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

Language: a unifying element of cultures

Peter Horn (President of the INST, Pretoria)


It is a great pleasure to welcome you to this conference in Vienna with the theme "The Unifying Aspects of Cultures" in the name of the Research Institute for Austrian and International Literature and Cultural Studies. With this conference the INST continues its important role in transnational processes. I refer to the handing over of a resolution to the then EU-Commissioner Edith Cresson in 1996, the presentation of our projects to the Committee of Culture of the European Parliament in 1998 and 2001, our cooperation in the production of the UNESCO-Book "Knowledge for Sustainable Development" 2002 (of the Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems). After years of intensive preparations by about 100 section chairs and the co-coordinators Prof. DI Jeff Bernard (Vienna), Univ. Prof. Dr. Anil Bhatti (New Delhi), Univ.Prof. Dr. Gerhard Fröhlich (Linz), Univ. Prof. Dr. David Simo (Yaounde), the translators Univ. Prof. Dr. Donald G. Daviau (Riverside/Vienna), Univ. Prof. Dr. Gertrude Durusoy (Izmir) and the Scientific Director Dr. Herbert Arlt, the conference has now become a reality.

The conference, which was conceived as an open platform, was preceded by a preparation during which we were able to use the internet as a unique communication structure, and during which the section chairs played a decisive role. Open platform means the attempt to realise what Anil Bhatti in 2001 called communicative tolerance, the attempt of a truly multicultural polylogue. I thank you all that have been prepared to come from afar to take part in this important conference, and I hope that you will return home at the end of the conference with new ideas and productive new contacts.

The key element of this conference is communication, and therefore I want to open this conference with some reflections on one of the central elements of communication. What we have in common as human beings, and what unifies all cultures is the fact that we can speak. Admittedly we are separated by the fact that all cultures speak different languages, but we can learn the language of others. Linguistics teaches us that each language contains in itself a unique form of thinking, and that languages cannot easily translated, but despite Whorf: I can learn a language which thinks quite differently from my own language. If that were not so, Whorf would not have been able to show that another language contains another system of thought, because in that case he would not been able to understand the other language and manner of thought.

Yet, even if we speak one of the world languages - English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Arabic or German - as lingua franca, in order to communicate across language differences, because nobody can learn all the thousand languages of the world, we often still think within our own language, and what we say sounds strange, even incomprehensible, to our partner. A congress like this one confronts us with a great variety of language and thought systems, even if we communicate in a common language, which we all understand.

We, all of us, do not speak the same language, especially, when we speak the 'same' language. This is even more so, if we communicate in this age of globalisation in one of the 'world languages' as our common lingua franca. The local dialects of English are often hardly mutually comprehensible, not only because of their differing phonology, but especially because of their semantics, which uses the 'same' words in an ever culturally different way. What seems to be 'familiar' at first sight, suddenly turns out to be 'foreign'.

The problem of translation is not in the first instance a technical or terminological problem, nor a linguistic problem of concepts. It is a political question, a question which is decided by power relationships, where one side has the ability to determine its meaning, and the other side is forced to adapt to it. The question of what is 'good' English is decided in London and New York, and 'correct' French is determined in Paris, and if you live in New Dehli or Cape Town or Yaounde, you are enjoined to stick to this 'correctness', if you want to be 'understood'. Global languages can and do, of course, borrow ideas and expressions from the periphery, provided they can be fitted into the dominant frame of concepts. In order to understand myths, lineages of descent, codes of aggression and selfdefence, the theoretician starts off from a conceptual frame of reference, to which he subordinates everything, even the borrowed terminology. But what else could he do, since his means of understanding are constitutive for his understanding of the foreign.

Translation is, in the first instance, an exercise in modesty. While science wants to have certainties, translation is an art. It is not concerned with meanings per se, but with the possibility of transporting meanings from one language to another - via the public transport system of metaphors. Where we don't succeed, where our translation does not "make sense", the consequence may be aggression or war. "Misunderstandings" do not just happen - they are often produced deliberately in order to legitimise intercultural and interreligious conflicts. Penka Angelova has studied such dangerous constructions of history. The European Parliament is fully aware that such "misunderstandings" could have tragic and worldwide consequences. An intercultural dialogue is not a panacea, if one wants to avoid conflicts, but culture is an important factor in conflict resolution.

We are today caught in a tension which Simo has described as a tension between locality and globality, whether we live in the self-appointed centre or on the fringes of the world, in the arctic or in the karroo, whether we are citizens of the United States or Slowenians or bushmen in Botswana.

The question is: whether we want to talk to each other in this situation where we have to talk to each other - whether we want to understand the other, or whether it is more comfortable to see the other as 'alien' and 'incomprehensible'. We need to discuss, whether hermeneutics is a sufficient method, or whether we need a new non-hermeneutics, as Anil Bhatti has suggested.

Cultural goods, too, are subject to an economy, but this economy has its own logic. If we speak about a sort of "cultural capital" nevertheless, which automatically yields a return of "distinction", since it is unequally distributed, we need to remember that we are speaking metaphorically. There are obvious analogies: in both cases the model of a pure and complete competitiveness is entirely irreal. The market for symbolic goods has its own monopolies and power structures.

However, the structure of symbolic power relations is not identical nor dependent in a linear way on the structure of the political or economical power relations. Colonial and post-colonial powers know this only too well: the horror vision of an "axis of evil" is a threatening image, the call "The barbarians are coming" echoes constantly. Therefore one needs to understand the "wild thinking" of the "natives", but one finds that one does not understand this thinking.

In order to understand that "wild thinking" one needs the power of the ethnologist, the cultural scientist of the "alien", who present themselves as impartial observers on the basis of the virtues of scientific "distance" or "objectivity" - a distance which seduces them to understand every reality and every practice, including their own, as a spectacle. Admittedly ethnologist find themselves in the situation of a traveller, who attempts to explore a country on the basis of a map, who has therefore to add all those things which he is missing for his orientation by means of a model of all possible paths by rational thought, because he lacks the practical familiarity with the landscape which the "native" has. The special relationship of the ethnologist to his subject includes the possibility of a theoretical distortion to that extent as his position as decypherer and interpreter lets him tend towards a hermeneutic representation of social forms of practice and thus to the reduction of all social relationships to communications and all interactions to symbolic exchanges.

Depending on whether they turn to the mother tongue or foreign languages linguistic researches follow different paths, and moreover have a tendency towards intellectualism, that is, to look at language from the point of view of the listener instead of the speaking subject, to see language as a decoding instrument rather than an instrument of action and expressiveness. As long as the ethnologist disregards the limitations which are inherent in this perspective on this subject matter, the ethnologist will at best grasp a "role", i.e. a pre-given program of discourses and actions.

Language as an instrument of action, however, functions either on the level of strategies (e.g. an epistemology which determines a priori what we can talk about in which manner) or on the level of tactics, which attempts to undercut such "pre-judgements". The one who is stronger can afford to use strategies, the great plan, which attempts to deal with the greater pictures; the weaker one, as Clausewitz has noted long ago, uses tactics. The greater the power one has, the less can one afford to use one's means in the service of deception, because it is dangerous to use great forces in a sham fight. Power needs visibility.

Just as wit and jokes on the other hand (also attributed to the weaker one) are conjuring tricks in the sphere of ideas, tactics is a trick in the sphere of actions. What they have in common is the effect of surprise. The art of the trick is its ability to make use of the opportunity. Freud has shown with regard to the joke that it is a tactic to create relationships between differing elements in a daring manner, and that it leads to an lightning recognition of new connections between ideas. The one who is attacked in this tactical manner, can only defend himself by dismissing the joke as "indecent", the tactics of argumentation as "unscientific" or "illogical".

As cultural scientist we are the weaker ones, at a time when everyone turns to the more lucrative sciences, which are paid for by the political and economic powers. That is precisely the reason why we must attempt to think, what has not yet been thought, as a possibility to deal with our differences. At the end of the conference this should lead to a memorandum on transnational processes and cultural studies, an attempt to influence the cultural politics of Europe and of UNESCO by means of such ideas not yet thought, an attempt to create a European and worldwide space of research in the humanities. Culture could become one of the most decisive factors of the 21st century. The precondition for that is that we do not only tolerate diversity, but use them as the basis for social creativity. In future, a cultural science will be indispensible which, on the basis of new methodologies and with new structures of cooperation, accompanies current processes. The social importance of culture will, however, also depend crucially on the role of the arts in society. It is from art that I expect an essential impetus for the formation of a humane civil society.

Finally let me thank all those who have made this conference possible, and here I would like to single out all the section leaders, the speakers, the artists and the co-promotors and sponsors. They show that the unifying force of culture is a reality.

© Peter Horn (President of the INST, Pretoria)

Plenum | Plenary Session | Séance plénière

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu

For quotation purposes:
Peter Horn (President of the INST, Pretoria): Language: a unifying element of cultures. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003.

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 11.11.2004     INST