Can Europe Make It?

Transversal cultural spheres and the future of Europe

The pulse of cultural productivity no longer rings louder in the centre, but is dispersed around the peripheries, and paradoxically this location is often adjacent to those who feel stuck.

Nikos Papastergiadis
22 February 2016

Nikos Papastergiadis speaks at the DiEM25 strategic meeting. arno-image. CC.In the context of growing frustration over the techno-financial determinism in the European political landscape that has cast veil upon veil over executive functions and facilitated the normalization of neo-liberal regimes, a new cosmopolitical movement was launched in Berlin – DiEM 25.

This movement provides us with a platform to rethink both the priorities of transnational systems of government and the possibilities for widening the frameworks for social emancipation. It is also a crucial moment to reflect on the existing cultural landscape and propose alternative ways for organizing cultural relations.

The European Union began as an economic project that sought political agreement. The idea of shared cultural interests was always in the background but too often just left behind as an afterthought. Leaving culture to the last is a mistake that Europe cannot afford to repeat. At the heart of the democratization of Europe is the recognition of both the diversity of cultures and the positive force of cultural interaction.

The question of culture in Europe is often posed in the framework of the preservation of national heritage and the facilitation of exchange between discrete cultural entities. The prevailing cultural anxieties in Europe are the threats associated with cultural segregation. This approach overlooks fundamental contradictions in the dynamics of mobility and immobility.

Two scenarios

Let us consider two kinds of scenarios.

In the suburbs of Paris, the derelict streets in central Athens and the camps near Calais, there are people who are trapped. They cannot move. To many people from the outside they live in No Go zones, but for those on the inside these places are also No Go Out zones. Young people are forging baffling identities and producing disturbing images of their sense of belonging to this ‘no mans land’. Children of immigrants declare: “I don’t belong here and I have not come from anywhere else.” Protestors in the heat of fire and accusations pronounce: “I am a dog! I bite at anything.” A boy is asked about his future and he reveals that: “I want to become a migrant.” They are stuck and they dream of movement. They see cages and become animal. They do not feel as if they are segregated. Such a fate presumes separation with the possibility of passage and interconnection. On the contrary they see themselves as merely existing in limbo and the dominant self-image is that of a zombie. These are people who can see that they in Europe but they are neither from nor of Europe.

By contrast there are the images that emphasize the hyper-diversity and mobility that is shaping Europe. Artists are increasingly moving from festival to biennale. Community groups may establish themselves in local neighborhoods but they also have extensive diasporic networks for collaboration and transnational distribution systems. In everyday settings migrants enjoy the benefits of civic participation and cross-cultural interaction. For instance, in the UK, migrants show above average rates in out-marriage, charitable donations, neighborly relations and upward residential mobility. These are not people who suffer from segregation. They are on the move and happy to be in the flow.


What sort of framework can make sense of these contradictions? Does this current predicament fit with the prevailing cultural visions of Europe? Multiculturalism has been a key heading for administering these principles. However, multiculturalism was designed in response to the post second world war patterns of migration. During this period assimilationist policies were weak and the agency of the migrants was more vigorous. It also occurred at the time when diversity was promoted as an ideal that could enhance and strengthen society.

Multiculturalism was proposed as a solution to the question of how different people can co-exist in the nation state. In the UK, France and Germany almost every political leader in Europe has attacked multiculturalism as if it was the cause for social polarization and cultural disengagement. We hear calls that hark back towards the idylls of a unified nation: one that has at its centre either ‘muscular liberalism’, a ‘defiant republicanism’, or the rebirth of ‘lietkultur’. Cultural commentators have also warned of the dangers of a looming “civic deficit” and the perils of “sleep walking into segregation”.

With the outburst of terrorist attacks ethnic ghettoes were targeted as the hotspots for ‘grooming’ disaffected youth. The new consensus from the centre-right is that multiculturalism is no longer a practical source of mutual benefit and a pragmatic political compromise that secured social cohesion, but is at best, a utopian ideal that was gifted to ungrateful minorities who exploited it to gain unfair advantages, and at worst, a divisive ideology with which the ‘enemies of Europe’ can abuse the hospitality of their hosts.


Discussion at the DiEM25 strategic meetings. arno-image. CC.

A world of complexity

These simplistic political slogans and crude commentaries will not work in a world of complexity. They not only fail to capture the productive forces that arise from the mingling of people and the mixing of ideas, but ignore the wider stories of harmonious co-existence, cultural stimulus and civic participation. In retrospect the challenges that multiculturalism was designed to face seem simple. Within a few decades the world has changed dramatically. The turbulence of mobilities and the speed of communication have made the sense of belonging more complex.

People now claim to have multiple identities, and are affiliated with transnational networks. It is now more common to feel connected to, and be part of different and disparate communities. In this globalizing world the scope of belonging and the forms of attachment have changed dramatically. Hence, multiculturalism no longer looks like it is the solution to all the questions that come about when all these different people live together. In this context where some people are stuck in a no-mans land and others are bypassing national boundaries, the brief political consensus on multiculturalism has also cracked.

The solution cannot be found in either smearing multiculturalism, or defending it. The future of the cultural sphere does not resemble a multicultural mosaic that emits vibrancy in its assemblage of diverse parts. The multiple cultures that are already here in Europe are not simply seeking a place within an existing framework. The cultures that are in here are also out there.


These cultures of Europe are not contained within national boundaries, and often extend beyond the region. This cultural sphere is transversal. It is networked across horizontal transnational nodes. Hence we should not join in the claims over the demise of multiculturalism, and make further assimilatory demands through the policy framework of interculturalism, but address the existence of transculturalism.

It is clear that the trend towards polarization and conflict, and the broader anxiety of disintegration will only exacerbate if there is no overarching system for bringing people together, and no system is sustainable without common beliefs and shared values. This call for solidarity is often expressed as a summons to define explicit symbols and codes that will enable the people to enter into dialogue.

In the past it was assumed that Europe possessed such a singular pool of culture. The pool was composed of the heritages and influenced by perspectives developed in distinct national contexts. By aggregating the treasures from each national culture a new European culture was to be forged.

This mechanism of cultural aggregation is fraught with two fundamental problems. The presumption of a singular culture constrained and excluded many minority viewpoints from the dialogue of what is to be shared, and how the sharing would be conducted. Cultural solidarity was also underpinned by the worthy political ambition of consensus. However, culture thrives on difference, speculation, query and disagreement. In short, the imagination, as opposed to deliberation, does not rest at a shared point of convergence, but is restless and forever probing the boundaries of the possible and striving to examine the other side. Creativity and cultural innovation does not always come from within, it spreads out and across. The contemporary cultural spheres are increasingly transversal.


The contradictions of mobility and immobility in culture are not all resolved by the concept of transculturalism. Yet, the paradox of movement in culture tightens when we consider the sites of cultural production. The density of cultural productivity does not concentrate itself within the metropolitan centres. Gentrification and corporate culture has eviscerated these sites. The focus point has shifted from the central part of Paris and London to the peri-urban rings and satellite cities. The pulse of cultural productivity no longer rings louder in the centre, but is dispersed around the peripheries, and paradoxically this location is often adjacent to those who feel stuck.

To keep pace with these changes we need to shift our orientation towards culture. The push towards closer cultural integration through the superimposition of a singular cultural system is counter-productive.

The future of European culture is neither an aggregation of multiple cultures into a hierarchical order, and clearly, the sometimes celebrated fantasy and now much-reviled relativist vision of all cultures simply having their day in the sun is never going to happen.

Something else is happening and a new discourse is necessary. Cultural vitality is not measured by the volume of aesthetic objects on display in a museum, it is best seen through the habits of thought, the manner in which connections are made, the organization of signs to make a comprehensible worldview. This method of conducting dialogue and organizing ideas is now occurring in specific locales and across a wide field. If there is a future for European culture, then it may exist in the way Europeans coordinate these regional and trans-national dialogues in meaningful ways.

Migrants have been at the forefront of re-invigorating everything from street culture to charity giving. The youth are adopting and adapting globalizing mechanisms that increasingly bypass the state institutions, producing new transnational networks, stimulating cultural hybridity and creating forms of belonging that confound the politicians.

Thus the next step is not an inward retreat, but requires an outward vision that can embrace the robust forms of cultural interplay that are happening in a myriad of local settings. The multiculturalism from below, and in particular, the vitality of cross-cultural exchanges that are occurring in the peripheries of metropolitan spaces, is a force that needs to be at the centre of European democracy.

This article is adapted from the talk I gave at the strategic meetings prior to the launch of DiEM25 in Berlin, on 9 February 2016. 

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