Agora Europe

Are we capable of imagining that the European saucepan that goes with our lid might be woven from cultural and social matter? In order to bring meaning to the existence of its lid, does the saucepan have to define a “European culture”?

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Author : Gauthier Roussilhe

Gauthier Roussilhe is a designer and writer. Keenly interested in the notion of personal responsibility, he recently made a documentary entitled “Ethics for Design” that examines the current state of design practices in Europe and attempts to comprehend the ethical dimension of design. Gauthier is currently studying design at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he specialises in public policy design: working with citizens, civil servants and elected representatives to create better services.

What is Europe made of ? Nothing, unquestionably. It is a political subject governing a non-existent body; a lid without the saucepan. So what is it made of, this lid that covers nothing but itself? It was founded on the well-intentioned belief that peace would be guaranteed if we multiplied exchanges, notably on economic matters. This is a somewhat Lévi-Straussian discourse that considers war, above all, as exchange that goes wrong: maximise exchange, therefore, and we prevent war. But in the societies studied by the anthropologist, the value of the exchanged object was rarely determined by economic circumstances or production, but rather by socio-cultural circumstances and the existence of a reciprocity inherent to the exchange.

Beyond the admirable intentions of those who created the ECSC and EEC, the economic choices made by European states paved the way for an increased number of economic exchanges, which subsequently became woven together to form the lid of our saucepan. But economic union can only be realised if there is political agreement, in the post-war context at least. It is generally represented as a project for society – or the vision of a project for society – to which we associate good intentions and interests. However, today’s European political project struggles to produce any tangible results. So we are left with a lid, but one without a handle.

It is not difficult to attribute a discourse – well-meaning or otherwise – to a political subject that governs a non-existent body; this introduces a personal reflection rather than a dogmatic vision of the subject. My line of questioning is quite simple: having travelled through several of the territories that make up what we call Europe, having met so many people, having conversed and made friends with Germans, Portuguese, Dutchmen, Serbs and Spaniards, I still find myself wondering: what is Europe made of? Is there only one lid to put over the heat? Where are the ingredients to be added to the saucepan? And finally, what dish are we even making?

Are we capable of imagining that the European saucepan that goes with our lid might be woven from cultural and social matter? In order to bring meaning to the existence of its lid, does the saucepan have to define a “European culture”? And lastly, what is a “European culture” if not the fantasy of the lid yearning for its receptacle?

Today Europe is offering no choice

It strikes me as appropriate, given the metaphor, to consider Europe’s multitude of cultures as different ingredients that are waiting to be added to the saucepan. What are we going to do with all these ingredients, and all the different flavours? For the sake of continuity, I will stick with the Lévi-Straussian perspective. The anthropologist raised a question that strikes me as going straight to the heart not just of this fantasy of European universalism, but of cultural universalism full stop. This is how Lévi-Strauss articulated it, at a conference in Tokyo in 1986: “No doubt we take comfort in the dream that equality and fraternity will one day reign among men, without compromising their diversity […], too much interaction standardises and confounds that diversity.” He goes on to declare: “The collective game, which drives all progress, must lead sooner or later to an homogenisation of the resources of each player. If diversity is an initial condition, it must be acknowledged that the longer the game lasts, the more the chances of winning are reduced.” (Lévi-Strauss, 2011) It remains to be seen whether the act of winning described by Lévi-Strauss can only be achieved within the confines of the game, or whether it can be achieved externally.

More than ever, I have found my own meditations on the European cultural project invigorated by this line of questioning: can, or must, Europe become a territory that encourages the standardisation of the cultures that belong to it? Cultural standardisation is not inherent to Europe, but rather to the economic model that Europe has chosen. Ultimately, does it even have a choice? In other words, can Europe be made up of the identities of social groups, territories and models that are contradictory but, surely, complementary? A third option would be to prove Lévi-Strauss wrong by creating, over time, cultural systems that are resilient to the process of closer political union, as well as political systems that are resilient to cultural emancipation. On this subject, I can offer no foresight. It strikes me as too complex to try to come to grips with on my own.

Ultimately, today Europe is offering no choice. We can at least concede this to the European institutions: they do not give the illusion of offering a choice, particularly when it comes to culture, because they are putting nothing on the table. There is therefore scope for action within the confines of the European economic project. It is limited, but the scope is there nonetheless. Let us hope that it leads to a process of cultural synergy and not to a process of standardisation deeply entangled with our economic models. On this regard, in my opinion, Europe will turn out to have better taste than we had thought

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