TransAct 09

TransAct statement

Do the right thing?

The new Austrian Federal Chancellor demanded that the government should be judged by its deeds, not by its words. Dr. Wolfgang Schüssel seems to think little of his own remarks when he says they should be treated as a "qualité négligeable". That words themselves are also deeds is a simple common sense truth. In this context the British philosopher John L. Austin developed the concept of spoken deeds and analysed "How to Do Things with Words" in the mid-fifties. As the people affected we should now "watch the tongues" of the governing spokesmen of Austria more than usual and weigh all statements carefully, both our own and those of our opponents. The following is therefore a few thoughts on what can be found in acute political language usage. 

The cultural battle now going on is about values and words. The intimidating atmosphere which should be driven out with cheerful noises and urbanised carnival processions has not only existed since 3 October 1999 (election day or 'day of the urns' – ballot boxes – in Austrian 'corpse pot') or the 4 February 2000 (day of the tunnel – Austrian 'underground passageway'). This atmosphere has been created over a longer period with words and images, that is with deeds or in other words with a setting of signs. There is nothing to be said against a good atmosphere – the colourful protest demonstrations of recent weeks are an eloquent appeal for this. In contrast the pithy phrases of Freedom party politicians stir up fear and envy. The atmosphere of separation created by their election posters creates spitefulness, disunity and the setting up of scapegoats. As Antonio Fian aptly wrote, "The hand in front of the mouth has disappeared."

The tendentious demagogical statements of Mr Haider, casually dismissed by many as 'sayings', are only the top of a larger nationalist and reactionary iceberg. Political, rhetorical and argued reactions are required against this iceberg of cold-tongued tirades. On the other hand this is just as true for the old and easily reactivated racist Hollywood cliché of the Nazi thug whose willingness to carry out the most shameful deeds can be read from every sentence and gesture – a prejudice with the built-in liability of all for the crimes of one. Unselective, "as prejudices are", it can be applied to the supposed Freedom Party following as well as to the Austrian people as a whole. However, something like the sons being responsible for the sins of their fathers, the home-made version so to speak, is also implied by, "organic and ethical ties of people in various communities from the family to the people," which Mr. Haider called for in the extreme right-wing magazine Aula. An old and well-known brew of heredity and the duty of the people. The Freedom Party has somewhat revamped this bunker cocktail with the wholehearted promise of rigorous undefined change as well as a decent shot of bubbly Punch and Judy from their now former leader. Mr. Haider is not exaggerating just a little when, for instance, he casts himself as the fox in his rough-edged chicken coop metaphor. According to the fable the fox is cunning and sly, prowls after its prey and when in danger is never short of resources or at a loss for a way out. Opposing criticism reacted to Mr. Haider's coarse animal metaphor with justified indignation. However, perhaps it would also have been enough to parry the panting of the would-be throat biter with Brussels lace comments.

In contrast to the toilet imagery on all sides the chance for resistance could lie in its 'colourfulness', in the fact that it is not logistically planned by one single organisation. It is of course right to go on unmasking the 'lions' from the Freedom Party's own advertising and to expose the television preacher tricks of their guru. Most importantly however, there is a need for constructive political work beyond the show business principle – as an alternative to the populist political gambler's calling up of small-minded ghosts. The urgent factual questions are related to where borders are being drawn and here too it is worth taking a careful look at the much-used terminology of "exclusion" and the more recent "inclusion". For example, the Austrian governing parties like to describe the EU sanctions as "outside interference". This formulation is all the more surprising since until now only the supposed "have-nots" who want to join the EU were "outside" – poor is outside and rich is inside. However, should the EU now be suddenly outside and can Austria only be found in what carries the Austrian stamp of approval? With regard to "foreign infiltration", "Schüssel" is derived from the Latin "scutula", a term meaning a hollow container.

Hans Kronberger, Freedom Party Member of the European Parliament, described the EU sanctions against Austria as "Kafkaesque". Does this word not rather describe the situation of the "poor" and "supplicants" outside the gates of EU law? The primary question in this whole confrontation is the definition of the borders of Europe. Where does it begin and where does it end? It is considerably more difficult to define the sphere of influence of European unification than the black and white definitions of the Freedom Party would lead us to believe. In the 21st century will the EU enfold the former Soviet empire and possibly extend itself as far as the borders of the People's Republic of China? And what about the "former" colonies in Africa which are economically and perhaps also culturally closer to Europe than to some of their African neighbours?

In the economic field, where for the most part politicians have learnt to obey "practical constraints" very easily, internationalism or, more precisely, transnationalism is already taken for granted, at least by the winners. What attitude do we find to this in the art world, for instance in the field of literature, i.e. where people are professionally involved with language? On the one hand market-specific segmentation, translation costs and also themes which are related to particular regions lead to literary production still being perceived as national literatures. However, for a long time a communication forum has existed in the international sphere of literature which goes beyond such political-economic, national or regional definitions. In her new book "La République mondiale des lettres" (The World Republic of Literature) , the French literary critic Pascale Casanova examines the creation of this overlapping transnational field since its beginnings in the 16th (!) century. She does not simply draw a picture of the current polycentric situation but with numerous case studies shows the innovative capacity of positions from the "periphery" and how these have contributed to the world-wide discourse of literature.

Franz Kafka's experiences – not as a "real Austrian" (a term used by the Freedom Party) but as a member of two minorities, i.e. the German-speaking and Jewish minorities in Prague – were, according to Casanova, a most decisive influence on the innovative character of his work. Her comparison between Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, who died in 1947 and who wrote in the spoken language of the Canton Vaud in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and contemporary authors from the Antilles (former French colonies in the Caribbean) such as Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant and their "Éloge de la créolité", is particularly informative. These writers are trying to bring the experience and variety of "Creole-isation" and the multilingual character of the mixed languages into the world republic of literature in order to "change the imagineries of humanities," as Martinique-born Édouard Glissant writes.

Art, literature and music are a public use of symbols, a communicative activity and they create fields of action which are specialised in the use of many languages, translation, innovative chaos, interference. To say that these professions are particularly suited to analyse the accelerated change of the modern world does not give their protagonists any special moral authority or automatically legitimise their statements. However, artistic activities can teach us a lesson against small-minded, backward-thinking territorial behaviour. Today we are not threatened – and especially not because of the Internet – by a "foreign" Anglo-American linguistic monoculture or a domestic colonisation by "aliens", against which the phantasm of a specifically located cultural substance called the mother language or the "bond" of the people must be mobilised. Old established cultures are simply those which were already "Creolised" a long time ago. Everybody speaks a mixed language and in so far as we express ourselves we never communicate monolingually. That is why the chances of a "variety of languages without hierarchy", in Glissant's words, speak a "magma of opportunities" against the fortress mentality of local nationalists.

Theo Steiner
Philosopher and Curator

Vienna, 29 February 2000