Monday, 5 October 2009

Philosophy of Europe, reflections on an Istanbul Conference

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker's Weblog.

On Friday and Saturday, I was at the conference Beyond Boundaries: Media, Culture and Identity in Europe at the Beşiktaş campus of Bahçeşehir University, Istanbul. I gave a paper on Saturday, ‘Political Theory and the Idea of Europe: Foucault Against Habermas’, the abstract formed the basis of my 2nd September post, ‘Foucault, Libertarianism and Europe’.

The conference had very pleasant surroundings, in very modern and well equipped university buildings overlooking the Bosphorus.

An overview of the conference and how I related to the papers and discussions.

The conference was mainly media, communication, and cultural studies, in content. There were some philosophically oriented papers. Two of these covered similar ground about Hannah Arendt on refugees and Jacques Derrida on hospitality. References to Derrida in those papers and others tended to emphasise the view of a Europe with no centre, and continuity. One problem here is that too many people are trying to cover similar ground in the same texts when talking about Derrida, and taking the discussion of hospitality too much as an unconditional ethical command and nothing else. Derrida’s point is just as much to question the idea of pure hospitality as too assert the merits of hospitality. Hospitality defines the outsider, as an intruder and outside, and ties that person within laws of hospitality. The expectation of hospitality can itself justify colonialism over non-hospitable people, a very real aspect of the growth of colonialism. Adam Smith, who was no fan of colonialism, regarded trading forts as inevitable in relation to hostile locals, and recognised the danger of expansion into full colonies.

Just emphasising Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ of European identity, is to overlook the Eurocentric and traditionalist elements of some of his accounts of philosophy and religion in Europe; the criticisms of Eurocentrism themselves are complicit with a kind of Eurocentrism which emphasises changes, diversity, openness and the welcome of outsiders.

One attitude to issues of European identity on display was to dismiss it in favour of a pragmatic evolutionary approach, derived from the ‘functionalism’ of the original designers of European institutions, like Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman. This ‘functionalism’ is also known as ‘institutionalisation’ and refers to the idea that European integration proceeds through economic, technical and administrative contribution, which creates its own momentum for greater integrationism, without any reference to a politics of European federalism.

There are at least two problems here: Monnet et al were certainly influenced by an ideal of Europe’s identity; the ‘institutionalist’ argument has an undemocratic aspect to it, deals done by political and administrative elites to create institutions with an interest in expansion on the basis of apparently limited agreements.

The argument was presented in the context of criticism of communitarianism and communalism as implicitly authoritarian, demanding a public domination of private life with regard to language, identities, symbolism etc. This was backed up with an overfamiliar strategy of decontextualised quotations from Rousseau, to make him seem as totalitarian as possible. This was accompanied by the usual tiresome jibe at contract theory, that no one remembers signing the contract. It’s clear enough that contract theory can be explained through tacit agreement with the laws and institutions of a country. Anyway, apart from being cliched and decontextualised, and really rather cheap, this kind of account of Rousseau is not really adding a lot to discussions of European identity.

What that presentation suggested was a strong contrast between formal depersonalised forma social associations and associations of strong unity around language, identity and shared emotion, accompanied by the suggestion that only the former forms of association is relevant to Europe’s emergent polity. One problem with this line of analysis, is that it does not match reality. There are ideas of European identity around, even among those who oppose political integration, and they precede the emergence of the European Union by some distance.

It is not possible to make such a distinction between two forms of association. Both forms of association are present in all associations, and there are no associations at any level which lack both sides. Roughly speaking associations are more densely integrated by lines of connection between individuals at the local level, but these forms of connection are present at the higher levels, up to the global community defined by shared interests and passions of all humans.

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