Academic Lecture "Interculturality and the virus" by Professor of German Studies Marko Pajević

Watch or read the academic Lecture "Interculturality and the virus" by Professor of German Studies Marko Pajević.

Dear university community, ladies and gentelmen!

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak here, today, to you, at this honourable occasion.

Having arrived here not even three years ago as Professor of German Studies, I am very grateful for how wonderfully I was received, and I feel very comfortable in this beautiful city with its wonderful living conditions and rich cultural life. So, my trajectory from Berlin via Paris and London to Tartu is highly recommendable.

I am German with a father originally from Yugoslavia, and have lived in diverse countries – Germany, USA, France, Ireland, England, Cyprus, now Estonia – with constant family contact to Austria and Serbia - one could say, I am myself interculturality incarnate. I find it more appropriate to call myself European instead of identifying with any national definition. You can see, my choice to talk about interculturality came very naturally to me.

I did so as well, because it is related to my field in modern languages, that is, cultural studies, and because, in my view, it is an issue of high relevance in Estonia’s current identity struggles between national self-affirmation and internationalisation.

And, of course, I speak of interculturality’s role today, in the year of the virus, an unheard-of situation, that would have been unimaginable in its effects on society only one year ago. At times, one was reminded of science fiction, for instance Margaret Atwood’s impressive dystopias such as The Year of the Flood, or The Handmaid’s Tale, where fear is instrumentalised to turn a democratic modern society into a nightmare. Fortunately, Estonia has remained a good country to live in, compared to other places, where restrictions are much harder to endure. However, even here, the effects could be felt. First of all, there were the travel restrictions: borders became so important again. The other was considered to be a danger again: ‘we’ have to protect us against ‘them’. And Trump likes to speak of ‘the China-virus’. But also within the nation the division exists: it is such a delicate topic with so much at stake that the people feel reluctant to voice their opinion freely, at least, if it is an opinion critical of the measures taken. We all have experienced suspicion, isolation and social distancing.

Unfortunately, also today, we are not reunited in this beautiful auditorium, celebrating together a long tradition of learning, cultivation and the expansion of our worldview. This is a first point to mention regarding our topic: this university particularly is shaped by interculturality (as is the entire country), it even used to be a Swedish-Latin, German and Russian language Institution, and you are familiar, I suppose, with the nice exhibition we had in Toomemägi park on important Tartu professors originating from various countries.

Generally speaking, also beyond Estonia, there is no culture without interculturality. From the very beginnings of civilization, there was a mixing of cultures and languages. The Estonian national epos, Kalevipoeg, considered mostly to be nation-defining, is, as you know, largely inspired by the Finnish. All the national cultural movements of the 19th century in Europe were triggered by MacPhersons forged Scottish folk songs from the 1760s. He wrote them shortly after the definitive defeat of the Scottish Jacobites against the British at Culloden in 1746, taking a lot of the material from Ireland, but attributed them to an invented ancient bard he called Ossian. The German Herder declared this to be the authentic roots and voice of the Scottish people, true poetry, thus paving the way for many small peoples to claim their independence, based on such supposedly authentic age-old cultural roots.

One of the foundational pillars of European culture, Christianity, is built on translation and, more or less, imported from Asia. Most other intellectual and institutional European concepts are based on Ancient Greek and Latin, including the term culture, or interculturality. Where can we even start to talk about interculturality? It has always been there. The process of civilization is always stimulated by contact with the other.

It is no coincidence that internationalisation is a major criterion for university rankings. Having students and staff from different backgrounds ensures a stimulating environment by feeding in ideas from other countries, widening and enriching ideas of a community. I want to stress again that this has always been this way in academia, universities have been almost from the outset highly international places and globalisation is far from being a recent phenomenon. In the cultural and commercial centres, one would have heard a rich mix of languages in the street hundreds and even thousands of years ago already.

Interestingly enough, the real explosion of knowledge in early modern times came about when the intellectual discourses started to move away from Latin and developed high discourses in the vernacular. That means, European scholarship, formerly unified by Latin, started to get differentiated in national cultures. However, and this is key, these national knowledge cultures were in exchange with each other and thus created fertile symbioses where differences worked together, and thus advanced faster and better. And this happened not only because it might have been easier for more people to participate at these discourses, but even more so because there were then different languages, many languages, contributing to academic knowledge. Languages are not only tools for communication, languages are ‘organs of thought’, as Wilhelm von Humboldt called them, or ‘worldviews’. We develop our vision of the world in language so that every language presents one perspective – the more perspectives we have, the richer our grasp of the world. That means that I give this talk now in Estonian – not a very firm grip for me yet! – because in Estonia high discourses should also be in Estonian and make this language all it can be; and, at the same time, it is an enterprise that enriches my personal spirit and mind. But giving it in German, French, English or another language would also be an option since these languages actually do feed into this speech since through them, I received my forming educational input, my thinking, my Bildung – this highly charged German word which is not wholly translatable.

We need both, a fully cultivated national language as well as an opening of our worlds through other languages – multilingualism is not only a matter of communication skills: for that, we could all be limited to English nowadays. No, multilingualism is about gaining an insight into other worldviews, about seeing things from a different angle. This happens via a different language, which means also a different culture because languages are cultural mirrors and edifices. This is why I doubt that it would be helpful for the development of the human mind to all speak one language. No, sure, we need to have also English as a means for international communication, but next to our own mother tongue, and, at least, one other language for in-depth cultural insights, for an interculturalisation of ourselves. That is, by the way, also the official EU language policy. All of this applies equally to interculturality.

You can see, I take a constructivist position. We construct our ideas about our community, ‘imagined communities’, as nations were famously called by Benedict Anderson. It has been a long, intended process to create this feeling of belonging to a certain group of people, a feeling that, unfortunately, has been mostly closely linked to casting others out, to creating a supposed ‘other’. This other, in its turn, is equally constructed, as has been shown so well by Edward Said and his notion of orientalism. Orientalism means that the Western World has created its own identity largely by constructing the Orient as a counter-world, certainly also charged with the eroticism of the unknown, but just as much as something we do not want to be and which we fear.

After the Iron Curtain fell and world identities shifted into new constellations, Samuel Huntington gained enormous popularity with his notion of the clash of civilizations. He posed that the world enters a phase of new divisions, more cultural than ideological or economic, and focused basically on the Western (Christian) World against the rest of the World. He presented this in a very matter-of-fact way and wanted the West to develop strategies to cope with this situation in a favourable way, turning things to its advantage at the expense of the other in this agonistic conception of the world, where it is ‘we’ against ‘them’.

Of course, we could say today that Huntington was right, the divide he painted in his book has become an evident reality. We could also take a different perspective, take a bit more of a distance – according to the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg, this distance is the basis of the process of civilization – and consider in how far we have created this situation by choosing to cultivate this kind of Huntington-discourse. There is no doubt that the way we thematise our relationship to the other, impacts this relationship. If we consider and treat the other as enemy, it is likely for them to look at us, and behave, accordingly. It is all a question of the premisses: if the other is considered a threat, they have to be fought and vanquished. This is a logic that necessarily leads to a clash.

There is a general problem in the premisses of certain ideas of culture and interculturality, that is, that there is something like a clearly defined culture, a generalisation of difference. This is evidently never fully true, within one ‘culture’ there are so many differences, and in-between cultures, there are so many overlaps in so-called functional groups world-wide, that we will probably share much more with our peer-group-members in different ‘cultures’ than with many others from our own ‘culture’.

Interculturality should therefore not be seen as a possibility to categorize people, nor as an annihilation of difference, but as an attitude where difference is acceptable. That is also the basis for a functioning democracy. There is no community where people are and think all the same way: in a democracy we must be willing to live with difference.

And this finally leads us back to our times of the virus. Here I am talking probably less about Estonia than about other countries. Public discourse on corona has developed in a way that the position became a question of belonging to one side or the other, the people who fear for health and those who fear for democratic freedom. This is a constructed opposition, constructed with much effort and ardour by polarising speech. But it is false. I am sure that few people do not care about health or freedom. However, people differ in what they believe is good for health and freedom, or they look more on direct or side effects in this matter. Experts have been divided on these things as well, even though some positions were less publicly heard than others. We do not know things for certain, everything has up- and downsides. But what I am absolutely convinced of, is that everybody loses when alternative viewpoints are suppressed. What is important, in dealing with other people, with other opinions, and with other cultures, is that we can have an open exchange and an open mind, and when there are conflicting views, that we have an open debate. The most dangerous virus for humankind – history has sadly shown that again and again – is the belief that the other is a threat and needs to be annihilated.

A strong democracy can handle difference; if it cannot, it is no democracy anymore. To accommodate, to cultivate and to foster a culture of openness also in difference – that is one of the key tasks of this honourable university as an institution of free and critical thinking.

Thank you very much.