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When Europe Wakes Up! (end)

Last Updated: 7 Dec 2017

Culture First!

In his new album “Bug”, drawing artist and script writer Enki Bilal imagined a world frozen by a gigantic computer bug. Beyond the imagined catastrophe, he explained on 28th November in an interview for French newspaper Le Monde that “digital technologies constitute the new addiction which has us all in its grip. I have read that a kid coming to life today would, when turning 20, find it hard to look at another human being because of that obsessional and very early relationship to screens.” He adds “We are living in an exciting period of time but we suffered a deep trauma without noticing it. The advent of digital technologies has sealed the end of the world. It has cut off a large part of the ways used for the transmission of culture. The practice of reading is being lost. The 20th century has been –such is my personal feeling- banished for a whole generation which was born in the same time as digital technologies. For them the world only starts now.”

The question of the loss of culture transmission is definitely worth dwelling on.

It could be observed that, without digital technologies, an immense cultural heritage that can be accessed by anyone today wouldn’t be as easily available.

For example: Around 1920, Austrian artist Raoul Hausmann made the sculpture reproduced above which is called The Mechanical Head. The Centre Pompidou explains that, “by describing it as ‘The Spirit of Time, 1919’ in a text published in 1967, the artist prompted the adoption of a date and definitive title. The wooden head is ornamented with a variety of objects, among which a piece of tape measure and, stuck on its forehead, a little white label bearing the number 22 to hint at a Spirit of Time reduced to a simple ‘digital meaning’.” Fascination for the digital is definitely not a contemporary matter and this kind of fear can be found in numerous literary or artistic works from this period of time, far better so as in scientific publications.

Let us go back even further in time. We will be able to access the Oaths of Strasbourg in only a couple of clicks. Sealed on a certain 14th February 842 between two of Charles the Great’s grand-sons, it is this alliance that maps out the outline of future Europe, a map laden with the conflicts and reconciliations that were to come. The Oaths are also considered to be the act of birth of the Romance language that was to become modern French. They also obey to symbolic rules that could be taught in communication schools. Novelist Pascal Quignard wrote (in Les Larmes (The Tears), Grasset, 2016, p.124-125): “3. The German king, Louis the German, being the firstborn took his oath in French, (in lingua romana) in front of his brother’s troops. 4. The French king, Charles the Bald, being the last-born, uttered the oath in German (in lingua teudesca) in front of his brother’s troops. 5. The chiefs – the dukes in Latin – of the tribes of the Germanic Franks pronounced in front of their troops in their rustic language (in lingua rustica, that is to say in their own language; for the German tribes this was the Proto-Germanic language) the pact to death that had been sealed between the kings so that every German-speaking warrior could grasp its meaning. 6. The chiefs –the dukes in Latin – of the “French” Franks pronounced in front of their troops, in their rustic language (in lingua rustica, that is to say in their own language; for the French tribes this was the Proto-French language) the pact to death that had been sealed between the kings so that every French-speaking warrior could grasp its meaning.”

Is this some irrelevant symbolism? That is still to be proven. In its 21th September issue, French weekly Le Point made its headline “France-Germany, a history-making pact” and when German former vice-chancellor Joschka Fisher explained “Both countries’ Histories must be considered: we are two Carolingian nations which, despite all the wars that they have inflicted to each other, are inter-dependent in almost an existential way,” he was hinting at the Oaths of Strasbourg which reproduced this very symbolism.

Of course, this is only possible through language and writing. The strength that the discourse may have is too scarcely taken into account.

When, on 18 June 1940, General de Gaulle called for resistance from London, only few people heard the message. But there were enough individuals to understand what it meant, to broadcast it and to take action.

With this example we are far from Shanonn model of communication to which language is still often reduced. This model brings language down to the mere emission and reception of information followed by an efficient processing of the received information. This is an elegant way of reducing language to an almost mechanical tool. This is something that is expressed by our example sculpture, The Mechanical Head. Language is something else altogether.

The Appeal of the 18th of June would have considerable consequences that are not the subject of the present letter. Nonetheless, if The Appeal of the 18th of June and the German-French reconciliation were to be considered in the same light, there would emerge, more than 1000 years later, an almost similar symbolism as the one encapsulated in the Oaths of Strasbourg.

Granted, language in discourse is like the whole memory and understanding of the world.

But Europeans must see beyond the boundaries of Europe. We would not need more than a couple of clicks either to access the part of the Timbuktu Manuscripts that escaped destruction and were digitalised. In this written memory of West Africa and Sahara one can find, for instance, among 32 manuscripts available to the public, a commercial deal related to a sale and transportation of slaves between the cities of Timbuktu, Mali and Ghadames, Libya. The dreadful images that have leapt from our screens over the past days are not coming from the limbo.

The power of written forms and of art is often under-estimated although it is perfectly well know and understood that the burning of books and the destruction of works of arts and symbols is an attack on the peoples’ memory and thus, on their very existence. Concerning recent events, whether they be the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 1999, the sack of Iraqi museums during the American invasion, or the destruction of Palmyra by the Islamic State, it is always culture and language that are impacted which is to say that it is the memory of peoples and of Humanity at large that is targeted. The ultimate aim of such acts is to break off the transmission chain. Our opinion is that such scheduled ruptures within transmission are sheer barbarity. Whether perpetrated in the name of civil or religious dictatorships or of “democratic” powers, they remain acts of barbarity.

But language is everywhere and would not let itself be seized easily. It can be a dreadful weapon. The biggest know (and acknowledged) lie ever performed by a government, orchestrated by the ruling staff in the United-States and the United-Kingdom at the time, by the way of which, on 5th February 2003, General Colin Powell, United States Secretary of Defense, managed to convince the UN Security Council of the presence of mass destruction weapons and thus triggering the second Iraq war was an act of barbary as well as the war itself. Language used in discourse is definitely an act that changes reality for better or worse.

Finally, what is language, without culture: nothing else than a code, easier replaced than destroyed. This is the reason why some people endeavour to split the inseparable. But if language is nothing without culture, culture is nothing either without language.

And what is general knowledge, a much decried notion nowadays, if not the understanding of the world we inhabit? It enables to draw relevant parallels, to question, to research, to analyse, to put in perspectives, to ponder, to judge, to estimate, to organize, to take offence, to revolt... As for technic, it is part of culture and is nothing without it but one more barbarity. Just like air and water, language is an environment. This is the reason why language and culture are one of the dimensions of “sustainable development”. There is no other path for our language-rich Europe.