‘European culture’ is an invented tradition?

Benjamin Martin 0f Uppsala University in Sweden has a food for thought piece.

He says idea of European culture was invented sue to rising fears from US and USSR:

For all of its optimistic rhetoric, it was fear that birthed this vision of European culture. The First World War, and the economic and political chaos that followed, led to a new call for European unity….

Feeling pinched between the US and Hollywood to the west, and Soviet communism to the east, some intellectuals set out to define and distinguish Europe, revising that old idea for a new and threatening age. Continental intellectuals had defined Europe by contrasting it to various ‘others’ for a long time. But by seeking to identify a distinctive European character against the US and the USSR, the continent’s newly ascendant geopolitical rivals, that process of defining Europe underwent an important transformation. Earlier generations had found Europe’s distinguishing feature in its Christianity. For centuries, what we call Europe (the word was rarely used) was more often called ‘Christendom’. Christendom referred to a physical and spiritual space contrasted to that of the Muslim Turk.

In the 18th-century Enlightenment, European elites began to highlight Europe’s distinction through the concept of civilisation. Based on pride in western science, reason and technology, this vision of Europe as the seat of civilisation, the epitome of human progress, flourished in the 19th century. ‘Europe’ grew into a shorthand for the continent’s claims to be the birthplace of universal values, expressed in science and technology, law and administration. The evident superiority of these values seemed to find confirmation in the ascendancy of Europe on the world political stage and in the European powers’ vast colonial empires.

By the 1920s and ’30s, however, even those who were still openly racist about non-Europeans could no longer claim that civilisation was unique to Europe. The war proved that although modern civilisation, in the sense of technological progress, might have been born in Europe, the US and the USSR had advanced in these fields at least as far as the old world. European intellectuals’ optimism about technology was in any case shaken by the war. Clearly this frightening shift of power meant that civilisation as scientific and technological superiority alone could no longer vouchsafe Europe’s special place in the world.

However, the continent’s intellectuals were not ready to give up their European exceptionalism. Their attachment to European distinctiveness led to an embrace and celebration of something else, something almost ineffable, that neither the US nor the USSR could ever claim: that was ‘European culture’. European culture, in contrast to crass American and Soviet materialism, was idealist and anti-materialist, defined especially by literature and the arts. Among Europe’s 19th-century bourgeoisie, the fine arts had enjoyed a semi-religious status, and were a logical place for intellectuals to seek refuge for their exceptionalism. Marking itself off from the ‘new’ societies of the US and the USSR, this European high culture traced its beginnings to ancient Greece and Rome. In doing so, it projected ‘Europe’ back to ages when the word was rarely used and meant little. ‘Europe’ in this way came to signify especially refined aestheticism and high culture.

It’s always been somewhat confusing. If Europe has a culture, is there a European nation? Are the cultures of Finland or Poland as European as the cultures of, say, France or Germany? Who gets to decide which works of art are representative of European culture? Must the continent be homogenised to foster a unified European culture? Wasn’t this fine arts and high culture vision of Europe socially elitist and politically conservative?

Some of these questions are again relevant today, amid the newly intense conflict between Europeanist and nationalist visions of what Europe and its culture (or cultures) really are. To answer them, it helps to remember that ancient verities are few. The old world is defined by relatively new ideas.

We have followed these arguments from the Euro currency angle. Should there be a common currency for economies as diverse as Germany and Greece? In the currency case, the idea was invented by a few elite European bureaucrats again in the fear of US Dollar hegemony.

All these grandiose European ideas read increasingly like inventions ..

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2 Responses to “‘European culture’ is an invented tradition?”

  1. Pooya Says:

    This idea of Martin’s sounds really interesting. Thanks for sharing.

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