In the heat of defending the Western political economy against the mindless hostility of victimary thinking, it is difficult to avoid compensatory sacrificial gestures of one’s own. But no political system should ever be supported as other than a lesser evil, a deferral of violence judged more effective than its competitors rather than a “final solution” of any kind. Originary thinking is optimistic only in the sense that as responsible ethical agents we must act on the premise that the human can be preserved. This act of faith need not imply our own survival or even that of our ethnic group. Its only imperative is the survival of humanity; even acts of resentment may make positive contributions to the overall human economy.
Above all our reflections on the “end of history” must exclude the triumphalism that taints Francis Fukuyama‘s famous essay. If it were universally accepted that the West had discovered the optimum social order and that the rest of the world could only imitate it, this would signify not the triumph of the Western system but its demise. Liberal democracy, the free market in things and in words, will become a universal system only when it is no longer identifiable as a “Western” phenomenon, when the social passions now invested in the difference between this order and others will have been transmuted into new differences within it. In the interim, and this may be several centuries, the most urgent problem facing humanity is to defer the potential for violence generated by the economic superiority of some market economies over others. In an era where weapons of mass destruction are coming increasingly within the reach of third-world governments such as India and Pakistan, not to speak of the “rogue” governments of Iraq and North Korea, this is a preoccupying task.
The growing potential for nuclear or biochemical warfare poses a problem of finitude far less mythical than the familiar misanthropic ecological disaster scenarios. The very capacity to create such scenarios presupposes the possibility of resolving them; in contrast, the possibility of violence from our fellow humans is quite concrete. American politics is likely to pursue its present self-centered course (for which President Clinton is only partially responsible) until an unexpected crisis forces us to modify drastically our perspective. At that point we will become obliged once again to treat liberal democracy, the “worst form of government with the exception of all the others,” as a positive good worth defending with our lives. Hopefully we will also be moved to more strenuous efforts in adapting the market system to those areas of the world where it currently generates more resentment than national income.
The anthropological basis for the nation-state is the rediscovery in the early modern era of a common language and by extension a common system of representations as the most fundamental basis of community. Yet however long the nation-state may yet endure, we have no reason to assume it to be humanity’s ultimate political form. In the postmodern era, when world war has become unthinkable, rivalry among advanced societies must be settled by nonviolent, that is, economic means. But once this is understood, the very notion of “rivalry among nations” is no longer useful. Absent the social mobilization that war implies, “societies” do not compete at all, save in ceremonial activities like the World Cup.
The European Community, with all its imperfections, provides today’s unique example of the integration of nation-states into a larger organism. Although the European experiment may turn out to be a dead end rather than the main evolutionary road beyond the nation-state, it is nonetheless useful to speculate, within the minimal anthropological framework provided by originary thinking, on what kind of model it suggests for the future.
The most salient feature of the European model is that local languages and customs are not subsumed into larger transnational units in order to create “economies of scale.” The linguistic question has been resolved not by creating a new Esperantobut by the informal adoption of English as the global lingua franca. The religious question, outside of the Balkans at least, has simply disappeared from the map. As for the cultural question, where capital can be rapidly globalized, the representational systems that make up civil society cannot. The new transnational entity requires a new layer of institutions that reflect economic integration without forcing cultural integration. The latter, it is assumed, will take place at its own pace, through the sharing of common experience.
It is irrational to fear that this sharing must lead, as the prophets of MacDonaldization foretell, to greater uniformity. On the contrary, the breakdown of national barriers can take place only on the basis of an appreciation for the nuances of national difference. We should not misinterpret the highly visible mimetic conformism among European youth. These young people are driven to dress alike and listen to similar music as a revolt against what they experience as the limiting national identities imposed on them by their national education systems. Conversely, economic denationalization generates, even against the will of the individuals involved, a compensatory cultural differentiation. Life in Paris is not life in Amsterdam, however passionately one seeks to purge it of all “uncool” (e.g., unCalifornian) elements. A trip to any supermarket shows us that the integration of European economies results not in the extinction of national differences but in their proliferation. The variety of new “product-signs” with which one writes and continually revises one’s identitary messages only increases with the breakdown of international barriers. As a French home becomes less obviously distinct from a German home, the variety of ways in which it expresses its owners’ posture toward the world in “French” and “German,” but also “European” and even “American,” “Asian,” or “African” modes tends to increase continuously.
Cultural integration under these circumstances both is and is not similar to the creation of the original European nation-states through the integration of their various regions. It is similar in its subsumption of regional particularities into a transregional vocabulary, but it differs in that national cultures are qualitatively more developed than those of the subnational regions. The very definition of a national culture is its elaboration of a self-conscious “high culture” beyond the popular “folk” cultures of the regions.
In Europe, the integration of popular regional traditions into high national traditions occupies the period from the Renaissance “defense and illustration” of national languages through the nineteenth-century canonization of the varieties of national experience. There is no obvious task of this magnitude for a transnational culture. What fascinates us in cultural borders and their transgression is that cultural elements cannot simply be mixed any more than languages can simply blend into each other. National high cultures cannot be absorbed into higher levels of cultural generality; they are already universal. We have not sufficiently reflected on why this is the case. Why is it that studying in depth, say in a university “language department,” the national literature of a single people is even today a privileged avenue of anthropological understanding? The answer is that high culture situates the maximal ethical vocation it inherits from the originary scene within the national contexts that until very recently provided the maximal extension of ethical communities. (Higher religion, emphasizing the central universality rather than the peripheral particularity of the scene, tends to deal with the individual as part of an undivided human community.)
In reflecting on the sacrificial closure of the cultural scene, high culture becomes self-conscious anthropology. The “compact” community is seen from without in the process of generating the significance that it takes as given. High culture is always a critique of a given society’s sacrificial closure even as the necessity of this closure is affirmed. What new forms of culture might then emerge if national-linguistic compactness is not merely questioned by the high-cultural critique but exceeded by new political forms?
The need to transgress the boundaries of the nation-state is but one more way of defining the end of high culture, not, as our Frankfurt friends prophesied, in the degradation of “mass art,” but through its absorption into a more modest vision of culture-in-general. What it is not possible to prolong after Auschwitz is precisely the several European national cultures that make up what we call “high culture.” This impossibility is not the result of a sentimental refusal, in honor of the millions of dead, to create what could be created. It reflects rather the irredeemable failure–as demonstrated at Auschwitz–of the minimally compact national imagery that is the indispensible basis of high culture, the imagery that must attract our desire in order for it to be demystified in the course of the work.
I would not attempt to predict the quality of esthetic experience that a transnational culture can provide, nor the new kinds of totalization that may result, but it is clear that the breakdown of the untouchable canon of immortal masterpieces puts in doubt the very concept of esthetic immortality. Just as we are now too resentful to accept new religious leaders, let alone new divinities, we are becoming too resentful to accept new canonical masterpieces. Even the classics whose place remains secure are likely to meet with more whimsy and less reverence in an increasingly transcultural world.