5 questions on Europe

by Paul Domela

1) Contemporary Europe structure is very diversify: how to understand more about this new enlarged map?

There are multiple processes organising the idea ‘Europe’. I tend to think Europe as multifarious projection rather than a commonality. As a projection its precise contours and organisation remain deferred, open ended and flexible, as a historical commonality we are thrown in to the murky exclusions of filiation, conflict and territory. Rem Koolhaas developed a vision for the Dutch presidency of the EU unfolding a EU of limitless flexibility and expansion absorbing all difference by legal stealth. However, in a more modest, less legal and economical refrain can we speak of a Europe of Relation, taking our cue from Eduard Glissants errantry – a certain wandering? A Europe of difference in relation rather than a Europe of diversity stemming from some arboreal root.

Today’s blowback of grating economic integration emerges as xenophobic identitarian tinkering that devalues politics across Europe. Under the spell of what Paul Gilroy has called ‘post-imperial melancholia’, Europe has cloaked its racisms and increasingly produces cultural or religious difference in terms of irreconcilable civilisationism. This disavowal of the racisms that informed both its imperial and post-imperial politics allows for resurgent nationalisms, the construction of mythical value systems and more generally a cultural ‘whitewash’. It is necessary to imagine a multiculturalism beyond the rhetoric of assimilation or immigration in a Europe in which black or brown no longer designate ‘immigrant’ or ‘nieuwe Nederlander’.

To Frantz Fanon Europe was literally the creation of the third world. His observation takes us beyond the geographer’s view or the perennial debate on the withering nation state to Europe’s constitutive outside. Where Fanon finds the sources of Europe’s riches in slavery and colonialism, Edward Said has analysed their presence at the heart of that quintessential European literary form: the novel. It is from the awareness of these imbricated fields of relations that a European imaginary begins to unfold.

2) What do you think about new employment and new economical geographies in Europe today?

It seems important to bear in mind that life-long, full-time employment and social security are the exception in capitalism. Fanon’s observation is significant also in this context in that the wealth of the West rested in significant ways on unpaid domestic labour by women, and colonial exploitation. The geography of this relationship looks different today, wrested from the holy trinity state-nation-territory, difference can no longer figure as a simple binary of here and ‘over there.’ Manual Castells has sought to conceptualise the re-emergence of a highly polarised structural deprivation in the West as the ‘Fourth World.” What the debate on globalisation has brought to light is interdependence, imbrication and co-determination of social and economic transactional processes.

The management of price discrimination of labour, goods and services is thus played our on multiple terrains simultaneously. A clear example is the crisis in the relationship between citizenship and the right to work. Whereas the objective of state politics in Western Europe is to safeguard the entitlements of the baby boom generation, these benefits are not extending into the future for the workers brought in to make up the demographic deficit. As these workers are thus segregated in their rights, the flexibilisation, out-sourcing, casualisation, and precarity of employment for permanent residents has equally hastened a declining participation in both institutional and non-institutional political processes.

At the same time, enclosures have multiplied in migration and employment legislation echoing what Lieven de Cauter, in thinking about architecture and cities, has called the Capsular Society. Thus there is an emergent relation fuelled by fear between gated communities, amusement parks, business improvement districts (BIDs) and the patchwork of social and political exclusions, exemptions and exaggerations that regulate the right to economic self-improvement for nomads, migrants, citizens, or denizens.

In between these spatial and legal ‘states of exceptions’, free trade zones, transit camps, refugee centres, sector visas, or Highly Skilled Migrant Programmes we see the emergence of what Ursula Biemann - in for example Contained Mobility (2004) -has called translocal existencies. An extra-judicial movement of people who travel from place to place between the inalienable rights of human beings and the growing crisis of human rights as understood by the 1951 Geneva Convention. It is to these existencies that I relate Giorgio Agamben’s idea of the refuge of the singular rather than the right of the citizen as the possibility for a new emergent, or in Agambens terms ‘coming community’, another Europe.

3) What is the role of culture in this Europe of social and political diversity?

It is clear that if we can speak of a European society, this society would be characterized by cultural difference, in which a multiplicity of perspectives has to be negotiated. This by no means disqualifies the need for a radical critique of dominant culture, but this critique can no longer be seen in a centre /periphery dialectic. Not only is this critique always already present, ex-centric within and without the system but it will be plural, whereby the demand for operative public values needs to be reconciled with those of cultural difference. Commonality understood as conditioned by the State system is in terminal crisis, – witness for example the fraud of the obligatory ‘citizenship course’ for immigrants - nor does it flow from a common market as by an invisible hand. If the idea ‘Europe’ is to function as a social and political space, the common is a promise, to be produced actively as the shared experience of the singular not as a culture of metaphoric representations, but in a culture of relation.

‘What matters therefore, is the exemplary character of production, which is able first to induce other producers to produce, and second to put an improved apparatus at their disposal. And this apparatus is better the more consumers it is able to turn into producers – that is readers or spectators into collaborators.(1) ’ To Walter Benjamin it was not enough to simply turn over the means of production but that these means had to be adapted to the aims and objectives of socialism. He railed against ‘modish’ photography that ‘made the struggle against poverty’ an object of consumption, and against literature that transformed ‘the political struggle from a compulsion to decide into an object for contemplative enjoyment, from a means of production into a consumer article.’ (2)

In this multicultural environment, art is challenged to find a language with which to articulate the negotiation between policy driven utilitarian visions of culture and the open-endedness of subjective productions. Only by articulating the space of contradictions in which the art process takes place will we dissipate enduring modernist myopias that insist on clear ideological boundaries. The creative act is a possibility beyond mere pleasure, cancelled if captured for cultural consumption and tourism. Between use and useless, art shimmers, idles and stutters of a non-knowledge, opening out thought and action for new forms of political agency.

4) The importance of public sphere and contemporary espressions of creativity can be considered “the common ground” to built a common Europe?

The idea of a ‘common ground’ is problematic because it tends to fall within a logic of roots. As such, a fundament of ‘common ground’ is one of myth, filiation, of territory and the violence of its conquest, the movement of the capturing machine and the exclusion of the Other. The question is whether we can speak of common ground as shared space, a performative uncertainty offered as possibility. A commons presented as enactment, not as object for construction.

Félix Guattari’s Integrated World Capitalism increasingly dominates the media, politics, our public streets as well as our zones of privacy. The concept of the public sphere as a space for the production of counter narratives is weakened by this encroachment. Instead, Hardt and Negri’s multitude offers a conception of networked subjectivities that may act in common as a self-raising, self-erasing awareness, avoiding the immanence of a grasping hegemony.

To assign to art any special responsibility beyond an messy ‘engaged autonomy’ (3) situated within the locality of our everyday struggle as workers, neighbours, thinkers or lovers is to neuter its imaginative possibilities. Not an overt oppositional critique but a playful ruse of the trickster, a tactic of resistance in order to relate, to fashion new connectivities. Think of April 1st by Artists Without Walls (2004) creating a virtual window in the separation wall running through Abu Dis by means of makeshift CCTV relaying a view from the other side (4).

In such a process the work of art is produced in the chaotic network of relation, existing in circulation of a plurality of contacts. This marks a shift towards a durational concept of the aesthetic, a movement from a specular encounter to a collaborative process of negotiating shared space. This art process is like a gesture, not in order to build, but to enacted dialogically a temporary common time.

5) The world is important, but local is more: do you agree with this statment?

Paolo Freire, the Brazilian writer and educator used to talk about reading the word and reading the world. Reading the text/reading the context. By analogy a consciousness of the local arises co-dependently with a consciousness of the world. Our experience of the world is always already specific, in other words, the world is a multiplicity of specificities not a generality in relation to a particular. This is important in Glissant’s idea of a Poetics of Relation.

Relation extracts the local from the fixity of soil, brings in time and renders it open to the experience of the Other. Cedric Price rethought the city as ‘concentrate’ open to residents and visitors alike to co-produce a sense of place. Derrida’s law of unconditional hospitality invites us to say Yes to whoever or whatever turns up before any identification. No longer a world to discover but a word to know. A totality but not totalitarian. In terms of identity, roots and routes. Not so much where does it begin and end but how does the local emerge through relation?

1. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer’ in: Reflections, trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Shocken Books, 1986 p. 233.
2. Id p.232.
3. Charles Esche introduced this paradox to indicate the necessity for art to be both engaged with its social and political environment in the tradition of the avant-garde and autonomous in order not to be fully co-opted by social and political agenda’s.
4. http://pia.omweb.org/modules/news/ (3/10/05)

Paul Domela, direttore Biennale di Liverpool, curatore del progetto Shrinking Cities e degli incontri Coffee Break, sull’Europa in movimento.