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portada de BMM


CULTURE AND PUBLIC SPACE
by Manuel Delgado
UNIVERSITY OF BARCELONA

What ought to be done in view of the unstoppable increase in cultural complexity in large cities such as Barcelona? This question should maybe be answered by another one: is is really necessary to do anything at all about it? Or, in other words, is actually anything the matter if modern cities are experiencing higher levels of diversity, considering that diversity has always been the raw material which has fuelled their development - even in a literal sense, since it is the key contributing factor to their demographic survival - while also constituting the prime guarantee of their prosperity? (...)
If we formulate the need for cultural policies which would
"deal with" a development that should be considered as a mere fact, it implies that we view diversity as an obstacle to democratic coexistence and not as what it actually is: a necessary factor in achieving it. So, what should cultural industries and institutions do to face up to that massively increasing influx of people coming from different - and often exotic - societies? The answer is: nothing, except making spaces and resources available to these people so that they might develop and openly display their own ways of thinking, speaking and acting. And that's it... Any other kind of intervention would eventually be like acquiescing in the posture of those who view the presence of "alien" people - in an urban world which, by the way, is wholly made of "alien" people - as a justification for instituting all kinds of "states of siege" that, starting with "cultural" defensive considerations, actually end up involving policing and judicial measures.
This conclusion - i.e., with regard to diversity, we should not do anything but enjoy it - does not mean that we should not foster cultural initiatives that would give further support to a didactic approach to democratic coexistence. In that sense, it is obvious that the most appropriate and sensible course of action is not to contribute to so-called "inter-cultural" masquerades which almost always present a folksy caricature of the supposed ethnicity of the immigrants and groups living on the fringe of society. To that effect, we ought to question the rightfullness and extent of the measures which are being taken in terms of pedagogy regarding civil values, more particularly those aimed at preventing attitudes that tend to exclude those who have been presented as "culturally different" - an often euphemistic way of saying that they are "socially problematic" -. Concepts such as "multiculturalism" or "interculturalism", as well as an equally vague defence of "the right to differentness", are not only not contributing to improve the disposition of the community to accept coexistence with people who are somehow outside the social mainstream, but they could also be viewed as subtly supporting certain stigmatizing ideologies and practices. (...)
Such a perspective would not fail to stress that the polemic initiated by the theoricians of "recognition" - i.e. those who advocate a stronger appreciation of the peculiar features characterizing certain communities - is on principle perverse and distorting. And it is so insofar as it pictures the society we live in as a society divided into closed, separate community compartments, each of which is organized according to cognitive and custom structures that are differentiating and rather impermeable. From such a perspective, within each of these assumed cultural cubicles, each individual would live immersed in a universe of peculiar, differentiated meanings from which, by definition - and in accordance with all the clichés associated with the imaginary autonomy of cultural phenomena -, he neither would nor actually could escape. (...)
In the face of such a differentiation oriented approach, a true culture of citizenry ought to adopt the old principles of political republicanism, according to which a substantive consideration of human differences, all of them defined on the basis of an absolutely contingent and circumstantial condition, has no real pertinence. People are all different from each other, but their differences should be of no matter to a society and a State that are, by principle, neutral and secular - both in devotional and cultural terms -, so that they have no right to express their opinion about either the ultimate meaning of human existence or other general values, with the exception of those upon which the welfare and peaceful coexistence of the members of the community under their administration depend.
This does not mean that society is viewed as uniform, but precisely just the contrary: it is an acknowledgement of the fact that social life is far too plural and complex to be subordinated to a univocal cosmological vision of society. In these terms, peaceful coexistence is viable only if we restrain the dissociating effects of a constantly increasing heterogeneousness that canno - and should not - be totally suppressed but rather transformed into a driving force at the service of social progress. With that objective in mind, a minimum of consensus would ensure that coexistence between different and even seemingly incompatible elements is in fact possible and that it could have beneficial effects on society itself in the form of all kinds of symbiotic relationships between those elements.
(...) Within that public space which modernity inaugurates as the scene where democratic values are to be epitomized, expressions of social pluralism are taken for granted. But democratic equalitarianism does not deny the existence of singularities; on the contrary, it adapts its norms to the reality of a universe in which pecularities proliferate infinitely, the social compositions of communities are in a constant process of mutation and know no stable boundaries, and not even the individual can be merely considered as a proper unit because, at the same time, he is an inorganic
and incongruous multiplicity of features. What is being proclaimed from this equalitarian perspective is that existing differences, by now incalculable, are all in all irrelevant. Generalized differentiation is a fact and that's it, really; and even the potentially conflict-triggering aspects of its development are considered as almost natural and not necessarily negative phenomena. Within such a frame of reference, it is assumed that the principles of political and civil integration are flexible enough to allow each one of the symbolic universes concurrent in everyday life to adopt them on its own terms. Above specific idiosyncrasies, the principles of constant communicative interchange and interaction are essential determinants of the construction and reflective self-management of a social reality in which "cultural features" and other differentiating elements do not - as some thought - provide the basis for constant meetings, debates, negotiations and fights but, on the contrary, are the results of such forms of interaction. Differentiation is not a result of substantive differences, but it is the logics and dynamics behind the differentiating classification process which actually foster the differences that are being classified. So, we are not differentiated because we are different; we are different because we have previously been differentiated, either by ourselves or by others.
To sum it up, it is true that the uninterrupted, massive influx of foreign people is deeply affecting life in our cities. However, shouldn't we find reasons for satisfaction and hope in this situation? Isn't any city a secretely wise organism which feeds precisely on what alters it?