Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. November 2003
  Plenum | Plenary Session | Séance plénière  DEUTSCH | ENGLISH | FRANCAIS

On the Theory of the Unifying Aspects of Cultures

Herbert Arlt (Vienna) [BIO]


In its preamble UNESCO points out the importance of the formation of image formation for war and peace, for the divisive and unifying aspects in the world. UNESCO itself is the expression of an attempt to represent the unifying aspects of cultures, emphasizing the importance of wide variety and of the creative aspect of diversity. UNESCO contributes to image formation by means of a variety of resolutions, conventions and programs.

Thus to develop the beginnings of a theory concerning the unifying aspects of cultures stands in the tradition of this image formation, even if the word theory also emphasizes something that is a peculiarity of this image formation; it is a (cultural) scientific beginning. Therefore I would also like to begin with a definition; culture in this contribution will be understood as everything that the human being produces in transforming the world in itself into a world for us.

This definition is very broad and includes everything that is productive. This definition excludes, however, any understanding of culture as a synonym for power, all forms of the destruction of nature (which ultimately also lead to a worsening of the living conditions of people) and all violations of human rights. This definition is therefore not broad in the sense that it defines anything and everything as culture but rather emphasizes an understanding of culture, which views specific activities and works as its historically constituted elements.

This attempt at an approach is supported by the human practice of presenting its own history. Look at the (national) museums of this world. If they go back to the past, tools, vessels, jewelry as well as hunting weapons are all common features in all countries.

In the more recent past languages play a decisive role in cultures. With language new possibilities for transforming knowledge begin. And in the languages it is the concepts of culture that characterize these transformations as the contemporary of the non-contemporary. The concepts of culture always feature something specific: in Europe it is farming, in Arabic countries the city, in the south of Africa it is relations between people (an image, which, for example, also plays a role in the Caucasus).

Roughly formulated, the activities, which produce culture, can be divided into the following categories: tradition, reproduction and creativity. And cultural concepts usually include a selection, in each case according to a specific interest, which is to be emphasized by a concept. Viewed historically, culture is therefore not constituted in itself (not in the "neutral" form of my definition), but it includes conditions (whereby the natural circumstances can be very different). There is no causality associated either with natural conditions (for example, farming in the mountains) or with culture (for example, writing). In this sense culture is social interaction, communication, reproduction on the basis of knowledge and the creation of knowledge in historic forms.

Thus handing down the tradition assumes a central position in this process. Only with the advent of pictures, numbers and writing does the richness begin to unfold, the diversity to develop. Yet writing in itself is not of main importance. The wealth of societies developed only out of a broader base, when more and more people were able to use the writing. For it is a prerequisite of reproduction that as many people as possible be able to make use of knowledge.

Furthermore it is evident, that the history of humankind does not consist of repetitions. Rather, inventions and creativity shape the cultural processes. Amartya Sen has shown, however, that these processes likewise stand in a reciprocal relationship to the public, a public, which requires democracy in order to achieve widespread effectiveness.

Therefore culture, by the way it is constituted, is something unifying. Language, writing, reproduction and creativity do not represent problems between people (not even a lack of understanding). Only the distribution, the access to knowledge, the use of culture as an instrument in the service of power politics appears to make these matters into a constant potential for conflict. It is, therefore, completely wrong to speak about a struggle of cultures. The most that can be said - Huntington, for example, writes about this - are powers, power constellations and military options. Often these things have almost nothing to do with cultural processes.

Particularly in recent years this misinterpretation of culture as power politics has also proven to be counterproductive in transnational processes. Instead of developing new beginnings on a broad basis, for the most part principles of reproduction in research, science and education have been introduced, which make control and personal influence possible and which are shaped by being divided into categories. This behavior shows a deep insecurity of those who act in this way. The problems, which have resulted everywhere, are evident. The counter concept is the facilitating of creativity and openness to cultural processes.

In the sense of this theoretical beginning the conference "The Unifying Aspects of Cultures" seems to me to be able to make a new contribution to the unifying aspects of cultures, in which you can make clear the common element among the conditions of the desired diversity (also including opposing views). In the sense of the theoretical beginning this conference was prepared publicly. The attempt was made to bring in different positions, to emphasize their usefulness for the advancement of knowledge.

Open dialogue, such as we are engaging in here at this conference, also seems important to me. This openness is also a feature of the conference preparations for the 7th program of the EU, so that specialists do not talk only among themselves, but that politics, arts, and different circles of the population are included. By making the results of this conference widely available via the Internet, by additional virtual contributions, presentations of the conference volume, reports in the media and through the film "The Unifying Aspects of Cultures," we can try to make a modest beginning at introducing openness into the contemporary international and transnational processes. And we should make an attempt to develop our own way of passing on the tradition. In this sense I am hoping for productive presentations and discussions in the sections and for exciting reports on the final day of the conference in the concluding plenary session and for your contributions for TRANS 15 and the conference volume. All of the detailed information for the preparation of the publications and the follow up will, as always, be found on the Internet pages. (Not without reason is the title of the next conference, to be held from 9 to 11 December 2005: Innovations and Reproductions in Cultures and Societies.)

© Herbert Arlt (Vienna)

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For quotation purposes:
Herbert Arlt (Vienna): On the Theory of the Unifying Aspects of Cultures. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003.

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