TransAct 71

TransAct statement II

Culture is in Danger

For a long time I guarded against the temptation to prophesy and the pretension of social scientists in cataloguing present and future evils in order to denounce them. However, I gradually found myself driven by the logic of my work to go beyond the limits assigned to me in the name of an idea of professional ethics which came to seem increasingly like a form of censorship. Today, in view of the threats to culture which are ignored by most people, even very often by writers, artists and educated people although they are primarily affected, I believe it necessary to make as widely known as possible what the most advanced research has to say about the effects of the so-called globalisation process in the field of culture.

Autonomy threatened

I have described and analysed the long process towards autonomy (especially in my book The Rules of Art) in the course of which social microcosms which I call fields, the literary field, the artistic field or the scientific field, have been created in a certain number of western countries. I showed that these spheres obey their own laws (this is the etymological meaning of the word autonomy) and that they are different to the surrounding social world (especially on an economic level, the literary and artistic world for example being largely free from the law of money and vested interests, at least in its most autonomous sector). I have also always insisted on the fact that this process had no kind of linear development or Hegelian-like orientation and that progress towards autonomy could be suddenly interrupted, as seen with the installation in Germany, in Spain and especially in Russia of dictatorial regimes capable of dispossessing the artistic worlds of their past conquests. However, what is happening today throughout the developed world in the sphere of artistic production is something totally unprecedented. In effect, the hard-won independence of cultural production and distribution from economic necessity finds itself threatened to its foundations by the intrusion of economic logic into all stages of the production and distribution of cultural goods.

The prophets of the new neo-liberal gospel maintain that in matters of culture, as in all other areas, the logic of the market can bring only benefits. Denying the special importance of cultural goods, be it tacitly or explicitly – such as in the case of the book, which they refuse to protect in any way – they claim for example that the new technologies and economic innovations for their exploitation can only increase the quantity and quality of the cultural goods on offer, and therefore the satisfaction of consumers. This of course assumes that everything the new communications industry distributes – books, films, video games etc. which are globally and uniformly lumped together under the name of information – is regarded as merchandise and therefore treated like any other product and subject to the law of profit. The enormous number of specialised digital television channels is supposed to bring, I quote, "an explosion of media choices", so that every kind of demand and all tastes will be satisfied. Competition will favour creativity in this domain as in others and the law of profit will democratically sanction the products selected by the largest number of people.

What are these arguments worth? The myth of choice can be countered by the uniformity of what is on offer, both on national and international levels. Far from bringing diversity, competition homogenises; the pursuit of a mass audience leads producers to look for uniform products (especially by copying each other) suited to the tastes of audiences from all milieus and all countries because they are little different from each other and do not portray differences; television series, soap operas, detective series, commercial music, light theatre, Broadway shows and popular weekly magazines, that is to say the package that can be called "McDonald's culture". Furthermore, competition which implies a minimum of diversity becomes smaller as the production apparatus and especially the distribution system undergo a concentration process. The vertical integration of concerns favours the subordination of production to distribution (for example multiplex cinemas which are totally subject to the imperatives of the distributors) which imposes real censorship through money. (One thinks of the paradoxical situation of the former "communist" countries where the censorship of an autocratic power has been replaced by the almost as terrible censorship of money.) But most importantly, the undivided domination of economic logic tends to impose on the whole system the imperatives of short-term profit and the corresponding aesthetic choices. The consequences of such a policy are exactly the same in the world of publishing where a very strong concentration can also be observed. (In the United States, apart from two independent publishers, WW Norton and Houghton Mifflin, some university publishing houses and a few small competitive publishers, the publishing business is in the hands of eight giant media corporations.) The same domination of production by distribution and the same pursuit of short-term profit can be seen (with, among other effects, the invasion of media stars among the authors and censorship through money). How can one not see that the logic of profit, especially short-term profit, is the strict negation of culture which presupposes investments with uncertain and very often only posthumous returns? 

In the same way that species of animals are endangered because the ecological conditions for their survival have changed or been destroyed, culture is threatened because the economic and social conditions in which it can develop are profoundly affected by the logic of profit. This applies to advanced countries where accumulated capital, a precondition for autonomy, is already important, but even more so to the other countries. The relatively autonomous microcosms within which culture is created should, in combination with the school system, assure the production of cultural producers and consumers. The painters took almost five hundred years to bring about the social conditions which made possible a Picasso. They had to fight for the right to choose the colours they were going to use, how they were going to use them and finally, notably with abstract art, the subject matter itself, on which the power of the patron weighed particularly heavily. A list of the conditions necessary for the production of experimental films and an audience to appreciate them would also be endless. To name but a few: specialised magazines and critics to keep them alive, small cinemas showing art films, cinema clubs brought to life by people working voluntarily, film directors willing to sacrifice everything to make films which are not immediately successful, producers who are sufficiently well-informed and cultivated to finance them – in short, this social microcosm within which avant-garde cinema is recognised and valued which is now threatened by the inrush of commercial cinema and above all by the domination of the large distributors with which producers, insofar as they are not distributors themselves, have to count.

At the end of a long process of emergence and evolution, these autonomous spheres have now entered into a process of involution. They are the place of a retreat, of a regression of the work towards the product, the author towards the engineer or technicians bringing technical resources into play which they have not invented themselves, such as the famous special effects or the stars who featured in high-circulation magazines, all designed to attract a wide audience which is ill-prepared adequately to appreciate specific experiments, especially of a formal nature. And above all, they must put these extremely costly methods into the service of purely commercial ends, which means applying them in an almost cynical way in order to attract the largest possible audience by satisfying their primary impulses, which other technicians, the marketing experts, attempt to foresee. One can see how cultural productions come into being in the same way in all spheres (examples can be found in the domain of the novel, in film and even in poetry, which Jacques Roubaud calls "muesli poetry") which can even go so far as to imitate the experiments of the avant-garde in playing with the most traditional resorts of commercial productions such as sex and violence, and which, on account of their ambiguity, can fool critics and consumers with their modernist pretensions thanks to an allodoxia effect.

The choice is not between "globalisation" – understood as submission to the laws of commerce, meaning the domination of the "commercial", which is always and everywhere the opposite of what is understood by culture and the defence of national culture – or some particular form of cultural nationalism. The kitsch products of commercial "globalisation" such as spectacular films with special effects and the products of "world fiction", where it makes no difference whether the authors are Italian, Indian, English or American, have nothing in common with the products of international literature, art and cinema, a select circle with its centre everywhere and nowhere – even if it was situated in Paris for a very long time. As Pascale Casanova showed in La République des Lettres, the "denationalised international of creators", with names like Joyce, Faulkner, Kafka, Beckett and Gombrowicz, pure products of Ireland, the United States, Czechoslovakia and Poland but all made in Paris – or people such as Kaurismaki, Manuel de Oliveira, Satyajit-Ray, Kieslowsky, Kiarostami and all the other contemporary film-makers from all countries who ignore the aesthetics of Hollywood in a wonderful way, would never be able to exist or continue without an international tradition of artistic internationalism and, more precisely, without the microcosm of producers, critics and knowledgeable recipients who are necessary to its survival and who have managed to survive in places which have been spared the invasion of commerce.

For a new internationalism

This tradition of a specifically cultural internationalism is, despite appearances, radically opposed to the phenomenon called "globalisation". This word, which works like a password and an order, is in effect the mask of justification for a policy which aims to make universal the particular interests of the economic powers and the politically dominant, especially the United States, and to extend throughout the entire world the economic and cultural model most favourable to these powers by presenting it as a kind of norm, a must, like fate, a universal destiny, a way to create adhesion or at least universal resignation. That is to say, in matters of culture, to universalise by the worldwide imposition of the peculiarities of a cultural tradition in which commercial logic has come to its full development. (And in fact, although it will take a long time to prove it, the power of commercial logic rests in the fact that, by giving itself the appearance of progressive modernity, it is only the effect of a radical form of laissez-faire, characteristic of a social order which abandons itself to the law of least resistance, to the almost natural logic of egotistical interest and immediate desire converted into sources of profit. This contradicts the idea that, as Durkheim remarked, the very idea of culture is something like a form of asceticism, a refusal to submit to primary and immediate needs. This is why the fields of cultural production, which not only established themselves very gradually but also at the cost of great sacrifices, are profoundly vulnerable in the face of technology allied to economic forces. Those, such as media intellectuals and other best seller producers, who in their own hearts can content themselves with bowing to the exigencies of demand and reaping the economic or symbolic profits, are always, by definition, more numerous and temporarily influential than those who work without making the least concession to any kind of demand, that is to say, for a market which does not exist.)

Those who remain attached to this tradition of cultural internationalism, artists, writers, researchers, but also editors, gallery directors, critics, from all countries, must now mobilise themselves at a moment when the forces of the economy, which by their inner logic tend to subordinate the production and distribution of culture to the law of immediate profit, are being heavily backed by the policy called liberalisation, which the economic powers and culturally dominant seek to impose worldwide under cover of "globalisation". I am thinking in particular of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) which the various countries have subscribed to as members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and whose implementation is currently being negotiated. As a number of analysts have shown, notably Lory Wallach, Agnès Bertrand and Raoul Jennar, it is about how to impose on the 136 member states the opening of all services to the laws of free trade, making possible the transformation of all service activities into merchandise and sources of profit, including those which guarantee the fundamental rights of education and culture. One can see that this would be the end of the idea of public service and the end of such decisive social gains such as universal access to free education and culture in the broad sense of the word (because, under cover of calling into question the classifications which are in force, the measure is also supposed to apply to services such as the whole field of audio-visual media, libraries, archives and museums, botanical and zoological gardens and all services in the field of entertainment, arts, theatre, radio and television, sports etc.). Such a programme, which treats national politics as "obstacles to trade" if looking to safeguard a national culture, and which therefore represent a hindrance to the transnational cultural industries, can have no other effect than to deny most countries, especially those with fewer economic and cultural resources, all hope of any development adapted to their particular national and local conditions or which respects diversity in the cultural field as in all others – especially in their order to subjugate all national measures and regulations, subsidies to organisations and institutions, licenses etc. to the verdicts of an organisation which seeks to make the exigencies of transnational economic powers look like a universal norm.

Such a policy, which knows how to put intellectual resources, mobilised by money, at the service of economic interests, such as the think tanks composed of thinkers and researchers, journalists and public relations specialists, ought to bring about the mobilisation of all artists, writers and scientists who still believe in autonomous research, who, even if they do not realise it clearly, are the designated victims of this policy. However, apart from the fact that they do not always have the means of becoming aware of or knowing the mechanisms and actions which are working towards the destruction of the world to which their very existence is bound, they are less prepared, due to their deep-seated and supremely justified attachment to autonomy, especially with regard to politics, to become politically active, be it only to defend their autonomy. They are ready to become active in support of universal causes, of which Zola's action in support of Dreyfus is the paradigm of all times, they are less disposed to become involved when the principal object is the defence of their own most specific interests, which appears to them characterised by a sort of corporate egoism. This is to forget that in defending the interests most directly related to their very existence (with action like that of French film-makers against the Multilateral Agreement on Investments) they contribute to the defence of universal values which are directly threatened. 

Action of this type is rare and difficult: political mobilisation for causes which go beyond the corporate interests of one social category such as haulage contractors or lorry drivers, bank employees or film-makers, has always demanded much time and effort, sometimes much heroism (to be convinced one need only read The Making of English Working Class by E.P. Thompson). The "targets" of political mobilisation today are extremely abstract and far removed from the everyday experience of ordinary citizens, even the educated. The large multinational concerns and their international boards of directors, the large international organisations such as the WHO, IWF or the World Bank with their various subdivisions which have complicated and often unpronounceable abbreviations and acronyms as names, and all the corresponding realities, commissions and committees of unelected technocrats, hardly known by the general public, in brief, this whole world government which was built up within a few years and which exercises its power over national governments themselves is an unnoticed and unknown authority to most people. This kind of invisible Big Brother, equipped with an interconnected network of information about all economic and cultural institutions, is already in place, active, efficient, deciding what we may or may not eat, read or not read, see or not see on television or at the cinema and so on, while the most inspired thinkers believe that what is happening today goes back to unreal speculations on projects for a world state in the style of 18th century philosophers.

Through the almost absolute control which they have of the new instruments of communication, the new masters of the world tend to centralise all economic, cultural and symbolic power and they are thus in a position largely to impose a view of the world which conforms to their interests. Although, strictly speaking, they are not the direct producers, and the expressions used by their managers in public statements are not among the most original or most subtle, the large communications concerns contribute decisively to the almost worldwide circulation of the intrusive and ingratiating orthodoxy of neo-liberalism, whose rhetoric ought to be analysed in detail. Logical monsters, such as normative statements (of the type, "the world economy is becoming global, we must globalise our economy", "things are changing very quickly, we must change") the wild "conclusions", as peremptory as they are exorbitant ("if capitalism prevails everywhere it is because it is deeply ingrained in human nature") irrefutable theses ("in creating wealth, work is created", "too much taxation kills taxes", a formula which, for the more educated, can be derived from the famous Laffer Curve, but another economist, Roger Guesnerie, has demonstrated – but who knows? – that it cannot be proved…), self-evident facts which are so indisputable that it is the fact of disputing them which appears doubtful ("the welfare state and security of employment are things of the past" and "how can one still defend the principal of public service?"), paralogisms which are often teratological (of the type, "more market means more equality", or "egalitarianism condemns the best people to misery"), technocratic euphemisms ("restructuring companies" to say making staff redundant), and all the ideas or ready made phrases, semantically just about indeterminable, made banal and polished by the wear and tear of long automatic usage, which work like magic formulas, tirelessly repeated for their incantation value ("deregulation", "voluntary redundancy", "free trade", "free circulation of capital", "competitiveness", "creativity", "technological revolution", "economic growth", "fight inflation", "reduce national debt", "reduce labour costs", "reduce social expenditure"). Imposed for a continuous enveloping effect, this orthodoxy ends by presenting itself with the calm force of that which goes without saying. Those who undertake to resist it, even within the field of cultural production, can count on neither structural solidarity within journalism, since they have to deal with productions and producers orientated towards the direct satisfaction of the largest possible audience, nor the "media intellectuals" who, concerned above all with temporal success, owe their existence to their submission to the expectations of the market, and who can, in certain particularly revealing extreme cases, even sell the idea of the avant-garde which is fundamentally against it. That is to say that the position of the most autonomous cultural producers, slowly being dispossessed of their means of production and especially of distribution, has without doubt never been so threatened or so weak, but also never so scarce, useful and valuable.

Strangely, the most "pure" producers, the most gratuitous, the most "formal", thus today find themselves placed among the avant-garde, often without knowing it, in a struggle in defence of the highest values of humanity. In defending their individuality, they are defending the highest universal values.

Pierre Bourdieu
Séoul, September 2000