Tales of the End of the Millennium

European Parliament, Directorate-General for Research

Cultural Policies in the EU Member States

Volume II: Outlook for the 21st Century

Education and Culture Series, Luxembourg, European Parliament, 2002


Any reflection on the future is an attempt to make sense of the present. Our foresights are of little value; our fantasy, a mere projection; and our warnings, a kind of exorcism. To talk, therefore, of the culture of the coming century is but to interrogate the present, to poke about in the past. What is it that the century we leave behind has given or taken from us? What will we take from it into the next century? The consensus is that Europe and its cultural ambit are reaching the new millennium without the Great Stories of its past: without God or the totalitarian ideologies that sought to substitute it. In their place, we have various Short Stories (or perhaps they are tales) which, according to the mood of the teller, sour or sweeten our postmodernity. Here are some of them.


On cultural inter-raciality

It is said that the future will be multicultural or will not be but there is hardly a word about how this ideal or, in any case, inevitable state will be reached. The speeches of our great men about otherness, tolerance, pluralism, diversity or the ethic of hospitality recall the old tale about goodwill to all men and communicate an idea of inter-raciality as if it were a kind of folk festival of peoples, ethnic races and creeds… However, the few clues we have on the subject refute this festive picture. Ethnic and religious conflicts, failed integration of foreigners or those who are different, indigestible immigration and emergent racism are the present of the multicultural future.

Pleading for mutual existence constitutes the first step along a path with an objective and without an end, but many intellectuals seem satisfied with this simple declaration of intent. Si vis pacem, para bellum, said the Romans and today it would be no bad thing to arm ourselves (with arguments, policies and projects) in order to prepare a peaceful and multicultural coexistence. First of all, it would be necessary to break down prejudices, even if they are positive and very politically correct. It is not possible to open oneself to other cultures from the ignorance of one’s own. Integration should not mean substitution. The weak European sentiment will always run up against some type of strong marketing, rampant fundamentalism or aggressive noble cause. The model to follow could be the Hegelian concept of excelling, the transformation that safeguards its essence, but this would require a searching debate on the responsibilities of those who safeguard and on the social function of culture.

On the use of culture

Today, there is no tale more obsolete than that of committed art. But the belated recognition that not even the most inflammatory novel is going to change the next elections does not necessarily mean a renunciation of a social preoccupation of art, despite the fact that the most neutral work forges tastes, creates habits and transmits values. The totalitarian horrors of the century also buried the myth of culture as an antidote to Evil. The image of the Nazi lover of Beethoven (which, of course, has its Bolshevik equivalent) awakens very painful doubts about the notion of art ennobling and education improving people.

It is also worth reflecting on the inverted relationship between the weight of culture in a society and the degree of freedom. It is not surprising, then, that in our democratic European community of welfare the main social function of culture is leisure, now inseparable from business. It also fulfils a role of corporate representation (PR, promotion, advertising, image…) but at a user level, as is said today, its prestige and value as a source of knowledge have been diminished. As I write these lines, one of the most brilliant violinists of our time is playing Silent Night on television in the name of a brand of champagne, surrounded by fifty Lolitas dressed as little angels… The market is a King Midas that transforms all it touches into junk. Mozart is on the point of becoming a supermarket composer and Botticelli is the designer of thirty-seven and a half million postcards. It is very possible that in the consumer society culture is only spectacle but, at least, this spectacle is for all.


On popular culture

The myth of popular culture is also of Romantic origin, and it was expropriated by totalitarianism and revitalised by the market. Its renaissance in the sixties (through comics, rock music, detective novels, pop culture…) provoked one of the noisiest debates between apocalyptics and integrationists, as Umberto Eco christened them. But what has happened in the last twenty years has surpassed all predictions. Thanks to its commercial possibilities, this culture originally regarded as low has reached untold heights, incorporating in its ambit part of high culture with a double result: the dumbing down of the integrated part (notable and, often, difficult authors converted into best-sellers; minority exhibitions and classical music concerts which attract multitudes, etc.), and the elitism and isolation of what is indigestible for mass consumption. And as if it had the whole system in its favour, mass culture has found a fresh and extremely powerful ally in the new technologies.


On virtual culture

Everything has already been said about the blessings and dangers of virtual culture. The apocalyptics held forth and the euphorics expressed themselves. So, I would like to emphasise a particular aspect of the phenomenon from my experience. When my students download vast, endless bibliographies from the Internet, instead of helping them it creates a problem. Referring back to the culture of inter-raciality, they are university people for whom most of the European cultural heritage, including its history, means less than nothing. They are quite simply ignorant of it. Thus, more than access to knowledge, what the Internet offers them is a one way ticket to chaos. Anyway, two things can be deduced from this perspective already made reality. That, in addition to globalisation, virtual culture foments segmentation: the creation of planetary links between representatives of small communities, identities, interests, causes or hobbies. And that the management of information on the Internet requires criteria, which will be the preserve of a cultural elite thus converted into a kind of traffic warden of knowledge along the highways of the Internet. It remains to be seen at whose service.


On the end of the world

It is clear that our culture has arrived at a point of inflection that many consider to be the end of a civilisation. The fact is that faced with the Apocalypse there is little to be done, and this, in some sense, does away with responsibilities. Paraphrasing a notable thesis: until now the most radical and far-sighted intellectuals have dedicated themselves to announcing the end of the world. The challenge now would be to resign oneself to a less terrible but perhaps more complicated possibility: to continue here.

Mihály Dés

Born in Hungary.

Essayist and editor.

He has lived in Barcelona since 1986, where he is director of the Spanish cultural review Lateral (cf. the web site at http://www.lateral-ed.es/) and professor of East-European Literature at Barcelona University.

[1] Received in December 2000
English translation (by Neil Charlton/Pere Bramon, Barcelona)
Original language: Spanish (Original title: “Cuentos de fin de milenio”)


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