to deregulation driven on by the Maastricht Treaty has already observable consequences in the Cultural area. Europe, for example, is a commercial province of Hollywood in film terms. It exports cultural expression, audio-visual trade and jobs to the U.S. at an alarming rate.

We are drifting towards an unfreedom that can best be summarized as the transition from a concept of citizenship with implications for interdependence, transcendence of the self, solidarity and indeed justice to a concept of consumerism that is market driven, individualised, privatised and insatiable of satisfaction. Such a transition promises us a homogenized future, our tastes commodified, our experience of communications changed from one of active symbolic exchange to one of being passively entertained.

There probably never was a time then when we needed more the capacity to be reflective, to consciously articulate philosophical options. Yet Europe has never been weaker in philosophy and public intellectual discourse. For speed of technological changes has also been immense. For example, convergence of the technologies of the personal computer, the television and the telephone have created the shape of a digital future. However, in so far as the social model of the delivery of science and technology has not been debated, such a digital future promises an unaccountable technopoly rather than a democracy extended through deeper and wider communication.

Standing alongside the current fetish with information technology innovation in the European Union is the appalling refusal to limit the concentration of ownership in the media that already has begun to have a negative effect on Culture and democracy in Europe ó even on the practice of the media itself. The nature of the narratives that accepted the responsibility to inform and educate as well as entertain has been abandoned in the pursuit of advertising revenue.

The decontextualizing of news, for example, from any historical, cultural or ethical setting is not accidental. From monopolized sources comes a standard product it is a news that is a news from anywhere at anytime, cynically strung out between voyeurism and fantasy. It is frequently presented within a mode of cynicism a cynicism, however, that is as different from Diogenes as it is from ironic critique that might make a critical comparison of the ideal and the actual. It is not a cynicism either of resignation. It is a corrosive cynicism of alleged expertise within a hot medium that knows no space, time, or culture of affiliation.

Yet a decision has been taken by the European Commissioner with responsibility for competition to have no Directive on concentration of ownership to leave such matters to the marketplace for resolution. That a Europe of citizens is entitled to such regulation as would create a diversity of editorial views within a theory of culture and freedom carried no weight.

Cultural diversity is a term, suffice it to note that at present is within a discourse that at best is in exile from the existing disposal and discourses of power in the European Union.

An ineradicable yearning for authenticity

Among Europe's citizens however, there is I believe an ineradicable yearning for authenticity. I use the term as it is used by Charles Taylor the Canadian philosopher. This yearning for authenticity, for a critique that would return to the promise of modernity rather than to its delivery, represents a source of hope. It seems to retain a faith in human creativity, in the ability of such creativity to correct a misplaced trust in the neutrality of technology in reason itself.

Standing in contrast too to the combination that enjoys a hegemony in the European Union, a combination of market hubris, technology and cynicism stand 'the artistic impulses', the creative expressions that comprise a mosaic of differing cultural influences.

From their actions comes a call for respect for the integrity of memory and the freedom of the imagination. It envisages a tolerance that is beyond the minimalist recognition of pluralism. It speaks of multiple stories as pasts not yet imagined. It makes space for the futures of an unlimited imagination. Yet the political space has been deprived of such an ethical contribution. Many artists have abandoned the political space in pursuit of their own version of cynical reality.

It is easy to see, only too painfully so, how culture, even in recent times, can still be used as a mask for repression, for violence, for domination and hate.

It is the present then of the European Union that is shallow, that is economically defined to the point where so many of all ages wish to fly from it in so many different ways. Changing that present would require a recognition of the cultural space that is not now available in Europe. There has never been less of a contribution fromwhat Jacoby would callpublic intellectuals.

In the Council of Europe report In From The Margins we read in Chapter 10 entitled 'Is there a future for European Culture ?' of four great themes which they see as permeating the complexities of the European scene:

"The first of them concerns cultural identity as the peoples of the Continent come to terms with the project for European integration and the rise of local and regional aspirations. Secondly the cultural landscape of European Society has become more diverse, but this has been accompanied by Social, Cultural and Economic fragmentation and exclusion reinforced by policies unable to accommodate diversity. Thirdly the relation between the State and the individual is changing. Government expenditures on welfare provision are under pressure and the cultural role of the State is undergoing change. The maintenance of thriving civil societies depends on a proper balance between the public, private and voluntary sectors. Fourthly, a global culture, riding high on the back of the information revolution, and newly invigorated regional and local cultures are set on a collision course, so creating the possibility of a so-called global squeeze".

With the greatest respect this is a great simplification of the problem. How can one so readily define local, regional, national or global culture? Within the cultural space there are layers of meaning, of assertion and response, of authority and resistance. They exist at formal and informal level. They constitute public and hidden transcripts. Their purpose may be to serve the illusion of authority, to mock it or indeed to subvert it. Revolution, for example, entails the making public of one such previously hidden transcript.

Again there is no neat distinction between the traditional and the modern. If one takes any art form one can see how they dialogue rather than substitute for each other.

It is easy to see, only too painfully so, how culture, even in recent times, can still be used as a mask for repression, for violence, for domination and hate.

We are forced back, I believe, in the sense of Samuel Beckett's characters, to the rawness of our selves, our 'poor bare forked selves' as Shakespeare put it in King Lear. The achievement of cultural diversity and a respect for a diversity of culture is much more than an administrative matter. It is a matter of morality made imminent and consensually established. It has to do with values that define our humanity. We have to face the reality of course that some universalists still long for an absolute answer. Existentialists will live for the question. Yet between them there is a shared category of the human that has to be negotiated. There is perhaps much more shared than allowedby contemporary accountsof philosophical and ideological differences. On that fragile soil we must build.

The yearning for an authenticity of the self is accompanied by an acceptance at more general level of the reguirement of transcendent living. From such flows community and the related ideas of solidarity, justice, and trust. It is much more than a contract. It is a defined version of the human that moves beyond ratio. It is of the spirit. That for some is fides, for others, a joy and truth mediated in a multitude of ways, including the aesthetic.

Culture clash

However, I must return to the possible connection and co-existence of culture and violence. Recently I shared the experience of a Conference in Mont Tremblant, Canada, with the distinguished former newspaper editor Arne Ruth of Stockholm. In a paper entitled 'Culture, Arts and Politics ó the capriciousness of Universal Values' he alluded to a story by the dissident Croat author Slavenca Draculic and the use made of it by Professor Benjamin R. Barber in his book 'Jihad vs. McWorld' published in 1995.

Arne Ruth wrote: 'In Europe of today intolerance, jingoism and new forms of violence and destruction is on the rise. Ethnic, religious, social and aesthetic multiplicity is an inescapable condition, within nations as well as in Europe at large. The concomitant fear of chaos is exploited by right-wing Populism, ethnically defined nationalism, neo-Nazism and religious fundamentalism. The Jihad tendency is present not only in ex-Yugoslavia.'

It is as good an example as I can give of the horrific possibilities of what many scholars have called 'Mass Society'.

...the new churches of commercial civilization in which malls are public squares and suburbs the neighborless neighborhoods ó are all constructed as image exports creating a common world taste around common logos, advertising slogans, stars, songs, brand names, jingles and trademarks.

Slavena Draculic wrote a tragic love story of Adinira and Bosko, a young couple living in war-torn Sarajevo and who tried to leave but whose bullet riddled bodies were found by the river. "They were born in the late 1960s" she wrote. "They watched Spielberg movies; they listened to Iggy Pop; they read John Le Carre; they went to a disco every Saturday night and fantasised about travelling to Paris and London." But as Barber tells us: "The murdered young lovers were dressed in jeans and sneakers. So too, were most probably their assassins: very likely men of the same age with a similar taste in music, movies and fashion. The perspectives of the killers and the killed were antithetical. But they were dialectically connected in their reaction to the forces redefining society and individuality around the globe."

If the badges they wore were of the common stock of M.T.V. we should not be surprised. For those of us with children there can be no shock in acknowledging the colonization from head to toe of baseball caps and trainers. Barber give the name "McWorld" to this globalisation of taste.

"McWorld is a product of popular culture driven by expansionist commerce. Its template is American, its form style. Its goods are as much images as material, an aesthetic as well as a product line. It is about culture as commodity, apparel as ideology. Its symbols are Harley-Davidson motor cycles and Cadillac motorcars hoisted from the roadways, where they once represented a mode of transportation, to the marquees of global market cafés like Harley-Davidson's and the Hard Rock where they become the icons of a lifestyle. You don't drive them, you feel their vibes and rock to the images they conjure up from old movies and new celebrities. Music, video theater, books and theme parks ó the new churches of commercial civilization in which malls are public squares and suburbs the neighborless neighborhoods ó are all constructed as image exports creating a common world taste around common logos, advertising slogans, stars, songs, brand names, jingles and trademarks. Videology is fuzzier and less successful in instilling the novel values required for global market success".

So as we discuss with innocence our neatly defined regionalisms and localisms we should bear Barber's observation in mind: "What ends as Jihad may begin as a simple search for a local identity, some set of common personal attributes to hold out against the numbing and neutering uniformities of industrial modernization and the colonizing culture of McWorld".

It is simply a mistake to assume other than a multitude of versions of culture within and between localities and regions. All of who are connected by such facts as regular and circular immigrations.

As Vaclav Havel once said 'Words can liberate. So also words can kill'. How much more true is this of culture.

Our most immediate threat however comes from the unaccountable antidemocratic version of the depeopled economy we have inherited as a legacy.

We live in a Europe that at the time of the ascendancy of the Right championed deregulation and in an extremely ideological way announced that the hidden trend of the Market would guide us. Society would reconstitute itself from the consequences of a myriad of individualisms.

Barber has this to say of what Jihad and McWorld had in common:

" the absence of common will and that conscious and collective human control under the guidance of law we call democracy (...) They both make war on the sovereign nation-state and thus undermine the nation-state's democratic institutions. Each eschews civil society and belittles democratic citizenship, neither seeks alternative democratic institutions. Their common thread is indifference to civil liberty. Jihad forges communities of blood rooted in exclusion and hatred, communities that slight democracy in favor of tyrannical paternalism or consensual tribalism. McWorld forges global markets rooted in consumption and profit. Leaving to an untrustworthy, if not altogether ficititious, invisible hand issues of public interest and common goods that once might have been nurtured by democratic citizenries and their watchful governments. Such governments, intimidated by market ideology, are actually pulling back at the very moment they ought to be aggressively intervening. What was once understood as protecting the public interest is now excoriated as heavy-handed regulatory browbeating (...) Today we seem intent on re-creating a world in which our only choices are the secular universalism of the cosmoploitan market and the everyday particularism of the fractious tribe".

There are ways then in which corrosive cynicism and absence of political will to intervene in the market , the homogeneity of a commodified life, the search for authentic expression gone wrong, distorted memory and a future of fear can make a deadly cocktail of violence.

There are ways then in which a corrosive cynicism, and absence of political will to intervene in the market, the homogeneity of a commodified life, the search for authentic expression gone wrong, distorted memory and a future of fear can make a deadly cocktail of violence.

In building the alternative to drift and acquiescence in the unfreedom of the market we should remember that to live reflectively is still the greatest challenge. We live in a flux that carries sometimes little or no potential for the experience of humanity. We go on in expectation that it will carry more, that history has not ended but is still capable of being made. Utopia is a necessary country.

Finally may I suggest that we may have much to learn from those before us who have had to construct lives out of the fluxexiles and immigrants. Theirs is a life of transience. Their spaces are never lasting. Home is both a memory and a project of return. They are not of their place of origin nor of their destination. They are transients in the space of in between. Yet it is there that heroic survival and great generosity takes place.

Without the trappings and securities of bundles of commodities and memories we all become as bereft, and as free, as Beckett's tramps, and as spiritual in our taking note of each other. Just that.


Michael D Higgins is President of the Labour Party and Honorary Professor at Large at the National University of Ireland (NUI), Galway, where he has served on the Faculties of Arts, Commerce, Celtic Studies and Law. He was recently appointed as Adjunct Professor affiliated with the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI, Galway. A former Member of Galway County Council and an Alderman of Galway Borough Council, he has twice been Mayor of Galway.

He was a member of Seanad Éireann 1973-1977; Dáil representative for Galway West 1981-1982, University Member of Seanad Éireann 1982-1987, and has been a Member of Dáil Éireann from 1987- present. He was the first Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, between 1993 and 1997, and President of the Council of Broadcasting Ministers of the European Union during the Irish Presidency of the European Union in 1996.

At different periods, he has been Labour Party Spokesperson on European and International Affairs, Overseas Development, Education and the Gaeltacht. He is currently a member of the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and is Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs for the Labour Party.

Michael D. Higgins has campaigned for human rights in many parts of the world, including Turkey, Western Sahara, Nicaragua, Chile, Gaza, the West Bank, Peru, El Salvador, Iraq and East Timor. In recognition of his work for peace with justice in many parts of the world he became the first recipient of the Seán MacBride Peace Prize of the International Peace Bureau in Helsinki in 1992.

He has written extensively and is the author of three books of poetry. In November of last year, a selection of his writing, academic, political and journalistic, Causes for Concern was published by Liberties Press.

Michael D. is married to Sabina Coyne, a founder member of The Focus Theatre and Stanislavsky Studio in Dublin. They have one daughter and three sons.


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