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 Brief reflexion on culture

by Alejandro Serrano Caldera, Philosopher and Jurist     Alejandro Serrano Caldera, philosopher, jurist and writer, has occupied high functions in Nicaragua. To read other parers by this author, click here. To read his paper in intellectuals and power, click here. To read "Estado de Derecho y Derechos Humanos" , click here. He published recently "Razon, Derecho y Poder, Reflexiones sobre la democracia y la politica", Hispamer, Managua, 2004.

In Milan Kundera's essay, "The Challenges of Czech Literature", the author asks himself whether a small nation can create its own culture.

Kundera reminds us that the renaissance of the Czech culture took place as Goethe was developing his famous concept of world literature. "A great nation, Kundera wrote (in French), can hardly resist to the temptation of considering its own way of life as being superior... On the contrary, a small nation cannot nurture such ambitions. It does not aspire to having the planet transformed in its own image, but rather seeks to exist in a world of tolerance and diversity where it can live like others".

He goes on, "Goethe's concept of world literature corresponds exactly to this notion of tolerance and diversity, where a work of art is not evaluated in terms of national prestige, but rather for his own worth and where cultures of small nations can preserve their right to be unique, different and original".

The message is intended to be optimistic but is not intended to downplay the risks that threaten the cultures of small countries. These risks are not so much due to the influence of hegemony on literature, as was the case when Goethe was elaborating his concept of world literature as the space where different national literatures coexist; rather, they stem from the tendency toward standardization, mechanisation and globalisation of economies, lifestyles, and existence.

A double challenge has to be met without delay. The essential dimension of every culture must be reaffirmed in order to build on it what might be called the historical essence or ontology of a nation and people upon which to base its specific identity. At the same time, every culture should be transcended by maintaining openness in the face of a wider horizon. Neglecting either of these two aspects would lead, on one hand, to abstraction and emptiness while becoming at best a people of imitators, and on the other hand, to confinement and self-colonization.

The terms identity and crisis raise two fundamental issues associated with the contemporary world. Identity is always defined in relation to culture if, by culture, we mean the processes of thought and action, creation and tradition, form and possibilities, reality and perspective of a specific human community.

A crisis can be defined as the rupture from current models of societies at a given time, in terms of ideas, and particularly in regard to beliefs and values which constituted the goals to which a person and a community aspired. From crises may arise possibilities and opportunities which can be good or bad, depending on the attitude that is adopted and the course that is chosen.

Culture is created by man who in creating it, creates himself. Culture is more than erudition or refinement; it is the substance of humankind, its very nature. Without culture, human beings are no longer themselves, they lose their essence; they become dehumanized. "Life without culture is barbarism. Culture without life is scholasticism", wrote José Ortega y Gasset in his 1920s essay "The Topic of Our Time".

"Culture is the house of the man", says the Peruvian Leopoldo Chiappo. "It is the net suspended over the abyss in which man lives... Without culture and without the learning associated with culture, man succumbs" ...I would add that without renewal, or cultural creativity, he will also succumb.

"The parable is clear: one is builder of culture or one becomes the prey". This net, the cobweb to which Chiappo refers, explains the parable of Thiequin; "[The cobweb] has a double function, protective but also predatory. At the end of each day, the spider destroys its web, then starts rebuilding in the last hours of the night in order to have a new web ready at dawn. Thus man destroys and constructs his culture during the deep, tense nights of history ".

There are only three courses open to man :

  • he builds culture, or
  • he destroys it, or
  • he becomes a prisoner to ancient systems due to his inability to produce new guiding threads for the natural emanation of humanity that we call culture. The natural state of man is culture.
  • The key word is "to create", or rather, as I would say, "to re-create", since no one creates on a void, nor constructs in a vacuum. Cultural creation is simultaneously preservation and transformation. As Hegel said, Aupheben, meaning to transform in order to preserve. Inversely, the only way to preserve is to transform. The only way to keep the cultural past alive is to transform it, to create the new on the basis of ancient cultural forms.

    This is the challenge for our culture, and for every culture: to create, transform, and continue; "to pave the way by walking, " as Antonio Machado said, while being conscious that we cannot go backward, but also recognise that today is a starting point, and that tomorrow's horizon was carved out yesterday. Let us not forget that any point of arrival is also necessarily a starting point.

    The contemporary crisis arises from the interaction between two determining circumstances: the plurality of cultures on one hand and the makeup of the only world power on the other.

    Multiculturality, understood as the existence of a plurality of cultures, is far from being equivalent to interculturality, that is to say, the interaction of cultures that communicate and influence each other. Quite the contrary, the contemporary phenomenon demonstrates the tendency for the formation of closed, inward looking micro-societies that view another culture's difference as a real or potentially aggressive element.

    "Hell is the other", said the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. This phrase illustrates the attitude which discredits and bedevils diversity and reflects the tendency for inscrutability and impermeability of certain cultures, an attitude that clashes with the processes of globalization which dominate the contemporary world.

    If we assume that civilization is a system of integrated cultures, each of which with its own nucleus of principles, objectives, goals and values, as well as it has its own symbolic patterns and vision of the world and of life, we quickly understand that the issues become quite radical and complex.

    The world events that arose from September 11, 2001 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have contributed to the consolidation of the world power structure and set aside the debate on State or Market precedence, the result being a single circle of power formed by multiple tributaries: political, military, financial, economic, strategic.

    The international order which prevailed since the end of the Second War and centred on the United Nations has broken down. The rupture of the social contract of the post-war period is one of the dramas of our time.

    It is essential to search for a New Social Contract to protect peace. For this, culture and interculturality understood as dialogue and reciprocal recognition between cultures is critical.

    (Translated from Spanish by Jean Tardif - revised by Paule Herodote) 06.01.2005

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