eipcp Policies democratic policies in europe
10 2003

Answering the question: Are cultural policies part of democratic policies?

Stefan Nowotny

Stefan Nowotny




The question that we are supposed to discuss on this panel reads: “Are cultural policies part of democratic policies?” In order to avoid all too general affirmations on the importance of culture in democratic societies (most frequently going along with different normative ideas of what should or should not be conceived as “culture”), I will try to take this question as literally as possible, and answer it as directly as possible. There is a certain problem, however, concerning the very way the question is posed: namely that it is a yes-no question. More than that, in view of the fact that we have come together in order to discuss desirable perspectives for common European cultural policies, it is quite unlikely that anybody here should answer this question with a “No”. Thus, the way that the question is posed seems to already imply or at least suggest, in the given context, an affirmative answer. – It is quite obvious, though, that this would be a far too simple approach to the question. But what is it, then, that is actually at stake when it is about the question whether cultural policies are part of democratic policies?

In order to find an appropriate starting point, it might be convenient to take a look at the historical development of such a thing as “cultural policies”. This basically leads us back – although we would have to face some significant differences in different European countries – to the 19th century: The idea of “cultural policies”, at least in our present understanding, emerges when the older and broader sense of “culture” (dating back to late 18th century) as a general process of historical development that is primarily conceived in intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic terms is getting narrowed down to “the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity”[1], i. e. when the idea of a general historical process that carries, so to speak, its own symbolization is transferred to a specific and separate field in society. Thus, “culture” can be constituted as a specific field of reference for corresponding policies. At the same time, this specific field of reference still being referred to a more general historical process – like the “destiny of nations” –, the “cultural field” turns out to be a true ideological battlefield, regarding both the rivalry between different nation states and the conflicts between different social strata.

Yet, if we do not insist on the historical appearance of the word, there is also a sense of “cultural policies” that is even older than the modern understanding of “culture” as a general process of historical development that can be applied to the ways of life of different social groups or totalities (like nations, so-called “culture areas” etc.). It can be traced back to the context of the so-called “state science” or “police science” that developed in the course of the 18th century in the French ancien regime, the German-speaking countries in the times of cameralism, and mercantilistic England; i. e., it can be traced back to the context of an empirical science attempting to define, on the basis of a systematic registration of the totality of social affairs and areas of life in the territorial state, the tasks of governmental administration. In this context of an “increasing governmentalization of social life”[2], the notion of “culture” refers not only to the totality of social life itself but more specifically appears as a means of guaranteeing social cohesion by orientating the minds and manners of people towards the unifying authority of the state. “Culture” is not yet a specific field of social life among others that might be politically regulated, but rather relates to the “population” as a whole and is thus at the same time conceived as a fundamental instrument of political regulation as such, aiming at the political construction of the totality of a “people”. As a trace of this meaning, we find the interesting term “cultural police” (Kulturpolizei), for instance, as late as in German-language theoretical treatises on the construction of the state in the first half of the 19th century.[3] It is only the advancing separation and fragmentation of social fields in 19th century bourgeois society and the equally bourgeois idea of an intrinsic autonomy of “culture” (in the sense of the production of aesthetic and intellectual “works”) that drives back – without completely replacing it, though – this first precise meaning of “cultural policies”.

Keeping in mind this legacy of the notion of “culture” and its political function in the context of the formation of modern administrative states that dates back to the era of absolutistic regimes, the answer to our initial question whether cultural policies are part of democratic policies would thus have to be: Cultural policies are part of a specific type of governance, but not necessarily of democratic policies. And this would in turn necessitate a second question: How can it be assured that cultural policies are part of democratic policies, or – in case they do not prove to be democratic – how can cultural policies be democratized? Or again, to put it in a perhaps slightly overstated manner: How can “cultural police” be transformed into democratic “cultural policies”?

In order to discuss these questions with regard to the possible objectives of European cultural policies, it is necessary to take a short analytical glance at the ways in which cultural policies have so far been conceived in the context of EU policies. First of all, we come upon the fact that the idea of “European cultural policies” precisely seems to stretch out between the two historical meanings that I have just described. While a programm like “Culture 2000” certainly aims at the promotion of “greater cooperation” and “joint projects” in the cultural field, it at the same time defines its objectives as “the promotion of a cultural area common to the European peoples”. One of the main reasons for this is, if we follow the “Decision of the European Parliament and of the European Council establishing the Culture 2000 programme”, that culture is not only regarded as an “economic factor”, but also as a “factor in social integration and citizenship” and thus “has an important role to play in meeting […] challenges” like “social cohesion” within the European Union. (It is quite remarkable, by the way, to read – in a decision on a cultural policy programme – about the idea of a European citizenship, which does not yet have any formal legal basis in the framework of the EU.) For this reason, the “Decision” continues, “greater emphasis should be placed on their [the European citizens’] common cultural values and roots as a key element of their identity and membership of a society founded on freedom, democracy, tolerance, and solidarity”.

What we can see at work in these formulations is an immediate link that is at once presupposed and constructed between the projects, productions and practices in the cultural field that are to be promoted, and the political construction of a society that is, however, itself assumed to be pre-existent to its very political construction – specifically to the extent that it is the “common cultural values and roots” that are considered to provide (or at least decisively contribute to) a European civic “identity” and “membership” of a democratic society. To put it more simply: There is a fundamental ambiguity in this discourse, which juxtaposes and interweaves the rigid idea of “cultural values and roots” as a “key element” of European citizenship, on the one hand, and the idea of “a society founded on freedom, democracy, tolerance, and solidarity”, on the other, in such a way that both tend to be identified. Suffice it to say here that this does not in the least guarantee cultural policies to be part of democratic policies (nor a democratization of cultural policies), but rather promotes a “culturalization” of the way democracy is conceived, the impacts of which can be observed both at the level of cultural policies in the strict sense and at the level of more general, culture-based perspectives on the political development of the European Union.[4]

This culturalization finally results in what we could grasp as the “extended ambiguity” of the predominant discourse on “European culture”. I will confine myself here to stressing three principal aspects of this extended ambiguity:

1) the ambiguity of “European space”, relating to the fact that, especially after 1989, one of the crucial motives for the growing interest in “European culture” has to be seen, particularly in the context of the enlargement debates, in an attempt at a culture-based definition of what Europe is and where it ends that relates the political project of the EU to a certain cultural consistency;

2) the ambiguity of “cultural difference”, relating to the fact that this discourse on “European culture” establishes a cultural demarcation line between European and non-European cultures which corresponds with two different understandings of “cultural difference”: diversity (based on a “common cultural heritage”), on the one hand, and alterity, on the other; moreover, this demarcation line does not only concern a spatial separation of “culture areas”, but also excludes different groups of migrants living within the EU from “Europeanness”;

3) the ambiguity of “European people”, relating to the fact that, while this discourse claims to promote a European demos (or a European society founded on democracy), it rather promotes the construction of the European population as a European ethnos (or as what Etienne Balibar has called a fictitious ethnicity).

Thus, European cultural policies – or at least the discourse they are embedded in – clearly appear to be part of a strategy of governance without, however, convincingly proving to be quite democratic. It is precisely this fundamental ambiguity of the discourse on “European culture” that we should start from, when it is about a democratization of European cultural policies: by promoting open discussions in the cultural field on the significance of the political project of the European Union (as well as discussions on a possible re-definition of cultural policies and activities in a supranational framework), instead of reducing this political project to a common cultural heritage; by taking into account the processes of the social re‑composition of European societies, specifically in a post-colonial situation and in view of recent and present migrations, instead of sticking to the idea of a European cultural identity as a kind of “sum total” of different national or regional identities; and finally, by strengthening the actual means that are necessary for the emergence of a European demos – like non-commercial public spheres, facilities for participation beyond national or disciplinary boundaries, language competencies, multilingual projects, etc. –, instead of appealing to a fictitious European ethnicity.

All this might well lead, of course, to a less ceremonious way of speaking about “culture”. It might, however, enable us to think about the social productivity and the democratic potentials developed in what has historically been constituted as the “cultural field”, instead of reducing democracy itself to a “cultural value” or a part of a “cultural heritage”. Otherwise, we run the risk of remaining trapped in what Walter Benjamin has qualified, in the 1930s, as the fetishism inherent in the very concept of culture: “as an epitome of artefacts which are regarded, if not independently from the production process in which they were created, yet still independently of that in which they last”[5]. We should be quite aware of the fact that Benjamin’s observation possibly not only applies to pieces of art or historical collections, but also to whole societies as long as they are conceived merely in terms of “culture”. And we probably wouldn't want European societies to become this kind of artefact.

The present text is based on a panel statement at the conference “More Europe – Foreign Cultural Policies in and beyond Europe” in Warsaw (October 9th–11th, 2003), which was organized by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and the Austrian Cultural Forum Warsaw.

[1] Cf. R. Williams, Keywords. A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, London : Fontana 1976, p. 90.

[2] Cf. T. Bennett, “Putting Policy into Cultural Studies”, in: L. Grossberg / C. Nelson / P. A. Treichler, Cultural Studies, London / New York: Routledge 1992, p. 26.

[3] Cf. G. Bollenbeck, Bildung und Kultur. Glanz und Elend eines deutschen Deutungsmusters, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp 1996, p. 326.

[4] Cf. S. Nowotny, „Cultureuropolitics“, in: eipcp – European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies (ed.), Anticipating European Cultural Policies / Europäische Kulturpolitiken vorausdenken, by Th. Kaufmann and Gerald Raunig. With a commentary by / mit einem Kommentar von S. Nowotny, Vienna 2003, pp. 42–50. http://eipcp.net/policies/aecp/nowotny/en

[5] W. Benjamin, “Eduard Fuchs, der Sammler und der Historiker”, in: Gesammelte Schriften, Bd. II.1, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp 1991, p. 477.