Courtesy of IWM, I recently moved into the ninth district of Vienna. Many notable Europeans have lived and worked in the ninth district. Austrian composer Franz Schubert was born here in1797, Jewish professor Sigmund Freud treated his patients in this neighbourhood until his exile in 1938, German musician Ludwig van Beethoven died here in 1827, and Slovenian writer Ivan Cankar temporarily resided here in 1899. And this is but a small sample from a long and illustrious list.
Like anyone who had just adopted a new residence, I had to get my geographical bearings. It is good to know the limits of one’s habitat. Alsergrund, as the district is known, is well served in this regard. It has clear and unambiguous borders, delineated by the Gurtel in the northwest, the Danube Canal in the east, and Maria-Theresienstrasse, Universitatenstrasse, and Alserstrasse marking the borders in the south.
There is a park across from my apartment beside the Lichtental parish church. The children and many of the supervising adults who gather in the park to enjoy the sunny weather of early September probably couldn’t care less about the borders of the district. German, Polish, Turkish, and Croatian idioms float through the balmy air, and I’d wager that many of these weekend strollers, idlers, and chatterers of immigrant background crossed far more significant borders before they even reached Vienna. Indeed, if Europeans are defined as people of a continent that can access more than just their own ethnic and linguistic stock of meaning, then it is precisely these immigrants who are Europeans par excellence.
I sit on a neat green bench, my rented bicycle at rest beside me. I sit and watch, one anonymous European observing his fellow Europeans. I watch. I daydream. I contemplate. Nothing has caused more grief and trouble in the history of Europe than borders and territory, than the land and its guardians. Alas, Europe in this regard is far worse off than urban districts such as Alsergrund with their sharply drawn and unquestioned frontiers.
In order to conceive of Europe’s imaginary totality, one must employ the tools of physical geography, and yet the absence of a strict natural border on the eastern flank of the continent has created the need for another standard, the kind provided by symbolic geography. Europe’s external boundaries have shifted over time with changing political circumstances and social-historical periods. As a rule, however, these shifting borders have always been predicated on the “other” that must remain outside. Over the course of its history, whoever spoke for Europe defined it as “civilised” and thus the antithesis of the “barbaric” regions and religions, tribes and peoples, kingdoms and nations outside the gate. At various times, Europe’s exterior border has run along the Oder and Neisse Rivers, the ridges of the Carpathians and the Ural mountain ranges, the coasts of the Black and Caspian Seas, the Iron Curtain, and, most recently, the Schengen lines.
Fear of the “other”
The smallest common denominator in communal integration is fear. In the collective mind of the peoples claiming membership in Europe, the West and the East have come to acquire polarized values. In the European rhetoric devised by medieval Christianity, Islamic culture was perceived as the “other”. After the secular Enlightenment, it was Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the attendant communist ideology that assumed this negative role. Today Islam has once again become the “other”, being viewed across much of Europe as an anti-Christian, anti-Western and anti-modern threat. Europe, in short, rambles on in the durable tradition of defining itself via negativa: that is, by pointing a finger at what it is not.
if Europeans are defined as people of a continent that can access more than just their own ethnic and linguistic stock of meaning, then it is precisely these immigrants who are Europeans par excellence
But does Europe know what it is in the positive sense? Do we Europeans know what it means to be a European? The feeble nature of contemporary European integration, embodied in the European Union, was not caused by the worst economic crisis engulfing the length continent since 1930s; it was revealed by it.
The primary weakness of the elites who speak for Europe today lies in their inability to offer a coherent collective narrative, the failure to provide an integrative template for the common imagination. In its absence, many offshoots of political populism flourish. Fear mongers in the political class and in the forums of civil society excel at finding effective metaphors for a mentality of besiegement: full boat, fortress Europe, barricaded society. These conservative turns of phrase have only one goal, to hide the pursuit of profit behind the call for purity, to plaster ethnic slogans over economic interests. Appeals to the exclusivist concern for one’s own community seek to cover up the effects of globalization on the distribution of wealth, which has in fact contributed to the tragic erosion of what is arguably the most important European tradition: the tradition of social democracy and the welfare state.
In short, European political elites have proved themselves unable to deal critically with transnational global corporations and complicit financial institutions, and have thus reached for tried-and-true methods of diverting public attention. They turn immigrants, foreigners, and refugees into scapegoats. An enlightened segment of the public still recognizes these methods as “fascism with a smile” and condemns them as unacceptable, but the key issue is that expressions of chauvinistic populism against the “other”, alas, cannot be simply reduced to a deviation from the norm. They are a constituent part of the long-term process that saw during the post-war European integration as focused primarily on economic freedom and an unfettered marketplace. In the 1980s, the economic fundamentalism ushered in the corporate homogenization of everyday life. Today, the political solidarity that was once virtually guaranteed by the welfare state and its social safety nets appears as much a part of ancient history as the Berlin Wall.
For true believers, the invisible hand of the market is trusted to be a remedy for all ills. This became absolute doctrine after the fall of the famed wall. Today, despite the economic devastation of the current crisis, citizens of the European Union for the most part accept the market as the normative condition of life. Although the 1995 introduction of the euro as a new currency was clearly ill conceived, most intelligent commentators insisting that political union should have accompanied economic union for the project to stand a chance of success, the currency stumbles on. The jury is out; our future—and more relevantly, that of our children—lies in the balance.
The crisis of the euro notwithstanding, we have had plenty of time to get used to daily transactions in the currency, usable and valued in the so-called Eurozone regardless of national borders. But while the borders of nations still exist, the borders of currencies magically disappeared. What failed to disappear, however, was a lingering doubt in Europe as a common house of peoples and nations, and yet this being Europe, doubt is self-reflexive and so was cleverly integrated into the design of the banknotes themselves.
Consider: the five euro note features an image of a vaguely ancient viaduct that could have been erected anywhere in the Roman Empire. The ten euro note features a Romanesque portal, while the two hundred euro note features an opaque glass door and an anonymous bridge. Unlike the national currencies it replaced, the euro is too timid to tell a story. Not a single human face appears on these banknotes. These banknotes are utterly incapable of inspiring meaningful identification and fail to deliver on the imperative de te fabula narratur. They are abstractions, perhaps suitably, like money itself.
The feeble nature of contemporary European integration, embodied in the European Union, was not caused by the worst economic crisis engulfing the length continent since 1930s; it was revealed by it
But, oh, how I miss the portraits of Erasmus, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Mickiewicz, Velasquez, Newton, Goethe, Andrić. In contrast, the columns and arches on these notes hint at ruined empires, or virtual empires, ones that never actually existed but have been transformed into eerie nostalgia for some sort of real connection and community. They echo something lost in the sands of an irrecoverable past, a place with no foundation, no recognizable landscape. Indeed there is nothing familiar that we Europeans can identify with in these banknotes. They’re useful, at least for the time being, but they’re symbolically empty.
Just spending euros, however, will not make us Europeans. To be a European means to attempt to answer this crucial question: can Europeanism become a viable common collective narrative? We shall see. A European narrative will have to be cross generational. It will have to maintain a common cultural amalgamation of distinct ethnic traditions, reinforced by shared memory and the promise of a common future. It will need to provide symbolic order wherein a centripetal force would be able to counteract, but not abolish, centrifugal forces of primary identification that each of us feels as a member of our nation.
Consolations of the absurd
What is a nation? It is understood as a distinct and self-examining ethnic group, and its Romantic desiderata. It is understood as a political form of collective power that represents a genuine European invention and a dubious contribution to the world’s vocabulary and practices. While the roots of the nation lie in the ancient Greek polis, its modern form was shaped in 19th century, when ethnic groups asserted their distinct identities. In part, these groups were propelled by the idea of bourgeois emancipation, which was developed to counter the aristocratic empires. After the collapse of multi-ethnic Habsburg and Ottoman empires, the nation-state acquired enormous prestige and was elevated into the unit of international political order.
But the nation-state was little more than a machine for ethnic homogenisation. Its dominant ideology was the ideology of a dominant ethnic group, better known as nationalism. It elevated the idea of national unity over all other collective loyalties, identifications, and allegiances. The nation-states that emerged after 1918 rose on the ruins of the “European civil war” and subjected the state administration, education, social, and cultural life to a specific ethnic norm. Nationalism took the culture of the dominant ethnic group to be the supreme public good. Biological membership in the dominant ethnic group thus became the implicit standard for what was to be political citizenship. Those that did not belong to the dominant ethnic group were faced with assimilation at best or extermination at worst.
One would think that the situation would be different today. After all, there is no nation-state in post-imperial, post-WWII Europe, except perhaps Iceland, which does not contain at least one indigenous ethnic minority, not to mention the plethora of more recent immigrant communities. The European Union has become emphatically multinational and multi-ethnic. It is composed of various member nation-states that are, in turn, composed of various ethnic groups.
The absence of nationally specific figures on the banknotes of the euro hints at a consensus about the ancient, the imperial, and the Christian legacy, while the more recent past of Europe is neglected. National diversity is the twin sister of conflict, and conflicts regarding collective memories are particularly painful. It may have been arguably the best course to keep the design of euro banknotes vague and devoid of history, devoid of faces. But this very vagueness bears witness to a worrying truth: that the creation and maintenance of a common narrative that would integrate the paradoxes of European diversity confronts far greater obstacles than the development and facilitation of a mere common market.
The pursuit of a common European narrative may in the end turn out to be a Sisyphean task. But then I think of the wise acceptance of the absurd that Samuel Beckett penned – “I can’t go on, I must go on” – and I am comforted. It is the only good advice in hard times.