Sat, 16 Aug 2003

I'm an anti-globalist where culture is concerned

Vitaly Kostomarov Russian Academy of Education RIA Novosti Moscow

Advocates of cosmopolitanism and globalization see no prospects for national cultures and proclaim the triumph of "civilization without national frontiers." They perceive the optimum man of the future (partly of the present) as a highly civilized free person of "an open society," equally removed from all "the survivors " of previous systems, because he does not have emotional homeland in the traditional sense. Allow me to disagree.

The concept "civilization", introduced by the Enlightenment in the 18to century to designate a culturally advanced society based on legal, reasonable and just principles, was contrasted with savagery, a lack of rights and obscurantism.

Some nations -- the French, for example -- have also used the notion "civilization" to denote culture. The Germans took the opposite tack and differentiated between civilization and culture. The Russian language likewise allows different terms -- civilization and culture.

Civilization is that part of human activity which undergoes constant development, such as the ongoing modernization and improvement of amenities. Yet culture is concerned with the spiritual world alone.

The products of civilization frequently become cultural masterpieces, but only when they lose their functionality. A vintage car museum in Paris is a striking example. The early models of French, German, and Italian cars, after being ridiculed and compared with present-day models, have become cultural artifacts showing how inventive thought has developed.

Any technical invention at once become common property. But I am not so sure that artistic forms can be borrowed. For example, Japanese Tanaka poetry, unrhymed 21-syllable poems, never become part of European culture.

Nor can one copy someone else's way of thinking. Proceeding from all this, my conclusion is the following: Globalization in civilization is obvious and positive and attempts to fight it are futile, however massive the anti-globalist demonstrations may be. But in terms of culture, globalization spells the destruction of national specifics.

The difference between culture and civilization comes in their attitudes to human development: Civilization is interwoven with progress, while culture can hardly be part of it. Indeed, a genuine cultural masterpiece -- a perfect work of art, an artistic text, musical compositions, etc. -- is immune to the passing of time.

Products of civilization, on the other hand, are fleeting and, once they have played the part to improve life, they are continuously superseded by better designed, more complete and more economic models, as evidenced by technological advances. Civilization is, therefore, synonymous with the renewal and modernization of life.

Culture and art exist "for their own sake", whereas civilization -- science, engineering, economics, and trade -- for the sake of usefulness, for down-to-earth practical purposes. Civilization is steeped in rationalization and is highly intellectual; it facilitates everyday life and human existence.

But it is only culture, being innately irrational and acting on the subconscious, that brings us genuine pleasure and allows a true understanding of the meaning of life. This is why people talk about "eternal art", the everlasting value of works of music, painting or poetry. Civilization-related assessments of "utility" and experimental checks do not apply here.

The proposed dichotomy between culture and civilization is devoid of irrational Romanticism, nor does it attempt to minimize the significance of global civilization.

They meet at many points, interact with and supplement each other, ensuring a normal existence for the oikumena with all its conflicting ethnic and language identities and historically growing international ties.

Special mention should be made of the ethnic roots of culture, as distinct from civilization, which tends to emerge outside national limits, to make its achievements universal and unified and to become internationally global. Culture promotes spirituality, which is essential for human life, no matter how affluent a person may be.

We have also been witnessing of late such an immanent feature of civilization as the cult of all-permissiveness and over- indulgence. What is more, this over-indulgence, unfortunately, also takes the form of leveling out cultures "for kicks" or for the fun of seeing the global steamroller move on. Civilization is proactive in imposing itself, while culture desists even from rear-guard action.

Recently there was a polemic in the Russian press concerning replacing all forms of written scripts, including Cyrillic, with Latin characters. Champions of this dubious idea base their argument on the premise that in conditions of globalization and computerization the "obsolete" Russian script must give way to the Latin letters to integrate into Europe and to avoid being relegated to the "backyard of civilization".

But imagine the number of nations doomed to an uncivilized existence by this thesis -- the Greeks, Jews, Arabs, Indian peoples, Armenians, Georgians, Chinese and Japanese, to name but a few.

The alphabet is not directly concerned with civilization, and all the computer problems connected with Cyrillic characters (as well as with hieroglyphics, for instance) have been solved in the best way possible. Culture need not adapt itself to technology, because the opposite is true.

A language lies at the heart of a spiritual culture. If this language has an alphabet dating back thousands of years and supports millions upon millions of books written and printed in it, then any call to change the alphabet is tantamount to a call to abandon the entire previous spiritual culture.

Global civilization's preoccupation with matters which strictly speaking do not concern it is what constitutes a real threat to national cultures. Russia will not, of course, so easily give up its cultural heritage, no matter what "backyard of civilization" may be prophesied for it.

The writer is also the President of the A.S.Pushkin Institute of Russian Language and Literature.