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Getting to Know the European Union continued ...
January 2009 - December 2009
This project – Getting to Know the European Union: European Culture(s) in Focus – is funded by the European Commission Delegation in Washington DC. It was conceived and developed by the Institute for Human Sciences at Boston University and is directed by the Institute in cooperation with the Center for International Relations at Boston University. Our primary collaborators include the literary journal AGNI, the Boston Globe, WBUR (New England’s largest public radio station), Zephyr Press, the American Literary Translator’s Association (ALTA), and the consulates and honorary consulates of the European Union member states in Boston.
The project explores the European Union through the lens of culture. Our primary focus is on the arts, the foundation the vibrant cultural scene within which citizens’ self-perceptions are formed. We look at artists’ and writers’ responses to European integration and their visions for the future of Europe – the intersection of politics and culture, as it were. Next, we look more specifically at Europe’s political culture(s), the differing traditions of political practice among member states and differing perceptions of political legitimacy among citizens. Finally, we focus on the arena of life in which, historically, citizens have been most connected to culture: food. Every culture possesses deeply rooted traditions around food, and the future of food, due to shifting agricultural practices is increasingly in question on both sides of the Atlantic. Is there a relationship, as the American poet Wendell Berry suggests, between the modernization of agriculture and the disintegration of culture?
The project is divided into three parts. We explore the relationship between European culture(s) and European politics through 1) a series of conversations with European artists and writers, 2) a “Europe Day” conference on “The Future of Food” and 3) a series of lectures and accompanying interviews with visiting officials and scholars from the European Union entitled “The Political Culture(s) of the EU.” Our hope is to showcase the cultural diversity that is the creative engine fueling the European Union and to extend across the Atlantic the inter-cultural dialogue that is an everyday reality throughout Europe. The change in the US administration presents a window of opportunity for the transatlantic relationship; our project capitalizes on this opportunity to engage ordinary citizens on both sides of the Atlantic in a discussion of European Union policies and institutions through the vital medium of culture, which we define broadly as the storehouse of knowledge and experience in a political community.
The project builds upon the Institute’s previous project – Getting to Know the European Union: Member States in Focus – and furthers the goals of that project, namely, increased knowledge of the European Union among the American public and the exchange of ideas across the Atlantic. Our plan, as in the previous project, is to present the European Union not from the vantage point of Brussels, but from the perspective(s) of its citizens and creators of culture. We look at the forces of creativity and innovation at work, transforming Europe’s political culture(s). Culture, broadly speaking, is a creative force in a society, the medium in which new ideas percolate, gaining political force and momentum. It is also the medium in which values are transmitted, and as Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner has noted, “Europe’s soft power is based on the gravitational pull of its guiding values.”
Our goal is to engage local citizens and to raise local awareness of European Union policies and institutions. It is our experience, over six years of public outreach, that our “cultural” events are far more popular than our “political” events. In fact, our “Poetry and Politics” series (a series of conversations with European and American poets, held between 2004 to 2007) has turned out to be our most popular series to date. Through our explorations of the complex relationships between language, politics, and culture, we have found a different, more appealing, way of approaching US-European relations, encouraging our public to think in new and creative ways about the role culture can play in international life.
This project looks at the European Union as a cultural entity and highlights the creative forces at work in Europe today in three arenas. As Jose Manuel Barroso said almost four years ago, “The European Union has reached a stage in its history where its cultural dimension can no longer be ignored.” We look at the conditions that make possible the peaceful co-existence of different cultures within the European Union and at some of the challenges Europe’s growing diversity has posed: disparities in economic development, social stratification, inter-cultural and inter-religious conflict, xenophobia, resurgent nationalism. Migration and immigration on the European continent have posed challenges, to be sure, but overall, the broadening of the European cultural space been a positive development. The intercultural dialogue has reaffirmed a way of life based on freedom and tolerance. The European Union promotes wider liberty, greater security, and a bigger market than is possible within the nation state. It is, according to George Soros, “the textbook example of an open society” and as such, its social arrangements remain open to adjustment. However, it is obvious that centralization and bureaucratization are not the answers. Through the mechanisms of the European Union, European culture has become a formidable force for change in the world – a stark contrast to the homogenizing forces of globalization elsewhere at work.
The success of the European Union in galvanizing and stabilizing democracy at home and abroad, without imposing a monolithic European culture or European identity on its members, is due, in large part, to its multi-cultural composition. Europe’s cultural diversity is a source of creative fervor; facile solutions are impossible when there are so many interests to accommodate. It is becoming increasingly clear that we inhabit a world of growing interdependence and that solving global problems will require not only the ability to step back and consider the wider effects of our decisions, but also an increased collaboration across boundaries – in sum, the sort of innovation and big picture thinking that the European Union evinces. Our lives today are increasingly shaped by larger forces influencing all aspects of our lives, from the food we eat to the products we buy. Solving today’s problems will require collaboration not only among citizens, but also among business, government, and non-governmental actors both within Europe and across the Atlantic. Our project explores this multi-level cooperation and is itself an effort to engage local US citizens in a transatlantic dialogue on matters of pressing importance.
We saw, in our previous project, how individual lives change once a country joins the European Union. In this project, we explore how the European Union is itself evolving into a new organizational paradigm, a network of cultures, united in diversity. We explore the cross-cultural relationships within this network, among citizens, regions, governments, etc. We are still concerned with what membership in the European Union means for the person on the street – especially as the continued success of the European project will depend on its ability to inspire local citizens. But whereas the focus of the previous project was on the member states of the European Union (specifically, how has a country’s membership in the European Union influenced everyday life in that country), this project explores the “concentric circles of identity” identified by Slovenian writer Ales Debeljak. Cultures are not only national, but also regional, ethnic, and increasingly transnational and global.
To quote Wendell Berry again, “a culture is not a collection of relics and ornaments, but a practical necessity.” It is the underlying premise of this project, that Europe’s cultural diversity, represented by its many traditions, literatures, and forms of life, is its richness. If it makes for unwieldy politics at times, it is also what makes the European Union – as a political entity – such a creative force in today’s world.
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