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Monday, June 27, 2011

“Civilization” as a “universe-maintaining conceptual machinery”

Today is the day the “March of Civilization” reaches The Hague. The Hague, for those of you who do not know, is the residency of the Dutch Parliament. Today the budget cuts on culture as proposed by our government will be discussed. And “the cultural world” has organized the “March of Civilization” to protest against the cuts. Democracy at work. Government proposes cuts. Parliament discusses. Members from various societal backgrounds protest. Government decides, or dissolves itself if it has lost support in parliament.  People in many places in the world would love to be able to participate in such processes.
I have double feelings concerning this “March”. I do feel that a budget cut of about 20 percent (200 m€ from a budget of 900) on culture is overdone; I would prefer it if cuts were more evenly spread over the various sectors of our society. Culture seems to be a too easy target for the current government; and feelings of revenge and even of outright hate against the world of culture seem to possess some of the key players in the debate.
On the other hand:
  “culture” will not end with those cuts, as the organized cultural world wants us to believe. Proclaiming the end of “culture” is at once stressing an enormous dependency on government funding (which is not very smart, given the current political climate) as well as denying the existence of the large part of our world of culture that is not dependent on government funding. Already representatives of that part of the world of culture have turned against their fellows, saying they think it is completely inappropriate to proclaim the end of the world in general when the end of your particular world seems near. And questions are being asked like why there is so little protest from outside the cultural world, and if this may not be a sign that that world has become nothing but an incrowd incapable of connecting to the wider world – and unwilling to do so.
Nuance is lost, on the side of the to-be-cuts as well as  on the side of the cutters. Personally I do not think that naming a protest against culture budget cuts the “March of Civilization” will do much good. Those not immediately against budget cuts on culture will doubtlessly feel that they are not considered to be part of Civilization – they are Barbarians. This was months ago implied by Haitink reacting against cuts on the Dutch broadcasting orchestras, and it is now again implied by those marching. We are civilized. You are not. (Ironically, parliament will probably save some orchestras from extinction today – to be precisely, the same barbarian political parties in parliament which also are represented in or are supporting the government.)
I am reading Berger and Luckmann’s “The Social Construction of Reality”. A great book – well written, fundamental in its theory and very funny and ironic in the examples that come with the theory. At some point the authors discuss how a social universe takes care that it is maintained over time by “universe-maintaining conceptual machinery”. One of those machineries is the conceptual liquidation of adversaries by means of  “nihiliation”. In a witty example Berger and Luckmann write:  ”The conceptual operation here is rather simple. The threat to the social definitions of reality is neutralized by assigning an inferior ontological status, and thereby a not-to-be-taken-seriously cognitive status, to all definitions existing outside the symbolic universe. Thus, the threat of neighboring anti-homosexual groups can be conceptually liquidated for our homosexual society by looking upon these neighbors as less than human, congenitally befuddled about the right order of things, dwellers in a hopeless cognitive darkness. The fundamental syllogism goes as follows: The neighbors are a tribe of barbarians. The neighbors are anti-homosexual. Therefore, their anti-homosexuality is barbaric nonsense, not to be taken seriously by reasonable men. The same conceptual procedure may, of course, also be applied to deviants within the society. Whether one then proceeds from nihilation to therapy, or rather goes on to liquidate physically what one has liquidated conceptually, is a practical question of policy. (…) Sometimes, also, circumstances force one to remain on friendly terms with barbarians.”
I think this aptly describes the current debate on culture cuts in Holland – and I think it is equally applicable to both sides. That makes it hard for me to choose a side. I am not in favor of the severity of the current cuts. But I also cannot feel that I necessarily have to confront those making the cuts as if they are barbarians.
Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality. A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Penguin, 1991 (1966).

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