European Voices

Our “European Voices” program, exploring issues at the intersection of politics and culture, has existed in various iterations at Boston University since 2004, when we launched “Poetry and Politics.” The initial conversations centered around the national character (if any) of poetic creativity, differences between poetic cultures, and the relationship of poetry to civic behavior. In 2009, with our second “Getting to Know Europe” grant, we began including artists (e.g. Agnes Varda and Krzysztof Wodizko) and writers (e.g. Bernhard Schlink and Bernardo Atxaga), changing the name of the series to “Eurospective.” This second round of conversations centered around Ales Debeljak’s notion of identity as something that can be conceived in concentric circles (local, regional, national, etc.).

In 2013, with a third “Getting to Know Europe” grant for a project entitled EU Inside Out, we changed the name to “European Voices,” to accompany a shift of focus in that project to the prospects for democratic politics (playing on the multivalent nature and political resonance of the word “voice”). “European Voices” has since given rise to other initiatives, including “Irish Voices” and “Russian Voices,” and we are developing “Jewish Voices” and “Lusophone Voices.”

The current iteration of “European Voices” program is organized under the auspices of the EU Futures project and centers around the question: What future is emerging now in Europe? Since “openness to the future” is a key feature of democratic societies, the series directly addresses the prospects for democratic politics in Europe today.

The initiative is premised on the notion, beautifully articulated by American essayist Rebecca Solnit, that “new ideas originate not in bureaucratic chambers, but in the street, where they are picked up and re-presented by artists, writers, activists, and intellectuals in a manner that sparks public discourse and seeds future politics.” Europe’s future is the concern not only of academics and politicians, but also of ordinary citizens, whose cares and frustrations are more likely to be represented in art and literature than in political debates. Because the new always emerges at the periphery of a system, it is the people who inhabit society’s margins who are in the best position to sense the emerging future.

Even if artistic production takes place under the same conditions and within the same limits, it is driven by a wider range of possibilities than characterizes political decision-making. It is not that politicians cannot dream—the European Union would not exist otherwise. It is rather the case that what was possible in the 20th century, under one set of conditions, is no longer possible under conditions of globalization. On the contrary, dreams of “an ever closer union,” a “zone of shared prosperity,” are increasingly giving way to economic and other imperatives.

Democratic practices are driven by citizen aspirations, which are shaped, to a large extent, by the ability to imagination a future beyond what exists. Even where structural conditions threaten democracy, as long as alternative futures can be imagined, they will tend to fuel aspirations of emancipation. It is only when the imagination fails that hope gives way to despair and to anti-political movements.

Europe’s current crisis is an existential one, confronting its citizens with stark options over what Europe means, what its future should look like, and what narratives should guide their way forward. The French philosopher Etienne Balibar writes: “The European project always presents alternatives. But grasping them depends on forces or plans that are not always on the table.” Unfortunately, for many, the ability to imagine the future has itself been adversely affected by dominant economic paradigms, to the point where it has become difficult if not impossible to contemplate a future that is not linked to ideas of growth, accumulation, and increasing consumption.

We want to hear artists and writers’ perspectives Europe’s future in order to inspire democratic aspirations more generally. We want to give voice to ordinary European citizens, whose concerns are increasingly absent from political debates (despite the EU’s admirable efforts to engage in participatory consultation processes). We want to call into question the increasingly deterministic character of current economic thinking, which is undermining democracy at every level (local, national, and transnational), through a presentation of alternative futures based on other logics. And we want to inspire hope, by focusing on “what’s possible” versus “what’s wrong.”